|Quayam Srae||Elf adventurer and sorcerer, husband of Gristel||M 187|
|Gristel Virage||Adventurer, wife of Quayam||F 50|
|Thristen Alomere||Adventurer, friend of Quayam and Gristel||M 42|
|Zak||Orc girlfriend of Thristen, dancer||F 20|
|Gashley Virage||Retired General of Varay, father of Gristel||M 76|
|Dominican Virage||Mother of Gristel||F 72|
|Malek Fakheem||Senator of Foreign Policy, Ursia||M 56|
|Mohsin Kurd||First Secretary of Foreign Policy, Ursia||M 64|
|Shahram Karadan||Second Secretary of Foreign Policy, Ursia||M 43|
|Bahram Hamidi||Second Secretary of Foreign Trade, Ursia||M 36|
|Larak Moodmender||Wizard and road-builder||M 62|
|Rackhammer||General of Gutak Army||M 78|
|Coldiron||Maverick black orc, father of Rackhammer||M 163|
|Cloudmover||Mother of Rackhammer||F 192|
|Lacewater||Princess of Garaz||F 78|
|Earthscorcher||Abdicated king of Gutak||M 280|
|Daybreak||Queen of Gutak, daughter of Earthscorcher||F ≈160|
|Leafturner||Princess of Gutak, sister to the Queen||F ≈120|
|Bladebreaker||Son of Daybreak, Captain of the Engineers||M 68|
|Steelquencher||Son of Daybreak, Captain of the Riders||M 42|
|Stonecrusher||Estranged husband of Daybreak||M ≈180|
|Orbelastican||King of Garaz||M 258|
|Trackandslay||King of Mokul||M ≈200|
|Vasaleshen||North King of the Giants||M ≈50|
|Pak||South King of the Giants||M ≈60|
|Garandelsmashum||Nephew of the North King||M ≈30|
This is the third book in the Iron Road Trilogy, or so we intend it to be. The trilogy begins with The Green Horn Tavern, in which Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen explore the Western Outlands and introduce themselves to the leaders of its people, hoping to organize the building of a road to bring Iron from the Star Mountains into Varay. In The Castle Hydroma, they form an alliance with a black-orc named Rackhammer, who is commander in chief of the army of Gutak. Gutak is one of the two most powerful orc nations in the Western Outlands. Its allies in the Western Outland summer campaigns are Dag to its north, and Mokul. Its opponents are led by Garaz, whose allies are Vaz and Ankh in battle, while Gadz pays tribute to Garaz all year round. See here for a map of the Western Outlands, with the names of the nations marked in green pencil.
The alliance with Rackhammer is a personal one, in which Rackhammer owes a substantial personal debt to Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel. They protected Rackhammer's father from an attempt upon his life at The Castle Hydroma, after which the second volume is named. They returned to Rackhammer the Gutak Corps of Engineers only troll, after two adventurers kidnapped the troll in the middle of the night and took it into Eisengard. They stopped a band of orc-hating paladins from slaughtering a commune of orcs in southern Gutak. As a result of this alliance, they have obtained the trust of the Queen of Gutak, who agrees to commit her Corps of Engineers to the building of the road. Rackhammer will persuade Gutak's allies to cooperate. Rackhammer and our heroes broker a treaty between Gutak and Varay, who are neighbors across the borderlands, and this treaty will benefit both Gutak, Varay, and trade along the future road.
It remains to choose the exact route of the road from Gutak, across the Long Hills where the giants live, through Mokul where Trackandslay is king, and finally to The Green Horn Tavern in the borderlands by Morden.
3rd February 2483, from the Diary of Gristel Virage
Wind out of the southwest this morning, 10 kph, high clouds, frost on the ground, freezing at five hundred meters. We mounted our griffs, intent upon meeting Prince Bladebreaker, Captain of the Gutak Corps of Engineers at his headquarters in Gutak. All four of us flew to the quarry outside Pitt to meet Rackhammer. He's circling above, lands when we do. First thing he tells us is that Earthscorcher, King of Gutak, has abdicated in favor of his daughter, Daybreak, who is now Queen of Gutak. He is baring his teeth the whole time. I think he's pleased. The bad news is that the Gutak Court knows Zak was a spy for King Orbelastican of Garaz. He says Zak is not welcome at the meeting with Bladebreaker. So she and I mount up again and fly home, leaving Quayam and Thristen to fly to Gutak with Rackhammer. They came back with a couple of maps sketched by Bladebreaker during their meeting, some facts and figures, and descriptions of Bladebreaker's engineering compound. The maps are beautiful. They are drawn with colored ink and pencil, and I did not believe my husband at first when he said they were drawn over the course of a few minutes. But looking at them more closely, it's clear that they could have been, because they don't contain that many lines.
Here is one table of information they brought back, giving the length of water flow to the sea, combined with the altitude of various points in the outlands.
to Sea (km)
Sea Level (m)
|Giant King's Castle||1700||1400|
|Summit of Long Hills||1750||1700|
Bladebreaker made an interesting argument to Quayam. He said that the time it takes for water to flow from a certain altitude to the sea is proportional to the square of the flow distance. Thus if two sites are at the same altitude, such as Gutak City and Mokul City, which are both at 700 m above sea level, and the river flow distance from one site is twice the distance from the other site, the water will take four times longer to flow this distance. I'm not sure I believe this conclusion, but the argument goes like this. If the water has twice the distance to travel, the slope of the water's path is half as great, so it flows half as fast. But at the same time, it has twice as far to travel, so in all it takes four times longer. The flow to the sea from Gutak City is 2300 km, but from Mokul City it is 1600 km. Water flowing past Gutak City will take twice as long to reach the sea.
Quayam and Bladebreaker apparently became involved in this discussion, and that led to Bladebreaker bringing out his tables of altitudes and distances, and his maps. He has a collection of our Varayan Field Survey Maps. All are old, but the old ones are accurate enough. We have accurate maps of the terrain in and around our nation, with altitudes marked in contour lines, and rivers traced exactly. They are invaluable in a battle. Well, it turns out that he has these maps. My father was surprised. I'm not. They have hundreds of years to obtain these things. But more interesting is the fact that Bladebreaker had surveys of his own performed, to obtain more detailed values for places like Mokul City and Dag City. He showed his numbers to Quayam and Thristen, and was proud of them. He was not proud that he had Varayan maps. He was proud that he had performed his own surveys.
I wasn't there today, and Thristen and Quayam did not visit Gutak City itself. The Corps of Engineers has its base outside the city. But they had a good look at the city, and Zak has been inside the palace and wandered through the town. I took these notes while listening to them talk about the palace, the city, and the engineers.
In Gutak City live 20 black orcs out of 50 that live in Gutak, and 2000 orcs, 800 soldiers plus families. The women act as servants for black orcs. Palace is limestone. Ankle has a lot of limestone, and much of Varay has limestone buildings, so no surprise to see limestone buildings in Gutak City. Palace has 100 rooms for 15 black orcs and 150 servants. Covers 200 m by 200 m area, fortified at center. Of 800 soldiers, 200 are with Engineering Corps. The Engineering Compound is outside city, 1 km square, 1 km from city. The city's buildings are wood and limestone. The palace was made by the Corps of Engineers starting 400 years ago using stone from the Pitt Quarry. No construction for a hundred years or so. There are 40 communes in the city for the orc soldiers and their families, made of wood, with large gardens. Twenty more buildings in the city, mostly wood, but the two taverns and the half-dozen shops are made of limestone and run by black-orcs. The river runs past the palace, right up against its stockade. The stockage surrounds the palace grounds. The river is 20 m across, and two bridges cross it to the rest of the city. The city has a park and a river pool for swimming and boats for punting.
The Corps of Engineers has a canal that brings water to a 2-m drop in their compound. They use the water to power a saw mill. The saw mill cuts planks. In the compound, Q and T saw Arg the Troll in the distance, working on something. There are ten ogres working in the compound. There were iron works, forges, and blacksmith orcs bustling about in aprons. The foundry uses water-powered hammers, and these were banging puddle iron the whole time Q and T were talking to Bladebreaker. His office is on the second floor of a two-story limestone building. They sat across a desk from him, with Rackhammer, and talked for over an hour.
Bladebreaker was enthusiastic about the road. He appears to be eager to build it. He described how one troll with a sledge-hammer can break up ten cubic meters of granite in one day. This volume of stone can be cleared by ten orcs with baskets in the same day. If we wanted to cut a 100-m cutting two meters square, this would be 400 cubic meters of granite, and take a troll and the ten orcs forty days to excavate. Apparently granite turns to gravel beneath the head of a troll's axe. It would be nice to be able to make tunnels two meters square, but a troll is six meters tall, so any tunnel that uses his hammer-swing would have to be at least eight meters high. Bladebreaker said tunnels were inefficient because they required more care and the labor of orcs, but that they were a challenge he would welcome if they became necessary.
Bladebreaker agreed to survey the Old Hills himself, consult maps, make more maps, and suggest to us some likely routes for our road.
13th February, 2483
Quayam sits upon the couch in front of the bay windows in Gashley and Dominican's house. In front of him is the coffee table. Upon the coffee table are two small sacks. The sacks contain almost ten kilograms of gold between them. This is Zak's money, which she received in December from Thristen. Zak herself sits to Quayam's right, in an armchair. The two of them are watching the doors to the living room.
"Did he understand the rules?" Zak says.
"Of course. I just told him, didn't I?"
"I don't know if he understood you."
A small, sandy-colored head appears around the lower corner of the door to the kitchen. "There he is," Quayam says.
The head disappears. A moment later, the entire form of Sid the Demon, flapping leathery wings and sandy body, flies into the room, heading straight towards Quayam. Quayam sings one word and holds up his hand. Immediately, a ball of brown material appears in the air. The tip of Sid's right wing is caught in the stuff, and he struggles in the air and falls to the floor.
"Oh Sid!" Zak says and stands up.
"Leave him," Quayam says.
Zak sits down, and together, they watch Sid shake his wing and scratch at the ball until it comes off. The ball floats to the ceiling. Sid jumps into the air and flaps towards the coffee table. Another brown ball appears, just above him, but this time Sid is not caught, and he lands upon the sacks of gold. He presses his body against them and wraps his wings about him. A noise comes from his mouth, rather like the purring of a cat, but sharper, like a rattle.
"So that's your new trick, old-guy?" Zak says. After several months talking to Quayam, her Latin has become fluent and classical. But her idioms remain the same.
"Yes," Quayam says. "The new trick is making those balls of conjured sponge just like that, out of thin air with no need for my metal rings."
"Wow," Zak says. "That's great. When did you learn it?"
"I have been trying to learn to do it for fifty years," Quayam says. He strokes Sid's back. "But a few weeks ago I accidentally did something that moved my point of action far away from my head. I did not know what had happened to my spell. It should have been right in front of me. But I found the bridges later, up in the corner of our room, and I thought it was odd, so I tried the same thing again, and it kind of worked. What's so exciting about it is that the spell just appears somewhere else, right away. I was expecting to have to move the spell around with some kind of thought-power, like wizards do with their targeting solenoids, but as it turns out−"
Zak holds up her hand. "Yeah, too much detail, old-guy. Can you stop wyverns with it?"
Quayam smiles. "I will be able to. That's what this practice is all about. I'm starting small."
Zak nods. She watches Quayam stroking Sid's back. "Thristen says you don't want me to come to the treaty signing next week."
Quayam folds his arms and sits back. "That's right. The Gutak people don't want a Garaz spy at the signing of the treaty."
"I'm not a spy any more."
Quayam holds up one hand. Zak flinches. "Don't magic me!"
"I know you're not a spy. They know you're not a spy. It's a diplomatic formality."
Zak reaches out and scratches Sid's back. He is still hugging the sacks of gold. "Who will help you fix up the treaty hall? I helped you last time."
"I can manage on my own. But thank you."
20th February 2483, from the Diary of Gristel Virage
Gutak and Varay signed a treaty at 11:30 am on 18th February. It was a historic moment, I guess. They signed it in the conjured treaty hall that Quayam made. Before the signing, the delegations from both governments drank mulled wine that Elizabeth Stockton brought up with her children. Rackhammer and Steelquencher were the delegation from Gutak. Steelquencher is now a proper prince, because his mother is Queen. She gave him authority to sign for her, not wanting to come herself. My father did not sign the treaty for Varay. Margarite Pennix was the official emissary of the Varayan government. My father excused himself from that role after the last meeting here in the Stockton's field. We all feel that he has a conflict of interest in this matter because he is working with us on a road, a project that would benefit greatly from an alliance between Gutak and Varay. He remained in the delegation, however, as an advisor. The other member of the delegation was Denton Bornite, and it appears that he's against the treaty as it stands, but Parliament is in favor, so it was signed.
There were four main issues addressed in the treaty. Extradition is settled. For Gutak to extradite from Varay, Gutak must prove in Varayan court that the accused was in Gutak at the time of the crime on Gutak's soil. The same rules apply when Varay extradites from Gutak. Gutak will send an ambassador to Ankle, along with ten orc guards and ten orc servants, and their children. I suppose the orcs will be members of a commune, and live as such in the embassy. Varay will send an ambassador to Gutak with a like number of staff. The border between Varay and Gutak is still in dispute, but not in the traditional sense of each party wanting more land. Instead, it's a question of who is responsible for policing the existing borderlands, and its Path of Stones. For the moment, this stretch of land, twenty-five kilometers thick for most of its length, is in neither nation. Military exercises, which were what my father was pushing for from the beginning, were dropped from the negotiations as soon as he resigned as the emissary. He tells me he did not think Rackhammer was too keen on the idea anyway.
We left Zak behind this trip, which I did not like to do. But she had my mother and Sid for company, and the flying was bitterly cold work, so I don't feel too sorry for her. We will take her to Pakesh with us in a few days, and to meet Aries on the way. I think she'll enjoy that. We are going to Pakesh to meet with Larak Moodmender, a wizard of the tenth grade (whatever that means, but it's official from the Foreign Trade Office).
Today we had a long conference with Dad. He's going to set up a Partnership Company here in Varay. The four of us will be equal partners, and the partnership will own whatever interest we have in the road. We settled upon a name for the road and the partnership: the Trans-Outland Highway, and the Trans-Outland Highway Authority.
23rd February, 2483
Quayam, Gristel, Thristen, and Zak sit on ironwood chairs at the center of the Temple of the Hill God outside Halili village in northern Ursia. An old man sweeps the floor near the door. He looks up now and then at a curtain against one wall, and goes back to his sweeping. The visitors sip strong tea from small glasses.
"Thank you for the tea, Shahram," Gristel says.
"You are welcome, by the will of Aries," the old man says.
The curtain moves aside, billowing outwards and up. A tall black-skinned woman with short-cut curly hair strides into the temple. She wears a yellow silk robe that falls from her shoulders to her sandaled feet. Behind her, for a moment, Zak sees a passage to a room lit by a luminous stone.
"Ah, my dear friends," the woman says, "I am sorry to keep you waiting."
The visitors put their tea-cups down and stand.
"Hello Aries," Thristen says.
Aries, for it is indeed Aries inside the tall woman's body, hugs Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel one after the other. When she comes to Zak, she puts her hands upon Zak's shoulders and stares into her face. Zak looks up at her with her eyes wide.
"My," Aries says. "What a beautiful creature you are. I am delighted to meet you. Do you know, I was bragging about meeting you to Lucifer only yesterday." She looks sideways at the others and winks. "I bumped into him at the High Court, of all places."
"I am Zak," Zak says, in Latin.
Aries steps back. "Oh, I know who you are, madame. I have heard all about you, and your spying and falling in with this big fellow." She points at Thristen. "Please sit down again. I know you have only an hour or two before you have to head on your way, but I want to spend the entire time having you tell me about your people."
Aries sits on a chair, her back straight, and her legs apart, with her hands upon her knees. Zak opens her moth and closes it again. She sits down.
Thristen leans towards Aries. "You know, it doesn't help me that you keep sitting like a man, when you're supposed to be a woman."
Aries looks at him and her legs. She crosses them, leans back, and places both hands upon one knee. "How's that?"
"Now, Zak," Aries says, "Is it true that you grew up living in a large building with men and woman and children all mixed together, no marriages, no families like we have, just a big family of all of you?"
Zak smiles. "Yes."
27th February, 2483
Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel sit at the desk of Mohsin Kurd with Bahram Hamidi and Mohsin himself, in the Ursian Government's Foreign Policy Office.
"Now that we have broken the blockade of Karadan," Mohsin says, "The Federal Senate is less anxious than it has been in some time about the longevity and effectiveness of the Endan embargoes. Since the thirteenth of January, the senators are optimistic. I'm sure that feeling will change when the reality of our situation on the ground with respect to Endor asserts itself upon their thinking, but until then, they will not be keen to open the treasury to pay for the construction of your Trans-Outland Highway. So we must be patient."
"You don't have to pay anything up front," Quayam says, "We'll provide the capital for construction. All we need is a commitment to buy iron at one hundred and thirty dollars a kilogram once we start bringing it in, for a total of up to one million kilograms. That's all the guarantee we need."
"Well," Mohsin says, "That's a commitment to buy iron at thirty dollars above what the price would be in Endor gave up on it's campaign against us and let the iron through Anon."
"Twenty dollars above," Gristel says, "the price here was a hundred and ten before the embargo."
Mohsin smiles at her. "Be that as it may. My point is that it's not politically expedient to ask for financial commitment at this time."
Quayam frowns and stares at Mohsin. "You already said you would give us a hundred and thirty. That's why we've been flying around the outlands risking our necks. You're going back on your word."
"I did not say we would do that. I said that it sounded like a good idea."
"No, you said we had a deal, and now you're changing your mind. Isn't that right?"
"As I said, this is not the time to ask the senate for money. We will have to wait."
"I understand that. But you did say you would give us the contracts on iron. I just want to make sure we both understand that you are going back on your word, so you don't expect us to believe your word in the future."
"I regret that you understood me to be committing to something. That was not my intention. We were considering several financial arrangements, one of which was−"
"I'm not interested in the excuses. I'm sure you have a good excuse. I'm not arguing with your excuse. But you are breaking your word."
Gristel puts her hand upon Quayam's arm. He frowns at her.
Mohsin looks at the clock on his desk. He stands up. "Well, I have another appointment. We can continue this discussion another time."
Gristel and Thristen stand up. Quayam remains seated. "What's the point in us meeting with you again, or working with you, if we can't trust your word?"
"This interview is over," Mohsin says, "I'd like you to leave my office now. We can continue this discussion another time."
Gristel and Thristen motion to Quayam that he should get up. He does. "Okay. But I'm not guaranteeing that we will continue this discussion."
Mohsin nods. "If you decline, I will understand."
They leave Mohsin's office with Bahram. Bahram is smiling.
"Larak Moodmender wants to meet you," he says, "I'd like him to meet you privately, to keep the government out of it. How does that sound to you?"
"That's fine," Gristel says.
Morning, 3rd March, 2483
Larak Moodmender, tenth-grade wizard and road-builder, sits opposite Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel in the living room of their house in Pakesh. There are tea glasses and cookies on the side-tables. Zak is still asleep back in Thristen's apartment.
"We want to build a road," Thristen says, "What can you do for us?"
"I own a road-making machine. It's an older model, used to maintain the Susa destrier road until a couple of years ago. It's temperamental, but I understand it, and I can make it work as well as any new machine. If you level the road surface, I'll cover it with conjured wood that will give good wear under heavy cart wheels, or conjured rubber, for destriers, depending upon what you want. I have two adjutants, my son and my nephew. The are hard workers. We can make bridges out of ten-year conjured wood, and make just about anything else too. Magical materials are our speciality."
"Do you have any other children?" Gristel says.
Larak laughs. "I have two daughters, both unmarried."
"But you are married."
"Yes, happily, although my wife does not like me being away too much. So we will work four months out of the year if it's far from home.""How much do you charge for your services?" Thristen says.
"The cost per year of myself, the machine, and my helpers is one million dollars. That pays the interest on the loan I took out to buy the machine from the government, and our salaries and expenses besides."
"That seems reasonable," Gristel says.
"What kind of road do you want to build, and where?"
"We'll discuss that with you," Quayam says, "But the project is secret, and we want you to keep it that way. There are only a few people who know our plans, so if news of it leaks out into the papers, we'll know who it was."
Larak sits up straight and holds his tea-cup tightly. "Oh."
"So don't tell anyone about it, okay?"
Larak looks from one to the other, and at the table. Gristel puts her cup down. "Are you all right?"
Larak stands up. "I'll have to think about it. I didn't know this was a top-secret job. I'll have to talk to my wife."
Despite Gristel and Thristen's protests, Larak insists upon leaving. He says he'll contact them and let them know his answer.
Morning, 10th March, 2483
Gristel closes the front door behind Larak Moodmender after his second visit to their house. "Well, what do you say now?"
She turns and faces her companions. Zak is there. Larak kept staring at her during the brief meeting, in which he said he would work for them, but not if he had to keep a secret.
"He says no secrets," Thristen says, "And he means it."
Quayam shrugs. Gristel sits down beside him. She puts her hand upon his knee. "Orbelastican knows about our plan. Zak told him. Thor knows about it through Orbelastican. The rest of the Princes of Hell all know about it. The Ursians know about it. I suppose the only people who don't know about it are the Endans, but I bet they know about it anyway. So what's the point in keeping it secret anyway? He's right, secrets are exhausting."
They sit in silence while Zak stirs one sugar lump after another into her tea.
"You know," Gristel says, "I reckon Thor is playing both sides of the battle between Laconia and Garaz, and he's making money in the Old Hills. I bet he owns the Laconian temple plots."
Thristen nods. "We should ask Aries."
"And you know Travis and Romayne are done with that archaeology expedition of theirs. They want to come home and work with us. That's two more people in on the secret."
"I trust them," Quayam says.
"Another advantage of dropping the secret," Gristel says, "is that we can go and see Richard Crockford in Caravel without worrying about him extracting all our secrets from us. And then we can discuss the hundred thousand dollar bounty on your head in Endor."
"A hundred thousand," Quayam shakes his head. "I'm insulted."
"You're wanted for murder. I'd rather have that charge dropped. You are my husband, you know. My husband is wanted for murder."
Quayam leans back on the couch. "Fine. No secrets."
Morning, 14th March, 2483
Bladebreaker lays out a new map upon his desk. Gristel, Quayam, and Thristen lean over it. Rackhammer stands with his back to the fire behind them.
"I think we have three viable routes. One looks much shorter than the others, I've called it Route C, here. It goes straight over the Long Hills. The other two routes are A and B, a bit longer, but still good choices. This table compares them for you."
He passes them a page with numbers and lines drawn upon it. Routes A, B, and C cross the Long Hills and converge upon the same point in Mokul after 170 km, 160 km, and 144 km respectively. They require 7, 6, and 3 bridges across mountain streams. They require 9, 4, and 3 escarpments. The maximum slopes are 2%, 5%, and 3%. The number of troll days required to clear and cut the roads is written down as 72, 72, and 95.
"Those are just estimates," Bladebreaker says, "I'm confident of the distances and grades, but not the labor."
"This is great," Gristel says. This is her first meeting with Bladebreaker, and she is delighted with the compound, the industrious orcs, and the sound of the forge hammers pounding outside.
"I invite you to fly over the three routes yourself," Bladebreaker says, "Tomorrow I'm going to send out three platoons of soldiers from the Corps to start scouting the ground on foot. You may have this map."
The three routes are drawn on his map. "One goes past a large crevasse, which will identify the route for you when you're in the air. That's Route C. The other two join up, as you can see, half-way through the hills."
"We might as well start with the short one," Gristel says.
The wind is blowing out of the south-west at around fifty kilometers per hour at mid-day on the 14th March, 2483. The sun shines between scattered clouds. When Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel took off from Gutak City an hour earlier, the temperature on the ground was around zero degrees Centigrade. Up here, above the Long Hills, it is far colder. Beneath her sheepskin flying jacket and trousers, Gristel has a wool sweater and long underwear. Her boots are leather, lined with fur, and she has her feet wrapped with wool cloth. Her cap is also sheepskin, strapped under her chin with flaps that cover her ears. Over her eyes she wears glass goggles. But there are still exposed portions of her cheeks and chin. She leans as close as she can to the feathered neck of her griff to escape the bitter wind.
They are flying due east, but in order to make progress against the wind, they must fly east by south-east. Thristen consults his compass frequently, and recalls to mind the maps they examined in Bladebreaker's office. Before him is a gap in the highest ridge of the Long Hills, and in the gap is a saddle a kilometer wide. The ground slopes up evenly to the saddle's crest, and now that he has a view of what lies beyond, he can see the ground sloping down from the crest on the other side.
The Long Hills are made of granite. Their bones are ridges that run parallel to one another along the entire length of the range. In the shelter between the ridges there are forests. On the ridges themselves, there is grass. On this grass, the Giants of the Long Hill graze their sheep.
The gap Thristen and his companions are flying over is the highest point on the shortest of the three routes across the Long Hills proposed by Bladebreaker. Just past the crest, Thristen sees the crevasse Bladebreaker told him to look for. The crevasse in one hundred meters long and fifty meters wide. The length of it is parallel to the ridge on either side of the gap. The sides of the crevasse are sheer. He looks down. The sun is shines upon the northern wall of the crevasse. Over a hundred meters down the walls, there is a cloud of white mist. He squints and leans over the neck of his griff. The mist covers the bottom of the crevasse.
The three companions land upon the south-eastern side of the saddle, in the shadow of a granite escarpment. When they dismount to talk to one another, they walk through pitted, dirty snow left over from winter.
"Did you see the cloud in the bottom?" Gristel says.
Thristen nods. "I don't understand it."
"I must be like mist stuck in a valley in the morning," Quayam says.
"Maybe," Gristel says, "Seems pretty odd though. And that crevasse is unnatural. What's it doing here? Is it some kind of volcano?"
"Let's go take a look," Quayam says.
"There's plenty of space for the road," Thristen says, "I don't see that the crevasse presents any problems."
"Let's take a look anyway," Quayam says.
They lead their griffs across the snow and grass towards the north side of the crevasse. When they come to the edge, they look down. The white mist billows over a hundred meters below them. The sheer walls and the astonishing depth make Gristel dizzy. She steps back.
Quayam points. "There are steps, look."
A flight of steps, about two paces wide, is cut into the crevasse wall. They begin some way in along the edge, and descend in a spiral around the walls. Quayam counts the steps half-way along the opposite face of the crevasse: roughly a hundred, so maybe three hundred in one turn. After two full turns, the stairs enter the mist.
"It's two hundred meters down to the mist," he says. "See how the walls are just as sheer below the stairs as above. The stairs were not cut into a pre-existing rock face. They were cut by whoever made the rock face. This crevasse is artificial."
Gristel steps forward and looks at the stairs. "It could have been natural to start with and then expanded by cutting."
"Let's look at the top of the steps," Thristen says, "I'd like to know if anyone is using them."
Where the stairs reach the top of the crevasse, they turn outwards, and ascend to the grass several meters from the edge. Thristen examines the steps. Quayam and Gristel watch him. The griffs crouch together on the grass to stay warm.
"Someone cleared the steps of debris and plants last summer," Thristen says. "Nobody has been up and down for at least a few days. Before that, I can't say. It's granite, and there has been too much rain."
Quayam descends the first few steps. They are smooth at the corners. "These steps are hundreds of years old, maybe thousands. They have seen heavy use."
The three of them walk to the turning in the stairs, where it begins to descend to the right around the walls. The mist billows below them.
"I say we go down and see what's under the mist," Gristel says, "We can't be running a road past a mysterious crevasse. Who knows what might jump out of it."
"Of course we're going down," Quayam says. "Let's get our stuff."
A few minutes later, they begin their descent of the stairs. They have bows and quivers on their backs, swords at their hips, flashlights, thunder-eggs, a length of rope, and Gristel's lock picks. They descend in single file: Thristen in the lead and Quayam in the rear. It is two hours after noon.
They walk out of the sunshine and into the shadow of the walls, and around into the sunshine again. The crevasse looms above and below them. Their footfalls echo between the walls. The mist billows below, as thick as when they first saw it. They cannot discern whether the crevasse ends just beneath the mist, or if the mist continues forever into the depths.
When they are half-way through their second turn around the walls, they see that the steps ahead of them are unusual. Thristen stops and stares at them. It appears that the original staircase collapsed at this point, and has been repaired. Instead of granite, the stairs are made of a translucent, sparkling material. Embedded in the material are bones.
"Orc bones," Thristen says. There are skulls with tusks clear to see within the sparkling material.
Quayam kneels and scrapes the material with his knife. "Spirit stone. A transparent variety. They could be real bones, but I can't tell."
His words echo in the crevasse, so that Gristel must wait a few seconds before she speaks, and when she does so, she whispers. "They sure look real to me."
Even her whisper echoes around them. She looks up. They are a hundred and fifty meters down.
Thristen steps over the bones and stands upon granite. "What kind of person makes steps out of bones?"
Quayam stands up. "We're going to find out." He points along the stairs. "Come on, let's keep going. It's going to take more than a bunch of bones to scare me off."
"Okay," Gristel says, "But I'm going first, looking for traps. Anyone who puts bones in stairs is likely to put traps on them too, in my opinion."
Gristel leads the way. They descend towards the fog. The air gets colder, and they remark upon this to one another. They pass another, longer section of stairs repaired by spirit stone and bones. This section is adorned with a low inner wall of orc skulls, two skulls high, with the tusks facing the crevasse. They enter the mist. It thickens rapidly until they can see only ten meters in front of them. The moisture in the air chills their cheeks.
"Now it's really cold," Gristel says.
They pass more bone steps and arrive at a square landing. The wall of the crevasse is on their left. The staircase descends to their right. The landing is four meters square. Both the landing and the staircase are made entirely of spirit stone and bones. Around the perimeter of the landing is a wall of skulls. At the corners are pyramids made entirely of skulls, five wide at the base. All the skulls are orc skulls. Each step of the staircase descending from the landing is adorned with another such pyramid of skulls, on alternating sides.
Below the ledge, the crevasse no longer descends with sheer walls, but slopes downwards to their right. Through the mist, they see the far wall of the crevasse descending away from them. On either side of the staircase is a steep slope. The slope is covered with ice.
"By the gods," Quayam says, "where did they get all the bones?" He kneels and inspects one of the skull pyramids. "There are skulls all the way through." He counts and multiplies in his head. "That's fifty-five skulls per cairn." He stands up. "Two hundred and twenty skulls in the cairns alone."
Gristel hugs herself. "It must be twenty below down here. How can it possibly be so cold? It's not natural."
The mist sparkles around them, and instead of droplets of moisture, they see ice crystals landing upon their sleeves.
Quayam looks up. The light of day filters down through the mist. "I'd like to make a balloon and tied it up here, ready to go. I don't want to be running away up those stairs if there's something nasty down in the pit."
Gristel and Thristen agree. Quayam sings up a conjured cloth balloon, a conjured wood basket, and conjured ropes to tie them together. He has done this many times before on many different planets. He dyes the conjured matter so that it is easy to see and work with. Meanwhile, Thristen and Gristel lean over the side of the staircase and drill out a hole thirty centimeters deep into the ice with the tip of a sword. They angle the hole upwards into the ice and wedge four arrows into it when it's done. Quayam ties his basket to the arrows with conjured rope. He fills the balloon with conjured foam and it rises into the mist, straining upon the basket and the arrows.
"I'll sing a little more foam into it when we get into the basket," Quayam says. "And we'll be away."
"Good," Gristel says.
Thristen takes out his pocket watch. "Fifty minutes since we started down the steps."
Gristel looks down the stairs. "Are we really going down there?"
"Of course," Quayam says.
Gristel takes out her flashlight and begins to descend, examining every step as she goes. Quayam and Thristen take out their own flashlights and follow her.
"Icy here," Gristel says.
After fifteen steps, Quayam says, "What if we come to a space bridge and step right through onto another world."
Thristen looks back up the stairs. "I'm sure we'd notice a change in weight or something." He raises his flashlight. "Our flashlights would stop working. They have conjured matter in them, don't they? Only a conjunction can pass conjured matter."
"That's right," Gristel said. "We're still on Clarus."
"I'll make a conjured rod," Quayam says. He sings for few seconds, moving his hands in front of his forehead and then in front of his chest. An orange rod of conjured wood grows in front of him, and stops when it is a meter long. He hands it to Gristel. "There. Lead with that. If you see it getting shorter, stop."
After another fifty-five steps, the light from their flashlights is brighter than that of the sun through the mist. Gristel stops and bends over a pyramid of skulls. The spirit stone has crumbled away, exposing the face and tusks of one skull. She scratches the skull with her finger. "Feels real."
Thristen looks closely. "Yes. It's real."
Gristel breaks off one of the tusks and puts it in her jacket pocket. She continues down the stairs. The crevasse forms a ceiling above them and they enter a cave twenty meters wide and five meters high, descending into the earth. Gristel shines her flashlight on the walls. Through the sparkling mist, the walls floor, and ceiling are entirely covered with ice, and embedded in the ice are skulls and bones. The entire cave is walled with bones several layers deep. In some places, the bones protrude from the ice, as if they have partially fallen. On the floor there are piles of bones covered with sparkling layers of milky ice.
"Keep going," Quayam says. His voice echoes from the cavern walls. "Yes, the bones are creepy. But keep going."
It's not the bones that are making Gristel hesitate. It's the cold. She is comfortable enough in her flying kit. But it must be thirty degrees below zero down here. Cold enough to freeze vodka. It never gets that cold in this part of the world, not even in the dead of winter.
The floor of the crevasse grows less steep until it is nearly horizontal. The stairs end. The three of them proceed across ice and bones. The only light down here is the light from their luminous stones. The only sound is their scraping footsteps, and every now and then, a crack from the ice walls. The floor is knee-deep in freezing mist.
The passage ends with a wall of ice. The walls, ceiling, and floor at the end of the passage are spirit stone mixed with bones and skulls, obscured by ice crystals. But there is a short section of wall on the left and right, near the end of the passage, that is smooth and devoid of bones. At the center of the end wall is a projection something like a snout, with a black circle the size of a dinner plate on the end. They see their lights reflected in the plate, as if it were a mirror.
Our heroes stop five paces from the snout and stare at the walls and the mirror. Their breath makes icy clouds that sink to the ground. Even though there is no wind, Gristel's cheeks are stinging from the cold. Their boots and flying jackets creak. The crystals beneath their feet squeak when they shift their weight.
Quayam takes another step towards the mirror, and then another. It's not a mirror, or not entirely a mirror. There appears to be a glass window that reflects some light, and then there's something beyond the window, something lit only dimly. Gristel moves up beside him, and Thristen.
"Try the rod," Quayam says.
Gristel raises the orange rod of conjured wood and touches the glass, or tries to. But the tip of the rod hisses and dissipates just in front of the glass.
"Oh boy," Gristel says.
She steps back. Quayam shines his light straight upon the glass. The light shines upon the undulating surface of what appears to be a poorly-made window. Beyond the glass is what appears to be a pipe the same diameter as the glass, made of large, black rings, and beyond that, a cavern. There is a light coming from the back of the cavern, and Quayam decides it is sunlight reflecting off black stone in the distance. He shines his light through the pipe, upon the cavern floor beyond. There is a pile of debris, and some movement. He steps closer to the glass and squints. He moves right up, until his face is a few centimeters from the space bridge.
"Careful, darling," Gristel says. "Don't burn your nose off."
The pile of debris is a pile of corpses. The corpses are white-skinned, but covered with blood that has already dried to brown. Many are crushed. Many have arms or legs sticking straight and rigid in the air. The heads have tusks. Their staring eyes have slitted pupils. They are orcs.
Quayam stops breathing. He shivers. There is a movement on the pile of corpses. Quayam moves his head a little from side to side until he can see better through the poor glass. He sees a small, bent creature with brown skin and legs that bend the wrong way at the knees. The bones of its spine stand out down its naked back. It turns its head and faces Quayam's light. It holds a severed hand to its toothy mouth and bites. It's eyes are like black holes in its face.
Quayam looks at the ceiling of the cavern beyond the glass. He steps back from the glass and turns around. He shines his light back along the passage behind them. He breaths.
"It's this cavern," He says. "It's this same cavern on the other side of the bridge."
Gristel frowns. "What do you mean?"
Quayam takes another breath. "The space bridge shows a view of this cavern, but at a different time. It's an earlier time."
Thristen puts his face close to the glass and shines his light into the cavern beyond. Gristel stands close to Quayam. She is watching his face. Quayam is scared, she can tell by the way he is breathing. If Quayam is scared, something must be going badly wrong.
"At that time," Quayam says, "The cavern is filled with thousands of corpses, stretching all the way back into the distance, and the sun is shining on the bottom of the crevasse, reflecting off the granite." He stares at her.
"And what else?" she says.
"There are a couple of demons or something crouched upon the bodies, chewing at things."
Thristen stands back from the glass. He looks up the cavern for a moment. "He's right."
Gristel faces the glass. She feels that she must look also. She does not want to. But as she nears the glass, the scene behind it flickers and goes black.
"It changed!" she says.
The three of them press their heads together and gaze into the dark circle by the light of Thristen's luminous stone. The tube of rings is gone. There is only a black surface, shaped like a curtain, but sideways.
"Black velvet, isn't it?" Gristel says.
The curtain moves aside. There is another tube of rings behind the glass. Beyond that is the same cavern in which they are now standing, complete with bones and mist. What they see is what they would see looking out of the glass. In the cavern they see there are three people standing. Two are ten paces away with their backs to the glass. One is three paces away. He is staring straight at the glass.
The face of the man staring at them from the cavern beyond the glass is Thristen's face. The man with his back to them is Quayam. The woman standing beside Quayam, her bow slung on her back in the style of the Varayan Army Scouts, is Gristel.
Gristel stops breathing. Quayam and Thristen do the same. There is no mist between their faces and the glass. Gristel peers at the cavern beyond the tube of rings. Surely this is some kind of trick? The undulations in the glass distort her view. Could that be someone pretending to be Thristen? She has not yet seen her own face. The man who must be Quayam puts his hand upon his head and turns to the woman who must be Gristel. He speaks to her. Gristel can see his profile. It's him. Nobody could look so like him as that. He shouts at the man who must be Thristen. He and the woman turn towards the glass and stare at it. The woman's face is her face. No sound comes through the glass, but Gristel can tell that Quayam is arguing with Thristen.
Thristen shines his light through the glass so that it lands upon the shoulder of the man who must also be Thristen. The light plays upon the man's sheepskin jacket and the man turns once again to face them. The light shines in his eyes and he squints. He breaths out a cloud of mist. A second later, he walks towards his comrades. Together they run back up the cavern floor. The mist swirls up behind them.
The glass goes black.
Quayam steps away. "That's it. Let's get out of here."
He walks away from the glass. Gristel follows him. Thristen steps back, but goes no further. He frowns. He is convinced that the three people he watched through the glass were him and his two comrades. Their clothes, their equipment, even the tear in the back of his flying cap that he is sure to repair as soon as he gets home, is identical to what he sees they have with them at this moment. Whatever he saw has not yet come to pass, but must come to pass. If not today, how can it come to pass another day?
"I have a very bad feeling about this," Quayam says. His raised voice echoes in the cavern. "Something bad is going to happen. We should get out of here right now."
The glass flickers. Three faces stare out at Thristen. They are his own face, Quayam's face, and Gristel's.
Quayam pushes his cap close onto his head. He looks at his wife. "Do you feel it?"
She nods. "We should go. But what did we see in the glass?"
"I don't know and I don't care. We have to leave." He turns to Thristen. "Let's go!"
"Look," Thristen says. His voice is barely audible, but they don't have to hear him because they can see the glass. They see their own three faces staring out.
"I don't care what you see in there," Quayam says, "If we don't leave now, and I mean, right now, we are going to die. Do you understand?"
Thristen looks at his friend. "We mustn't leave to soon." He feels as if he cannot move, even if his alternative is death. It is inevitable that he should stand here. But he does not understand why she should feel this way. He clenches his fist. He has his strength. He is thinking clearly. There is nothing wrong with him. "If we leave now, we will have to come back."
"We can talk about that another time," Quayam says. "Right now, we leave or we die. I have a very bad feeling about being stuck here at the end of this cavern."
Thristen turns to the glass. A light shines in his face. He squints. He remembers this moment. This has already happened. He breathes out. Now he can leave.
"Okay, let's go."
The three of them run across the cavern floor towards the stairs. A sustained hiss echoes through the cavern. Ahead of them, pouring down the stairs and the sloping ice is a wave of mist. The mist is thick and noisy and vigorous. It jumps and races. It reaches for the ceiling.
Quayam is first upon the stairs, with Gristel and Thristen behind. They plunge into the mist and bound up the stairs as best they can. The tops of the skull cairns are still visible through the clouds, and by these they can judge where the steps must be.
Gristel's boots are creaking. They feel as if they are made of wood. One of them cracks and a blast of cold strikes her wool-bound feet. The air around them is so cold, it burns her face. She breaths deeply all the same, despite the burning cold in her lungs, but no matter how deeply she breaths, the breaths give her no satisfaction. She stumbles, but catches herself. The mist clears around her feet and she sees a liquid like boiling water splashed across a red-hot iron plate. But the liquid is not hot. It is cold, so cold that even the ice of the stairs is cracking from contact with it.
Quayam reaches the ledge where the balloon is tied. He jumps up onto the basket bringing it down to the ledge. Gristel and Thristen jump in beside him. Thristen cuts the rope that ties the balloon to the arrows. All around them, the boiling mist rises and twists. They breath heavily, but to no avail. Thristen feels as he did once when he was a boy, and he was dragged beneath the water in a river. His cannot see clearly. There are white flashes in the air about him.
Quayam's voice sings clear above the hissing and roaring of the mist. He holds his hands up and the balloon swells above them. His voice is deeper than usual, or so it seems to Thristen. The basket lurches. It knocks against a cairn of skulls. It rises silently, rocking slowly from side to side. Thristen lets his head sink back against Gristel's shoulder.
They rise out of the mist and the sun shines brightly upon the walls of the crevasse. They breath in great gasps. The cool mountain air feels like summer to their frozen lungs. The spiral staircase drops away on either side. Quayam pulls a rope and lets a stream of brown foam out of the top of the balloon and their ascent begins to slow. They rise out of the crevasse. Their griffs squawk at the sudden appearance of the balloon. They stand up and one of them flaps his wings.
The south-westerly wind catches the balloon and sweeps it out over the grass, even as the basket begins to descend. Ten seconds later, the basket strikes the earth and the three riders jump out. They roll across the grass and lie upon the earth, staring up at the clear sky and breathing. The balloon soars above them, flapping and twisting around itself until it disappears over the mountains.
"I told you," Quayam says. "Didn't I tell you?"
"What was that liquid?" Gristel says. "It wasn't natural. I have never seen or heard of anything like that." She sits up. Her sheepskin boots are scarred and cracked. In one place, she can see through to her foot. "Was it cold, or some kind of cold heat?"
Thristen closes his eyes. He does not know what the liquid was. He's just glad to be alive. And he does not have to go back to the cavern and look into the glass. Everything that he saw happen has happened. There is nothing left undone.
"I warned you," Quayam says. "But did you listen?"
Sunset, 14th March, 2483
Quayam makes a conjured shelter in the hills in the lee of a cliff a few kilometers from the crevasse. The shelter has the color of the granite of the cliff, so that it is less conspicuous. He is finishing a shelter for the griffs when Thristen points across the heath to the north-east. A man is walking across the heath, not towards them at first, but when he sees them, he changes course and draws nearer. He has a black over-coat, a tall black hat, and dark brown trousers.
"Good evening to you," he says in Latin when he comes near. "Jacob Manne at your service. I say there are no chance meetings in the hills in winter. May I shelter with you for the night? Your accommodation looks far more comfortable than what I can make for myself in the forest down yonder." He points down the slope to the northwest.
"Come on in," Thristen says.
Inside the shelter, Jacob sets down his pack and sits in front of the fire. He admires the conjured wood walls and chimney.
"I thank you kindly for your hospitality."
"Do know anything about the crevasse in the next valley? Are you on your way there now?" Thristen says.
Jacob smiles. "The crevasse. I know the one you mean, yes, and I know its history, if you'd like to hear it."
"Yes please," Quayam says.
Jacob looks into the fire. He takes off his hat and sets it beside his pack. His hair is cut short, black for the most part, but turning gray. His face is weathered and tanned. Gristel guesses him to be a sapien of around fifty years. He is the same age as her, but he is not taking longevity drugs. His eyes are large and his nose is prominant and narrow, with a crook half-way down.
"In the year 1932, the Battle of Anuxis took place in that valley. Anuxis was the name of a town, over-grown by the forest even in that time. You can find the ruins yourself if you look down the northern slopes in the trees."
Water is boiling on the fire. Thristen is ignoring it, but Jacob nods in its direction, and Thristen takes his kettle off the flames.
"Four legions of Endroman heavy infantry pushed an army of orcs up into the top of the valley. This was at the beginning of the great war between the Endromans and the orcs, and before the Endromans had won a single victory of any importance against the orcs. The orcs believed themselves to be invincible. But they did not have Gelden with them any more."
Thristen hands Jacob a cup of tea."Thank you sir," Jacob says. He holds the cup in both hands with his half-finger gloves. "The Endromans had the better of the orcs this time, and pinned them at the top off the valley, and around the back as well, between the cliffs and up against them. The orcs built their stockade and encamped. But they were short of food, and it was mid-winter, and snow lay thick upon the ground."
Jacob sips from his cup. "Ah. Thank you again, sir."
"Go on," Gristel says.
"A week went by. The orcs were starving. They must have figured the Endromans were starving too, because there was no town nearby, the Endromans had been marching fast with no packs when they pursued the orcs, and nobody had been bringing supplies up the valley. But they were wrong. The Endromans had plenty of food. They had it from the Gods. The orcs came out at night and attacked, but the Endromans were stronger. They unveiled bright lights and fought shield-wall to shield-wall with the orcs in the snow and the bitter cold."
Jacob takes a deep breath. "In the morning, the victory was to the Endromans. They drove the orcs into the crevasse, so that they fell in the thousands to their deaths. The rest of the orcs they killed in battle, or slaughtered afterwards like animals. They threw all the bodies into the crevasse, so that the bottom of it was buried with corpses."
He smiles at them. "Not a pleasant story. The orcs still shun the place. The giants won't come near it. They say it's cursed. And maybe it is, too, with the ghosts of ten thousand orcs groaning in the bottom. I don't know. I don't much believe in ghosts."
Jacob sleeps the night with them. He does not ask them their business in the Long Hills, and they are glad that they don't have to make excuses, because they do not want to discuss their project with him, even though they have said that they will no longer keep secrets. Nor do they ask him questions about his business, other than their initial questions about the crevasse.
Sunrise, 15th March, 2483
In the morning, Jacob asks a favor of them. He says he is on his way to meet some people, and he has with him something that he could have obtained only from a certain lady.
"And this certain particular lady is someone who I was not supposed to be seeing. Indeed, if the people I am to meet find out that I saw her, they will be displeased with me, and they are not the sort of people who I feel confident displeasing."He takes from his pocket a large gold coin. "Here it is. Nothing special. Worth something for the gold, but not enough to concern me. But she gave it to me and it is precious to me for that reason. I don't want to throw it away." He looks up at them. "I ask you to keep it for me. If we meet again, and you feel so inclined, return it to me and I will do my best to repay you the favor."
Quayam reaches out and takes the coin. On one side is the profile of a woman's head. The woman's features are not clear. Quayam cannot tell if she is young or old. On the other side are flowers, and among the flowers, two orbs with points in the middle. Quayam holds the coin up in the dawn light. The two orbs are female breasts. He turns the coin and looks at its edge. Half-way through the thickness of the coin is a line of copper-colored flecks in the gold.
He looks at Jacob. "Sure, I'll keep it for you. How will we arrange to meet?"
Jacob shrugs. "I'll write you a letter. I have no address, but I can send letters. Do you have an address?"
"We have an address in Pakesh," Quayam says.
Jacob takes out a notebook and pencil. "What is is?"
He writes down Quayam's address. "Or perhaps we will meet somewhere. You may recognize me, but I may not recognize you, or the other way around. Talk to me by my name and I will know it is you. And I will tell you your address if we meet and you do not recognize me. I may grow a beard." He smiles. "This winter was cold without one."
They say goodbye to Jacob soon after. He walks down the valley towards the trees. The three adventurers mount their griffs and fly home. The wind is 20 kph out of the south-east, and their path lies south by south-east. They fly three hours, rest for an hour, and fly another three hours. They are cold and tired and stiff when they arrive at the Virage home outside Clavicle. Thristen is reunited with Zak, who has run a bath for him. But they never get to the bath because Quayam and Gristel beat them to it. Zak does not mind. Everyone is warm enough by the end of the evening.
"Well, that's quite a story," Gashley says. "So what are you going to do about that pit of hell right on the path of your road."
"Our road, Dad," Gristel says.
"Of course, the Trans-Outland Highway Authority's road. What about it then?"
Gristel frowns. Quayam shakes his head. Thristen clears his throat. "I think we'll look into Routes A and B, that's what we'll do."
"Yup," Gristel says, "Route C does not look good."
"That bad, eh?" Gashley says.
"Darling," Dominican says, "There were thousands of skulls down there, and super-freezing water. What do you expect them to do about it? Some things are better left alone, that's what I say. Good honest bandits and thieves, that what you want for a road, not clouds of mysterious fog and windows that show you the future."
"Wise words," Thristen says.
Evening, 16th March, 2483
The luminous stone in the ceiling of the Virage kitchen is bright. Thristen, Quayam, Gristel, and Gashley are gathered around the kitchen table. Dominican sits at one end knitting. Jacob Manne's coin is in the center of the table. There is a bowl of water, a small weighing scale, and several jeweler's loupe's. Quayam's notebook is to one side, with the following words freshly-written, "diameter 38 mm, thickness 2 mm, mass 37 g." There are some calculations following, with the conclusion, "volume 2.27 cc, density 16 g/cc."
At this moment, Thristen is moving his compass around the coin, and four pairs of eyes watch the coin and the compass. He completes two circuits of the coin.
"Nothing," he says.
Gashley advances an iron lump. The compass moves quickly. He touches the coin and withdraws the iron lump. Quayam writes "non-magnetic" in his notebook.
"Put it in the water," Gristel says. "If there's a bridge in it, I bet we'll see some bubbles."
Thristen lowers the coin into the bowl of water. They watch it for several minutes, speaking to one another in whispers. Dominican's needles tap against one another. The clack of ceramic balls comes down the hall. Zak and Felicity, the maid, are playing billiards. Zak shouts with satisfaction. Felicity laughs.
"No bubbles after four minutes," Quayam says. He writes in his notebook.
Thristen takes the coin out of the water and wipes it off. "Let's weigh it again to see if it took in any water."
This they do. The weight is sixty grams, as before. They put the coin in shallow water to see if water is being sucked away by a bridge inside, through holes in the coin too small to see. No water vanishes.
"What are these marks around the rim?" Quayam says.
They borrow one of Dominican's steel pins and scratch the gold around the edge of the coin. The small flecks in the edge are harder than gold and the color of copper. They place the coin on a piece of paper and mark the paper next to each fleck. When they remove the coin, they look at the pattern of flecks for a while. The distribution of flecks around the perimeter is not uniform. With a ruler and pencil, they construct a grid of perpendicular lines such that the flecks lie on the grid, as if such a grid were embedded within the coin.
They sit back on their chairs. "Interesting," Gashley says.
"If it's all gold," Quayam says, "It should have density nineteen grams per cubic centimeter, but it's density is only sixteen. It could be one quarter copper. Why would there be copper in the middle of a gold coin?"
"To make up the volume but save money," Gashley says, "It's made by a mint that's cutting corners. Somebody's keeping the extra gold for themselves."
"Maybe," Quayam says. "I want to be sure. Let's take it to the dwarves and ask them if they can melt it down, look inside, and reconstruct it again as it was before, or make a copy."
Gristel smiles. "That's exactly what we should do."
"Can we take Zak to Eisenden?" Thristen says.
"Absolutely," Quayam says. "Why not? They let elves and sapiens in, why not orcs?"
18th March 2483
On the 18th March, Quayam, Gristel, Thristen, and Zak spend the day in Eisenden, the capital city of the dwarf nation called Eisengard. The nation contains almost the entire range of the Iron Mountains (see map). Eisenden is only 100 km from Clavicle, but is has been eight years since Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen last entered the city. On that occasion they stayed for two weeks while they acted as witnesses in the trial of Sepulchrave, Arid, and Buffy for the murder of Blind Quall the Bearded. They are glad to return again.
They land their griffs in the Varayan town of Ulna, and place the griffs in a stable. They walk the one kilometer to the entrance of Eisenden, which is set in a towering shoulder of Mount Eisen. As they approach the entrance, they walk past magnificent fountains. Zak is thrilled to be there. She stares at the fountains, stands in the mist falling from the clear sky, and slides across the flat, slippery black flagstones.
Inside the first gate, while waiting for the inner gate to open, they get talking with a police constable, asking her directions. Her name is Colina McCalish. She tells them she is sixty-five years old and recently moved here from Uberden to be with her new husband.
"No kids yet, more's the pity. But one day," she says. The dwarves of Eisengard speak Latin.
Her voluminous, curly brown hair is stuffed under her policeman's helmet. She takes their names and gives them day passes to the city. When the second gate opens, they enter the city. They remember the city well, and take Zak on a walking tour, through some of their favorite caverns, past the swimming pool, and into the cavern of tropical plants. They stop for coffee and beer and something to eat.
They follow Colina's directions to the jeweler shop belonging to Robby McBroome. The sign over the door says "Established 2403". Robby examines Jacob's Coin.
"It's not at all magnetic," he tells them, "So it cannot be made of nickel or iron hiding in there. That's something to go by. The main body is pure gold, judging by its streak. The flecks you pointed out look like copper. The whole thing was made in a crude ceramic mold."
"Can you copy it?" Quayam says.
Robby handles the coin, weighs it, and makes some sketches. "I don't know about whatever is inside. It may be something hard to copy. But here's what I suggest. I could take impressions of both sides, melt it down, extract whatever is inside, photograph it, and re-constitute the whole thing."
To this they agree, for a fee of a hundred gold pieces. They pay him half in advance, and also buy two loupes and two streak stones for testing gold.
"You've been working here for eighty years?" Gristel says.
"I have," Robby says. "Since I was sixty-five years old."
Robby recommends a cartographer. They buy a map of Clarus and drafting tools. They proceed to a magic shop, where they attempt to buy thunder-eggs from the Ursian man who runs the place. His name is Hamid Karzai. He is not a wizard, but a wizard's adjutant, graduated from the Pakesh School of Wizardry.
"You can't buy thunder-eggs on the open market anywhere but in Ursia," he says. "You could go south to Tabriz, just outside Uberden. That's an Ursian city. I won't sell them to you."
"But you have some?" Gristel says.
"No, I don't."
They buy bridge rings and four one-year luminous stones. Quayam goes to the bank and transfers three thousand gold pieces out of his Olympian account. He takes the gold in three sacks of ten kilograms each. Their business complete, they return to Ulna and fly home to the Virage Estate. There they give the luminous stones to Gashley and Dominican as a gift, and Quayam places the thirty kilograms of gold on a chair in his bedroom.
"For you," he says to Sid the Demon. Sid sits on the gold and makes a soft rattling sound. He sits there all evening.
19th−28th March 2483
Quayam practices sponging Sid the demon, saying that either Sid take part in the practice, or he does not get to sit on the gold. Sid agrees, but complains. On the nineteenth, Thristen receives a telegram from Bladebreaker via Rackhammer. "Expect surveyors back at start April. Suggest meet Engineering Corps 11 am 5th April. Bladebreaker."
Thristen answers, "Stay away from crevasse."
On the twenty-first, Quayam, Gristel, Thristen, and Zak fly to Eisenden. Robby McBroome shows them the thin, circular, copper film he found inside Jacob's Coin. On the film is a braille-like code. He has photographed the code, so that it is clear and enlarged in the photograph. The problem now is to find out what the braille-like code on the copper film says. Robby recommends a friend of his, Carol McCrakkit, for whom cryptography is a hobby. On the twenty-fifth, Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen meet Carol in her office in Eisenden. At first, she is keen to crack the code just for the fun of it, but when she hears of the possible involvement of time-travel, she is reluctant to start work. They offer her a hundred guineas and she accepts.
Robby tells them by telegram that he has reconstituted the coin. They return to Eisenden. He presents them with photographs before and after, and it appears that the newly-restored coin is identical to the old one.
"I was careful to place the copper film in the same orientation as I found it," he says. "For otherwise, whoever melts it might notice that the film had been turned with respect to the woman's face."
Quayam is pleased, and gives Robby a twenty-guinea bonus. Carol McCrakkit has not yet cracked the braille-like code, but she has been working hard.
"It's not a substitution code in Latin, Varayan, or Greek," she says. "I'm going to get some help from friends and see if it's a substitution in a few other languages. But I think it's something more sophisticated."
Larak Moodmender and his team have agreed to work on the Trans-Outland Highway. They send a telegram to Gristel on 2nd April. Bearing this good news, they visit Bladebreaker at the Gutak Corps of Engineers on the fifth, as agreed a week before. They fly directly there from Clavicle. The wind is a 15-kph westerly. Temperature at ground-level is 13°C and the sky is clear. In Bladebreaker's office, they find Rackhammer waiting for them with the Prince.
"Our surveyors of the crevasse route, Route C, have returned with their detailed report," Bladebreaker says. "The route looks easy to navigate. They stayed clear of the crevasse, but they heard from locals that the crevasse is haunted by evil spirits. Nobody goes near it."
"Nor should they," Quayam says.
"Our surveyors of the northern route, Route A, passed a burned giant village, and saw other signs of devastation by bandits or raiders. The route itself is sound, but requires several extended escarpments and cuttings, which is much as I anticipated. The surveyors returned safely."
"What of the surveyors on the central route?" Quayam says.
"They have not returned. I flew over the route twice but could see no sign of them. I did see two burned villages to the north of Route A. We fear our surveyors have been taken captive or killed by the same bandits who burned villages nearby."
Bladebreaker points to the map of the three routes. "You see that Routes A and B meet here, on the other side of the Long Hills. Our surveyors of Route A saw no sign of their comrades who ascended Route B. The surveyors for Route B traveled with those of Route C up to the point where the two routes diverge, on the banks of a river. That was the last time anyone saw the missing platoon."
"Why not send a larger party of orcs after them?" Gristel says.
"We could do that," Rackhammer says. "Or I could ride up there myself with a century. But I hesitate to do so because we have a non-aggression treaty with the King of the Giants. I suppose I must do so, however."
"We'll go," Thristen says.
Rackhammer stares at the ceiling. They wait. "Well, that may be," he says. "It seems like you would be doing our dirty work for us. We are keshi and karazi. We fight for ourselves." He smiles, baring is tusks. "It is strange to think of sapiens fighting for us."
"Well," Gristel says, "We fought the Brotherhood of Light for you twice, and with all due respect, fighting is what we do too, and we enjoy it. Riding off into the woods looking for some lost comrades is just the sort of thing we're good at. We have no treaty with the King of the Giants. We can do what we like."
Rackhammer agrees. They fly to the Royal Palace of the Queen of Gutak and stable their griffs. They summon three good horses.
"Apparently Lucifer supports your decision," Thristen says to Rackhammer, when his agency informs him that they will deliver the horses from Olympia.
Queen Daybreak invites them to her audience chamber, and they meet her for the first time. She sits on the Throne of Gutak, which is a carved obsidian chair. Upon her head is a simple silver crown set with emeralds. She thanks them for their concern for the lost surveyors, and wishes them success upon their journey.
"We look forward to many years of cooperation with your country, and hope only that we can repay you for the kindness you have shown our people and in particular the family or our dear general."
She smiles at Rackhammer. He nods.
Rackhammer mounts his own large charger and they ride out of the palace and the city together. Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen are still wearing their flying kit, but they have their swords and bows, as well as traveling packs with essential kit like ropes and matches.
"We might have equipped you with armor," Rackhammer says.
"We'll do without," Quayam says.
Rackhammer accompanies them to the bridge that marks the border between Gutak and Dag.
"Farewell, then," he says, "And good luck. I hope to hear from you by telegram."
They cross the bridge and look for the trail of the surveyors. It is weeks old. Thristen finds it, but rides past it. He lets Gristel and Quayam make an attempt to find the trail for themselves. They cannot see it until he points it out, and even then, they are incredulous at the scanty evidence he shows them.
They follow the trail into the woods. Thristen stops at the soft earth around a brook. "Two dozen of them, going together. That's both parties for Routes B and C."
They spend the night in a conjured shelter.
The sixth of April dawns gray and cool. Clouds are at one thousand meters. They ride for two hours, following the trail, until they come to a river. Here the orc trail splits in two. On party follows the river along Route C, the other goes north along Route B. Thristen leads them north.
A grisly bear enters their camp during the night. Thristen emerges form the shelter with a head-lamp and tries to scare it away. Gristel and Quayam watch from the shelter door. The bear charges. Thristen thumps it on the side of the head and knocks it down.
"Well done!" Gristel says, and claps.
The bear wakes up five minutes later and runs away.
The seventh of April is cloudy and cool as well. The trail of ten orcs follows a stream up into the hills. Through the trees to the north and west they see the first granite ridge of the Long Hills. Where the stream turns west, the trail crosses to the other side, and back again. Through the trees to the south they see several clearings with freshly-splintered wood. The trail rises steeply.
"Someone's been at work here," Thristen says, looking south through the forest at a clearing a few hundred meters away. "This slope is around five percent. This must be the steep section of the route that Bladebreaker expected."
To the west, there is a gorge with sheer sides passing through the granite ridge.
"I'd like to look at that clearing," Thristen says, "There's something funny about it."
They lead their horses a little way off the trail and tie them up. They proceed to the clearing, which is a circle twenty meters in diameter. The trunks of the trees are shredded to the base. Tall splinters point up at the sky. Others are twisted into coils.
"It's as if someone cut everything down with a huge, blunt scythe," Gristel says.Thristen runs his hands over the bare wood of a shattered tree. The wood looks as if it has been exposed for no more than a couple of weeks. He sees no sign of an axe upon what is left of the wood. There are splinters that come from the center of the tree, while the bark is gone.
"Nobody cut the trees with an axe or a scythe," Thristen says.
"Look at this," Quayam says. He points to a smooth cylinder of wood, undulating in its diameter, that lies upon the ground. He picks it up. "It looks like a unicorn horn."
They examine the grain of the horn. It has been cut out of the center of a tree trunk, but at an angle to the grain.
"I know of no tool that could make such a cut," Thristen says.
A whistling noise above them makes them look up. Something is flying towards them through the sky from the direction of the cliffs. It is gray and globular and appears to be growing even as it descends towards them like a missile. They run for cover. Above them they hear a loud tearing followed by a screech. Something descends upon the forest they are running through. They veer in either direction. Along with the screeching comes the sound of splintering wood. Clouds of strange black dust roll across the ground, and a smell like lightening. The air is hot. Wisps of steam curl in and disappear.
Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen stand panting beneath the trees. There is a new clearing now, of the same size and half overlapping the first.
"What in heaven was that?" Gristel says.
"I don't know," Thristen says. He walks forward into the new clearing. Leaves are settling, but not that many of them. Most have disappeared. One moment there were five or six twenty-year old pine trees standing tall in the forest. The next moment their tops are gone, their trunks are shredded down to the base, with most of the material missing. The cloud of black dust settles to the ground.
Gristel and Quayam join him. They stare at the cliff to the east, now clearly visible through the gap in the trees. They jump at the sound of a tree trunk splitting down the center. It had been standing, most of its bark gone, five meters tall, its upper branches gone also. But now its trunk has split in two, with each half curling down upon itself.
Thristen approaches the split trunk. It is still curling more tightly. "The inside was hollow," he says. He runs his fingers over what was, a few minutes earlier, the inside of the tree. "There's no sign of rot. Whatever came down on the tree destroyed it from the inside."
"Let's get back to the horses," Gristel says.
Quayam looks at the cliff through his binoculars. There is some sort of structure with windows dug into the side of it. "Someone lives in the cliff on the north side. I want to pay him a visit."
They return to their horses and ride through the forest, following the trail of the orcs.
"So what was that?" Gristel says. "What kind of magic?"
"I don't know," Quayam says, "I'm thinking about it. If it was an atomic bridge, everything would be destroyed. If it was molecular, nothing would be destroyed. Wizards can't make molecular bridges. It sounded like one of Bolus's slice spells. That tearing noise was familiar."
"Horrible noise it made," Gristel says.
"That may be what stopped our orcs," Thristen says.
They ride out into the open. The cliffs tower above them. Grazed grass spreads out before them. Smoke rises to the south side of the gorge. There is some settlement out of sight behind the cliff.
"Well," Gristel says, "What now?"
"We follow the trail," Thristen says.
He walks his horse forward, leaning low off the saddle to stare at the ground. He proceeds slowly. The trail is faint after several weeks, despite there being ten orcs to leave it. Thristen stops when they are half-way through the gorge between the cliffs. He stares at the ground. Quayam looks up at what he believes is a cave in the cliff to the north.
A whistling sound greets them from above. They spur their horses forwards through the gorge. The whistling missile descends upon them from the direction of the cliff with the cave. It pursues them, even though they are traveling at forty kilometers per hour over the even grass. A tearing sound above them makes them scatter in three directions. Gristel looks back and sees a gray disk, or perhaps it is a ring, twenty meters in diameter, falling with unnatural suddenness to the Earth. There is a screech and whatever it is disappears.
They ride on, breathless again, until they round the cliffs and the forest to the west, out of sight of the cave in the cliff.
"Wow," Quayam says, "That was nasty, whatever it is."
After a few minutes consultation, they return to the gorge, riding twenty meters apart. Again they are attacked by a whistling missile, flying from the direction of the cliff. As the ride, the missile changes course and descends upon them. They stay separated and the missile pursues Quayam. It tears open above him and falls from a height of forty meters in the blink of an eye. A boulder explodes with smoke, and when the smoke clears, there are shards of stone still standing, but most of the boulder is gone.
Quayam stops his horse and takes out his bow. He strings. Gristel does the same.
"I'm going to shoot the next one," Quayam says, "He tries that again, I'll shoot it."
Thristen strings his bow while watching the cliff and the stockade he can now see, of a village against the base of the cliff to the west. "I think that last blast was weaker than the others."
Quayam takes two arrows from his quiver and inspects them. "Easy for you to say."
"Let's go back and look for the trail," Thristen says.
With their bows strung, they return to the center of the opening between the cliffs. There Thristen finds an end to the orc trail. He picks up a fragment of leather, another of canvass sack. He passes a buckle to Gristel. She turns it over in her hands. "This is orc-made. It's like the buckles on Zak's satchel."
Thristen holds up a leather strand. "This looks like the wrapper from a sword handle."
Gristel dismounts and kneels upon the ground. Quayam has an arrow on the string and watches the cave in the cliff. He wonders if he can put an arrow in the cave from where he sits. It's four hundred meters over ground, and a hundred meters up or more. It's possible, with the wind in the right direction. But a hard shot. No point in making a futile gesture.
Gristel stands up. "These are giant tracks here, aren't they? Big heavy footprints. Too big for a black orc, even."
"Yes," Thristen says. "They're all over the place. They cleaned up around here, took everything they could find." He points to the cliff to the west. "They went that way."
Gristel mounts her horse and they follow the giant trail, which vanishes to Gristel's eyes, but Thristen manages to follow, or maybe he has guessed where it's going. Gristel is pleased that she saw the giant tracks in the first place.
There are graves under the cliff. One is large and fresh. There are many others. Some are hundreds of years old. Gristel turns her back to the graves. Below them to the east and west the forest is pock-marked with innumerable circles of devastation. Trees grow back into the circles. Many are filled with bushes.
"Whoever it is up there firing that spell at us," Gristel says, "He's been doing it for hundreds of years, blasting the trees."
The others examine the view without speaking.
"I want to have a word with those giants," Gristel says.
They ride along the cliff to the stockade. It is made of tight-fitting pine logs ten meters high. A huge man stands over the wooden gate. Only the upper third of his body is exposed, but he must be over three meters tall and broad with it. He wears a scale armor shirt. He has a long brown beard. On his head is a helmet with two horns sticking out of it. On his back is a war-hammer.
"What do you want, little people?" he says in orcish. His voice is deep, like those of all giants, and loud.
"Greetings," Thristen says. "We are looking for our comrades, a party of ten orcs."
"All who come here die!" he says.
"That may be," Thristen says, "But we want to know what became of our comrades. We want to take their bodies home, and their belongings if they are dead."
"We will show you nothing and answer no questions. Go from here before you are struck down. You are not welcome."
Thristen turns to Gristel and Quayam. "He does not want to cooperate."
"No, that's not good enough," Gristel says. "Tell him he either cooperates or we come in and beat the crap out of him and all his buddies. We're missing ten men. We are going to find out what happened to them. We're not going home without their stuff and their story."
Quayam agrees. Thristen turns to the giant chief. There are several other giants up on the stockade by now. All are men. All are armed with clubs or war-hammers.
"Either you answer our questions or we will come into your village and search for our comrade's possessions ourselves."
The giant chief throws his head back and laughs with his hands upon his hips. "Hah! And how do you propose to do that, little man?"
Gristel frowns. The three of them discuss in whispers. Up above, on the stockade, the giants talk and laugh. After a minute or so, Thristen looks up at the giant chief.
"We'll be back," he says, and the three of them turn their horses and withdraw into the trees. Behind them, the giants are shouting insults, cracking jokes, and laughing loudly.
Noon, 7th April, 2483
Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel are climbing down the cliff on the north side of the Valley of Death. The cliff is nearly vertical, but not quite so. The rock is granite. The route they take lies within a vertical gouge in the cliff, which Thristen calls a chimney. The sky above is gray. There is a cool, damp wind blowing through the valley, but the air within the chimney is comparatively still, and for that Gristel is thankful. The walls of the chimney are for some stretches smooth, and for others craggy. In most places, the sparkling, black granite is wet. It can be slippery, but it can also be so jagged and rough that it cuts through the sheepskin of Gristel's gloves.
Somewhere up above, at the top of the chimney, and hidden from view of the giant village, are their three horses. Somewhere down below, on the cliff face overlooking the valley, is the house of caves from which the mysterious and devestating missiles were launched by someone or something. The three of them are climbing down to that cliff-house to find that someone or something and put a stop to their attacks.
They have been climbing for an hour. They climb without ropes. Gristel descends first, followed by Quayam and Thristen. They try to stay far enough apart so that if one of them knocks off loose rocks, the rocks don't land upon the person below. But Gristel must still close her eyes frequently to avoid the little shards that descend upon her. She is going first because she is the best climber of the three of them, and it is her job to plan the route.
Right now, she is descending one of the smoother and more challenging stretches. Her neck aches from looking down at her feet. She does not enjoy climbing down. It is harder and yet less satisfying than climbing up. She reaches with the tip of her flying boot for a toe-hold her. There are none. She leans out from the cliff and examines the rock below. It is smooth, black and gray granite with water leaking out of a single crack and descending in a white film. She bites her lip. She looks up. Quauaym and Thristen are holding on to the cliff above her, unmoving. They are waiting for her to pick her way down.
Thristen is so broad from chest to back that it is a wonder to Gristel that he can climb down vertical sections like this one. His center of mass must perforce be kept away from the rock by his chest muscles, which makes it harder for him to keep himself from falling backwards. Gristel takes a deep breath. Her arms are tired, but not yet aching. Her fingers are scratched because her gloves are cut in several places. She stretches her neck. There is no point in hurrying. They have another hour or more to go.
"You okay, darling?" Quayam says.
"I'm fine," she says.
Thristen speaks without looking down. "Any time you're ready, my fingers are about to give out here."
"Put your weight on your feet," Gristel says. "I can't see a way forward yet."
"I already put my weight on my feet. My toes are worn out. Now I'm relying on my fingers."
Gristel looks sideways. There is a crack in the granite that way, and another running near-parallel above. They will have to go sideways until they come to a way down. She reaches with her left hand and pushes her fingers into the upper crack. Once they are in, she makes a fist to keep her hand secured in place. She moves one foot up and to the left.
And so it goes, one limb at a time, sideways, down, down, and sideways. One slip means death upon the rocks two hundred meters below. But our heroes trust to their skill, which they have practiced upon the rock faces around Clavicle, and to their strength, which they have kept up in the Clavicle gymnasium. They take their time, and after two hours of climbing, they are seven meters above the cliff house, and thirty meters away to the east, in the chimney.
They stop to rest, for there is a ledge here, and a pool of water. Gristel washes her face. Quayam and Thristen sit with their legs dangling in space, staring out across the east side of the Valley of Death, and at the slow-moving clouds. There are no giants in sight.
"They must be keeping within the stockade while they think we're nearby," Quayam says.
"They were laughing when we said we'd be back," Gristel says.
"But the chief isn't taking any chances," Thristen says. "Not with their sheep."
Gristel puts on her cap and stretches. "Okay, let's do this. I don't want to be on this cliff face any longer than I have to." She points at the rock on their right, which is the route they will take out of the chimney to the cliff house. "That way, along the crack, then slanting down across that fractured face. I don't want to try the crumbling face lower down. I don't trust it. The rock looks loose."
Her companions stand up. Thristen flexes his fingers. His gloves are cut upon their finger-tips, and Gristel sees blood upon the frayed leather. Quayam has taken his gloves off and is climbing with bare hands.
"I'm ready," Thristen says. Girstel puts her foot in the crack and steps off the ledge.
3:20 pm, 7th April, 2483
Thristen steps onto the roof balcony of the cliff house. Gristel and Quayam are already leaning over the stone wall around the balcony's edge, and looking down. Thristen takes a moment to survey the view. A few hundred meters in front of him is the cliff on the other side of the Valley of Death. To his right, which is north-west, is a grass-covered ridge that reaches up almost to the clouds. On his left, the hills descend with lesser ridges to the plane, which fades from view in the mist.
"There are a dozen giants crossing the valley," Gristel says.
The floor of the balcony is solid, cut stone, polished smooth, but not absolutely flat. In the center of the floor is a wooden trap door. As he walks past the trap door, Thristen notes that the hinges are on the top side of one edge, so the door opens upwards. There is a lock set in the door on the other side. Also on the balcony are two braziers and two circular slab tables all made out of a gray material that looks like stone.
Quayam scratches at the the gray material. "Spirit stone," he says.
Gristel lifts a sheet of heavy black material to reveal a telescope with a brass housing on a varnished wooden tripod. "What type of cloth is this?"
Quayam examines the cloth. It too, is made of spirit matter. The cloth is black and sparkling, like flexible granite, but not as heavy. Its thickness is not uniform. He looks at the slabs and the braziers. Theses are old enough that moss is growing upon them, but they are not as well-shaped as Quayam would make them.
Thristen leans over the balcony and listens. "The giants are down below now, shouting that there are enemies on the roof."
"They're right about that," Gristel says.
"Let's get inside as quickly as we can," Quayam says.
Gristel checks the trap door for surprises, finds it locked, and takes out her lock picks. Within a minute, she has the lock open.
"The giants have stopped shouting," Thristen says, "Which I take to mean that whoever is inside has received their message."
Gristel pulls on the trap door handle. The door shudders, but remains shut. "It's barred on the inside."
"Okay," Quayam says, "We'll have to go down the side on a rope."
They tie a rope to the two slab tables and Thristen climbs down with the rope wrapped around his waist and through an arrangement of three caribiners on his belt. He walks backwards down the side of the cliff house to the nearest window. This opening in the rock is one meter in diameter and sealed with an invisible material. Beyond the window is a room lined with books. In the center of the floor is a desk with a chair facing away from the window.
He looks up at Quayam and Gristel, who are watching him from above. "The window is blocked with conjured wood. It's a library. I think the shelves are made out of spirit wood or something too."
When he looks into the library, he sees a man walking past the entrance, up a spiral staircase. The man stops and stares at him. Thristen hears a hissing in the air about him. He jumps sideways across the wall, swinging on the rope.
"Elf sorcerer!" he shouts. "Tried to sponge me!"
He climbs up. "What now?"
Three minutes later, Thristen and Gristel descend from the balcony with the help of two thick spirit ropes. Quayam stands on the balcony. The ropes are tied to the trap-door handle and wrapped around the stone slab tables.
When Thristen is several meters from the libray window, he takes out, primes, and throws the last of their thunder-eggs. It strikes the conjured sponge recently created by the elf sorcerer. Thristen jumps out of the way, around the face of the cliff house. A white flash illuminates the Valley of Death. A clap of thunder echoes between the cliffs.
Thristen and Gristel scramble sideways to the library window. Many of the books in the library are scattered across the floor. Some are burning. Scraps of burning paper float in the air. The surface of the desk is swept clean and now scorched. Up on the balcony, Quayam sees a cloud of ash burst from a chimney hole on the far side of the house from the library.
Thristen and Gristel swing into the library and let go of their ropes. They pull off their spirit matter mittens and draw their swords. The sorcerer appears in the doorway. His mouth opens and his eyes look about the room at the burning books. He frowns and stares at the intruders. Thristen and Gristel rush towards him. Behind them, the library fills with invisible material and the flames go out. The sorcerer turns and runs down the spiral staircase.
Thristen follows him, with Gristel close behind. Thristen attacks the sorcerer as he goes, hoping to trip him or knock him out. The sorcerer leaves the stairs and enters a room with a couch, a chair and a fireplace. He leaps up a flight of steps into a kitchen, where a fire is burning and there is the smell of fresh-baked bread mixed with ash that still swhirls in the air. Here he turns and creates another ball of sponge, this time centered upon himself. Thristen jumps at the sorcerer, so that the two of them are enclosed in the sponge together, while Gristel is left outside on the stairs.
The sorcerer tries another trick with sponge, but fails. Thristen punches him in the face and he collapses to the floor, unconscious.
Two minutes later, the sorcerer lies upon the roof-top balcony beside the open trap door. Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel stand over him. He opens his eyes. Gristel is struck by the similarity between Laruna's face and Quayam's.
"Who are you?" Quayam says in Latin.
The sorcerer stares at him. After a moment, he says, "My name is Laruna Gilgamesh"
Gristel looks up at Quayam. The name is familiar. Quayam frowns.
"I am Laruna Gilgamesh," the sorcerer says, in a louder voice.
"What, the Laruna Gilgamesh? Bashila's husband?" Quayam says.
Laruna says nothing.
"Man, you are in trouble," Quayam says.
"Don't speak of that woman in my company."
It is indeed Laruna, husband of Bashila. They take the keys to his house from him and tell him that the house will now be theirs, but his belongings they will try to send to him.
"We will take you somewhere up to a day's flight from here on hippogriff, and we'll leave you there. If you ever come back here, we'll kill you. Do you understand?"
"Now, where do you want to go?"
Laruna stares at the clouds. They wait. A few minutes go by. The clouds are thinning and there is a trace of the sun shining through to the west.
"Take me to my wife."
And they do. With Shiva's permission, they summon new griffs and return the summoned horses. They fly Laruna along the Long Hills to the place they met Bashila. Laruna rides double with Quayam. They leave him in the clearing on top of a hill where Quayam spoke to Bashila months before. Laruna stands there, staring into the shadows beneath the trees. The three companions wait, but nothing happens. They mount their griffs and fly to the nearby hilltop where they camped once before.
"I wanted to see the reunion," Thristen says.
"Me too," Quayam says, "I feel let down."
They spend the night in a conjured shelter and eat food summoned from Olympia. They summon slabs of meat for the griffs. Sitting in the shelter at night, they sharpen their swords and mend the holes in their gloves and boots.
The next morning they rise early and mount their griffs. There is no wind and the sky is clear.
"A good day for flying," Quayam says. He mounts his griff. "To the Village of Hill Giants in the Valley of Death."
Gristel stands below him. "Are you sure about this new spell of yours?"
Thristen puts the last of his drinking cups in Quayam's saddle bag. "Have you decided on the color?" he says.
Quayam smiles. "Yes."
"What's it going to be?"
"It's going to be a surprise."
Morning, 8th April, 2483
Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel glide down towards the Hill Giant Village. They are coming back, as they said they would. The village is set at the base of the western cliff of the Valley of Death. The cliff forms the valley's eastern edge. A semi-circular stockade a hundred meters in radius encloses the several dozen houses and sheep pens. There are two or three flocks of sheep, each numbering about forty animals, grazing on the grass in the valley near the village, but there are many more such flocks penned within the village, so that the bleating of thousands of sheep rises up into the air to be heard above the fluttering feathers of the griffs.
Quayam stares down at the village. Several giants have seen them, and are shouting in alarm. But there is an open space at the village center that should be large enough for what he has planned. He takes a deep breath and lets out a burst of wordless song, all the while staring at the village center and guiding his griff with his body. The griff is not flapping its wings, but descending by side-slipping.
A sphere of orange matter blooms in the village center. It spreads and rises. Its color is bright in the shadow of the cliff. The giants at the village center run from it. Quayam guides his griff towards it. The griff shies away from so strange an object, but Quayam orders it to land, and it does so, setting its claws into the yielding surface of conjured rubber.
Thristen lands and jumps off his griff. "Nice work, sir!"
Gristel lands also. They stand at the top of the orange landing platform, which must be some three or four meters above the level of the ground, and watch the giants gathering between them and the large, wood hall against the cliff base. This hall they assume to be the chief's residence. Its entrance is a curtain at the top of four steps.
"Are they all here yet?" Gristel says. "Looks like sixty of them. Can't be many more"
The hill giants, for so Thristen has decided to call them, are armed with hammers, clubs, and axes. A few wear metal armor, most wear leather, and almost all of them carry shields. They form a wall of shields in front of the hall, and above them, at the hall entrance, is the chief who mocked Thristen the day before.
"Shall we go?" Quayam says.
"I'm ready," Gristel says. She draws her sword.
They slide down the face of the platform and approach the giants. The giants break their shield wall and charge. Our heroes find themselves surrounded upon all sides by men three and a half meters tall, swinging clubs that weigh tens of kilograms. Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen form a triangle, as they agreed the night before, and each face two opponents.
Within seconds of the fight beginning, Quayam cuts a giant in the thigh, kicks him in the knee and brings him down. With the pommel of his sword, he strikes the giant in the side of the head and knocks him out. All three of them are fighting with their swords, but their hope is that they will be able to avoid maiming or killing anyone. For their part, the giants may be slow-moving, but even a grazing blow from one of their great war-hammers can knock a sapien down.
The triangle moves towards the chief's hall. With each step, more giants fall and more move up and must be defeated. So far as Quayam can tell, he has not faced the same opponent twice, so if any of them are getting up after he knocks them down, they are not pushing to the front again. The giants are having a hard time getting their weapons anywhere close to him. He moves so quickly between their swinging clubs that their efforts to hit him serve only to drive their limbs against his sword, his elbows, and even their comrade's clubs.
The giants collaps one after another. The chief watches. The intruders take one step closer every few seconds. Of the sixty men that opposed the intruders, forty have already fallen. But none appear to have been killed. The chief grips his shield and walks down the steps. It is Quayam who faces him.
The chief fights well, but not well enough. He steps back and raises his arms. "Enough! Step back men. We will talk!"
The hill giant warriors move away from the three intruders. Behind them, many of the injured are sitting up and rubbing their heads and joints.
"What do you want, little people?" the giant chief says.
"We want to collect the belongings of our dead comrades," Thristen says.
The chief stares at them. "What belongings? We have no belongings. We buried what was left of your dead. We have nothing here."
"We are going into your hall to find them."
"The belongings were destroyed, like their bodies. There was nothing left."
Thristen turns to his companions. "Now what?"
They whisper to one another for a while before Thristen continues. "Okay. We will take you at your word. Be it known to you and your people that Laruna the Sourcerer who lived in the cliff yonder is gone. He is not dead, but he will not return. We have taken him away to live with his wife. The house in the cliff is now ours. This valley is now ours. You may graze your sheep upon it as you wish. There is nothing you must do for us that we will not pay for in gold. And we will protect you as you have been protected."
"We protect ourselves. But we welcome your gold."
"I see that you have the fighting spirit, and I trust that you can indeed defend yourselves. But we will protect you also. We would like to make an alliance with you. To begin our alliance, we would like to buy three sheep for our birds to eat."
"We have sheep," the chief says.
"We will pay you thirty gold pieces for three of them."
The chief nods. "It will be done."
"We will be staying in the cliff house. Kill the sheep and bring their meat to the base of the cliff yonder. Here is your gold."
Gristel throws a purse of gold to the chief. He picks it up and looks inside. He takes a piece out and bites it. He nods. "I will deliver them from my personal flock."
"Farewell then, chief. What is your name?"
"I am Chief Kandelwassen of the High Valley."
8th to 18th April, 2483
Quayam builds a platform against the cliff face beside the cliff-house balcony. He makes it out of thousand-hour conjured wood and rubber, which he dyes gray to match the stone. He covers part of the platform to make a stable for the griffs. The giants deliver the mutton before lunch time, and Thristen and Gristel haul it up in the basket with spirit rope that Laruna left behind. The basket lowers out of a trap-door at the base of the cliff house.
The cliff house is seven stories high, with about twenty windows and ten fireplaces, each with their own chimney. The windows are sealed with conjured wood, except for the one in the library, which Quayam now seals himself. He replaces the books upon the shelves and finds among them Laruna's journals, written in the sorcerer's flowing script.
In a lower chamber, they find dozens of pieces of furniture in various states of decay, made of spirit wood. Each is labeled with paper, giving the date of its creation. All are crude compared to those that Quayam can make out of conjured material. In another chamber is a spring emerging from the cliff, with a pool of water for drinking, and another for bathing. The water is cold but clean. Beside the bathing pool is a spirit stone tub.
There is wood in a lower chamber, enough to last them several weeks. They light a fire in the water chamber and heat up stones that are arranged there for the purpose. They put the stones in the tub and make themselves a bath. Quayam reads from Laruna's journals, which date back to the time he moved here. Much of the journal is taken up with his development of the destructive spell with which he assailed them and the forest about the valley.
Telegram to Rackhammer from Thristen, "With great sadness we believe that all the soldiers you sent to this palce are dead."
The clouds close in upon the High Valley, for so they call it now that Laruna is gone, and it rains. The three inhabitants of the house summon food from Olympia and eat well. Quayam reads the journals. They relax. In Laruna's bedroom there is a bed of spirit stone and a mattress of conjured rubber that is moderately comfortable, and real blankets made of course wool cloth. Gristel and Quayam sleep there, and Thristen in another room. They share the living room and brew tea in the kitchen.
Telegram from Larak Moodmender to Gashley Virage, "My son, my nephew, and I are agreed. We will work on your road. Our price will be one million Ursian dollars for four months use of the road-building machine and our own labor, with food and lodging to be supplied by you." Gashley continues over space bridge, "I have been exchanging telegrams with him. He requires that you prepare the road surface to his specification before he arrives. We are going to move the machine by wagon to Heel and then to Gutak. Assume Rackhammer will arrange transport and accommodation from there. Larak is expecting to do the job in the spring of next year. That gives you this year to clear and level the road surface."
"What about upkeep of the road after that?" Thristen says.
"The road needs to be re-formed once a year, which takes another month or so. We are talking about that. The transportation of the machine from possible other jobs might be a problem. We'll see."
"So we're in for a million every year?" Gristel says.
"I think so," Gashley says.
Telegram to Rackhammer from Thristen, "We invite you to fly up here, weather permitting, and land upon the platform we have made upon the cliff face at the pass. We have much to discuss."
The weather does not cooperate with this invitation, and a week passes with rain falling from low clouds. Thunder echoes in the valley and lightening strikes the hilltops.
Telegram from Carol McKrakkit to Quayam. "In Ankle at meeting. Showed code to friend. He recognises code, believes he can crack it. Insists on meeting you first. Please advise."
"Why does he want to meet us?" Thristen says.
Thristen practices with a sling he fasions out of rope and a scrap of leather. Gristel and Quayam join him. At first they are in danger of striking one another with the several rocks they use as missiles, but as the days go by, they start to hit the wall in front of them with reliable force. To keep their strength up, Quayam makes weights out of spirit stone.
Every day the giants come to the valley floor below the cliff house and hope to sell them something. They communicate across the one hundred meter drop by shouting. Our heroes buy a hundred kilograms of wood each for the fires, even though they have plenty, and dry it out. They buy mutton for the griffs. The firewood costs them one gold piece a day, and the mutton the same.
Telegram from Quayam to Carol McKrakkit, "We'd like to know his name and nationality and profession, and if possible his employer's name."
The weather remains too poor for safe flying. Thristen sends to Rackhammer, "Removed sorcerer elf who slew your soldiers. Have occupied his cliff-side home. Must protect local giants by finding and eliminating bandits. We reiterate our invitiation to you to come with Bladebreaker when you are able."
On the 15th April, they hear from Travis and Romayne, who have arrived at Clavicle. Romayne talks to Gristel in person. They have met Zak and find Sid to be well, as far as they can tell. They are keen to join the Trans-Outland Highway endeavor. Both are in good spirits. Gristel remarks that Thristen used their last thunder-egg to blow the window in the library, and they have been unable to buy more in Eisenden, such sales being illegal just about everywhere but Ursia.
"We were just in Tabriz down on the border," Romayne said. "I should have bought you some thunder-eggs."
"We'll get you some griffs to fly when we get back. How do you like Zak?"
"She's funny. She's fascinating. I like her. She flirts with Travis too much, though. Says he looks like her big man."
On the 18th April, the skies clear and the sun shines for the first time in over a week. Rackhammer and Bladebreaker fly up from Gutak and arrive in time for lunch in the kitchen of the cliff house. They leave their wyverns on the far side of the platform from the griffs. The two black orcs marvel at the place. They must bend their heads at every doorway, but most of the ceilings are high enough for them to stand. They stay for several hours, and hear the full story of events in the valley, and the fate of Laruna. They discuss the steep incline leading up to the valley.
"It is five percent for ten kilometers, for a climb of five hundred meters," Bladebreaker says, "If my old Varayan charts can be trusted. And by appearance it looks to be that way. At all other points the grade is less than two percent."
"The iron carts will be going down the slope," Quayam says. "So it won't be a problem. They will need brakes. And on the way up, if there are heavy loads, we can lay on extra teams of horses. We'll manage."
"I was thinking we will dig out the steepest parts and build a causway."
"Not yet, my prince," Rackhammer says, "But in the future."
"We have bandits to take care of first," Thristen says, "Then clearing the path for soldiers. We should use our earth-moving to level the road surface in preparation for next year."
"We will leave the bandits to you," Rackhammer says, "in the short term, at least. In the long run, we may be able to station orcs here in the valley. We shall have to talk to King Vasalleshen of the giants. If you like this house, and wish it to be the headquarters of your Trans-Outland Highway Authority, then I understand your desire."
"This route will do well," Bladebreaker says. "There are some bridges to be built along it. We must complete the survey. If we are fortunate, we will be able to begin clearing trees along the route in a few weeks. My corps of engineers is prepared for the work, and all my men are enthusiastic about it. If we succeed, the road will endure for centuries, and will bring dividends for my queen immediately."
Rackhammer smiles. "You will achieve immortality, my prince, with your road."
Bladebreaker laughs. "By which you mean that I must not let my enthusiasm cloud my judgment, I suppose."
"No, my prince. I commend your enthusiasm for your work. I am glad of it. I want the road also. It will pay dividends this summer."
Telegram from Carol McKrakkit to Quayam, "Back in Eisenden. Gentelman I mentioned is Makin Thorn, Varayan borne, accountant for various firms in Ankle."
Telegram from Quayam to Carol McKrakkit, "Why does Makin Thorn want to meet us?"
Laruna lived in the cliff house for five centuries, since the end of the Dark Ages. From Quayam's reading of his journals, Quayam deduces that Laruna was taken prisoner by the Endans while his wife was away with another man. She had left him because he was determined to fight the Endans when they came to his land. The Endans captured him, but he escaped. Quayam guesses that the Endans must have faked Laruna's death to cover up his escape, which would explain why Bashila thought Laruna was dead.
"Why did Bashila have an affair?" Gristel says. "Why did she come back and mourn for him?"
"It sounds like they were not getting along," Quayam says, "She's an elf. She would not think that keeping another man's company was a sin against their marriage. But clearly Laruna took it as a sin. He ended up here, and took up residence. His ambition was to perfect a molecular bridge. But what he arrived at was that slice-disintigrating spell. It created a huge space bridge, partly molecular, and weighed down at the edges by a spirit matter sheath. When it falls it atomizes some, but not all of the material it passes over."
And so it is that the mystery of Laruna's spell is resolved. And the mystery of his animosity towards his wife, also.
"I hope they make up," Thristen says.
"We must go and see how they are in a week or too," Gristel says. "They may need some marriage counceling. He must be a hard man to live with."
"And she's depressing," Quayam says.
Gristel smiles. "So you have said before."
19th April, 2483, 9 am
Gristel stands outside the burned-out ruin of a wood house. The timbers on either side of the front door are still standing, as are several other vertical studs around the outer walls. The surface of the beams are blackened and cracked. Within the house are the blackened remains of the roof joists. The floor is hidden by a cake of white ash. In one place the charred remains of a human body. The body is the size of a sapien adult, but Gristel knows it to be the body of a child. This house was the home of a family of giants. The door frame is four meters high. Half-way out the door is the body of a male giant. The half that remained in the house is blackened and shriveled. The part that fell outside the house is bloated and rotten.
Gristel turns away. She looks up at the hills and the sun. She closes her eyes. Beside her Thristen is knealing beside the corps and examining the doorway timbers.
"It was raining on the night of the fire. The door timbers were burning but the rain put the fire out."
He stands up. Gristel opens her eyes and nods. Quayam is thirty meters away, walking between the burned houses of this ruined giant village. Around the perimiter of the village, the stockade is still standing and intact in most places, but the gates are shattered and burned. Quayam walks past a pile of bodies without looking at their faces. He stops in front of the largest ruin in the village: the chief's hall. He kneels and looks beneath it. The floor of the hall was once raised upon stilts, but the fire has brought the entire structure sinking to the earth. In the center of the clear space in front of the hall are their three griffs. The great birds stand close together. They snort and twitch their heads. They are nervous. There is hardly any wind today, and the village is hot and stinking in the sun.
Flies buzz around Gristel's face. She waves them away. "There must be dozens of men dead here, and more than a few women and children."
"I think that's about right," Thristen says. "The bodies are two or three weeks old."
"Bladebreaker reported seeing this village devestated," Gristel says. "That was when? Second of April and it's now the nineteenth, so two and a half weeks."
"Older even," Thristen says. "The orcs who came this way on foot saw this village and reported upon it. They left mid-March and took a week going out and a week coming back."
"That would make it four weeks old," Gristel says.
Quayam makes his way towards them, stepping around an upset cart with shattered wheels and the body of a giant, his body like that of a small elephant and bursting from a leather shirt.
"Who would do something this?" Quayam says.
They stand together, looking around them. Gristel tries not to let her gaze linger upon the bodies. Every house is burned. "Giants bury their dead. Whey are these bodies rotting here? Why hasn't anyone come back to bury them? Surely there must have been some survivors. Most of the women survived."
"Let's take a look around and see if we can find whoever did it," Thristen says.
They mount their griffs and leave the devestated village below them.
A few kilometers to the north, encamped upon a gentle hillside with a stream of fresh water nearby and open grazing all around, they find a force of armed giants. The three griffs circle. Gristel stares down at the camp. It is fifty meters in diameter, with a ditch, rampart, and pallisade. The pallisade is over two meters high and is made of logs. The logs are spaced at one-meter intervals and the space between them is filled by the log's own branches, interlocking with those of the next.
Within the camp are twenty or thirty tent-like structures made out of vertical logs in a row and sloping wool cloth rooves fastened to the ground by ropes. In the center of the camp is a tent with ropes and poles that appears to be large enough for a dozen giants to stand out of the sun. Gristel sees forty or fifty men inside the camp. Most wear leather armor. Some wear scale. There are another ten outside, but these are walking back to the camp, looking up at the griffs. Spread across the slope are a dozen flocks of sheep, perhaps a thousand sheep in all, attended by women and children. Some of the women and children move towards the camp. Others do not. They may be shouting to one another, but from two hundred meters up, Gristel cannot hear their voices. She guesses that there are more than fifty women and another fifty children.
There are two gates in the pallisade, one on the uphill side of the camp, and one on the downhill side. The men in the camp block both entrances with walls of logs fastened together. As two men carry the door across the downhill opening, a women and her two children rush forwards, hoping to enter. The men shout at them and shove the door down. One of the children tries to squeeze through, but the woman pulls him back. The men shout and wave that the women should move away.
Quayam descends towards the uphill side. Thristen and Gristel follow. A sky-blue platform of conjured rubber appears upon the hillside. It grows to twenty meters diameter and three meters high in a few seconds. All three griffs land upon it, squawking and pushing upon one another for space, despite there being plenty of space for all three of them. Gristel dismounts and her leg sinks thigh-deep into a weak spot.
Quayam raises his eyebrows. "Are you okay?"
"No problem. I like the sky-blue."
The gate in the pallisade opens and a giant strides out, with twenty more behind him. They set out across the hundred meters between the gate and the platform. They walk without hurrying. The leader wears shining scale armor over a black leather jerkin and leggings. He is smiling. Unlike the other giants, he is clean-shaven. His helmet is of steel and copper, also polished. From its top there juts a crest of brown hair. He stops ten meters from the platform and looks up. Behind him, his men stare at the blue material and at the griffs. They grip their axes, hammers, and maces. All of them carry shields, and these they hold up to their chins.
Gristel leans close to Thristen. "Is this the chief?"
"I don't know," he says. "I'll assume not."
"Greetings, little ones," the giant says. He speaks orcish. "What brings you to our happy hillside?"
Thristen answers. "We wish to talk to your chief."
"Do you come in peace or in war? Or have you not made up your mind yet?"
"We come in peace," Thristen says.
"What are your names?"
Thristen gives their names. The giant says, "My name is Finenmadman. I am first lieutentant to Chief Garandelsmashum. I will tell him that you wish to speak to him, and we shall see what he says."
The giant turns and walks back to the camp. His men move aside so he can pass through. They re-enter the camp and the gate closes behind them. From the top of the platform, and with the slope of the hill favoring their view over the pallisade, they see Finanmadman enter the large tent at the center of the camp. They watch the men in the camp staring at them, and the women and children gathering lower down the hillside. The sheep are grazing without concern.
Finanmadman returns fifteen minutes later. "Come with me, the chief will see you."
They follow him, his twenty men all around them, until they reach the gate. He stops and turns. "You must give me your swords, knives, and bows. I cannot allow you to see the chief while you are armed. I give you my word that I will keep them safe and return them to you."
"No," Thristen says, "We will not surrender our weapons. We're here to find out what happened to that village." He points in the direction they came. "It may be that you are the men who burned the village, and we will not enter your camp unarmed."
"Then you will not enter," Finanmadman says. "I give you my word that you will not be harmed. The chief wishes to speak to you. He does not wish to betray you."
"I'll surrender my weapons," Quayam says.
"Rather me than you," Thristen says.
They stare at one another. Gristel shrugs.
"Okay," Quayam says. "Thristen will give his wepons to me and enter unarmed. We will wait there." He points to his sky-blue platform.
And so it is that Thristen enters the giant's camp unarmed. For protection, he has only his flying kit. If he has to flee, it will be hard for him to get out of the camp over the pallisade. There is one place where he could use a barrel to vault up. There are barrels all over the camp. There were none in the devestated village. There are women spinning wool in the shade of the lean-to shelters. A blacksmith's forge glows in another. The blacksmith stands bare-chested, staring at Thristen with a hammer in his hand.
Beside the big tent are three barrels that are marked as containing wine from Varay. How it could have come to be here, Thristen has no idea, but the barrels, at least, are marked as coming from the vinyards near the border with Gadz. He follows Finanmadman into the tent, and stands before a giant in a large wooden chair. Thristen's head is slightly below the level of the seated giant's. There are half a dozen other giants standing under the cloth roof, and another dozen outside.
"Greetings, Chief Garandelsmashum," Thristen says.
"Greetings, little one. What is your name?"
The chief wears a helmet decorated by a wolf's head. The helmet itself is made of steel, rusty but clean. His armor is a scale mail shirt that covers his knees, and greaves of steel plate. His boots, which sit in the mud of the floor, are leather with metal plates stitched to them. His hands are covered by gauntlets of plate.
"I am called Thristen Allomere."
"Treestan," the chief says. He smiles. "A fine name for a small person."
"Thank you. Your own name is a fine one for a chief of your size."
The chief laughs. So does Finanmadman, who stands behind Thristen.
"What do you want, Treestan?" the chief says.
"My friends and I would like to know who burned the village south of here. There are bodies rotting unburied. Many men were killed, and some women and children too. We think it may be you and your men who attacked the village. But we are not sure."
"It was us," the chief says. He turns to the woman standing beside him. She is young, with cascading brown hair and clear, tanned skin. She looks down at Thristen. "Hey!" the cheif says. He taps her on the arm. "Staring at the little one my darling?"
She frowns and shakes her head.
"Sure you were, you little strumpet." He gets half up out of his chair and smacks her on the bottom. "And what could you do with him, eh?"
She stares at her feet.
"You wouldn't get much out that little one, you know." He turns to Thristen. "Do you think you could please my wife, little man?" Garandelsmashum grabs his groin. "I don't think you would have what it takes, do you?"
"I doubt it," Thristen says.
Garandelsmashum laughs. "So, how about something to eat?" He turns to the young woman. "Belliassemshack, go get some wine and a hunk of meat for mister Treestan."
"Yes my lord," she says. She steps out of the tent.
"Make sure you bring it in a very little cup, okay?" the chief says, "We don't want him getting drunk."
The men in the tent laugh. "Don't want no drunk little-ones in the camp!"
Thristen smiles. "Thank you, I would like some wine."
"Good. You are not afraid to drink with me," the chief says. "Now, what are you and your friends and your birds going to do with your new-found knowledge?"
Thristen did not expect the chief to speak in this manner. The word "knowledge" is one he has heard only once in orcish, from Zak. It is close to the Latin word for knowledge, and taken from the speech of black-orcs.
"We want to make sure that you don't attack our own village."
"And where's that?"
The chief's wife returns with a cup and a plate with cold mutton. She hands it to Thristen. He smiles up at her and she backs away. He sips the wine. It is red and bitter. It is not wine from the Varayan vinyards, or if it is, it's gone off.
"There is a valley south of here, in the hills, between two cliffs. The valley is at the top off a pass through the mountains. That pass is our land and we will protect it."
The chief grips the arms of his thrown. He licks his lips and takes a deep breath. "This land is mine. I am the heir to the throne. I am the rightful king."
"Yeah!" the men shout. Their voices together are so loud that Thristen almost winces.
Garandelsmashum leans forward. "Vasaleshen is an imposter. When my father and I were taken in battle by the South King, Vasaleshen sat upon the throne and said he was the king. He is my uncle. He said my father and I would never return."
"Liar!" the men shout.
"He was wrong. My father and I were slaves of Pak for ten years."
The men in the tent curse and spit. Thristen holds his plate in one hand and his wood cup of wine in the other. He wonders who Pak is, or whether it is a type of slave. The chief waits for the men to be quiet.
"One day, it was time for us to shake off our chains. My father and I fought and killed our guards and left the South Kingdom. We came home. But my father died of his wounds. He was a great man. His last command to me was that I take back the throne from my uncle." He stares at Thristen. "And that thing I will do, for myself and to honor my father."
"Death to Vasaleshen!" the men say.
Thristen takes another sip of wine. He rolls the liquid around on his tongue, but he pays no attention to its bitter taste. He is considering his response to the chief.
"Thank you for telling me your story. I am sorry to hear of your father's death. The village in the high valley is under our protection. If you attack that village, we will defend it."
The chief takes a swig of wine from his own cup, which is made of silver. "What kind of folk live in this village, Treestan? Is it little-people like you, or orcs?"
"They are giants like yourself," Thristen says.
The chief sits back in his chair and fingers his beard. Thristen continues. "We are here because we are going to build a road from the orc-nation called Gutak, which is in the south, to the orc-nation called Mokul, which is in the north. This road will be built by orcs."
Some of the giants curse and spit. Thristen looks around and sees their faces scowling.
"My people don't trust the orcs," the chief says, "We call them tusk-people. They are ugly."
"Nevertheless, the tusk-people will build and protect the road. There will be carts going up and down the road, carrying iron and other valuable things. If you attack the road you will become the enemies of the tusk people and of my friends and me. If you do not attack the road, you can trade wool and meat with the people on the road. You will be richer because of the road."
The chief strokes his beard and holds out his cup to his wife. She fills it from a pitcher. He motions to her that she should re-fill Thristen's cup. He holds it out for her and she fills it to the brim.
From one side of the tent a man says. "I do not trust the tusk-people. If they build a road, they mean to steal our sheep."
Finanmadman says, "The only use an orc has for a road is to march to war."
Several of the men grunt and say, "He's right."
The chief smiles and answers his men. "A road will bring trade. That would be good. When I am king, this nation will be strong. We will have no need to fear the tusk-people. I have no objection to a road." He looks at Thristen. "But understand this, Treestan. This is my land. Soon the entire North Kingdom will be mine. If the village in the valley defies me, I will attack it. The people of my land have a choice. They swear to me or they die."
Thristen puts his cup and plate on a small chest-high table to his left. "I hear and understand, Chief Garandelsmashum. It has been a pleasure to meet you. I will return to my friends and deliver your message to them."
"Thank you for visiting us, Treestan. I enjoyed our conversation."
As he leaves the camp, Thristen is prepared for the giants to lay hands upon him, but they do not. They open the gate and he walks free.
"Good day to you," Finanmadman says.
"And to you sir," Thristen says.
He walks up toward the blue platform, where his friends await him.
20th April, 2483
Felicity holds the oven open while Dominican removes a roast turkey in an iron tray. The fat in the tray sizzels when she sets it upon the kitchen table. "There!" she says. She takes her oven mittens off and sets them beside the tray. "Mash the potatoes, Zak, don't touch the turkey or you won't get dessert."
Zak leans over the turkey, sniffing the air. Her nostrils grow large when she does this, and her lips expose the white bases of her tusks. "What is for dessert?"
"We have a jam tart," Dominican says.
The kitchen of the Virage Home is warm with the heat of the oven, and filled with the smell of the evening meal. Thristen is carrying plates into the dining room next door. Gristel is setting out the silver-ware. Quayam is sitting with Gashley at one end of the kitchen table. They each have a crystal glass of red wine. Travis Alomere, Thristen's son, is standing in the doorway to the living room. Romayne Srae, daughter of Gristel and Quayam, is standing next to Zak, watching her and smiling. On the counter-top near the door is what appears to be a sandstone statue of a miniature devil with folded wings. This is, in fact, Sid the demon. His eyes are black holes in his head. His mouth is shut.
"Do I like jam tart?" Zak says.
"Everybody likes my wife's jam tart," Gashley says.
Felicity slides a large bowl of boiled potatoes across the table to Zak. In the bowl is a potato masher. Zak grabs the handle and goes to work. Dominican smiles at the people in her kitchen. She has not seen Romayne, her grandaughter, in seven months. Gristel walks in, sees her mother smiling, and gives her a hug. "When do we eat?"
Gristel looks across the table at her daughter. "You were comfortable in the saddle today."
"It was great to fly. Thank you for the griff."
"The griff belongs to the Trans-Outland Highway Authority. As an employee of the authority, you will receive certain benefits, and one of them is your own griff to fly around on."
"Will you provide parachutes as well?"
Quayam looks up. "I will buy you a parachute."
"I thought you and Mom said you were going to wear them. You said so last July before Travis and I set out."
Quayam frowns. "We did not say we would wear them. We said we would think about it. And we did go shopping for them. They weigh ten kilograms and they're bulky. We have to be able to fight on our griffs."
Romayne looks at Gristel. Gristel shakes her head. "We never said we'd wear them."
"Instead of parachutes," Quayam says. "We bought harnesses that strap us in the saddle, and double-girth straps for the saddle on the griff's back. So long as the griff is in the air, we will be in the air with it."
"What if the griff has a heart attack?" Travis says.
"Exactly," Romayne says.
"I'd like to think that I'd see that coming."
Gristel holds up one hand. "The company will buy parachutes for whoever wants them."
Thristen walks around the table and sits beside Gashley, and Gashley pours him a glass of wine. Outside the kitchen, the last light day is fading. Gashley puts the bottle down. "How many griffs do you have crammed in the stable now? It's only built for four."
"We have eight," Quayam says. "But we are going to send three of them back tomorrow or the next day. If Romayne and Travis want to work for the company, the company will buy two Ursian griffs. They are half the price of the summoned griffs and I trust them more."
Zak looks up from her mashing. "Is mine an Ursian griff?"
"No," Thristen says. "Yours is from Olympia. We kept it because you liked it."
She thinks about that for a moment, and continues mashing the potatoes.
"Those birds are eating all the mutton we can buy," Gashley says. "The way I figure it, each day of flying costs us five guineas. And that's only because I'm friends with the biggest sheep farmer around here. But he's about run out of old sheep to sell me. It will soon be one ten-guinea sheep for a day's flying."
"Small change," Quayam says.
"Thristen and I spend a hundred guineas a month each on longevity drugs," Gristel says, "And Quayam another hundred on his elfroids."
Quayam nods and strokes his goatee. It has been almost a year now since he started taking the performance-enhancing drugs known as elfroids. He can feel the difference. He is not faster, but he is stronger and tougher. And now for the first time in his life, he has whiskers growing out of his chin. He smiles. "Worth every penny."
Zak licks the potato-masher. "No!" Felicity says, and reaches out to slap at her hand. Zak pulls her hand away and parries the slap with the potato-smasher. Now Felicity has potato on her sleeve. "Oh dash it!" she says, and sighs.
"Good parry, my girl," Gashley says. "Just like I taught you."
"Thank you Gash-Man," Zak says, and licks the potato-masher again.
"Have you been giving her lessons?" Thristen says.
"Absolutely. Ever since I caught her wandering around in my display room, admiring my collection of weapons. She said she wanted to learn. I have been teaching her for months."
Thristen looks at Zak. "I never knew that."
Zak raises her eyebrows and puts the masher back in the bowl. "There's a lot of things you don't know about me, big boy."
Thristen shakes his head.
Romayne stands beside Quayam. "Dad, is it true that you're more angry now?"
From the other side of kitchen, Gristel says, "It's true. And he gets sick more often, which makes him even more angry."
"I had malaria last year," Quayam says, "That wasn't anything to do with the drugs."
"Is it true, Dad?" Romayne says.
"Sort of. I was always angry, sweetheart," Quayam says, and puts his arm around her waist. "Now I have the confidence to show it."
Gashley laughs. "Well said, son-in-law." He raises his glass and they toast to Quayam's proclamation.
The outer door opens. A ghust of cool air rushes in, and a smell of mint. An elderly man stands on the threshold in his rubber boots. He puts a handful of green leaves on the counter next to Sid. Sid does not move. "That's all I could find, Maam."
"Thank you Arthur," Dominican says. "Won't you join us for dinner?"
"My missus is expecting me, Maam, musn't let her down. Now I will say them birds of yours is making a devilish racket in the stable. I reckon they can smell the turkey roasting and they're thinking it bodes poorly for them. My misses says they're not natural, those big ones, and I reckon we should all pay heed to that." He stares at Dominican and works his jaw around a few times. "Well, good night to you all." He tips his hat and closes the door.
Gashley raises his glass. "And so spoke the wise man."
"I'll drink to that," Travis says.
26th April, 2483
Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel bank their hippogriffs in a wide, high turn over a long, grassy hill. It is a warm, sunny day in the Long Hills. At the base of the green slope, beside a river, is a village. The village is two hundred meters in diameter, and protected by a five-meter high stockade. A hundred giants with clubs and poles are standing within the stockade. Forty giants with shields and armor are standing outside.
Thristen shouts into his walkie-talkie. "That's them. I see Garandelsmashum out front with his wolf helmet talking to the chief of the village."
They have been searching for Garandelsmashum since dawn. They took off from the Cliff House and reached Garandelsmashum's camp half an hour later. Circling at two hundred meters they observed the camp to be fully-populated with women and children, but guarded by only twenty soldiers. Thristen detected a trail of many giants walking together, leading to the south-west across the grass, two or three days old. After a few kilometers through a forest, the trail joined a road and headed south. Thristen followed the trail by landing at every cross-roads to inspect the ground. The roads are not paved, nor are they even used for carts. They are walking paths for giants moving between villages. The distance from one village to the next is anything from five to twenty kilometers. Whenever it is practical, the roads ascend to the high ground, where the land is covered with heather and grass.
It is now four hours since dawn. The village at the bottom of the green hill is the sixth they have seen this morning. Thristen has landed over a dozen times, and each time his griff had to carry him up two hundred meters to where his companions awaited him. This labor has tired his mount out more than it would usually, because Thristen, like Gristel and Quayam, is wearing his old and trusted adamantine armor. Their armor arrived in Clavicle from Pakesh by hippogriff three days ago. They summoned it from their bank vault because they figured they would need it. They are here today to demonstrate to Garandelsmashum that he may become ruler of the North Kingdom, but within his kingdom there will be a small island that will remain the domain of the Trans Outland Highway Authority.
Quayam's griff side-slips towards the slope above the soldiers. An orange stain spreads across the grass and expands into a landing platform. His griff spreads its wings, stalls above the platform and lands with a squawk. Gristel and Thristen follow him. They unbuckle themselves and dismount. Quayam removes his pack and hangs it on his saddle. He lets Sid out and orders Sid to stay with the griff.
The three sapiens slide off the platform and advance at a walk towards the soldiers. They have bows on their backs and swords at their hips, but no shields. Nevertheless, the soldiers move away from the stockade of the village and turn to face them in a line. Garandelsmashum stands before the line, his arms on his hips. He is over three meters tall.
When the three sapiens are within forty meters, they draw their swords and stop. Thristen shouts, "We do not come in peace. We are here to fight. Defend yourselves."
Garandelsmashum frowns. After a moment, he says, "I think you will die, little-people. We will trample you into the dirt. What will you gain by your death?"
Thristen turns to his comrades. They exchange a few words and advance at a walk. Garandelsmashum shouts to his men. "Form up! Be wary. Make a good wall. Keep it solid." He moves back and raises his shield. Each giant has an axe or a warhammer in his right hand, and a shield in his left. Each man protects his neighbor's weapon arm with his shield. And so it has been since the ancient Greeks fought at Troy on Terra, with Aries and Achillese on the field. But these shields are two and a half meters high, and the men that hold them have strength beyond that of mortal sapiens.
"At the double!" Garandelsmashum calls, and the shield wall surges forward as one. Thristen, Gristel, and Quayam move apart. They hasten their pace, directly towards the wall.
To the eyes of the giants upon the village stockade, the little people disappear from view. Some of these giants shake their heads and groan. The villagers are not soldiers. They are shepherds wearing leather shirts. But they know the power of the metal shield wall, and they have no doubt as to the outcome of this confrontation.
But those that continue to watch gasp, or call upon the name of their God in such a way as to express astonishment to their fellow giants.
"By Shiva's Arse!" the chief says.
For there, at the rear of the shield wall are the three little people. By some means, they passed through. How this happened, none of those watching can later agree. Some say that the little people flew over the shields like birds. Others say that they sank into the ground and rose up again. But all agree upon what happened next. The little people turn and attack the soldiers from behind. Garandelsmashum shouts at his men to re-form their wall, but there is no time. The little people are among them, slashing and thrusting with their shiny swords, and the soldiers are in confusion.
The watchers on the stockade lean over the sharpened log-tips at its top. They strain to glimpse the little people among the soldiers. What with the slope of the hill and the height of the stockade, the feet of the soldiers are at about the height of the heads of the spectators. They are able to catch sight of the little people between the legs and shields. The little people are fighting separately, each surrounded by three or four soldiers. At times the soldiers try to charge in on one or other of the little people, but the result is that the little person emerges from the mass to attack from behind, again.
Ten seconds into the skirmish, the first soldiers fall. The spectators see no blood. They are not sure why the fallen soldiers are lying on the ground, unmoving. Are they dead by magic? A soldier falls to his knees and one of the little people is revealed, swinging his sword in an arc, so that the flat of the weapon connects with the soldier's helmet. The soldier's head snaps sideways and he topples, his legs bent at the knees.
"Shiva has sent them to protect us!" the chief says.
"Shiva is Great!" his people call.
The clanking and bumping of the battle continue. The three little people are moving like excited lambs within the crowd of soldiers. More soldiers fall, and now the spectators see Garandelsmashum fighting the largest of the little people, with two other soldiers at his side. The villagers know the leader of the soldiers by his wolf helmet. Garandelsmashum wields his shining steel axe from behind his shield. But he must bend over to try to strike the little person, and his blows are awkward. He kneels and swings his axe across the ground, at about the height of the little person's waist. But the little person rushes in and smashes him on top of his head, around the side of his shield. Garandelsmashum tries to stand, but the little person kicks his knee, and he stumbles to the earth.
The soldiers who are still on their feet turn and run. The way they came is up the slope, but the great birds and the orange stain are there. The village is down the hill, so the only certain way to flee is along the stream. Some go upstream. Some go downstream. The three little people are left standing over the prostrate forms of Garandelsmashum and a dozen of his soldiers. Some of these roll over. They are still alive. One sits up and rubs his cheek. He sees the little people and tries to stand and run. But he stumbles and lies still.
The largest of the little people gives Garandelsmashum a nudge with his foot. Garandelsmashum pushes his chest off the grass with his arms. He rises to his knees. He adjusts his helmet and puts his hand upon his axe. He stands up. He is unsteady, but he towers above the little person. His shield is in the grass, but he is ready to die with his axe in his hand, and so guarantee his place at Shiva's Table in the Hall of Warriors, there to feast and drink with the warriors of ages past.
The chief on the stockade whispers a prayer. This Garandelsmahsum is a great commander of men, who will stand and die for his pride and honor. The spectators expect the little person to cut down the man with the wolf helmet. But instead, he calls out in a loud, clear voice.
"If you attack the village in the High Valley, we will kill you." He breaths deeply several times before he speaks again. "Today we will let you live. Next time we'll kill you."
The three victors turn and walk back to the orange stain on the hillside. Some of the spectators cheer.
"Shiva farts on you Garandelsmashum!" one young man says.
"Quiet!" the village chief says. He surveys the scene before him. The man with the wolf helmet bends down beside one of his captains and cradles the captain's head in his hands. The man moves. Garandelsmashum laughs.
Up upon the back of Quayam's hippogriff, a small, sand-colored gargoyle crouches, his eyes wide open and staring at the battle field.
26th April, 2483
"I was scared to death," Gristel says. "I'm telling you, I nearly shat my pants. They are coming at us with their wall of shields, I couldn't think what I was going to do, and those two were just marching right up. I thought, this is it. This is the time we mis-calculated. Here we find out that it is, in fact, impossible to face a shield wall. We're going to be trampled and look like idiots, not to mention being dead."
Rackhammer laughs. "You are a brave woman, Gristelvirage, to face your fear so, and go on with the compact."
Gristel, Quayam, and Thristen sit with Rackhammer in the Library of the Cliff House. The sun shines through two large, conjured-wood windows. The library is equipped with a table and four chairs. There is a faint smell of burned paper in the air. The three sapiens are relaxing in the chairs, wearing sweaters and trousers. Rackhammer's flying kit hangs upon the back of his chair. His sword leans against the window.
"Thank you sir," Gristel says. "I think you're right. I am brave."
"And how did it come to pass that you survived the shield wall?"
"When they came near, their shields were almost a meter off the ground, and they are so big that their bodies are separated by almost two meters. On they came, in a straight line, because if any of them deviate from the line, it will break the wall, so it's absolutely clear where their legs are going to be. I just threw myself down on the grass in the right place and they went right over me. I don't think they even touched me."
"A cunning and masterful move, madam."
Quayam nods. "I did pretty much the same thing.""I'm not sure exactly what I did," Thristen says. "I seem to remember jumping up and grabbing the top of a shield, where it touched its neighbor. The soldier swung at me, but I was too close. I just pushed myself between the shields while they were carrying me along, and dropped down on the other side." He pauses. "Something like that."
Gristel pours steaming hot tea into Rackhammers cup. "Sugar?"
"Yes please," he says. Gristel puts a spoonful of sugar in the tea. Rackhammer looks at the spoon. "Three spoonfuls, if you please, madam."
"Three, eh?" Quayam says.
Rackahammer stirs his tea with his own silver spoon. "My master was fond of his tea, and he took three. I was young enough then to copy everything he did."
"Was your master Dreadmanifold?" Gristel says.
"Indeed he was. It was Dreadmanifold who gave me the Sword of Stellan, as a parting gift, when I bid farewell to him."
"Some gift," Quayam says. "Did he know it would put the lives of your family in danger?"
Rackhammer holds his cup. The claws on both hands are cut short. "Perhaps he did." He stares at the wall. The three sapiens pour themselves tea and wait. Several minutes go by while the black orc stares at the wall. Thristen sits back in his chair, his eyes upon the black orc for the entire time, smiling. Quayam opens a book under the table and reads a paragraph. Gristel holds her tea in both hands and sips.
Rackhammer smiles. "I miss him." He takes a mouthfull of tea. "What of this route, the Routebee, as my prince the engineer calls it. Will it serve?"
"We will fly over the rest of it tomorrow," Quayam says. "If it looks good, it's a go. I think we made our point today. I don't expect any trouble from the North King's nephew. This is a fine place to turn into a hotel. We have been going over the numbers for summoning food from Olympia and serving to rich travelers who arrive by hippogriff. I think that will work out nicely. We hear from Shiva via our contacts on Olympia that he is in favor of such an arrangement."
Rackhammer nods. "I will await your final word. I want this road cleared by the start of the summer campaign. My troops can use it as soon as the trees are out of the way and some grading is done."
"Good," Gristel says. "And who shall we put in charge of the project? Who makes the decisions about where things will go?"
Sid the demon scuttles along a shelf nearby. His eyes are open, but they are not entirely black. Sometimes there is a vague gray movement inside his head, or behind his eyes. Rackhammer stares at the demon and smiles. "Such a quaint and charming pet." Sid jumps off the shelf and lands upon the table. Gristel's cup is almost upset by his wing-beats.
"Sid!" Quayam says, "Get down!"Gristel puts her arm on that of her husband. "No harm done, dear, calm down."Quayam sits back in his chair, frowning. Rackhammer scratches Sid on the head. A minute goes by. Thristen is about to speak when Quayam makes a chopping motion with his hand. The black orc is thinking.
Rackhammer stops scratching the demon's head. "We have no choice about who will have authority in all such matters."
"Bladebreaker?" Thristen says.
"Indeed. He is the Queen's son, and head of engineers. There is no other political possibility. Having said that, Bladebreakers is a fine engineer, so far as I can tell. And he is committed to the project. I think he will do a good job. We can leave the management to him, and respond to his requests for help. That will keep us free to do what we are best at."
"Making alliances," Gristel says.
"Yes," Rackhammer says. "Forcing them, even."
Rackhammer's wyvern screeches outside, and the griffs, on their platform of conjured wood, squawk and complain. The griffs are hungry and the wyvern is lonely. The griffs won't get their meal until after their afternoon flight.
Rackhammer reaches out and scratches Sid's head. "How does he fly. He appears to weigh several kilograms, and yet his little wings can lift him easily."
"Pick him up," Quayam says.
Rackhammer picks Sid up with one hand. The little demon struggles briefly and Rackhammer sets him down again. "How strange he is."
"He has mass, but not weight," Quayam says. "I believe his body is made of a flexible, very high density conjured material that offers lift in far greater concentration than anything I can make or wizards can make, but perhaps comparable to the material that coats a dragon's wings. Thus he is light. But his body is made of sand mixed with this material, and so it has mass. When he flies, he is not maneuverable because it is hard for him to re-direct his momentum with his little wings. So he's easy to shoot at, but at the same time, he is quite tough. He once came back to us with an arrow through his chest, and all it did was make him angry."
Rackhammer nods. "I shall not pretend to have understood all that you said, sorcerer. But I have a sense of understanding for the moment that I find satisfactory."
Gristel laughs. "Oh, you are a charmer, general."
"Thank you madam." He drains his teacup and rises. "I must go."
Later that afternoon, Thristen sends a telegram to Rackhammer. "Routebee looks good. Request project leader start work as soon as possible. Thristen."
In the Cliff House that night, they toast to their success while sitting in their new hot tub. They removed the old one and threw it out the window. Quayam made the new one, and it is larger, with better benches inside, and sits well on the floor.
"Come on in, Sid," Thristen says. "The water's fine."
Sid sits on the edge of the tub. To their astonishment, he jumps in. He lands feet-first and tries to stay upright, but falls on his back, his wings in the water. He flaps and squirms, but this sends him under. Bubbles burst from some part of his body and rush to the surface. Quayam lifts him out.
"Gtaka-tsk-tsk-snak!" Sid says.
They stare at him. Sid has spoken only twice before. He speaks only when he is very upset.
"Now we know rattikit for 'Help,'" Thristen says.Sid jumps out of Quayam's hands to the floor beside the tub. "Good," Quayam says. "I keep thinking that someone is watching out of his eyes, and I don't want them staring at my naked wife."
"I stare at your naked wife," Thristen says.
"I know, and so you should. But I get to stare at Zak in return, so that's fair."
"She'd like this tub," Thristen says.
"We'll bring everyone up here," Gristel says, "Everyone would like it. Mom and Dad would like it."
"How are we going to get Dominican up here?" Thristen says. "She likes being at home."
"You're right. Mom doesn't like to travel. I don't know how my Dad puts up with it. They bought that house over fifty years ago, and I don't think she has taken more than five or six trips in that time."
"It must be nice," Thristen says, "Having a place that you can call home like that."
Gristel smiles. "It is."
"We must make copies of the Cliff House keys," Quayam says. "Next time we are in Eisenden. They'll do a good job."
28th April, 2483
Telegram from Carol McKrakkit in Eisenden. "Apologies for delay. Makin Thorn needs a key phrase to crack the code. Thinks it will emerge in interview. Asks how you came by the code. Very curious."
In the Cliff House, they discuss the possibility of cyclic existence for objects. What if the coin is something that they hand to Jacob Mann, or maybe he is called Makin Thorn in this time, and he travels back in time later and gives it to them as Jacob Mann, but at no time is the copper sheet ever created?
"That's not possible," Thristen says, "Because he would have to melt the gold off to see the copper plate."
"Yes," Gristel says, "But what if he then puts the copper sheet back in the gold to re-make the coin? Why make a new one? He already has one in his hands. So he re-makes the coin just like we did, and it goes around in a circle, being dressed with gold, and undressed, and dressed again, stuck in a kind of eddy in time."
"Okay, that's possible," Quayam says.
"No, its not possible," Gristel says. "How can it be? At no point is the copper sheet ever actually created. Nobody hammers it into shape. Where did the copper come from? Did it just spring into existence out of nothing, and if so, when?""I don't see why that's impossible," Thristen says, "If you go back far enough in time you must sooner or later get to the question of where did all the copper come from, right? So we could be stuck in one huge time eddy that goes around in a hundred thousand years. Everything springs into existence."
"I don't think it's possible," Gristel says. "Because it has human form. It's one thing for copper to be created. We can't imagine what was going on millions of years ago. But something like this coded sheet, it must be created by human hands. It cannot just appear out of nothing."
"I see your point," Quayam says, "but it's not a proof."
"Well, consider some of the implications. What happens to this copper plate as it goes around and around? It will become worne-out, won't it? But it must be the same every time it goes around the loop. It must remain entirely unchanged. It would be impossible to put a new hole in it. Such an object would be invincible and it would not obey any law of nature, such as chemical reactions, tarnishing, anything like that."
Thristen nods. "That would be weird."
"And how about this," Gristel says. "What if we take a diamond back in time and give it to ourselves. Now we have two diamonds. So we take both of them back in time, and we have four diamonds, and so on, until we have a hundred diamonds."
"No," Quayam says, "That's not the same. That will all add up in the end. You have to take the diamonds back in time, so you don't have any more diamonds in the end."
This debate continues for the entire day until they conclude, late in the evening, that an object cannot travel back in time and take its own place. But they also conclude that they don't want to get too involved with objects moving through time. They send a telegram to Carol McKrakkit. "We will come visit you in Eisenden this week. We do not want to meet with Mr. Thorn."
The twenty-ninth of April is a beautiful spring day, with the wind blowing light out of the north-west. They shout down a farewell to the giants who bring firewood and sheep to the ground beneath the cliff house, lock the trap doors, mount their griffs, and fly to Clavicle.
That afternoon, they go for a walk on the hundred hectares of the Virage Estate with the rest of the family, except Zak, who is napping. As they walk, they discuss time travel and the coin.
"We could make money out of time travel instead of the road," Romayne says. "Wouldn't that be quicker and more fun?"
"Not fun," Travis says.
"A lot of adventuring is not fun," Romayne says. "Surely this would be exciting and profitable."
Thristen and Quayam wait for Travis to answer. Travis himself has traveled in time. They walk on, along the edge of a hectare of pasture, with grass and thistles. There are ten cows grazing at the far side, by a stone wall.
"Well?" Romayne says.
"As I said. Not fun."
Romayne nods. She puts her arm around Travis and rests her head upon his shoulder until they come to the edge of the pasture. Here they step over a style and enter a wood. They walk along a trail. This wood is good for deer hunting because the deer hide here from the hunters on the State Forest nearby.
"Leave well alone," Dominican says, "What's it got to do with spending time together?"
"I agree," Gashleys says. "It's not my area of expertise. I do military strategy. I don't think any one of us is an expert, with the exception perhaps of Travis. And he says leave well alone also."
Thristen stops at the style, watching Dominican climb over. "He didn't actually say leave well alone."
"Well I say it."
"I think we agree," Gristel says. "We wanted to hear what you had to say also. We don't like to back out of something we started."
There is a fair in Clavicle on the first of May. Dominican takes part in the flower-arranging contest. She brings daffodils and crab-apple blossoms. It is sunny and warm. The next day, the second of may, they fly to Eisenden, taking Travis and Romayne and Zak with them. The have copies of their Cliff House keys made. They drink several good cups of coffee. Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen meet Carol McKrakkit in her office in her own home. She presents to them what she has learned of the code.
"I met Mr. Thorn at the Varayan Cryptographer's Convention. He's a regular attendant. He works on new types of code. He's unmarried and he has no children. He's intensely curious about this one." She takes out one of several sketches of the plate. "So far as we can tell, this code contains a total of 192 separate symbols, and each symbol represents a single letter or digit. There are twenty-seven different character types in the code."
"Carol," Quayam says. "We want you to stop work. We don't want to be involved in this code any more, nor do we want you involved." He puts a bag of coins on her desk. "That's a hundred guineas because you have done a great job. Please give us every copy of the code that you have, sketches included. Did you give a copy to Mr. Thorn?"
Carol is disappointed. She did not give a copy to Mr. Thorn. But after some discussion, she accepts their wish and gives them all her sketches and notes.
"Sorry Carol," Quayam says, "But I don't think any of us, and that includes you, should be involved with these things any more than is absolutely necessary."
Thristen and Gristel each have half of Carol's notes. Quayam, meanwhile, has the coin.
Ankle Informer, 1st May, 2483. The Foreign Office is still deliberating upon its choice of ambassador to Gutak, following the Treaty of Stockton Farm, signed on 18th January this year. The Treaty requires the establishment of a Varayan Embassy in Gutak City. Lea Breakwater, spokesperson for the Foreign Office, said she expected an ambassador to be selected within the next few days. "But we do know the name of the incoming ambassador from Gutak. The Honorable Karazi Elanfencer will be the Gutak ambassador, and he will be attended by ten orcs, in accordance with the terms of the treaty. The Gutak Embassy building has been prepared." The Gutak Embassy will the half-hectare property at 17 Embassy Road. The Gutak embassy party is expected at the border of Varay on the ninth of this month.
The Ambassador will be accompanied by his wife, the Virtuous Karazi Dawnlight. The orcs in the party will be granted diplomatic visas for their residence in Varay, and will be free to travel about the country. Grantis Trimble of the Opposition objects to the freedom of movement granted to the orcs by their visas. "This is not part of the treaty. It's an extra dispensation from a government that is falling over itself to placate a neighbor that has terrified them into submission. How will our children sleep safely at night, knowing that an orc platoon led by a black-orc general can roam around the coutryside at will, in the middle of the night. This will present a policing problem, even if the orcs never leave their embassy. Everyone will blame crimes upon them, whether they commit them or not."
"That's nonsense," Ms. Breakwater responded to Mr. Trimble's concerns. "We have several dozen orcs born in Varay who are citizens of this nation. They are free to move about the country. For the past fifty years, they have had the right to vote also." This statement is correct, but the Varayan orcs must be members of the army's secretive Night Fighter's company to be given the right to vote. Otherwise they must have a guardian who is a Varayan citizen. Gashley Virage keeps a female orc as his charge under the same guardianship law, even though Zak, as his charge is called, is not a Varayan citizen. In theory, she is free to travel in Varay without supervision, but Mr. Virage is responsible for her actions. We asked if the Varayan Embassy in Gutak would have the power to grant such visas to further orcs without Varayan guardians. "Yes, they will have that power. Our purpose is to build a friendly relation between our two nations. Such a relationship is not possible without travel between the two, so far as I can tell." When pressed upon the directives in the treaty, she said, "No, it's not stated in the treaty that such visas must be granted."
Communication between Gutak and Ankle in the form of letters has not yet been arranged. "We are thinking of a weekly hippogriff courier to Gutak. But Queen Daybreak of Gutak has also offered the services of one of her Air Force Wyverns." Grantis Trimble objects to the flight of wyverns over Varay, and his objections have delayed a decision upon the matter. "A hippogriff courier will cost twenty guineas a week. Why allow wyverns to fly over our territory to save such a paltry sum of money?" Mr. Trimble said.
Telegram from Thristen to Rackhammer, 3rd May, 2483. "Let us meet and discuss taking your father to the Temple of Aries. We doubt we can do this by air. Must be by stagecoach. After Ankle embassy installed in Gutak, may be possible by stagecoach through Varay with a visa like those granted to embassy orcs."
Telegram from Rackhammer to Thristen, 3rd May, 2483. "11 am at quarry tomorrow."
Ankle Informer, 2nd May, 2483. Two black orcs flying wyverns forced down a Varayan hippogriff rider yesterday, making this the fifth attack upon hippogriff couriers in three weeks. Helga Mostwall was on her way back from Pakesh carrying a cargo of luminous stones and other magical items yesterday when she was dived upon by the two wyvern-bandits. "They waved that I should land. I knew that they were serious, so I landed in a field. One of them was a female, the other male. The man asked me to dismount. I did. I was terrified. He removed my saddle bags and threw them on the back of his wyvern." After taking the saddle bags, the black orcs took off and flew away. They made no attempt to search Helga's person. "I had some important letters in my jacket, which I'm glad I was able to deliver."
Captain Elgarak Mentalle of the Varayan Air Force has been assigned the task of stopping the bandits. He tells the Informer that he is assuming that all five attacks were perpetrated by the same pair of bandits. "Three weeks ago a courier failed to reach Varay. We don't know what became of him. We are assuming that he refused to land and was killed. We're looking for signs of a crash on the ground, but we have little hope of finding any sign of the hippogriff and rider. Both must be dead or wounded. We assume the same for the courier that failed to reach Pakesh two weeks ago. Starting eight days ago, couriers have been forced down three times, each time by two black orcs. The couriers were able to re-mount their griffs and continue on their journey." When asked what plans he has for catching the wyvern-riders, Captain Elgarak said, "Our plans are top secret."
Grantis Trimble of the Opposition said, "This is exactly the sort of thing that comes from rushing too quickly into an alliance with an orc nation. It may be that our new allies to the north are honorable people. But nobody can claim that they are peace-loving. Here we have banditry in broad daylight, and most likely murder twice over. Do our allies regard it as a crime? No doubt all the black-orcs in the Western Outlands know one another. Who are these bandits? To deal with a black-orc on a wyvern, you need another black-orc on a wyvern. Perhaps our allies can show their good faith by sending their own air force over to protect us from their own criminals. And yet they have done no such thing."
Lea Breakwater of the Foreign Office said, "We have sent a letter to Queen Daybreak informing of her of the raids and asking for her help and advice. We are confident that she will do what she can. In the meantime, our own air force is addressing the matter, and I cannot comment upon the progress of their efforts."
Outside the future Gutak Embassy, a croud of several dozen protestors chanted their opposition to the Treaty of Stockton Farm. They carried signs with slogan such as, "Orcs are Bandits, Don't You Get It?" and "The Lord of Gutak is a Prince of Hell".
On the morning of the fourth of May, Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen fly north to the Quarry outside Pitt. There are scattered clouds at two thousand meters. They fly at an altitude of one thousand meters above sea level, which takes them over the Bird Cage in the Borderlands with the tree-tops one hundred and fifty meters below their griffs.
Rackhammer's wyvern is sleek and black in the spring sunshine, warming itself. Rackhammer emerges from the forest, where he has been standing in the shade. He shakes their hands. The Sword of Stellan is on his back.
"I believe my father will submit to this surgery. But first I must arrange an interview between him and Daybreak. He is reluctant to come down out of his castle before he feels that he has been accepted. The Queen is of course busy with her state duties, and cannot make the trip to Castle Hydroma until she has some leisure to do so."
"Does she have a wyvern of her own?" Gristel says.
"Yes, she does. So the trip will not take long. But it must be arranged. I am thinking upon it."
"Daybreak seems to approve of you, Rackhammer," Gristel says, "I'm sure she'll be willing to talk to your father."
Rackhammer looks into the quarry. He touches the hilt of his sword. "She is fond of me, yes. But such fondness must not be abused."
Gristel watches him. His is a fine face to look at. She imagines that it is a handsome face. And his character is striking and attractive, although he does not have much of a sense of humor. The queen might well be fond of him.
"What of the Queen's husband, father to Bladebreaker and Steelquencher?"
"They are estranged," Rackhammer says.
"Do they live together?" Thristen says.
"No. As I said, they are estranged. But they are not divorced."
"So he's the King of Gutak?" Quayam says.
"He is the Queen Consort. Not the King."
"I see," Gristel says. "Well, we have a problem. There are two black-orcs on wyverns attacking hippogriff couriers flying between Pakesh and Ankle. It looks like they killed two riders and their mounts, after which the riders conceded to land and be robbed. There are protests in the streets of Ankle. It looks bad for the Treaty. We have to do something about it."
"They are probably exiles," Rackhammer says.
"We plan to take them down," Quayam says.
"And so you should. They are committing crimes against the people of Varay. We could help you."
"We'll take care of it ourselves," Quayam says. "Otherwise it will look like we need black-orcs to handle black-orcs. Furthermore, by taking care of the problem we would show that we stand in defence of Varay, not just orcs."
"You will receive a request for help from Varay," Gristel says, "We'd like you to say you're willing, but that you are confident we will take care of it, so you will wait."
Rackhammer stares into the quarry. "I am not confident that you can catch two wyverns." He bares his teeth. "But I look forward to being surprised. I'll speak to the Queen. We will give you time. Let me know of your progress."
"Thank you," Quayam says. "We are going to fly straight to Ankle now and make contact with the Varayan Air Force. With any luck, they will cooperate with us."
Ankle Informer, 8th May 2483. The Gutak ambassador, his wife, and ten orc attendants will be met at the Varay border with Gutak tomorrow morning by Gashely Virage, his grand-daughter Romayne Srae, Travis Allomere the son Thristen Allomere, and Zak, the orc charge of Mr. Virage. Lea Breakwater stated that the Foreign Office felt that this welcoming party would put the ambassador's party at ease upon their arrival in our country. Grantis Trimble of the Opposition stated that he wished the new ambassador to feel welcome. "But it appears that our government belies their own trust of the arriving dignitaries by sending hardened adventurers to greet them. On the one hand, it may appear friendly, given the connection between the Virage family and the Queen of Gutak. On the other hand, it may appear that no member of the government is willing to greet the party themselves."
Varay Observer, 9th May 2483. Heroes Join VAF, by Lidia Fillit. Your humble reporter posted herself outside the Varayan Air Force base this morning, on the outskirts of Ankle. At dawn I saw Gristel Virage, Thristen Alomere, and Quayam Srae land within on hippogriffs. Soon after they took off again in the company of eight VAF riders, led by Captain Elgarak Mentalle. This confirms the suspected collaboration between the renowned heroes and the air force. On the 5th of May the three adventurers arrived in Ankle and checked into the Gumption Arms on the day that a force of ten VAF riders encountered the two black-orc wyvern-riding bandits in the skies over the Green Hills a hundred kilometers east of the city.
In the ensuing ariel battle, three VAF riders were brought down. Although Captain Mentalle was not present in the battle, he reported to this paper that the hippogriffs of the three riders appeared to freeze in mid-air, after which they plummetted to the Earth. Two disappeared in the forest, and in the ensuing confusion could not be found. One landed in a field. The hippogriff did not survive, but Jake Allcox, the rider, survived. He is currently in hospital and expected to recover. The fate of the remaining two riders, Sarah Willing and Marty Blank remained a mystery until the day after, when a VAF expedition discovered their bodies among the trees near the scene of the battle. When asked who found the bodies, Elgarak answered that it was none other than Quayam and Thristen. He assures us that neither of the deceased riders survived their impact with the trees, so that we can be assured that they did not suffer a slow death hoping for medical attention.
The loss of three riders leaves the VAF with seventeen riders and hippogriffs. Eight of these flew with the three adventurers today. They had not yet returned at noon. We can only assume, and indeed hope, that they are scouring the country for the black-orc bandits, although how they can hope to find them is a mystery to us. Captain Mentalle has refused to answer any questions about their plans to capture the bandits.
11th May, 2483, 8 am
The wind is twenty-five kilometers per hour out of the west, with scattered clouds at four thousand meters. Thristen ascends over the Green Hills a hundred kilometers west of Ankle. He is making around forty kilometers per hour in the face of the wind. The city he left behind is five hundred meters above sea-level. He is flying at around a thousand meters, with the summit of the hills a hundred meters below him. The sun is behind and above him. At an altitude of seventeen hundred meters, flying between him and the sun, about a kilometer behind him, are Gristel, Quayam, Captain Mentalle, and seven other riders of the VAF. He resists the temptation to look over his shoulder to check they are in place. He is the bait in a trap. This is the fourth time has has flown west from the city. The first time was on the morning of the sixth of May. On that trip the party followed the Fen River and stopped at the scene of the ariel battle of the fifth of May. There they searched for the two missing riders. By some chance, he found and Quayam the other.
If the wyvern-riding bandits do not swoop upon him this time, he will fly back in the afternoon, again with the sun behind him, as he has done three times before. He surveys the sky ahead of him. It is a warm spring day. The hills below are gentle slopes in which fields alternate with woods. Ahead of him, on the side of a hill, he sees a fine stone farmhouse with stables set among fields of wheat. A stream flows past nearby, with a channel carrying water to the house.
Without warning, two black shapes appear on either side of him, at a distance of about fifty meters. His griff squawks in alarm and swerves. The two shapes are wyverns. Their wings rasp in the wind rushing over their leathery surfaces. Upon their backs are black orcs. The rider on the left is a woman in leather armor. The rider on the right is a man in ring mail. He wears a sword on his hip and a bow on his saddle. Both riders wear dark-tinted flying goggles. Thristen stares at the man. The man points to the ground. It is clear to Thristen that they desire him to land. He stares a few more moments at the man. It is Cliffandstone, whome he cured of the Desert Crab affliction last August (See 17-AUG-2482 in The Green Horn Tavern).
The woman shouts. "Down you idiot!" in Latin. Cliffandstone jestures again. He shows no sign of recognising Thristen. Judging by reports from the air force's earlier encounter with these bandits, one of them has the power to envelope a hippogriff with conjured sponge or rubber. He examines the woman. She appears angry. He leans forward and his griff begins to descend. He does not want to turn back to land, because he does not want the wyvern-riders to look towards the sun, where he knows his ten companions must even now be diving from their higher altitude. He heads for one of the outermost fields of the farm below.
Thristen's griff sets down in the field, landing in tall, green grass. Both wyverns land within twenty meters. Cliffandstone dismounts and approaches Thristen. The black-orc still shows no sign of recognising him. Thristen says nothing.
"Do you speak Latin?" Cliffandstone says.
"Get off your mount and stand there." He points with one clawed hand at a place some twenty meters away in the field. Thristen frowns and looks at the spot.
Cliffandstone puts his hand upon his sword. "Do not make me slay you. We are here to take your cargo only. We have no wish to harm you. But we will kill you if we must. Do not attempt to escape, or my partner will bind the wings of your mount and bring you down. Both you and your mount will perish, and we will take your cargo and your personal effects."
Thristen nods. He slides out of his saddle and stands upon the ground. A shadow races across the grass. The woman calls out, "Ambush!" Her wyvern's mighty wings, twenty-five meters from tip to tip, and four meters wide at the base, beat down twice. The blast of wind from their movement flattens the grass beneath and the wyvern rises into the air. The woman turns her mount down the slope of the hill. Cliffandstone looks up for a moment. He sees the hippogriffs descending upon the field, diving out of the sun. He runs for his wyvern. Thristen draws his sword and dashes after him. The woman points at one of the approaching griffs and calls out in a haunting cry.
Cliffandstone is in the saddle in an instant. His wyvern screeches and jumps, its wings beating. Thristen slashes at its wing-tips, but Cliffanstone leans away in the saddle and the wyvern angles aside, taking its wings out of reach. The wyvern rises above the field and turns to follow its comrade.
Quayam and Gristel lead the dive out of the sun upon the wyvern bandits. They see Thristen land in the field when they are still five hundred meters away. It takes twenty seconds for them to close this distance, at which point the shadow of one of the griffs crosses the grass and the woman bandit looks up. Quayam attempts to envelope her with conjured sponge, but she rises out of the way. She points at him and a hiss in the air makes him swerve in alarm.
"She is the sorcerer," he says to himself. Gristel, to his right, takes a shot with her bow at the woman's wyvern, and another.
Quayam casts another surrounding sponge at her even as she begins to accelerate down the hill, out of the field and over the tree-tops. Over her shoulder she does the same to him. He banks in the steepest turn his griff can manage, and comes in upon her tail. She looks back and he must swerve to avoid a ball of conjured material. He prepares himself to cast another of his own, raising his voice in a chant, even as she does the same, pointing at him and crying out. He swerves again. Gristel has turned also, and flies just behind and above him. He sees the flash of her arrow in the morning sunlight.
The eight air force riders descend upon Cliffandstone's wyvern, scratching at its wings with the claws of their hippogriffs. The wyvern screeches and snaps its teeth. Thristen draws his bow and fires upon the wyvern of the sorceress, even as she disappears from his view. His arrow flies true, but misses all the same.
The sorceress is over a second field now, and accelerating. Quayam chants again, but he doubts he can catch the wyvern before it is too far distant. Gristel's bow twangs nearby. An arrow thuds into the side of the wyvern. It screams in pain and staggers in the air. The sorceress leans back in an effort to bring the creature up, but the beast is wounded in its left wing muscle, and cannot fly. It crashes to the ground in the field, sliding across the grass. Quayam envelopes the sorceress with conjured sponge. She struggles, but cannot free herself. The wyvern screams again and turns to lift the arrow shaft in its left side away from the ground.
Thristen fires at Cliffandstone's wyvern once before it, too, disappears from his view. Cliffandstone, persued closely by eight hippogriffs, lands beside the woman and jumps from the saddle. He touches the conjured sponge and draws his sword. He slashes at the sponge near the woman. Quayam flies past, but Gristel is able to land at the edge of the field. She dismounts and rushes towards the wyverns. Cliffandstone is hacking at the sponge that envelopes the sorceress. One of her arms and a leg are already free. She stays still to allow him to cut further.
When Gristel approaches, both wyverns raise their heads and hiss at her. Their teeth are large. She cannot ignore them. She considers rushing between them to attack the man. She does not recognise him, having never met him in the desert. She raises her sword, as if to attack the man's wyvern. He slashes once more at the enveloping sponge. The woman is almost free. He strides towards Gristel and attacks her.
The black orc fights well. He is strong and quick and confident. Quayam lands nearby and dismounts, his bow in hand and an arrow strung. He takes aim and fires past the man, between the wyverns, at the sorceress. The arrow thuds into the enveloping sponge. She twists with a mighty effort and breaks out. She crouches beside the spot where Gristel's arrow protrudes from her wyvern's flank. She strokes the skin and the wyvern moans. She reaches into one of her saddle-bags and takes out two sacks, both of which she stuffs down the front of her leather flying jacket.
"I'm free!" she shouts.
The man parries a last blow from Gristel and turns away. She attempts to persue him, but he is far to fast for her. He joins the woman and they hesitate for a moment with their hands upon the back of his wyvern. Quayam fires again at the sorceress. Cliffandstone pulls her sideways and the arrow flies past. He takes her by the hand and leads her away. They run into the forest, carried swiftly on their long legs. Quayam watches them through the trees, taking aim. He fires at the woman. The man again pulls her out of the way. He fires again. He runs into the forest, but loses sight of them.
A teenage boy steps out from behind a bush. "They went that way." He points towards the field up the hill. The boy has no beard, but Quayam recognises his large eyes and nose. It is Jacob Mann, but much younger.
Quayam says nothing, but continues beneath the trees in the direction indicated by the boy. He soon sees the two black orcs running along the far edge of the first field. He fires two shots at a range of two hundred meters, through the trees and across the field. He misses both shots.
"Dammit," he says.
He runs for another fifty meters, but the black orcs have already vanished among the trees. He stops and wipes his brow. Gristel catches up with him. "Where are they?"
"Gone. We can't keep up with them on foot."
"Did you see that boy back there?"
"Yes," Quayam says. "I recognise him."
"I do too. It's Jacob Mann, isn't it?"
11th May, 2483, 8 am
Gristel and Quayam walk back towards the wyverns and their griffs. The boy is standing beneath the trees in their path. "Hi!" he says.
"What's your name?" Gristel says.
"Jacob Mann, at your service madam. You're Quayam Srae and Gristel Virage, right?"
"Yes." Quayam reaches into his pocket and takes out the reconstructed gold coin. "Here. Take this. It's yours."
Jacob takes the coin. "But why? What have I done to deserve it?"
"I have nothing more to say about it. Just take it. It's yours."
Quayam keeps walking. Gristel is frowning. Jacob stares at the coin. "Have I offended you?" he says.
"It's yours," she says, and follows her husband.
By this time, Thristen has landed in the same field, along with Captain Elgarak Mentalle. Four griffs circle above. When Quayam and Gristel emerge from the trees, Elgarak says, "Where are they?"
"Gone," Quayam says.
"I'll try to find them," Thristen says.
"We'll come too," Quayam says. "Captain, I suggest you and your men stay and guard the wyverns. The bandits may be back for them."
Thristen leads Quayam and Gristel on hippogriff over the forest. He catches sight of the two black-orcs running through the trees, and follows them for a little over two kilometers. In a deep gorge, he loses sight of them, and despite flying around for another half-hour, they cannot find them again. They fly to the borderlands about fifty kilometers to the north. They watch the Fen River where they have seen signs of water traffic in the past (see 14-JAN-2482 in The Green Horn Tavern). But they see no sign of the black orcs.
"Better get back," Thristen says. His voice emerges from the bridges on Quayam and Gristel's chests. "They might have circled back to get the wyverns."
But the wyverns are still in the field when they return. One is injured and pitiful. The other is angry and aggressive. Thristen, Quayam, and Gristel approach the angry wyvern. It attacks them. They punch it on the head and neck until it submits, after which it calms down. Thristen extract Gristel's arrow from the injured wyvern and binds the wound. He submits a blood sample to his pantheon.
Elgarak has searched the saddle-bags of both wyverns and found upwards of five hundred guineas in cash. He agrees to pay for a healing serum for the injured wyvern. The serum arrives an hour later. Thristen administers the serum through a syringe applied to the creature's neck. The wyvern wimpers, but does not resist. It falls into a deep sleep.
All this time, Jacob Mann has been sitting to one side in the field. Captain Mantelle walks with him to the farm house and returns an hour later with thirteen sheep from Farmer Mann's flock, led by Jacob himself. Jacob laughs at the Captain's jokes and smiles constantly.
"Happy fellow," Gristel says.
They slaughter the sheep and skin them, a chore that takes no more than twenty minutes when carried out by eleven people working together. The griffs call out for their meal. The conscious wyvern crawls across the field towards the meat so that Thristen has to push him away. But all the mounts are soon tearing contentedly at the carcasses.
"It's a bloody business," Gristel says, putting her sword away. "I suppose we're here for the night?"
Quayam nods. "I'll make some shelters."
Thristen stands beside the sleeping wyvern, feeling the warmth of its body. The pantheon told him that the serum would send the wyvern into a coma during which its body would remain warm, but the creature would wake up starving hungry ten hours later.
"What about the boy?" Gristel says.
"Let's not talk to him any more than we have to," Quayam says.
The boy stays with them until dark. He asks them many questions, few of which they answer, but their silence does nothing to dampen his spirits. He smiles the whole time.
12th May, 2483, daqn
The injured wyvern wakes up at dawn and growls. Thristen feeds it a sheep carcass, which it consumes in less than ten minutes, crunching the bones and swallowing an entire leg in one gulp. It settles down to digest. The sky is clear, with a breeze out of the east. By mid-morning, Thristen inspects the wyvern's wound and deems the beast ready to fly.
Quayam mounts Cliffandstone's wyvern and Thristen mounts the wounded wyvern. Both creatures screech and snap their teeth. Thristen's attempts to bite him, but he punches it in the neck a few times and it gives up. The wyverns sit on their bellies, their powerful legs folded beneath them, hissing at one another and their riders.
"Heyup!" Thristen says. He says it in Latin, as Rackhammer described to them a few days earlier. "Heyup!"
The wyvern rises upon its two powerful legs, the claws digging into the soil of the field. For a moment it quivers, its belly close to the ground. With a mighty thrust, it leaps two meters into the air, spreads its wings and takes off. Quayam shields his face from the blast of wind. He shouts to his own mount. "Heyup!" It bites at him. He punches it. "Fly, you lazy bum!" He exchanges blows with the creature as it tries to grasp his head in its mighty jaws. He thumps it right under the snout. It screams, treating him to a blast of acrid, cold breath.
"Heyup!" The wyvern leaps into the air.
Thristen and Quayam race for Ankle, riding towards the sun. It is sixty kilometers to the air force base outside the city. They reach it in half an hour. Gristel and the rest of the griff riders arrive half an hour after that, to find Quayam and Thristen tending the wyverns in the air force landing field.
Varay Observer, 12 May 2483. Wyverns Captured, Bandits Flee, by Lidia Fillit. The Varayan Air Force, led by Captain Elgarak Mentalle, and cooperating with Thristen Alomere, Gristel Virage, and Quayam Srae, engaged and defeated the two wyvern bandits yesterday morning. The two wyverns have been captured, and are now the property of the VAF. "We will put them to good use," said Mentalle. "They are faster and stronger than hippogriffs. Yesterday we learned that we can indeed fly them ourselves." Gristel Virage confirmed that she took part in the hunt for the bandits. "We forced them down, but they escaped into the Green Hills. They were a man and a woman, problably a couple. The woman was a sorcerer. It's she who brings down the griffs by binding their wings in place. We tried to track them from the air, but not even Thristen could keep them in sight. We have their wyverns, and they will think twice about trying the same tricks again in our air space. No black-orc likes to lose a wyvern."
13th May, 2483
It rains all day. Our heroes visit the wyverns in the Air Force base, but otherwise relax in the Gumption Arms.
Ankle Informer, 14th May 2483. The ambassador from Gutak and his party arrived in Ankle today. The Honorable Karazi Elanfencer was met by two hundred noisy demonstrators when he entered Embassy Road, heading towards number seventeen by foot, with a luggage wagon and carriage behind him. Ten orc soldiers, half of whom were female, marched in front and behind him. Beside him walked his wife, the Virtuous Karazi Dawnlight. The ambassador and his wife are both black-skinned and hairless. They stand two and a half meters tall. They have the white, curving tusks of a wild boar and the jutting mouth of a warthog. The orc soldiers were all white-skinned, although some had red rashes about their features. They are short and stocky compared to human beings. At the front of the entire procession were Travis Alomere, son of Thristen Alomere, and Romayne Virage, grand-daughter of Retired General Gashley Virage. There was no sign of the retired general himself, or his own orc charge, Zak.
City constables separated the demonstrators into two groups, to prevent them from attacking one another. On the odd-numbered side of the road were the hundred and fifty people gathered to object to the ambassador's arrival. They held signs with slogans such as, "We Know What You're Planning", "No Alliance with the Devil", and "Go Home Orcs". On the even-numbered side were a few dozen people arguing the opposite case, being even more vocal in their condemnation of their opponents, as if to make up for their inferior numbers. They chanted, "Every Child is Sacred", and held signs saying, "Welcome to Ankle", and "PEACE".
Outside the Embassy, the Ambassador was greeted by Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen. After introductions, the Ambassador answered questions for the press. He speaks Varayan with a heavy accent. "I am glad to see that the people of your city are wealthy enough and well-informed enough to demonstrate in protest and agreement with our arrival here today." When asked about the two black-orc bandits, he said he was not yet aware that they had been intercepted and their wyverns captured. "That is, however, good news," he said. "Our Air Force is always willing to help our new ally, but only at the request of your own government." He said he knew of no definite request for assisstance.
Ankle Informer, 14th May 2483. Thristen Alomere and Ambassador Elanfencer both agree upon the identity of the black-orc bandits. The man is Cliffandstone, an aquaintance of Thristen's from less than a year ago. He is a native of Garaz. Thristen helped to cure Cliffandstone of a disease, and yet the black-orc did not recognise Thristen when they met in the skies over the Green Hills. The female sorcerer is Hawkwing, aged approximately one hundred and fifty years. According to Ambassador Elanfencer, Hawkwing is the neice of King Orbelastican of the orc nation of Garaz in the north-west corner of the Western Outlands.
Grantis Trimble, leader of the opposition, said, "Here we see the immediate consequences of signing a treaty with Gutak. We now become the enemy of all of Gutak's enemies. I don't think the government even considered this problem when they signed the treaty. Garaz is the most powerful orc nation in the outlands. Their population is a hundred thousand orcs, compared to Gutak's fifty thousand. Garaz has four other powerful orc nations as their allies, including Gadz, which lies just across the borderlands from the Green Hills." Mr. Trimble implied that the bandits came out from Gadz and retreated to Gadz after their defeat. "It's entirely likely they will be back next week with new wyverns. Their purpose is to disrupt this alliance because all the orc nations know that this alliance helps Gutak far more than it helps us. King Orbelastican doesn't send his niece out to fight unless he takes the matter seriously and he intends to persue it, I can assure you."
Lea Breakwater, spokesperson for the Foreign Office, said, "Of course we considered Gutak's enemies. We signed an alliance because the alternative was war. And that war would have been fully justified on the part of Gutak. Armed men were using our borders as a shield behind which to hide after slaughtering Gutak women and children. I don't understand how there can be any ambiguity about the imperative to form an alliance with Gutak. If Mr. Trimble were in power instead of Prime Minister Applehouse, Mr. Trimble would have had the good sense to do exactly the same thing."
Mr. Trimble responded to Ms. Breakwater's remarks. "I thank Ms. Breakwater for her faith in me. Come election time next year, Ms. Breakwater can see for herself how my good sense will steer this country in the right direction."
Varay Observer, 16th May 2483. Black-Orcs Relations, by Lidia Fillit. Your humble correspondant sat down for a long and fascinating interview with the newly-arrived ambassador from Gutak yesterday. I found the Honorable Karazi Elanfencer to be charming and gracious. The ambassador appears to know every one of the black orcs in the Western Outlands. "I have served as ambassador to every nation in the Western Outlands, with the exception of Ankh. There are only a few hundred black orcs in the Western Outlands. Naturally I have met them all. It is my job to remember their names." The King of Garaz is Orbelastican, he told me. Orbelastican has two children. One is Lacewater and the other Scholastican. Orbelastican's father was Pyrotechnican and his mother Wingmender. Both are now deceased. Orobelastican's brother is Vernonmatrix, who is married to Silkweaver. They have two children, Dreamweaver and Hawkwing. Hawkwing is the older. She is a sorcerer, like her father, her grandfather, her uncle, and her cousin Scholastican.
The ambassador stated that Hawkwing was exiled from Garaz forty years ago for slaying a rival for her cousin's love. She moved to Mokul, from which she was exiled ten years later for spying on behalf of her uncle, the King of Garaz. Her next home was Gutak, our ally. After a few years she was exiled again, this time for assaulting Stonecrusher, the husband of Queen Daybreak who was princess at the time. The ambassador would not reveal the reason behind this last assault. She moved to Dag. Ten years ago, she stole the King of Dag's crown jewels and made off on a wyvern. Dag exiled her after the fact. Gadz exiled her also, at the request of the King of Garaz. There has been no official news of her since. Now she reappears with Cliffandstone and two wyverns. Cliffandstone, meanwhile, is also an exile. He was exiled from Gadz ten years ago for protesting against the tribute that nation pays to Garaz.
So far as we can tell, Mr. Trimble's comments a few days ago about the significance of these bandits appear, upon further investigation, to be unfounded. Hawkwing is an exile from every orc nation in the outlands. She is as much a criminal to them as she is to us. She is no friend of her uncle the King of Garaz.
We were hoping to discuss these revelations with Gristel Virage and her companions, but they left Ankle this morning. Romayne Srae remained with her partner Travis Alomere in the Gumption Arms, intent upon enjoying our great city. She confirmed that their parents flew home to her grandfather's estate in Clavicle.
16th May 2483
The wind is out of the south-west, at about thirty kilometers per hour, with clouds at five thousand meters hiding the sun. Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen fly with the wind from Ankle to Clavicle, a distance of almost two hundred kilometers, which they cover in a little over two hours. The land below rises as they approach Gristel's family home. She sees the estate ahead, and smoke from a fire. A large fire, by the look of it. Felicety never mastered the art of making a fire without smoke. She must be building a fire in the living room. But why would she do that? It's a warm spring day, despite the clouds.
They bank over the edge of the garden about the Virage Home. The house is in ruins. Its roof beams are still smoking. The limestone walls are blackened. The roof of Gristel's bedroom has fallen in. Her bed sheets appear charred, but the bed remains exposed to the gray light of day. Only the horse and hippogriff stables remain standing. And they are made of wood.
Her chest tight, Gristel lands and walks to the front step of the house her parents have lived in for fifty years.
"Mother! Father! Felicety!" She looks around. Thristen stares at the ground. There are many sapien footprints, but they are not those of men in armor.
Felicety runs up the driveway from the street. "I'm here!" She comes to a stop in front of the three companions. "Dominican and Gashley are okay. They are at the Manning's."
"Where's Zak," Thristen says.
"She's gone, sir, he took her."
"He?" Gristel says, "Who is he?"
"A black orc, madame." Felicety says. "He came in the night and took her."
"God's blood," Gristel says. "What have we done?"
"Were you there?" Quayam says.
"No sir, I was staying with Michael Skinner."
Ten minutes later, they land in the garden of the Manning's house. Gashley comes out to greet them. "I'm sorry," he says. "I tried."
"What happened?" Thristen says.
"A black orc smashed our door down in the middle of the night. I grabbed a sword and met him in the hallway. He backed out and we fought on the front step. Dominican and Zak were behind me. I heard an explosion within the house, like a thunder-egg. At that point I realised there might be more of them. At first I thought I could master the orc. I think I had the advantage in skill. But he had the advantage in strength and stamina. I'm an old man. He beat me. It was only a matter of seconds before he slew me or knocked me down."
He takes a deep breath and frowns. "I made a mistake at that point, I think. I told Dominican and Zak to run into the forest, thinking they would be safe in the dark, because Zak sees so well in the dark. I stood in the way of the black orc to stop him following. But he is so tall, he jumped past and after them. By the time I was half-way to the trees, he emerged with Zak over his shoulder, screaming and thumping him. But he paid no attention."
Mrs. Manning appears in the back door of the Manning house. Gristel remembers Mrs. Manning form her youth, when she played with the Manning's children, all good people, all with good lives in farming and in the town. Their house is still standing.
"Well, I ran for the black beast the orc rode in on, a wyvern. I could see by the light of the fire burning at the back of the house. I reached the wyvern first and the orc called out to me. 'Do not harm my mount, sapien, or I will kill you as well as destroy your house.'
"I took him to mean that he would not destroy the house if I did not attack his wyvern. I did not think he would kill me. I did not think he would commit such an irreversible act, not unless he was a fool. I hesitated. The beast's neck was before me and I might have struck its head from its shoulders."
"He had Zak," Gristel says. "All you would have achieved by chopping off the wyvern's head is make it more difficult for him to get away with her, which would have made more trouble for her in the end."
"Wyverns are formidable," Quayam says, "You would have had to work at it to catch it's neck."
"Be that as it may. I misjudged the situation, as you will see. He was upon the wyvern in a moment and it sprang straight into the air. For some reason I always imagined wyverns with four little legs, but this thing had two enormous, muscular legs like a giant griff, and hurled itself upwards like a catapult. It hovered twenty meters up. And then the house began to explode again. He destroyed the house. I think there were three more explosions. And then he flew away. He flew away with Zak. I could still hear her cursing at him, bless her pretty face."
Gristel hugs him. "You did well Dad."
Quayam watches the column of smoke rising from the Virage Home over the trees five hundred meters away. "I know who it is."
"Hawkwing?" Thristen says.
"No. Scholastican. He came for Zak, on orders from the King."
Gristel holds her father. Thristen and Quayam stare at the ground. "Why did he destroy the house?" Quayam says. "That doesn't make sense."
"Well, he has Zak. We have to get her back," Thristen says, "She'll stand trial for treason and they'll hang her."
Gristel releases her father. "Damned right we'll get her back. And while we're there I'll beat the living crap out of that son of a bitch so he won't ever, ever pick on one of our people again." (Gristel is referring to a previous adventure in which they rescued their dear friend Geila from the clutches of an elf scientist and her black-orc lover, none other than Scholastican himself, who kidnapped Geila from her husband in Calipan. With the help of the dragons, Gristel, Quayam, and Thristen discovered the secret laboratory and transported Geila back to her home.)
"Don't lose your head," Gashley says. "Nobody has been hurt yet. Don't forget that."
"Well, we're not going to let him get away with his. We're going, that's for sure."
"Indeed," Gashley says. "They know that you are going. They will be ready."
"That's why he blasted the house," Quayam says. "To make sure we came after him. He doubted that our loyalty to Zak was great enough to make us come. He had to make sure."
"So it's us they are after," Thristen says. "Zak is the bait."
Gristel grunts. "Yeah, well. Whatever. We're going."
17th May 2483
"How barbaric," Aries says. Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen are talking to her in a conjured shelter beside the ruins of the Virage home. In a nearby shelter, Dominican and Felicety are lighting a fire and making lunch. Gashley has ridden into town to make a statement to the police. Sid the demon is outside, forbidden to hear the conversation with Aries.
"Provocative, even," Aries says. "Is everything you own destroyed? Our maps and plans?"
"No, all our papers and valuables were safe in a fire-proof metal chest," Gristel says, "My father had another one, so he has his deeds and stock certificates, and all his other papers."
"Good. Well, you know, Thor is a shrewd operator. I doubt he's involved directly, but this Orbelastican is probably a shrewd operator as well. It could well be a trap. On the other hand, it won't serve your reputation well to allow people to get away with burning your house and stealing your girlfriend."
They decide not to ask Thor for help. "I don't want his charity," Gristel says.
"If it gets Zak set free," Thristen says, "I will accept anyone's charity."
"Would you accept Big A's charity?" Quayam says (he refers to Ayudrarethrex the nightmare daemon).
Thristen contemplates this question for a few seconds. "No, I suppose not."
"Exactly," Quayam says. "But I would like to know which side Thor is going to be on if it comes to a fight between Endromis and an alliance of Ursia, Gutak, and Varay. He'll have to pick. He may as well know now that his only rational choice is to pick us."
"That's a conversation I can have with him," Aries says. "He'll be glad to discuss it."
One plan for escaping from Garaz with Zak is to transport her to an open world. To return to Clarus, she would need a Free World passport. "I have the power to grant such passports," Aries says, "As a holder of temple plots in Clarus. I think I can argue that she is a citizen of the Free Worlds, regardless of race. I'll try. I know it has been done for black orcs."
During the remainder of their discussion Aries reminds them that the Outlands are split between the five princes of hell in this way: forty percent to Lucifer, and fifteen percent to each of Thor, Bielzibub, Erebus, and Shiva. "So that makes Lucifer the most powerful player in any game."
Aries tells them of a debate in the Olympian Council recently about the future of the Reconciliation Treaty. "Right now, it looks as if sixty percent of the gods are against the treaty. Twenty percent say we should get rid of the orcs all-together, by sending them back to Hell. Forty percent say let them stay. Twenty percent say, let me see. I have my notes here. Twenty percent say they like the treaty because it's interesting. It justifies the one percent of lifetime summoning rule. Without that rule, the equilibrium in Clarus will be upset because health care will be withdrawn. Another twenty percent are undecided. So I think the debate is going to be on how to preserve the summoning laws and ditch the treaty. It's only a matter of time."
"As in decades, right?" Gristel says.
"Yes," Aries says. "But everyone can see the way things are going. So I don't think anyone will waste time with court cases enforcing the treaty. They take decades as well."
"We have been thinking of calling upon some other allies," Quayam says, "To help."
"Interesting. And why would they wish to help you?"
"We're not sure. But they have helped us in the past, and we have helped them in return."
"That could be dangerous," Aries says. "I'm not sure I like the idea. Didn't you say a dragon has moved in nearby?"
"Yes," Thristen says, "We don't know which one."
"Do you object absolutely to our seeking help from the dragons?" Gristel says.
Aries does not answer immediately. They wait. "No," she says. "You have to get Zak back, that's essential to the reputation of the Trans Outland Highway Authority. So do what you think best. Don't make any permanent enemies if you can help it. But get the girl back."
Later that day, they sit down with Sid in the shelter. "Listen carefullly, Sid," Quayam says. "We want help. We want your masters to know that we need help. We will be grateful. We need a ride. We need a dragon."
Telegram from Rackhammer to Thristen, 17th May 2483. "In light of recent events, suggest we meet at Quarry 11 am tomorrow 18th."
18th May 2483
For once, Rackhammer is five minutes late. They watch him land. "I have heard bad news," he says. "Your friend Zak has been taken by Scholastican of Garaz."
"We figured it must be him," Thristen says, "How are you certain?"
Rackhammer grimaces and stares at his hands for some time. "I am in love with Lacewater, the Princess of Garaz. This is a thing you should know. But it is not a thing I wish you to advertise."
"We'll keep it confidential," Quayam says. "We'll tell only Gashley Virage, our partner."
"Thank you. Lacewater tells me that her father is holding Zak in the prison tower outside Garaz City. In a week Zak will stand trial for treason, and if convicted she will be executed. Lacewater asks that you not kill her brother or her father. She is afraid for their safety at your hands."
"And so she should be," Gristel says.
"I think killing the prince or the king would undermine the respect you have earned so far among our community. Indeed, it would set us back a great deal. I would have to choose between my love of Lacewater and my alliance with you. It would be a difficult choice."
"But in the end, love will prevail," Thristen says.
"Most likely, yes," Rackhammer says. "That is the way of our people."
"It is our way too," Thristen says. "We want her back. And we want some kind of compensation. We'll figure it out."
18th May 2483, 3 pm.
When the three riders return to the Virage Estate, they see a dragon lying curled upon the lawn, between the stables and the adjoining, conjured shelters. It is Kassanak, the dragon who carried them to the rescue of Geila, and after that, half way around the world to Geila's home.
They land and dismount. "I can hardly believe it," Gristel says. "It seems unreal. We asked Sid yesterday, and Kassanak is here already."
"He was nearby," Quayam says, "In the cave in the hills. It would take him no more than an hour to get here. Less, even."
"They want to help us," Thristen says. "They actually want to help us."
Gashley, Romayne, and Travis stand between the dragon and the shelters. Gashley's sword is drawn. Gristel waves to him. She approaches the dragon with Quayam and Thristen at her side. Travis and Romayne walk across the grass to join them. The dragon stares at them with its huge eyes. Its body is almost twice as long as a wyvern's. Its tail is curled around its front legs, for dragons do indeed have four legs, and can walk upon them like a lizard. His wings are colored with waving stripes of red, black, and yellow, just as they remember him. Underneath, out of sight for now, they assume his wings are decorated with black and white diamond shapes, as they were in the past. They know his name because their friend Sophia the Oracle told them. They have never heard Kassanak say a single word.
As they approach his magnificent body, they see a child-like homunculus upon its back. It has the shape and proportions of a four-year-old boy, and is dressed in shirt and trousers. But it's face is not human. It is stylized and symmetric, with features of spirit matter. It speaks to them in a clear, high voice. "Welcome Gristel, Quayam and Thristen. I am Enak, the voice of Kassanak my master."
"Greetings Enak," Thristen says. "This is indeed an honor."
"My master understands that you are in some haste. We suggest you equip yourselves. Behold," he points to a file of leather seats upon the dragon's back. "We have seating for four people. We are ready to leave."
Thristen looks at his companions. Gristel nods. "Let's get our armor from the trunk. We can summon food on the way. It's time. This is what we wanted."
Half an hour later, the dragon ascends into the air with graceful wingbeats, Quayam, Thirsten, and Gristel fully-armored upon its back, and Enack clinging to the dragon's neck. Gashley and Dominican wave goodbye from the lawn. The dragon accelerates into the sky.
"West!" Thristen says. "West to Lake Zakh."
The dragon ascends to four thousand meters and races through a clear sky due west. The air is bitter cold at this altitude, but the riders are shielded from most of the force of the wind by a transparent barrier that rises in front of the file of saddles. This is as they remember from their previous flights with Kassanak. His body is warm, and its heat passes up through the saddles.
They can see the Fen Swamps far below, then the Long Hills. By half an hour before sunset, they have traveled six hundred kilometers in three hours. They land upon a hill beside Lake Zakh. To their south is the orc nation of Vaz. To the north of Lake Zakh is Garaz.
19th May 2483
The sun rises to reveal scattered clouds at five thousand meters and a south-westerly breeze of ten kilometers per hour. At Quayam's request, Kassanak flies in search of a boulder, and returns carrying a lump of granite weighing roughly two hundred kilograms. They mount their saddles and fly to the north. They have never seen Garaz City before, but they are looking for a bridge over a river, where they will turn left. They miss the bridge, turn left at the wrong river, and waste two hours looking for a prison tower outside some other city. They find a tower, but the city does not look right. Nor does the tower. They fly south and, in the late morning, they see Garaz City, with its palace in the center, seat of King Orbelastican and his Court.
Outside the city, on a hill, is a tower thirty meters high and forty meters in diameter. The forest is cleared for a radius of fifty meters around the tower. The top of the tower is twenty meters in diameter: large enough for Kassanak to land upon, and he does so, setting down with his wings outstretched, floating to the stone parapet, carrying the boulder all the while.
Gristel dismounts. Sid is with them. Quayam has equipped the demon with a space bridge to spy through. He orders Sid down the side of the tower to look into the archways at the base. Gristel picks the lock on the trapdoor in the roof. Sid is refusing to obey Quayam's order. Sid does not like being here for some reason, and likes it even less below.
Beneath the trap door is a room. It has the look of a cell ready for occupation. It is furnished with a bed, table, and chair. "She's not in here," Gristel says. "We could go down from the top, picking locks all the way, or descend to the ground."
Quayam is watching through Sid's bridge. He catches a glimps of a large space with three entrances, at the center of the base of the tower. Upon the floor is an orc woman in chains. It is Zak. "She's there, down below in the entrance hall."
Zak calls out. "Sid!"
Sid, being scared of Zak, flies away. "Let's go down," Quayam says, "Dragon and all."
They mount the dragon and he floats down the side of the tower. His wings are covered with some flexible, transparent material that forms and hisses and streams off the wing-tips like steam.
"I think there are orcs in the forest all around," Thristen says. "I can see some. It could be hundreds of them."
The dragon lands. They jump off upon the lawn around the Prison Tower. Thristen climbs the stairs and looks inside the chamber within the tower base. Zak stands up. She is chained by one leg to the floor. "Thristen!" she says. She appears to be well.
"This must be the trap," Thristen says. He examines the hall. It is thirty meters in diameter. The ceiling is ten meters high. There is a balcony running around the wall, over the three entrances. There are tapestries on the walls of the balcony. They may hide doors, for there are no doors visible. There are six doors leading out of the hall on the first floor. "I need a block of wood so I can cut the chain."
Quayam makes a block of conjured wood. A minute goes by. Zak and Thristen shout to one another. She reassuring him that she is okay, and he reassuring her that she will soon be free.
"I think it's a trap!" she says.
"We know it's a trap," Thristen says, "But we're ready. I'm going to come in and get you out."
"Here," Quayam hands Thristen a block of brown conjured wood. Thristen takes it and ascends the steps. He enters the hall and rushes to Zak. He has a strange and liberating feeling as he runs across the floor. He has felt it before, but cannot recall where. Three black orcs appear from behind tapestries on the balcony with bows strung. In another place is a black orc with no bow, carrying a lance with fire hissing from its tip. This is Scholastican.
"Look out!" Zak says. She crouches. The archers take aim. Thristen places the block on the floor and picks up the chain. Two archers fire. Thristen has been paying them little attention, trusting to his prescience to give him warning of their attack. In the back of his mind he assumes Scholastican is here to say something before they fire. But they shoot. He thrusts himself down and to the side. The arrows shatter on the granite floor of the hall.
Gristel rushes into the hall, her bow drawn. She fires at the archers twice. Thristen raises his sword. The archers draw their bows. Thristen chops at the chain that ties Zak to the floor. His adamantine blade cuts through the soft iron with a chime. He takes Zak's hand and starts to run. He remembers now the last time he felt this liberating feeling in his nerves. It was on Terra. There is no maeon wind on Terra. There is no maeon wind in this hall, or hardly any.
The archers fire another volley. Scholastican chants three words and a hiss comes from the archway through which Thristen entered. Thristen has no doubt that the entrance is now filled with conjured matter. He pushes himself against the wall. The archers fire another volley. Their arrows are aimed at Thristen and Gristel, never Zak. An arrow shatters upon the armor of Thristen's thigh. The impact is like a hammer blow. He staggers, putting his weight upon one knee. The pain in his siatic nerve is excrutiating.
"Stop it" Zak shouts to Scholastican. "I'll do whatever you want. Stop it!"
Scholastican smiles. "It was not you we wanted, Zak. It was your friends."
The archers pull their strings back. From the other side of the archway from Thristen and Zak, Gristel is shouting into her communication bridge in Varayan. "Quayam, have Kassanak annihilate the sponge in the archway, right now. Right now, do you hear?"
Thristen stands up. He presses Zak against the wall. Two arrows fly towards him. He moves aside. Some of his prescience has returned, here at the edge of the hall. Nevertheless, he is frightened. The archers are firing at his legs. They do not mean to kill him, but he has no desire to be shot in the leg, let alone captured.
A deafening crack sends a blast of scalding-hot air across the hall. White light blinds Thristen for a moment. He pulls Zak towards the archway. Gristel moves at the same time. A volley of arrows flies towards them, but they are on the stairs, out of the range of whatever device was depriving them of their prescience. They leap down to the grass and race towards the dragon.
"A dragon! Thristen you rescued me on a dragon!" Zak says.
They climb onto the saddles. The dragon stretches out its neck and faces the entrance of the hall. Flame shoots from its mouth, like Scholastican's fire lance, only ten times the size. The flame is white and blue. It roars like a waterfall and radiates so much heat the moment it begins, that Zak hides her face. Most of the flame enters the hall. The dragon sustains the blast for fully ten seconds before it stops abruptly and raises its wings. Whisps of conjured matter appear upon them. With two beats, the dragon rises above the tree-tops, just as hundreds of orcs advance from under the trees. Thristen catches a glimps of burning tapestries within the hall, and Scholastican appears on the steps with his fire lance, glaring up at them. He must have jumped from the balcony. Well, it's too late now. They are away.
Noon, 19th May 2483, Garaz City, Western Outlands, Clarus
Sergeant Krag leans upon the battlement of the highest tower of Orbelastican's Castle. He wears dark, tinted goggles and stares at another tower on a hill two kilometers to the north-west. The far tower is black. It is the Prison Tower.
When Krag was a boy of five, his father took him to see the Prison Tower. The stone is hard and sparkling. The blocks have flat faces and fit together without morter. His father knelt and wiped the stone with his big, tough hand. "We can't make stone like that any more. The stone is gone. All we have is schist. This is the work of Gelden's masons. When these stones were first made, you could see your face in them." His father glanced over his shoulder. "Take your hammer and chip a bit off to take home."
Orbelastican's castle is made of schist. Schist is hard like the black granite of the Prison Tower, but corrupted by folding layers of white crystal. In places there are flecks of red and green.
Krag's companion on the roof grabs his shoulder and points to the north. "What is that?"
Krag looks away from the Prison Tower and stares. A speck speeds through the blue sky. Krag squints. Whatever it is, it is moving too fast for a wyvern, and it is not flapping its wings. The creature circles high above. It descends and lands upon the roof of the Prison Tower.
"I don't know what it is. I'll watch it," he says. "Go down and tell the Queen."
Krag stares at the Prison Tower. He hears the trapdoor open and close behind him. The creature sits upon the Prison Tower roof. He can see the outline of its wings moving now and then, or perhaps it is a tail. The door opens and closes.
"What did she say?"
"Watch and report any change."
Krag watches the tower. His companion watches the sky.
"They have one of the Herringbones in the tower, sergeant."
"I know it. One of my buddies is a sergeant in the guard there, says his men are falling over themselves trying to help her enjoy her stay. Said he had to beat them out of the way to get her to himself."
"He says they're keeping her tied up on the floor of the Hall of Chains."
"Why? Is she a sorcerer?"
"Didn't say why. Says it's a big secret."
The creaturs rises from the tower top and floats to the grass at the tower base.
"It's no wyvern, that's for sure," Krag says. "It can float without beating its wings."
A light flashes at the tower base. At first, Krag thinks it is the sun reflecting off the smooth faces of the granite. He hears a boom.
"What was that?" his companion says.
"I don't know. I saw a flash of light. Some kind of sorcery, I'm guessing."
"The prince is there, isn't he?"
"Aha!" Krag says, "It's taking off again."
The creature ascends into the sky. It flies south. As it turns, the top sides of its wings flash in the sunlight. They are red and yellow and black. Their tips leave lines of white cloud behind them.
"It has riders, sergeant."
"I see them," Krag says. "Four riders." He clenches his teeth. "Lucifer's balls, its coming this way."
The creature flies stright towards them. It is twice the length of a wyvern. Within seconds, it is a hundred meters above them. Krag's companion falls to one knee, holding a shield over his head and his spear-tip up. "It's a dragon, sir."
Krag crouches beside his companion, holding his shield up also. The shields are wood with leather fronts. Can they survive a blast of dragon fire? Legend has it that dragon fire is hotter than the sun.
The dragon descends towards the battlements. Krag expects a blast of air from downward wing-beats, but there is no blast. The dragon descends with its wings outstretched, as if being lowered by an invisible rope. The underside of its wings are decorated with black and white diamonds. As they flex and stretch, they make a sound like scraping metal. It must be a dragon because it has four legs. Its front claws clasp a boulder half a meter across.
"Get below and tell the Queen," Krag says. His companion shivers and stares at the dragon.
The dragon's rear legs touch the opposite side of the roof. Upon its back are four riders. Three are sapien. The other is a keshi woman. She sits at the back. Krag recognises her. She is one of the Herringbone dancers.
He pushes his companion. "Go on, get below."
"You'll be alone, sir."
Krag lifts the trapdoor in the roof. There is a flight of wood steps below. "Down you go, and lock it behind you."
His companion runs down the steps. Krag drops the door and stands upon it, his shield before him and his speartip up. His companion slides the latch shut beneath his feet. The four riders remain in their saddles, one behind the other along the dragon's back. The dragon's head turns on its long neck. Krag stares at its green and yellow eyes. He wants to look away from the eyes, but he cannot seem to move his head. He feels a tingling in his mind, and down his spine. He stops breathing. The dragon turns away and Krag gasps.
One of the sapiens, a big one with black hair, calls out. "Tell King Orbelastican to bring us two hundred kilograms of gold, or we will destroy his castle. He has one hour, starting now." The sapien speaks the keshi language fluently.
Krag grimaces. "I ain't moving."
The sapien's mouth grows wider, but does not open. The woman smiles. The dragon sretches out its right wing and Krag finds himself standing in the shade with the white and black diamonds above him. He could strike them with his spear tip. Perhaps the dragon would be offended or frightened away. More likely it would get angry and breath fire upon him. The trap door is locked, or else he might get away before the dragon struck. To score a hit upon a dragon would be something to tell the grandchildren. His father would be proud. Krag hefts the spear in his hand. But the door is locked. He would not live to tell his tale, and there would be no witnesses, other than the woman.
Two wyverns approach the castle. They land upon a walls below. King Orbelastican and his son, Prince Scholastican, dismount and walk along the wall. They stare up at the dragon before they enter the castle. Good, Krag thinks, the king is here. He will know what to do. He will use his sorcery to swallow up the dragon and make it disappear. Krag has never seen the king make something disappear, but many people have.
Farther below, in the castle garden, people are standing and watching. Krag moves off the trapdoor and stands up straight, so the women can see he is there, facing the dragon alone. There are a dozen karazi in the garden also. One of them is Princess Lacewater. She is standing on the lawn of the Fountain Court. As he watches, she walks inside the castle. Her walk is swift. Krag thinks she is afraid.
The woman on the dragon speaks. "You did send your mate down with some orders, didn't you?"
"He wouldn't not have gone, miss, if I hadn't ordered him."
She smiles. The big sapien says something and she laughs. A tiny human, wearing black and white clothes, climbs out from behind the front rider and stares at Krag. It has a round face like a child, but its eyes are black and its face does not move. Another strange creature is sitting on the lap of the second rider. This creature has arms and legs and wings, but is nothing like a dragon. It has two horns on its head and its body is the color of sandstone.
There is a knocking on the trapdoor. Those below raise it up. Eight men emerge, led by Captain Hank. All of are panting. They line up between the trapdoor and the dragon. The dragon withdraws its wing and the sun shines on the soldiers' steel helmets.
Captain Hank stands beside Krag. "What's been happening up here?"
"They want two hundred kilos of gold or they destroy the castle." Krag points at the largest sapien. "That big one said so. The woman is the Herringbone girl they had up in the tower."
The captain nods. Krag knows Captain Hank well. He is a balls-to-the wall fighting man, scared of nothing and nobody. He must be thinking of driving the dragon from the roof with a shield wall. "Count me in, sir," Krag says. He moves to the end of the line of soldiers.
"What do you think, boys?" Hank says.
"You must be out of your bloody mind boss," one of them says.
The Captain snorts. "You're probably right." He looks down the stairs. "We have it secure, Your Highness, but you'd better stay by the top step or your father will have my toenails for a potion."
Princess Lacewater ascends into the sunlight. Her dress is gray silk hemmed with silver thread. Upon her bald head is a circlet of silver that sparkles with diamonds. She breaths deeply. There is sweat on her brow. She examines the dragon and the riders. After a little while, she speaks. Her voice is clear and loud. She speaks the High Tongue, which Krag cannot understand, but the sound of her voice is so beautiful to his ears that he feels his mouth opening in wonder. He closes it and grips his spear.
The large sapien with black hair answers. A conversation follows, in which all the riders talk in the High Tongue, but neither of the two little creatures say anything. There are rapid footsteps below and Prince Scholastican leaps onto the tower roof. He wears a brown leather jacket and sheepskin trousers. Upon his head is a steel helmet with engraved cheek-guards.
Scholatican surveys the scene upon the tower roof. He stands close to his sister and speaks to her in a harsh whisper. She bows her head to the dragon-riders, turns, and descends the stairs. The Prince pushes his way through the line of soldiers and stands a mere five paces from the dragon. He holds his fire lance at his side. His face is furious.
He talks to the riders. Krag waits for him to give the word to charge the dragon. Surely this would be a glorious way to die, beside the prince in a fight with a creature of legend. And who knows, Krag might survive, and think of all the glory he would earn.
But the order does not come. Krag looks up. There are four wyverns circling. A new voice speaks. Krag stares at the dragon and the riders. It is a child-like voice, coming from the mouth of the child-like creature. Even when its mouth moves, the rest of its face does not. Even the sapiens, with their flat faces, have expressions, but not this creature. It is something unnatural.
One of the riders looks at a circular instrument in his hand. He speaks in Krag's own language. "Forty-six minutes to go."
Scholastican turns to Captain Hank. "Do you have a man who can remember a message?"
"Krag, stand out," the captain says. The captain puts his hand upon Krag's shoulder. "This man is no idiot, sir."
The prince looks down into Krag's face. "Go below with this message for my father. The sapiens want two hundred kilograms of gold. They say the will destroy the castle if we don't pay. But the dragon says it is not sure it can destroy the castle. It says the castle stone might be too thick and strong. Tell my father we can drive them off the roof. Now go."
Krag bows his head. "Yes, Your Highness."
He runs down the steps of the tower. He crosses a chamber and descends another flight of steps, and so on, down through the tower. All the rooms are deserted. The Princess's carpet loom sits in the sunlight of her conservatory. Krag's boots pound upon the hardwood floors of the chambers and scrape upon the stone stairs. His legs are aching when he reaches the Grand Hall at the bottom of the tower. Light shines into the hall from high windows. The doors at the other end open onto the garden. The King and the Princess are standing together, talking. Around them are twenty keshi guards and several karazi courtiers.
Krag salutes. "Message for the King from the Prince!"
The king turns his gray, aged face to Krag. He looks tired and sad. Krag delivers his message. The king closes his eyes. He rubs his chin. "How much time do we have, sergeant?"
"Forty-six minutes when I started down, Your Highness."
The princess talks to her father. He frowns at the floor. He turns to Krag again. "Do you think the dragon can destroy the castle, sergeant?"
Krag stares at the king. Everyone is listening. The princess watches him. The king's eyes look down from beneath his wrinkled brows. The king is old. Some say he was alive during the Golden Age.
"The schist is strong, Your Highness, but the slate rooves are held up only with timber. The dragon, he's got a big rock in his claws. He'll drop it from high up, if I'm not mistaken, Your Highness, it being what I would do in his position. Now, if that rock don't smash the walls, it'll smash the rooves and go all the way through the floors to the bottom. And there ain't no point in chasing him around because he don't fly like a wyvern, and he's much faster, even with all those people on his back." Krag takes a breath. "And once he starts to put holes in the right places, Your Highness, I reckon that yes, he could bring down the towers. But I don't think he could take down the walls. They're solid."
The King smiles. "He is the son of a stonemason," he says his daughter, "And he has sharp eyes. We have spoken before, upon the battlements, have we not sergeant?"
"Your Highness often visits the battlements at sunset. Yes sir, Your Highness." Krag closes his mouth. He was shouting when he spoke.
"Go back up, sergeant," the king syas, "and tell my son that he should wait. We will send up the gold. My daughter and my courtiers insist that we do as they ask." He sighs. "I am an old man."
"Er," Krag says. He has never seen the king so sad. He has seen him happy, angry, bored, and interested. But never sad.
"Go, my son," the king says.
When Krag reaches the top flight of stairs, he is exhausted. The trapdoor is closed. He bends and catches his breath before he goes up and knocks on the door. When he stands before Scholastican, the dragon and its riders are as they were before. Krag delivers his message.
Scholastican grips his fire lance. A jet of flame appears at the top. "Thank you sergeant."
Minutes pass, with none of the soldiers saying anything. The sapiens lean on their saddles, looking down at the gardens, and whisper among themselves. It seems to Krag that they are speaking the High Tongue.
The big sapien says, "Twenty minutes."
Scholastican whispers to Captain Hank. He descends the steps himself. The prince returns just after the big sapien says, "Ten minutes." With him is Princess Lacewater and ten soldiers. Each soldier carries two small sacks. They put the sacks on the stone of the roof. The Princess speaks to the sapiens. The ten soldiers go below and return with twenty more sacks. They pile them on the roof.
The front two sapiens dismount. One has red hair. When she speaks, Krag decides she is a woman, and he finds he is staring at her face, for it is pretty, which seems strange to him, because she has no tusks and her face is so flat. She picks up one of the sacks and looks inside. She and the other sapien carry the sacks to the dragon and put them in leather bags attached to their saddles.
The sapiens mount the dragon. It lets go of the boulder, allowing it to roll a little distance across the tower roof. The sapien woman speaks to the princess. The princess bows her head in answer. Scholastican scowls. Krag thinks the prince might order a charge at any moment, and he hefts his shield to be ready. Captain Hank may be ready to do it too. He and the prince have been whispering. They will push the dragon off the roof when it is least expecting, and it will fall, and they will take back the gold and capture the sapiens. The sapiens will go to the Prison Tower. What were they thinking, that they could come here and rob the king?
The dragon spreads its wings. Scholastican taps the base of his fire lance on the roof. A jet of flame leaps up. The dragon's wings beat. There is no order to charge. Hot air blasts across the roof. The dragon lets itself fall off the tower, and disappears from sight. Scholastican rushes to the battlement and looks down. Krag remains where he is. What has happened? Scholastican used some power upon the dragon. The bags contained black stone of such weight that the dragon could not fly. Krag waits for the crash of rending slate and wood that will mark the impact of the dragon upon the roof of the Grand Hall.
But no crash comes. Instead, the dragon reappears, flashing once again in the sun, rising up into the bright sky, white lines marking its passage through the air. The wyverns above dive down. They drop like stones from high above. But they are not fast enough. The dragon is no more than a sparkle in the sun. Krag's mouth hangs open. His comrades start talking all at once.
Late Afternoon, 21st May 2483
Gristel and Romayne kneel together in front of a sturdy trunk. They are in one of the rooms of the conjured shelter Quayam erected on the Virage estate after the fire. The trunk itself is charred on the oustide, but still strong. The papers and valuables that Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen kept within smell of smoke, but they are undamaged.
Gristel holds up a piece of paper written upon in her own hand. "Here it is. I wrote it down. Geila sent us a telegram." She hands it to Romayne and Romayne begins to read.
"29th July 2482. Dear friends. We have had such adventures since we saw you last, but this is not the place to tell you about them. Oh well. How is my Latin? Arrak is doing well. I think he is stronger and quicker than he was when he was twenty. We cry sometimes when we think of what you have done for us. It is hard for Arrak, because he is so proud. I am sure you understand. After our adventures, we can pay for our own keep, as you say. We have made arrangements. Thank you all for your kindness. We hope also to be able to pay you what you have already given us. I know you do not want us to, but I hope you will understand that Arrak is very proud. If ever you need him, he will come. I do not need to say it, of course he will come, and so will I. Our love, Geila."
Gristel sits on the orange conjured-rubber floor. The sun is shining outside. The walls and ceiling are partly transparent, so light filters through them into the room. There are windows also, looking out across the field towards the ruins of the house. Romayne gives the message back to her mother. "How did they get involved with the dragons? How did Scholastican find her and kidnap her?"
"When Arrak was a young man, he went up to the mountains to offer his service to the dragon. That's a tradition they have. Usually the dragon sends the young aspirant on some dangerous journey, and maybe they come back, maybe they don't. But their chances of being accepted as a noble among the people are pretty slim if they don't do what the dragon asks."
"But Arrak survived," Romayne says.
"The funny thing was that the dragon told Arrak to go and become a ruler first and come back when he was older to do his service. So that's what he did. Even though he had not been on a quest, he had witnesses with him, and he was able to become the chief that we met when we went down to Calipan over fifteen years ago."
"He went back later?"
"When he was older, he grew weak, and he knew that all the noblemen in the neighborhood envied him his wife Geila, who was said to have magical powers, which is true. He feared that he would lose a fight with a challenger and someone would steal Geila from him. According to their rules, a challenger must beat the chief at a game they play, called Kens, and also in single combat. But Arrak was never particularly good at Kens. So he gave up his position as chief and went to the dragon, offering his service. The dragon once again declined Arrak's service, saying he and Geila should live in a nearby cottage, which they did. Geila said they were happy, even though Arrak was ashamed at having to run away. He is a proud man, as she says."
"What does he look like?"
"He's magnificent," Gristel says. "He's about two and a half meters tall with leopard fur all over, yellow with black spots, and a half-cat half-sapien face, and a tail. The first time we saw him he was riding a six-legged creature."
"And Scholastican kidnapped Geila from the cottage?"
"Exactly. It turns out that word of Geila's ability to affect other people's minds with her own, which was her psionic power, was known to people through my own account of our adventure in Calipan."
"Oh. So in a way it was your fault she was kidnapped," Romayne says.
"Yes. So Scholastican overpowers Arrak, which of course devestates Arrak." Gristel leans forward and whispers. "In the same way that Dad was devestated by his failure to protect Zak. You know, they can't stand growing old these macho-types."
"Scholastican takes her on his wyvern to the laboratory of an elf in the mountains south of Ursia. Well, one of her nurses was an elf who took pity on her. Geila told her that we were her friends. So the nurse posted a piece of information on the Veritas Exchange on Olympia, saying it was something of vital importance to do with one of our friends."
"And you heard about it and payed for the information?"
"No," Gristel says, and shifts position on the floor. "That's the funny thing, we didn't. We only heard about it later, when we asked Haleh of Op-Inc to look into it. What happened to us is that Kassanak the dragon landed by the road when we were going from Karadan to Pakesh in a destrier carriage, and we got out to talk to him. He didn't say anything and we got on his back, because there were three saddles."
"I remember that story. So you flew down and rescued Geila from Scholastican and the elf lady."
"That's right. We don't know who bought the information, but we assume it was the dragons, and they knew where we were because we had Sid with us."
"How much did they pay?"
"One million Olympian dollars," Gristel says.
"My gosh," Romayne says. "And after you rescued her, you took her home to Arrak, and payed for his longevity drugs for a while."
"We did, and they worked, and that's when he started his service for the dragon, him and Geila both." Gristel puts the letter back in a box full of other telegrams. "And Geila was pregnant when she got back."
"What does Geila look like?"
"She's lizard-like, but in a pretty way," Gristel leans forward and whispers. "She has big breasts too. The guys used to try not to stare at them."
"Scaley breasts?" Romayne says.
"No, her skin is leathery in places, like a crocodile, but not scaley. And mostly it's smooth and soft like ours."
"What does the baby look like?"
"There is no baby. The baby miscarried. It was not Arrak's baby. The elf scientist impregnated Geila with something. Geila's nurse said the father was a psionic creature, but not a human. I think Geila may have taken something to end the pregnancy, but I'm not sure. Geila did not want to have a monster for a baby. She wanted to forget her time in captivity."
"Well, it sounds like they're happy now, from the telegram."
"Yes," Gristel stretches her arms. "And you can see that the way the dragons get things done is mysterious, but so far as we can tell, it's effective. We know they provide prophesies to supplicants through their oracles. But we also believe it is against their rules for them to ask for prophesies themselves. They listen to the prophesies given by their oracles to other people, and we suspect that they trust these prophesies and follow along with them because they trust that their future selves will act in the best intrests of their past selves. If that makes sense. In this case, it's still not clear how our relationship with Arrak will benefit the dragons in the long run, and we doubt it's clear to the dragons of today either. But we are confident that it will benefit the dragons in the long run."
"What do they want from people, anyway, apart from gold?" Romayne says.
"Do you remember the space bridge Sophia the one-handed oracle carried, and we guarded off Bragos?"
"Yes, the bridge to the Illuminati we thought it was."
"We think the dragons trade things from the Celesti Sector through that bridge, and get other things in return. We're not sure what. One possibility is that the Ursian wizards can make things that the dragons can trade, and the Illuminati can make things that the Ursian's want. The result is more gold for the dragons, and maybe new equipment for their bodies. But we're guessing. We talk about it a lot, though. Quayam is a big fan of the dragons."
"So they are on Ursia's side?" Romayne says.
"That's a reasonable guess. But one thing is for sure: they are on our side, and we, by virtue of this favor they have done us, will try to be on their side."
Gashley steps into the room holding yesterday morning's Ankle Informer. "Some interesting news."
"What's that, Dad?" Gristel says.
"On the night of the nineteenth, two black orcs crept into the VAF base outside Ankle and stole the two wyverns."
Gristel laughs. "You're kidding!"
Gashley hands her the newspaper. "Read it for yourself."
20th May, 2483
Edith Drent pulls back the string of a polished long-bow. Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen are standing in her workshop a few kilometers outside Clavicle. "Compare the draw on your bow with this one." She hands it to Quayam. "The perfect bow is one whose draw force rises close to its peak the moment you start pulling the string out of its natural position."
Quayam puts on a leather glove and starts to draw back the bow.
"After that," Edith says, "it should continue with near the peak force all the way to its full extension."
Quayam pulls the string back with his arm outstretched until his fingers rest upon his chest. He looks down. "Oh," he says. He smiles at Edith. "I see."
"That's right," Edith says, "And at the last moment, at the end of the draw, the force drops to half the peak, making it easy for your to hold the string and take aim."
Edith puts her hand upon Quayam's and raises the bow a little. "This one you should hold a little higher. It's not symmetric. The arrow is going to come out a few centimeters lower than you would expect."
Gristel folds her arms. Her father has been telling her about this woman for years. Her bows are the best he has ever used. So here they are, trying out the bows, and Edith turns out to be a tall, dark-skinned woman with almond-shaped eyes, a slender figure that looks good in cut-off overalls, and perfect teeth.
"I like it," Quayam says.
"This one has a peak draw of thirty kilos and an average draw of twenty-two. It fires a seventy-five gram adamantine-tipped arrow at seventy meters per second. It will pierce a one-millimeter steel plate at three hundred meters." She leans closer to Quayam. "If you can hit the target."
Thristen coughs and Gristel rolls her eyes.
"I want it," Quayam says. He releases the string and holds the bow by its shaft in one hand. "What's this about adamantine-tipped arrows? How much are they per dozen?"
10th June, 2483
Bruce Wallaby, wyvern-seller and flying instructor, based in Pakesh and native of the Cipriate Islands, opens a copper bridge holder with swift movements of his hands. He places a ring in a notch at the center of the holder. The holder itself is a narrow, curved channel three meters in length. Its center is pressed against the grass beside the stable on the Virage Estate. Its ends are half a meter higher.
Out of the ring comes a black circle. The circle expands. As it expands, its lower edge fills the copper channel. A breeze rocks the top edge of the expanding space bridge, but the bottom edge has fastened itself to the channel and the bridge holder is planted in the ground with four long spikes. The bridge expands until it is three meters across. Behind it are black velvet curtains, which move in the breeze blowing across the lawn.
"Those curtains are on Olympia, right?" Romayne says.
"That's right, Romayne," Bruce says. "All right, Let's get ready for him." He spreads his arms and encourages the half-dozen spectators to move farther from the bridge. They back away. "All except you, Gristel," he says. "I want you to be the first one he sees when he comes through."
Bruce takes Gristel's elbow and ushers her forward to stand just in front of the bridge. "You stand right here, and if he snaps at you, you thump him on the side of the neck, got it?" Bruce looks at her while patting his neck with the palm of his hand. "Just like that, okay?"
Bruce takes a few steps back. "And the rest of us out of the way." Thristen, Quayam, Romayne, Travis, Felicity Jones and her boyfriend Michael Skinner withdraw until they are standing with Bruce thirty meters away and to one side of the bridge.
Bruce speaks through another bridge he holds in his hand. "Okay, we're ready when you're ready."
Gristel watches the velvet curtains. Something pushes them from the far side, about two meters up. A black scaley snout thrusts out between them, followed by a slender, black neck. The snout is thirty centimeters long, and the head and snout together are half a meter. Two yellow eyes with black slits for pupils are set in the head, looking forward like those of an eagle.
"Hello Stanley," Gristel says.
The wyvern's neck lurches and its shoulders push between the curtains. Its two legs remain on the other side, but the front edges of its folded, leathery wings are visible. It raises its head and looks down its snout at Gristel. It snorts.
"Welcome to Clarus," she says.
The wyvern opens its mouth. Inside are rows of yellow teeth up to three centimeters long. Between the teeth on the bottom jaw is a yellow tongue. The wyvern's head moves higher still, and it hisses.
"You don't like the look of me, do you?" Gristel says.
The wyvern's head flashes down, its jaw wide open, aiming at Gristel's head. Behind her, Michael Skinner calls out in alarm. Gristel steps aside. The jaws snap shut a few centimeters from her face. She catches the wyvern's neck just behind its head and holds on tighly. She pulls his head down with the weight of her body and with the palm her hand thumps its neck.
The wyvern jumps through the curtains and lands upon the grass. It twists in Gristel's grip, and Gristel lets go. Black wings spread out above her, twenty-five meters from tip to tip, and four meters wide at the base. The wings flap once and an acrid blast of air fills Gristel's nostrils.
"Now what?" Gristel says.
"Wait a moment," Bruce says.
"What if he flies away?"
"He won't. He'll have another go at you first. You have to grab him good, hold him."
The wyvern towers above her with its wings spread. One wing tip brushes against the top of the space bridge and pushes it sideways. It springs back into position. The wyvern strikes at Gristel. She grabs its neck as before and hits it, harder this time. They wyvern tries to pull away and emits a sharp scream that makes Gristel's ear ring. She hits it twice and its neck gows limp.
"That's right," Bruce says. "Show him who's boss."
Gristel puts her other arm around the wyvern. "There, Stanley, I'm your new mistress. I'll take care of you." She strokes the spikes upon the top edge of its neck. "I'm your new mistress."
The wyvern snorts.
15th August, 2483
Gashley Virage and his son-in-law, Quayam Srae, walk down a corridor of Queen Daybreak's Palace. They stop every few paces to look at a portrait upon the wall, or a tapestry. The portraits show black orcs kings in armor, or upon the back of a destrier, or flying at a daring angle in the air upon the back of a wyvern. Here is a tall, graying couple with several white orcs behind them. The colors in the picture are faded. Gashley and Quayam have reached the end of the corridor. The sun shines through an open door.
They step outside. Before them is a lawn a hundred meters square. Gashley leads Quayam across a patio and out onto the grass.
"I keep the croquet stuff in the shed over there." He points towards a wood shed beneath the trees at the edge of the lawn, and they walk towards it. "We have big mallets for the karazi and smaller mallets for us. The balls are the same size, and the hoops."
"And they enjoy the game?"
"Oh, they love it. It's a good game. But you need a flat lawn. I could never be bothered to maintain one at home. Here they have an oger pull a ten-ton stone roller over the grass every week. So it's flat."
Gashley opens the shed and they take out the hoops and a mallet and start to set up the field.
"How is Dominican doing?"
"She is enjoying it. Can't you tell? She's not such a home-body as you think. She used to love to travel. She speaks good Latin, as you know, and she's already speaking keshi, and its been, what, two and a half months since we arrived." Quayam hands Gashley a hoop. He pushes it into the grass. "The karazi men are such romantics. Dominican loves them. And the women are so practical. She likes them too."
"And you are enjoying being Ambassador Virage?"
"Of course I am. A year ago I was just an old man. Now I'm someone important. Now I represent my country in a foreign realm. It feels good. We have fine, spaceious quarters."
"And I suppose Zak must be much happier."
Gashley stands up and stretches his back. "She's always happy. I don't know if she's any happier now. She works for me. She's a smart girl. She manages our keshi staff." Gashley enters the shed and rolls four painted balls across the grass and takes two mallets from the shed. "The only downside is that we don't cook for ourselves. But we are working on that. Now, tell me about the Battle of Purple Rock."
Quayam describes again the battle that took place around a prominent mound of solid rock somewhere between the Old Hills and the Long Hills, which one evening glowed purple in the light of the setting sun, and so gave its name to Rackhammer's greatest victory to date. Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen viewed the battle from the backs of their wyverns, acting as scouts for General Rackhammer. On one side were six divisions of five thousand orcs, under Rackhammer's command, being drawn from Gutak, Mokul, and Dag. On the other side were eight divisions under General Tankle, drawn from Garaz, Ankh, and Vaz.
"Gadz does not take part in the campaign," Quayam says, "It pays tribute to Garaz."
"I'm well aware of that," Gashley says. "Now at this point, at the beginning of the battle, I understand that Rackhammer had already captured a number of enemy divisions. Is that correct?"
"He had four already, so twenty thousand troops were under guard a hundred kilometers behind the front. Tankle wanted them back, and his supply lines were shorter than ours, running from Garaz, so he advanced, and Rackhammer let him come, moving north out of his way. When Rackhammer returned, he took the Garaz army in the flank and split three divisions off the main force. They surrendered after a stiff fight, but they had no chance. They were cut off from their supplies and surrounded. So that left Rackhammer on the eighth of August with seven divisions captured of the enemy, and the enemy with only five divisions to fight with."
"Tankle might still have tried something," Gashley says, "Rackhammer had only six and he must have needed two or three to guard the prisinors"
"Well, he didn't. His troops must have been tired out. Or maybe Orbelastican ordered him to withdraw. I expect he will be yelled at."
Gashley nods. "And next year there will be a better general in place. I have heard that one has come back to Garaz who might hold his own against Rackhammer."
"Who is that?"
"He is called Carnus. You cured him of a disease in the desert. He knows you."
"That Carnus?" Quayam considers his croquet mallet. Carnus was a noble man.
"They may do better next time," Gashley says. "But on the other hand, there will be consequences to this victory beyond the ransom of the captured troops."
Gashley moves the four balls to the starting point for the game. "Gadz has been divided over tribute to Garaz. Half a dozen of its prominent karazi have been exiled for their outspoken opposition to it. Cliffandstone is one such. He was the bandit flying with Hawkwing. Thristen cured him in the desert last year, but he did not recognise Thristen when you confronted them in the air." Gashley smiles. "We all look the same to them."
"So what will happen now?"
"Daybreak's hope is that Gadz will refuse to pay tribute to Garaz this year. Daybreak hopes to persuade them to fight under Rackhammer next year, promising a share of the ransom and freedom from tribute. If that happens, exiles like Cliffandstone will be welcomed back into society."
"His woman murdered two pilots."
"She's pregnant now, with his child. That changes things. You know how the karazi are."
Quayam runs his fingers through his hair. "How do you find out all this stuff?"
Gashley laughs. "I'm the ambassador. I speak with the Queen several times a week. I'm at dinner with the court every night. Now, you go first."
They play croquet. Butterflies flash at the edge of the forest.
"How far did they get clearing the road in the spring?" Gashley says.
Gashley is referring, of course, to the Trans-Outland Highway. When he accepted the post of Ambassador to Gutak from Varay, he sold his share of the highway authority for a million Olympian dollars to Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen, as well as two griffs for he and Dominican. This still left the authority in in posession of five griffs. Four are in the care of Travis and Romayne in Clavicle and the last is Zak's.
"From the Gutak Bridge to the Cliff House. All the trees are uprooted and set aside, and the holes filled."
"Not bad. That was Arg the troll's work?"
"So they'll finish in the fall." A wyvern screeches above them, rising from the palace and heading north. Gashley watches it leave. "He's off to negotiate the ransom. I hear the Queen is going to settle for twenty million dollars, ten for Gutak, six for Dag, and four for Mokul."
"That sounds about right." Quayam says.
"Rackhammer's finest hour," Gashley says.
"So far," Quayam says. "There's a whole lot of war brewing in the world."
Gashley looks down at his croquet mallet. "I wish I could say I was dreading it."
6th November, 2483
Felicety Jones, emloyee of the Trans Outland Highway Authority, leans against the staircase that ascends from the floor of the High Valley to the Cliff House Hotel. She stretches her achillese tendon. She has just descended the stairs and walked a hundred meter or so from the cliff.
She has been here for two weeks. The staircase, the twin landing decks on either side of the hotel, one for griffs and one for wyverns, are brand new. Prince Bladebreaker of Gutak and his crew of a hundred orc engineers finished them in the last week of October at a cost of one thousand gold pieces, paid by the Trans Outland Highway Authority. For the Cliff House is now a Hotel managed by the Authority for the use of travelers upon the Trans Outland Highway. The path of this highway is cleared all the way through the Long Hills, ready to receive a smooth surface in the Spring.
Felicity looks around the valley. Smoke rises from the village of giants on the opposite side. The giants frighten her. They are unclean and their clothes are shoddy. But she works for Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel, and the giants must have enough sense to be scared of those three. In any case, she would go stirr-crazy if she had to spend every day cooped up in the cliff house. She comes down to walk around once a day.
There are four sheep in the pen at the bottom of the stairs, and the wood shed is full of chopped logs. She does not look at the sheep. Michael will kill two of them tomorrow to feed to their griffs. She starts to ascend the stairs. There are four hundred of them in flights of ten, made entirely of wood. There are no nails, only pegs. The flights are held up by beams thrust into holes bored into the rock. The entire structure is enclosed in a square tower to give the climber security on windy days.
It takes her several minutes to reach the top. She climbs a short latter into the base of the warren of rooms cut into the slab of rock that juts from the towering cliff. She stands in the store room. Firewood is stacked against one wall. Barrels of flour, wine, beer, pickled herring, cured meet, and dried fish fill another wall. This is the largest room in the hotel, ten meters across and three meters high, with crude pillars of original rock in places.
Not that the staff and guests of this place eat the food in the barrels. They summon food through a space bridge to Olympia. The hotel costs the Trans Outland Highway Authority a hundred gold pieces a week to maintain. She is about to close the trap door when she hears from outside the cry of a wyvern. She drops the door and rushes up the stairs. They have visitors.
The landing platforms and stables are made of wood in the same style as the stairs: held to the cliff with both cantilevered and angled supporting beams. When Felicety arrives upon the roof balcony, Travis Alomere and Romayne Srae are already standing upon one of the platforms, welcoming two black orcs and their wyverns. Michael Skinner stands upon the roof.
"They're going to have to move over to the other side. Our griffs are in the stable nearest them."
The orcs get back on their wyverns and fly to the other platform. Romayne and Travis follow on foot. As she passes by, Romayne says, "I can't believe it's them."
"Who are they?" Felicety says.
"The two wyvern bandits that our parents encountered over Varay in May."
"Hawkwing and Cliffandstone?"
"That's them," Travis says.
"Do you need help?" Michael says.
"You'd better run down and kill a couple of sheep."
Hawkwing and Cliffandstone are only the third party of guests to stay at the Cliff House Hotel. They get the best room. Felicety prepares them a hot bath. Michael slaughters the sheep and brings the meet up in the basket, which is hard work, and messy too, but it's what the guests want.
"We should just have a policy: mounts eat on the ground," he says.
Romayne summons supper from Olympia in the kitchen. After their bath, the two orcs lounge in the common room and admire Sid the demon, who sits near them, watching their faces. The guests are not ready to eat their supper, so the hotel staff eat the summoned food in the kitchen. At midnight, Romayne summons more food.
The orcs sleep late the next day. The staff gather around the kitchen table. It is cold outside. The windows are sealed with conjured wood, but still they seem to make the place cold. Felicety has put up curtains in the rooms they spend most time in. A fire burns in the kitchen hearth.
"She's pregnant, that's what I heard," Romayne says.
"Since when?" Michael says.
"Grandpa told me in August."
"Ah, well she's not showing yet."
"Nor will she for another year or two, I imagine," Travis says, "Karazi babies take seven years."
"Really? Seven years?" Felicety says. "That must get tiresome."
Romayne picks up a platter with bread, butter and jam, all brought from home or baked in the hotel oven. The platter wobbles as she carries it, and she puts it down with a bump. "These spirit matter things are weird," she says. "They don't have any inertia, just weight. And they are slippery."
"I tried to fix some of the shelves in the library yesterday, just could not get anything to stick to the stuff, and it crumbles," Michael says.
"Dad has been working hard on the tables and furniture. I'm not sure they are the right thing for the hotel. But I don't want to say anything to him."
"I dropped one of his slab tables on my foot yesterday. Almost cried out in pain, then realised it didn't hurt at all," Michael says. "So they have that going for them."
"It didn't hurt?" Travis says. "Why not? They're heavy."
"I know, but it didn't."
Romayne gives each of them a slice of bread. "I want to ask our guests some questions."
The orcs get up in the early afternoon and ask for lunch. Later, when they are lounging in the common room, Romayne joins them. "You have not asked how much the bill for the room is. Do you intend to pay or are you planning on leaving suddenly?"
Hawkwing laughs. Cliffandstone says, "We'll pay."
Romayne drums her fingers on a slab table. Hawkwing watches her. "You look like your father," she says.
"Thank you," Romayne says.
"Do you know when I first met your father?"
"In May. He and my mother captured your wyverns. But I doubt you had a good look at him. If you had, he would have captured you too."
"Oh, my!" Hawkwing says. "Proud of Daddy, aren't you?"
"Of course I am."
"No, that was not the first time I met him. I was up on top of a warehouse one fine night. I had blasted a nice hole in the roof and my partner was down inside looking over the loot, when up comes an elf with a sword. Of course, he could not see me well enough to know me later. But I could see him. And I knew him when I saw him string his bow beside our wyverns this past Spring."
Romayne says nothing. She remembers her mother telling her about an episode with a warehouse. Where was it?
"You left your partner inside?" Cliffandstone says.
Hawkwing puts her head upon his lap. "Those were the dark years, my love. And anyway, he escaped."
The orcs leave the next day. Cliffandstone pays the bill with gold coins. Romayne remembers the story of the warehouse. It was over a year ago, at the Green Horn Tavern, when her parents were working for Falmut.
22nd December, 2483
"I don't want to be ungrateful," Gristel says, "But it's cold in here and the seats are hard, and we've been sitting here for a few hours now. What about a change of scene? We can go outside to our shelter."
Gristel is one of eight people seated with their backs to the wall of a circular hall. Seated on her left going around the wall are Quayam, Thristen, Zak, The Goddess Aries, Lord Coldirion, Lady Cloudmover, and General Rackhammer, who is on her right. Beside each chair is a small table with a teacup and some small Ursian sweets. Lord Coldiron is seated in his own iron wheelchair, but the others all sit in the ironwood chairs Gristel suspects Aries brought from Olympia. In the center of the circle is a bowl of glowing charcoal. She can feel the heat from the coals on her face, but a cold draft blows under the leather curtain over the door, and chills her feet.
Quayam folds his arms. Aries smiles. "I regret that I cannot leave this place. The laws of Clarus restrict me to remain within thirty meters of my temple point, which happens to be exactly in the center of this room."
Aries's elderly man-searvant shuffles into the room. Against the wall behind Zak is a charcoal-heated tea resevoir, which the Ursians call a samovar. He takes each of their cups in turn to the samovar and fills them up. This process takes a quarter of an hour, because he fills each cup holding it a full meter below the samovar's spout. This is supposed to be done without spilling a drop, but the old man's eyesight is not so good, so he does not notice the drops of tea on the floor. While he performs his function, none of the people in the room speak. Aries and the karazi watch him as if he were performing a circus act. Zak folds her legs under her upon her seat. Quayam stares at the ceiling. Thristen is smiling. Gristel half-stands to let some blood flow into her buttocks.
When the old man has shuffled out of the room, Coldiron says. "I believe you are incorrect when you say that it is the laws of Clarus that confine you to this temple. So far as I know there is no such law in any court of our world."
"You are correct," Aries says. "I am bound by Olympian Law, and if I disobey I can lose my control over summoning here, which includes my authority to pass you through a space bridge to a surgery room on Olympia to be cured of your affliction."
Coldiron's grip tightens upon the arm of his wheelchair. Cloudmover leans forward, baring her teeth in the karazi smile. "Quite so. And tell me Goddess, how is it known that this exact spot is the point of your temple?"
"Because I said it to be so."
"Surely, therefore, you could move this point outside for the comfort of our companion?"
"I could," Aries says, "But it would take a year to complete the move."
"Ah," Cloudmover says. She sips her tea.
The elderly karazi have jet-black skin, like their son and Aries. Most old karazi have gray skin from the drugs they take to keep them strong. But Coldiron and Cloudmover do nont take any drugs from Olympai. "One of Coldiron's complaints," Gristel says, "About the existing equillibrium in the outlands, is that longevity drugs are given out on condition of obedience. What can you do, Aries, to change that?"
Aries looks at Coldiron. "I'll sell longevity drugs to anyone who is willing to pay for them."
Coldiron stares at the fire. "Once you become dependent upon something you cannot make for yourself, or which one united party besides yourself controls, you become a slave. It has never been my wish to be a slave."
"I would hardly call us Olyjpians a united party," Aries says.
"You enforce the Reconciliation Treaty."
"For now we do. My hope is that this will change. Once you are cured, perhaps you will look more kindly upon some of us."
Rackhammer coughs. Coldiron sits back in his chair. "My son scoffs for good reason. You must not expect gratitude from a bitter old man like me. He will pay you one million of your dollars for this deed, that we might not call it a kindess."
"It is not I who will pay," Rackhammer says, "The money will come from Queen Daybreak. She wishes you healed that you might serve her and your country."
"It is your money, my son," Coldiron says. "You earned it because you fought a brilliant campaign. You don't have to waste it upon me."
There is a silence while Aries sips his tea. Cloudmover says, "My husband is here because I begged him to come."
"Perhaps," Aries says. "In any case, I'll take your money." She looks at Quayam. "I have been forgetting. How is Richard Crockford, the man you were rescuing when you killed me for the first time?"
"We have not seen him since last year."
"It is time to talk to him, I think. It seems to me that war is imminent between Endor and Ursia, with the focus being Karadan. It would be well to know if the blow will come this spring or in the fall, or later still. He might reveal things to you that he hopes to conceal."
Thristen laughs. "I doubt that. More likely we'll reveal everything and leave none the wiser. That's how it felt last time."
They sip their tea and chew on sweets. Coldiron has his chin on his hand. Gristel pulls her chair closer to the charcoal. "Is this okay? I'm breaking the symmetry."
"Please," Aries says. "What of the giants in the Long Hills, in the North Kingdom? I would know how we stand with Shiva."
"Chief Garandelsmashum stormed the King's Castle in September," Thristen says. "Now he is king. We understand that the head of the previous king, Vasalesshen, who was his uncle, is stuck on a pole over the castle gates."
Aries smiles. "And is the new king in agreement about the road?"
Thristen looks at Rackhammer. The general answers. "We sent an expedition along the path of the road, and my colnel explained the situation to the new king, and the king is now in agreement."
Aries nods. "I believe that demonstration may have irritated Shiva, but what I will talk to him."
"Why should it make a difference to us that the Gods are irritated?" Coldiron says, "Why can it not be the Gods who are worried about irritating us?"
"We are," Aries says, "And many of us are worried about the rising power of sapiens on Clarus. The power or wizards in particular."
"If the wizards are the ones who worry the gods," Coldiron says, "I would choose to be on their side."
"That has been my choice," Aries says. "It is not the power of sapiens that worries me, but the power of the beings that created my people, the Lumans. If they were to find us here, in this corner of the galaxy, it would go ill for all of us."
"How so?" Cloudmover says.
"At best, we would all become their pets, so great is their knowledge and power. At worste, they might take these worlds from us so that they can have the Celesti."
"The dragons would stop them," Zak says.
Aries stares at Zak for a while. "Maybe. The dragons are a mystery to us all."
6th April, 2484
A sapien man with tanned skin, white hair, and a brown leather jacket stands near the edge of a defile that crosses the path of the Trans Outland Highway. Facing him and yet towering above him is a karazi man with a black wool hat, a silver torque about his neck, and a black leather jacket. The sapien is Larak Moodmender, wizard and builder of conjured roads. The karazi is Bladebreaker, Prince of Gutak, and Director of the Gutak Core of Engineers.
"We're wasting time with these wooden bridges," Larak says. "I can have a one-year conjured bridge in here in two days, with a perfect surface. What's the point in delaying for a week to make a trellace bridge? You have already slowed us to half speed with your trellaces."
"Youre job is to surface the road, not build bridges," Bladebreaker says. Some of the keshi engineers stand a few meters away, listening to the debate.
Nearby on a path cleared through the forest is a framework of brass and wood upon which sits a younger sapien in robes. Larak points to the machine. "We can't get the surfacing machine across the defile, so we can't do our job because there is no bridge. I don't want to be coming back her in the Fall to fullfil our contract."
"You could work in the summer."
"I'm not working in the summer while you are all off fighting one another. I'm going to be done by the end of May. We're already half-way through our time and we have finished only one quarter of the road."
Bladebreaker puts two thumbs in his belt. The thumbs have claws. "Your bridges last a year. I'm not even certain of that. My commission for the Queen is to make a road we can use to supply our troops this summer. It must be passable by ogres carrying loads. It does not have to be smooth. We don't need carts. I must have bridges I can guarantee, and I must build them now. I understand your position, but I cannot allow you to occupy this space." He points to the defile. "With your conjured matter."
Larak rubs his forehead and shakes his head. He walks to the edge of the defile. "How are you going to frame it?"
"We will start with ropes."
"What if we make a conjured scaffold, then you can put it up faster. The scaffold could be ten-day."
Bladebreaker stares into the defile. There is a cold, babbling stream in the bottom. The water is good. This sapien is out-spoken. He is rude, and Bladebreaker's men are nearby. On the other hand, it would be interesting to see how the wizards might build a scaffold for his men to stand upon while they erect a trellace bridge.
"This would be good," Bladebreaker says, "We have four more bridges to build. I would like them to be built more quickly. We will try it. If it works, we will do it again."
"The bridge you build must be wide enough for our surfacing machine," Larak says.
"Very well," Bladebreaker says.
The following are extracts from the official battle records of General Rockorso of the Gadz Armed Forces.
Twenty-First of July, 2484. Three hours before dawn today, under cover of a cloudy sky, two divisions of Ankh infantry breached our defensive line in the Sharp Hills to the east of our capital. Our troops withdrew in disarray. This afternoon we are two divisions south of the city and one to the north, with Ankh's forces in between. Our leadership is ashamed and demoralised. Our troops blame us for the failure, and we blame them for their lack of courage. No doubt we are all to blame, after years of paying tribute rather than fighting battle. Our supplies are plentiful. We have several hundred men captured, and no enemy prisoners. Today was fought the Battle of Eagle field in the north, which ended in a mutual withdrawal, between Garaz and Gutak, with Carnus and Rackhammer commanding.
Twenty-Second of July, 2484. We found it necessary to order the retreat of Divisions II and III south of the river and into the swamps, where our knowledge of the paths gives us protection. Division II will await us to the north, between the swamp and the Long Hills. Meanwhile, our scouts tell us that the enemy is raiding our stores in the city. The council sends messages to us pleading that we do something, but we have been so soundly beaten in the past confrontations that we are at pains to keep our troops in proper order here, let alone move out to give battle. We have decided to be patient and see how we can turn our defeat into greater resolve.
Twenty-Third of July, 2484. Our patience today was rewarded. One of Ankh's divisions entered the swamp to come after us. We split them by a flank attack and pinned them down. In the morning there was a fog and our swamp men sowed confusion among the enemy by attacking and retreating. The enemy withdrew in daylight at mid-day, leaving several hundred of their men in our hands.
Twenty-Forth of July, 2484. We marched eighty kilometers today. First we joined II Division after marching twenty kilometers through the swamp. The Ankh divisions withdrew of their own accord and we persued them through the pass to the plains, where we found ourselves a hundred kilometers behind the Garaz army. We are camped today and debating our next move. The trooops are tired but determined to march the same distance again tomorrow if necessary.
Twenty-Fifth of July, 2484. We have spread our divisions over a fifty-kilometer front. They are adequately supplied with grain for now, but foraging as they go. We made fifty kilometers north-west in this way, so that we are now spread from Lake Zakh, in Garaz, to the River Boome, which runs along the east side of the Old Hills. We thus bestride the Garaz army supply lines and have captured a hundred of their ogres. General Rackhammer requests that we attempt to flank the main Garaz army. Garaz has captured three of his divisions somewhere to the east of us, and he is faced with the unified Garaz army on the plains. One path is to approach the main Garaz army from behind, but the general favors a still more indirect approach, and we are in agreement.
Twenty-Sixth of July, 2484. We are now east of the River Boome and preparing to cross into a range of hills just south of sapien lands, and which contains some distributed forces serving King Orbelastican. We have located the prison camp where three of our allied divisions are being held. We go east and then turn south to approach the camp rapidly and take them by surprise.
Twenty-Seventh of July, 2484. We find ourselves at the edge of another swamp. But we have among us a sorcerer who swears he can make a path across it tomorrow. By this means we will approach the prison camp to the south. Our march today was interrupted at times by assaults upon our troops from all manner of creatures loyal to King Orbelastican, one of which was this aged sapien sorcerer who has now agreed to help us, for fear of his life. We lost three men to some kind of monster that creates fire and yet lives in a river. We encountered several groups of sapien adventurers, some of whom attacked us, and one of which we captured as they fled. They were well-armed. We have brought them with us for want of anything better to do with them.
Twenty-Eighth of July, 2484. We have liberated the three captive divisions. We had hoped to capture the division that had guarded them, but our passage through the swamp at night must have been detected, for we could do little more than harrass their rear as they fled to the east. Our scouts later reported them crossing the river and joining the main army. The sorcerer, who says he is not a sorcerer but a wizard, served us well. None of the sapien prisoners wish to be released at this point because they fear for their lives being so far into the Old Hills, which they rightly view as a land of monsters. So they choose to remain with the army. I should say that we confiscated their weapons and armor, so they have every reason to fear the journey back.
Twenty-Ninth of July, 2484. At sunset we received Generatl Rackhammer's congratulations upon our action yesterday, and the order to advance south and take part in the Second Battle of Eagle Field. We believe we acquitted ourselves well today, all divisions, although neither side was victorious. The battle raged all day, with all divisions under Rackhammer facing all divisions under Carnus. I spent some of the day up above watching the movement of troops, so as to better direct our own. I could not fault the actions of either general. Neither could be lured into a mistake. The Gutak divisions fought well, perhaps too well, because they suffered casualties that weakened them. The Garaz divisions moved well, but could not envelop any of ours. Those of Ankh neither fought well nor moved well in my opinion, and this just adds to the shame of our earlier defeat at their hands.
Thirtieth of July, 2484. Our army and that of our enemy has suffered fifty percent casualties. Of the fifty percent, fully one in ten are dead and another one in ten are maimed. This is a day of grieving. Carnus and Rackhammer have agreed to end the summer campaign, and to exchange prisoners at no ransom, and with equipment. After so much marching, my troops were downcast. I believe I may have revived them this morning with a speech that I spent some time writing. My theme was our journey back from slaves to soldiers, that this journey had humbled us, but that without the three divions we liberated for our allies, we surely would have lost yesterday, and we would be slaves again, so that in the final analysis, we fought and kept our freedom, and served our allies well. I think they understood. I believe I even convinced myself. We will see how we are received when we return home.
27th August, 2484, 4 pm
Gristel and Quayam stand in the hallway outside Zak's room in the Gutak Palace. Gashley paces up and down nearby. A shriek of pain comes from within the room. The voice is Zak's. Gashley winces. Zak shrieks again and again, each time louder than the last, and more agonising. She shouts in her own language, harsh words spoken with fury.
"She's cursing," Gristel says. "That's a good sign."
They hear a smack and then a baby crying. Gashley runs his fingers through is sparse, gray hair and smiles. "Sounds like a boy."
Moments later, Thristen opens the door and sticks his head out. He is wiping his hands with a towel. They are covered with blood. He is grinning. "It's a girl!"
"Is Zak well?" Gashley says.
"She's fine. She's holding the baby."
Ten minutes later, Thristen lets them into the room. There is a karazi woman there, standing to one side. She is a midwife, but she does not appear to have taken part in the delivery. Zak is lying propped up in her bed with a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in her arms. She is pale but smiling.
Gristel leans over the baby. "Oh," she says. The child is red and puffy and her eyes are closed. She has no tusks nor jutting jaw. She is half-orc, and will grow up to look like a sapien, perhaps stronger, or wider in the hips than average.
Gristel is slightly dissapointed, but also relieved. In the months of Zak's pregnancy, there had been much private and whispered debate between she and Quayam and Thristen about the true identity of Thristen's father. His mother had always claimed that his father was an elf, but this seemed unlikely. Perhaps she was making up a story to hide the fact that Thristen's father was an orc. Even though Thristen has had a great deal of blood work done by Olympia over the years, it turns out that the blood of a half-orc is almost identical to that of a sapien. He might be a half-orc and nobody would ever have noticed. Several times a year in varay, two people, both half-orcs without knowing it, have a child who is an orc. It always comes as a surpise. But this girl is a half-orc, and that is for sure. Perhaps their next child will be an orc.
"She's adorable," Gristel says.
"Do you have a nam?" Gashley says.
"Kim," Zak says. "After my friend."
"A lovely name," Gashley says. He shakes Thristen's hand. "Congratulations upon the birth of your second child."
Quayam clears his throat.
"What's that?" Gashley says.
"Third child," Quayam says. "Don't forget Travis's twin brother Grandad."
"Oh yes. The missing twin brother."
Zak licks her baby's face. "You've got two brothers! One day I'm sure you'll get to meet the other one."
Thristen recalls Grandad's face when they parted on Domus. That was years ago in Thristen's time, but centuries in the future by standard time. The old man had tears in his eyes, as if he were saying goodbye for the last time to a dear friend. And yet, Thristen had never met him before.
"I think she will Grandad one day," Thristen says. "She is my third child."
Quayam says to one side. "Third one that we know of." He shakes his head. "Just can't keep it in his pants."
6th September 2484
Nine wagon, their teams of horses, and two dozen mounted guards, have gathered in a field a hundred meters from the Green Horn Tavern. The Trans Outland Highway runs past the field, in front of the tavern beer garden, and south to Mokul.
The sun is shining, but the ground is still wet from last night's rain. The wagon wheels and horse hooves have churned the field into muc. Gristel stands in the field with a clip board in her hand. In front of her is a man in ring armor, a thick-walled box wagon with a team of four horses attached and another two horses tied to the back. Another man sits on the bench of the wagon.
"So that's one armored wagon, six hourses, two axels, and two persons, is that right?"
"Yes. Do you need the names of the horses too?"
Gristel looks up. The young man is smiling. "No thank you. We need the names and nationalities of the people so that we can make sure you are not breaking the Reconciliation Treaty. If you go in on our road with a cargo, we have to make sure that you come out with the same cargo."
Gristel finishes writing on the form. "You're all set. Thank you and have a good trip."
Another wagon trundles into the field. Splendid, Gristel thinks. That makes ten. They had hoped to have a dozen merchants show up with wagons full of iron. But only one merchant had the courage to attempt the first trading voyage down the Trans Outland Highway. So she and Quayam and Thristen went to the Loud Lady Lodge in Kiali and talked about the road to the crowds of adventurers who inhabit the place, and the result was eight, and now it appears nine, wagons bought, loaded, and guarded by adventurers.
She approaches the new arrival. It is drawn by two horses. A man and a woman sit on the bench, and there are mounted men besides. Gristel recognises them from Kiali. The woman on the bench is a wizard. "Welcome! I'm glad you decided to come. What have you in your wagon?"
"One thousand kilograms of iron ingots," the woman says.
"Good. That should fetch you fifteen hundred guineas in Varay. How much did you pay for it?"
"One thousand," the woman says. "How much are you charging for a toll? Do we pay it now?"
Gristel writes on her form before she looks up and answers. "We're waving the tolls until the first of January 2485. When we start the tolls, they will be five guineas per horse and ten guineas per axel. People are free. You'll pay the toll here when you go south, and a place called The Birdcage in the borderlands at the other end when you head north. Also, half-way along, in a place called the High Valley, you have to check in with our peole so we can make sure nobody is missing."
Gristel walks around the wagon. "Do you have fodder for your horses?"
"We thought we could get that on the way."
"Not yet you can't. You'll have to buy it here. Do you have space in your cart for four hundred kilograms of horse food? What about food for yourselves? You should take that along too. There are no hostels this trip."
"Is the road finished?"
"Almost. It's graded and cleared all along its length, with all necessary bridges. But the surface is dirt and gravel from here to the High Valley. After that it's conjured wood made by the Larak Moodmender, our Ursian road-maker. He will be back this Autumn to finish the rest of the road and make hostels out of conjured wood every ten kilometers."
"They won't last long, will they, if they are made of conjured wood?" the woman adventurer says.
"He says they will last for a year. Then he'll make new ones and they will last for a year, and so on. Eventually the orcs might figure out how to deliver fodder to the hostels and sell it, but until then, you had best bring your own or you will be wasting time grazing your horses. Our hope is that you can make forty kilometers a day if you don't have to stop to graze the animals."
"We don't mind stopping. We're looking forward to the journey."
"Well, that's up to you, I suppose. The grazing is not good for portions of the trip, and we'd be more comfortable if you stuck together. But it's up to you."
Another of the adventurers, a large man wleans over from the back of his horse and says, "How much does it cost to make a road of conjured wood?"
Gristel looks up at him. For a moment, she wonders why he wants to know, and if there is any dark motive behind his desire. But the young man has a kind face, and what has she to hide?
"We paid him five thousand guineas for the first half, including helping make the stone bridges, and we're going to pay him another five thousand for the second half, including hostels all along. So ten thousand guineas for four hundred kilometers of road, which is twenty-five guineas a kilometer."
"You'll have to pay him that every year, won't you?" the woman says.
"Not quite. He'll come back each spring and re-surface the road, and make new hostels for five thousand guineas."
The woman nods.
"You can ask him yourself. He's here today, to attend the opening ceremony, which will be in a couple of yours. Now," Gristel says, "You need fodder and food." She points up the main street of the little village next to the Green Horn Tavern. "You can get it all up there."
6th September 2484
At a table in the beer garden of the Green Horn Tavern, Quayam Srae and his old friend Richard Crockford sit sharing some bread, cheese, and mulled cider.
"We didn't expect you to come," Quayam says.
"You didn't invite me, why would you expect me?" Richard says.
The Trans Outland Highway is now officially open. Trackandslay, King of Mokul, cut the ribbon across the road. From the top of a large boulder, Thristen gave a speech on behalf of the Trans Outland highway. He was followed by Falmut Grossman, on behalf of the Green Horn Tavern at the north end of the highway, Trackanslay, who spoke for Mokul, Bladebreaker, who spoke for Gutak, and finally Gashley Virage, who spoke for Varay at the south end of the road. Flasheen, who has agreed to police the southern end of the road in the bordlerlands between Gutak and Varay, was not present, but Thristen assured the assembled travelers and spectators that this red-haired leader of renegades would protect the passage of the road through that dangerous stretch of territory. Larak gave a brief speech about the state of the road, and answered questions about the hostels he would be making in the coming months.
The woman Gristel had spoken to asked him how he moved his machines to and from the Outlands, and Larak began to explain in detail how they broke them down to their metal parts only, and moved them by space bridge thruster wherever they liked, then built them up again with conjured and spirit materials. But Gristel interrupted him at that point, saying, "Larak will be available for questions after the opening."
An hour later, the ten carts and their thirty guards trundled off to the south, followed by most of the spectators. Gristel and Thristen went with them, and left Quayam behind. "You deal with Richard. Don't give too much away," they instructed him, and so he sits alone with Richard now.
"It's good to see you," Quayam says.
"And you, sir."
A kobold runs past, carrying a short spear and a shield. It wears a leather jerkin and breaches, but its arms and calves are bare, showing green skin with yellow and red flashes. It's tail is thrust straight out behind.
"Good heavens, what an extraordinary creature." Richard says. He stands up in his seat to watch it go by.
"A kobold scout," Quayam says.
Richard sits down. "They can talk?"
"Yes. They can even play chess."
"It's incredible. I have traveled all over the world, or so I thought, and to other worlds, but I have never seen a kobold up close like that. And the orcs all around today. I had thought they would be grotesque, but they are not."
"Come and watch the Herringbones performance tonight in the tavern. That will open your eyes."
"Can I get a room here?"
"I'll make sure you have a room," Quayam says.
"I'll do that then." He breaks off a piece of bread and chews it. "I would like to bring my family here. My children would be thrilled to see these people. I'd like to learn their language."
"They are interesting people," Quayam says. "I have learned a lot from them." He tells Richard about Thristen and Zak and their baby Kim.
"But why are the orcs being friendly towards us?" Richard says. "Why are they letting us march through their land, at no benefit to themselves? Orcs are brutal, that's what we are lead to believe. Orcs rob and steal."
"They do rob and steal. And they like to make war."
"Does this road help one side or another in a war?"
Quayam says nothing.
"I see, that makes sense. So they do their part to maintain the road, and you do your part, but you don't exchange any money. That the way it goes?"
"Something like that."
"I tell you what, I'll answer questions you ask me, as a friend. What have you got to hide, anyway?"
"My partners told me not to reveal anything to you," Quayam says.
A party of orc women are walking by. When they see Quayam they stop and gather round him. They embrace him and lick his forehead, and laugh and joke with him for several minutes. Quayam introduces Richard. When they go on their way towards the tavern, Quayam says, "The Herringbones. Zak was one of them."
Richard's eyes are wide. "Lovely." He looks away from the ladies. "Your road looks like a breach of the spirit of the treaty to me."
"The Trans Outland Highway does not pay the orcs. The orcs don't pay us. We share the road. We check nationality and names of all travelers. They pay a toll directly to us. They bring cargoes all the way along the road, not trading along the way is sanctioned by us. As far as we can tell, that's all legal."
"Good luck with that."
Quayam shakes his head. "Endor is going to attack Ursia, isn't it? You already tried to blockade Karadan and failed. You're not going to give up, are you?"
"I don't know," Richard says.
"What do you mean you don't know? You're ambassador to Caravel. You're Endor's highest-ranking representative east of Anon. Of course you know."
Richard taks a slow sip from his cider. "There is an ambassador in Kent. He ranks as high as me."
"Why does Endor want to attack Ursia? People are going to die. What for?"
Richard frowns at the sky. Quayam waits. Eventually, Richard says. "What if you were to give to the children of this village each a device capable of destroying the entire village, with a button on it that the child need only press and the destruction would be brought about. Would you feel safe here?"
Quayam does not answer.
"Of course you wouldn't. And what if there were parents in this village who insisted upon giving such devices to their children. What would you do about it? Would you let them continue? Would you move to another village?"
"I don't know," Quayam says. "I'd talk to the parents."
"Good. Talk to them. They tell you to go to hell. Now, imagine that you live in the neighboring village, but the most malevolent and sociopathic members of your village to go the first village and there they receive these destructive devices, and they bring them back to your village and blow up the church, killing your own children."
"I don't go to church."
Richard frowns. "I'm being serious here. Don't insult me. This is a compelling problem, and the way Ursia has answered our complaints about them arming Anoni terrorists is beneath contempt. They have no regard for the lives of our citizens. They produce weapons that give unskilled fools the power to dominate and threaten others. Putting such weapons into the hands of children and sociopaths threatens the very fabric of human society, and the Ursian leadership does not care one jot." He slams his hand on the table. "Not one jot do they care about it. They say they will sell these weapons to whoever they please. Pah!"
"I think it's more a case of prohibition being impractical," Quayam says. "Like the prohibition of drugs that's devestating Kent, in case you had not noticed."
"I entirely disagree. It is the drug sellers in the outlands who are devestating Kent, and the weapon sellers in Ursia who are fuelling a murderous campaign of extortion by so-called Anoni Rebels in our own country."
"Those rebels have legitimate concerns," Quayam says. "Such as inadequate representation in parliament."
"That may be so. But we will resolve those through pariament, not through killing women and children."
"So that's the reason you are going to declare war?"
"That and the fact that Ursia uses intimidation to extract concessions from every nation it deals with, even to the point of installing dictators that favor Ursian interests in the place of democracies, as they did in Phonecia. We refuse to resort to such tactics."
"Your interpretation of history is your own," Quayam says. "To my reading, Phonecia left democracy behind because they wanted to, and joined Ursia much later."
"There are pirate wizards threatening Endan sea traffic. What does Ursia do about them? They don't attack Ursian ships, so Ursia says there's no problem. But these pirates live on Ursian soil. Ursian wizards attack countries that refuse to continue selling mithril to Ursia at half the market rate. The list goes on, and it represents one thing: a government that is powerful and yet thoroughly without a sense of its place in the world, and no respect for its neighbors."
Quayam nods. "I'm sorry you see it that way."
"I'm not sure how I see it," Richard says. "That's what my countrymen think. And as you know, there are those in my country that think we should drive the orcs off the planet. They want to invade Ursia, then the Outlands, and make it all a democratic utopia. I don't know what to think of all that." He looks at the orcs and sapiens eating and drinking at the nearby tables. "But I figure that I should take my family down this road of yours, so I can see the orcs before it's too late."
"If you decide to do that, we will provide you with an escord. My own daughter and Thristen's son, for example, will accompany you to keep your children safe."
Richard smiles. "Thank you. Whatever happens between our nations, I want you to know that I remain your friend."
Quayam picks up an apple and admires its red skin. "I hear you. I don't believe you, necessarily, but I hear you. When the war comes, we'll be fighting with the Ursian army."
"I wish you health and safety."
"Thank you," Quayam says, and bites into the apple. With his mouth full, he is less likely to talk, and what he does not want to talk about is their ambition to bind Gutak and Garaz together in an alliance led by Rackhammer, and then to bind the Outlands, Varay, and Ursia together in a grand alliance of races that would be able to withstand the full might of Endor. And after winning that war with Endor, this alliance would be strong enough to force an end to the Reconciliation Treaty, and so permit orcs and men to live together.
He swallows his mouth full of apple. "Who knows what the future holds."
Richard smiles. "Indeed."
And so ends the Iron Road Trilogy, whith the opening of the road, and all necessary alliances in place. We see that the scene is set for the next chapter in the Adventures of Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen. The Ursian-Endan War is about to begin, and our heroes will be part of it. We will hear about the war, their part in it, and the continuing story of the Iron Road, in Ursia at War.