In which Kai turns the tables and finds an ally,
"Stand and face me, miserable cur, that I may see who seeks to steal my supper!"
Kai, inwardly cursing his carelessness, did as the bowman bid.
"So! Youre one of the jackals! Had I known it ere I fired, I'd have put my arrow through your neck, not at your feet! I've seen your evil handiwork - and me they call 'barbarian'!"
"You have me wrong, friend," Kai called back. " I am neither thief nor jackal. True, I took this tabard from its owner, but he had no further use for it, and I must travel through lands held by the Saghan îl. It seemed like a good idea at the time . . . "
"You make a good liar when caught like a rat in a trap. Naturally, I do not believe you, but Ill give you a chance - a very slim chance. I will fight you in single combat. Turn around - and sheathe your sword."
Behind him, Kai heard the barbarian slithering and scrambling down from the cliff, then there was silence for a while. Kai remained motionless, every fibre of his body taut as the barbarian's bowstring as adrenaline coursed through him. There was another thunk in the grass behind his feet. The voice of the barbarian close by bid him turn round again.
"You surprised me, jackal. I hoped - nay, expected - you to run away, like the craven folk you are. Had you done so, you'd have felt my arrow between your shoulder blades ere you'd gone three paces."
The barbarian bared his teeth in a smile that spoke both his ability to make good his words - and the satisfaction it would have given him to do so. He gave a puzzled frown.
"You know I intend to kill you. Why did you not run?"
"I trust you. You called yourself a barbarian. Such folk are direct, not subtle. You had time enough to put an arrow through me earlier had you chosen to do so. And anyone who shares my opinion of the Saghan îl can't be all bad."
"Fine words, jackal, but you dont talk me out of my purpose so easily. Now, take off your sword and pick up the dagger."
Kai looked down at the dagger which stuck out of the ground near his feet.
"I have my own," he said.
"Of course, but I do not chose to be scratched by a blade envenomed."
Kai shrugged and removed his sword-belt. Keeping his eyes on his opponent the while, he bent to retrieve the knife and wiped it on the grass. It was well balanced and felt good in his hand. He stood, knees slightly flexed and eyes unblinking, waiting for the other to make his move. The barbarian watched him, casually tossing his own dagger from one hand to the other.
"I see you are craven after all," he jeered.
Kai refused to rise to the bait, and sought to provoke his adversary into hasty and imprudent action himself.
"If I am craven," he said softly, "perhaps I am not alone . . . "
He saw a wild red light blaze in his assailant's eyes.
'Oh hell, not a bloody berserker!' he thought, leaping aside from a furious charge.
He spun round - just managed to parry a vicious upward thrust aimed at his heart. The man was fast - very fast. His onslaught was savage. Kai needed all his wits and skill to survive. A lesser man would have fallen to that first assault and not counted himself unlucky.
Kai had had no intention of killing his opponent. He began to doubt his ability to overcome him at all. He took several heavy blows. The dwarf mail withstood the challenge. The barbarian gave him a look askance. He began targeting other parts of Kai's body.
The initial fury blew itself out. Kai waited for an opening. It was a while coming. The barbarian gave him an opportunity. Kai took it with a speed that took his adversary by surprise.
The golden-haired stranger suddenly found himself disarmed and flat on his back. Kai was sitting astride him, the point of his dagger pressing up under his chin. There they remained a while, gasping for breath.
" Well fought, jackal," sighed the vanquished, "now finish it!"
Kai, remembering how the blonde one had toyed with him earlier, was in no hurry to end his triumph. Grinning his most evil grin, he drew the tip of the blade lightly and slowly across his victim's throat from ear to ear. The barbarian swallowed, uncertainty writ large across his face.
"Yes, friend, the Saghan îl do not accord their enemies so easy a death. They take pleasure in extorting every ounce of pain and suffering from them. You're a strong fellow. Who knows, you might still be alive this time tomorrow . . . "
The look of petrified horror on the face of the fallen forced a snort of laughter from his tormentor.
"As a matter of fact, I think you almost certainly will!" he exclaimed. The unholy glee in his eyes only added to the stranger's discomfort.
Still laughing, he got to his feet and offered a helping hand to the bemused barbarian.
"Fortunately for you," Kai chuckled, "I am not one of the Saghan îl as I told you at the beginning."
He picked up the other dagger and returned both, handle first, to their owner. The barbarian appeared suitably chastened, though the hint of a dimple suggested otherwise.
"I didn't really think you were," he replied.
Kai raised a sceptical eyebrow. The barbarian looked thoughtful.
"I guess it's true, though; I have a strong sixth sense, and I don't suppose I'd have taken the risk I did if I hadn't felt . . . well, you know"
"Who are you, friend, and what are you doing in these parts?" Kai asked in conversational mood.
"I am Leon, son of Thoron Bear-slayer," the barbarian announced proudly. "As to what I'm doing here, I'll tell you after I've eaten. Nothing like a good fight for sharpening the appetite! I might even let you have a bit of my bird."
"And I might let you cook it over my fire!"
Between them, they assembled a respectable repast. As they ate, Kai told Leon of the events of the past few days, and of his mission to the Radniki.
"I must go through the pass tomorrow. That's why I am wearing this infernal device," he concluded, plucking at the tabard. "I'm hoping to bluff my way through, assuming it to be held by the Saghan îl."
"I hope you're good at bluffing then," Leon replied, through a mouthful of roast duck, "because I saw several dozen of them heading that way yesterday. If you aren't that good, then you're dead . . . Slowly "
"And painfully. Yes, I know, especially if Vashtârik is there."
Kai explained, and Leon chuckled.
"Ve-ry painfully!" he commented.
"Well, I must risk it," Kai said solemnly. "You know what manner of people we're up against, and I know no other route."
"I do," Leon mumbled through another mouthful of duck.
Kai looked at him hopefully, then thought better of it.
"I can't afford a long detour," he said.
"Better late than not at all. It's east of here, so it'll probably take you nearer your goal anyway. The route's not so easy though, being higher. Think I might come along with you - if you don't mind the company?"
"Sounds fine to me - if you can spare the time. Do you have a horse somewhere?"
"Yeah, up top. Yours?" he asked, jerking a thumb at Sadique, who was standing in the water at the far end of the pool. "Powerful-looking beast," he added approvingly.
"Ah, well, his previous owner had no further use for him . . ." Leon replied with a grin.
This sally drew a reluctant laugh from his companion.
"And me he calls 'thief'!" Kai retaliated.
They both laughed. Together they rode towards the higher pass, the early evening sun warming their backs.
"You still haven't told me what brings you to these parts, Leon. You seem a long way from home."
"There isn't a lot to tell," the barbarian replied - a little evasively Kai thought. "As you surmised, my home lies many leagues north. My tribe are herdsmen - musk oxen mostly. They spend their lives following the seasons in search of fodder for the beasts. In my childhood you could say I travelled widely. After the first dozen or so annual trips, it all looked pretty much the same. I just couldn't bear the thought of spending the rest of my life looking down the back end of an ox.
"There were other things to do, of course. I learned to hunt and to fish. I loved to take off on my own - pit my wits against nature - and survive. My mother hated it. I remember when I came back with the first wolf I'd slain . . . You'd have thought she'd have been proud " He sighed.
"Womenfolk worry," Kai observed sagely. "I suppose we wouldn't survive long if they didn't, though."
"Trouble is, some of them don't know when to stop worrying and let you lead your own life," Leon replied darkly. "She didn't seem to like it any better when I went off with the others."
"Bad lot, were they?"
"You guessed it! Trouble was, one day, one of them didn't come back. I kinda got the blame for it - 'the ringleader' you know . . . It didn't help that he and I had quarrelled the previous day. We'd made it up later, but no one else knew . . . Anyway, to cut a long story short, I figured I was better off on my own and left. I still miss the company, though."
"That why you decided to join me?"
He fell silent, brooding on past injustices. A little while later, they came to a small homestead bearing all the signs of a recent visit from the Saghan îl. By now, the sun was a great red ball on the horizon, casting its bloody light on the scene.
"Maybe we'd better take a look," Kai murmured reluctantly. "There may be work for us to do."
"There isn't," his companion responded shortly.
"Ah . . . Tidying up after those bastards isn't a pleasant occupation, is it?"
The question, being rhetorical, received no answer. They rode on together in melancholy silence through the twilight. Kai was beginning to doze in the saddle, when Leon reined in.
"Don't know if you're planning on riding through the night, but if not, we could rest here," he said.
Kai opened unwilling eyes. They were outside a shepherd's cot, long deserted and falling into dilapidation.
"It's not much, but it's home," the barbarian quipped. "Actually, most of the roof's still intact, and there's room for the horses, too. I slept here last night."
Kai roused himself and slid from Sadique's back. Tired as he was, he knew he must attend to his horse before himself. Only then did he settle himself down, and found he had almost gone beyond sleep.
He tossed about fitfully for what seemed like hours before he finally drifted into unconsciousness. Despite his weariness, he did not sleep easily, being troubled by dreams of the harrowing events of the previous night.
He awoke feeling as though the entire Saghan îl army had ridden over him during the night. By the look of him, Leon felt exactly the same. A clammy mist filtered through the open doorway. Outside, skeins of mist filled the bottom of the valley below the cot. In the east, the faint solar disc was struggling to make its presence known. The only living things in view were sheep which appeared as pale grey shadows in the shifting vapour.
With an effort, Kai shook off the remnants of sleep. He knew he must make all possible haste, but felt as if he were moving through treacle. Leon joined him in a meagre breakfast. Neither spoke.
By the time they left their shelter, the sun had burnt through the mist and they were beginning to feel human again. They continued north-east, following a narrow sheep track. The ground was steadily rising towards the mountains. Looking back, Kai could see the north road winding towards the pass.
The Torath Sulari and the Kadina Bassa really formed one long chain of highlands, but between the two was a sizeable cleft, a natural route through to the lands beyond. On either side of the pass, the hills of the Kadina Bassa and the mountains of the Torath Sulari were pretty well equal in height, but while the hills declined almost imperceptibly towards the western horizon, the mountains rose quite sharply to several thousand feet before levelling out.
Looking back, Kai saw a large number of small black dots milling about around the entrance to the pass As he watched, a handful of the dots broke away from the rest and set off towards them. He called Leon's attention to them.
"No problem," the barbarian replied, "they'll never catch us."
"Unless something goes wrong," Kai suggested pessimistically.
"Nothing's going to go wrong," Leon said, bracingly. "We've half a day's start on them, and come midday, we'll disappear into the mountains. Then they'll have to find us, which they won't. And you're still dressed up like one of them."
He wrinkled his nose in displeasure at the sight.
"Well, in case anything does go wrong, and we become separated, I carry a message to Junak from Valarien, begging him and his fellow dwarves to take arms against the Saghan îl. I charge you with carrying the message if I fail. It's probably in the dwarves' interest to oppose them. There's no guarantee that Zervan won't raid their mines eventually."
"Right. Valarien is a friend of his - an elf. Don't ask me how they ever got together, because I don't know. He's also a wizard . . . 'and - um - mage.'"
"I have no truck with weavers of spells," he growled.
For an instant, Kai heard himself protesting about the unknown Ewan, and suddenly perceived how irritating Valarien must have found him. He swallowed a hasty retort and set about showing the wizard in a favourable light, forgetting for the moment, how they had parted.
"Anyway, it's not as if you're likely to meet him," he concluded.
"Well, if he's as good as you say, perhaps I could stretch a point," Leon conceded handsomely, "so long as he doesn't cast any spells on me!"
As Leon had forecast, they reached his path through the mountains by noon. It was, as he said, not easy to find. The narrow defile curved round behind an enormous boulder that looked as if it had been sheered off from some larger mass higher up. Unless one knew what lay behind it, one would never bother to look.
They dismounted, and lead their horses in single file up the narrow stony cleft. It was a long, slow march, with only occasional chamois for company, showing them how it was done. Kai was beginning to wonder if they would be benighted within the chasm when the path began to descend.
The route downwards was sharper and steeper than the upward trek. Much of it was spent slipping and slithering among a welter of loose stones and shingle, which caused grave concern for the welfare of the horses. A trickle of water appeared and swelled to a stream, further endangering their descent. There was no possibility of stopping for a rest, only the mad scramble onwards and downwards.
At last, the ravine began to widen and the gradient eased. Finally, the cliff walls on either hand fell away and they found themselves on coarse turf at the top of a steep grassy embankment. The stream cascaded away to their left. It was early evening and they were already in deep shadow. Below them, the setting sun still gilded the broad flat patch-worked green valley that separated the Torath Sulari from the Starkamen Mountains. In the distance, it glittered on a long lake to the west.
Kai estimated that it would take a further three days to reach the mountains of the dwarves. Leon was thinking of his stomach. Apart from a ration of pemmican consumed as they walked, they had eaten nothing since breakfast. There was also the little matter of where to camp. They were still very high with little shelter, and a chill breeze was getting up. There was no stopping here. The mountains were criss-crossed by the tracks of animals so they were able to ride again, staying within sight, or sound, of the stream. As they descended, trees, mostly birch, began to appear.
The sun had almost set when they followed the stream into a small glen. At the far end, a group of roe deer eyed them nervously. As well they might, thought Leon, nocking an arrow and letting fly at a young buck which was standing a little way off from his fellows. It dropped where it stood and the rest scattered, though not too far.
"Supper!" Leon exclaimed, cantering down the glen.
Kai set about making camp while the barbarian gralloched and quartered his kill. In the manner of one accustomed to living close to nature, he had first given solemn thanks to the deer for giving up its life to feed them.
Somewhere, a wolf howled. Leon howled a response, then carried a hindquarter to the fire which was crackling cheerfully by now.
"What d'you want to do that for?" Kai asked. "You'll have every wolf for miles around converging on us, and then we'll never get any sleep!"
"That's all right," Leon shrugged, "they're my friends. We can't eat all the meat, so they may as well have the rest. And anyway, hungry wolves are more likely to be a nuisance than full ones, don't you think?"
"So long as there's enough to go round . . . "
"Do you always look on the black side?"
"I prefer to anticipate trouble rather than have it creep up on me, yes."
"Slipped up yesterday, then, didn't you?" 'Trouble' asked, mockingly.
"Who won . . .?"
"Want a rematch?"
"What? To teach you a little respect, - barbarian!"
"How very true . . ." Kai said meaningfully.
"You know me well already."
Kai awoke next morning with the sensation that something was washing his face, and found himself eyeball to eyeball with a large grey wolf. It seemed to be grinning as it licked him. He froze, then heard a familiar laugh.
"I told you, they're my friends. She's only saying 'thank you' for the food," Leon chuckled.
"Past or future?" Kai asked, gingerly easing himself up on one elbow.
There were several more wolves mooching around the glen. He watched the barbarian tickling the belly of an even larger male, which was rolling on its back, for all the world like Baz, his favourite deer-hound back home.
Home. There it was again. After all those years, he suddenly felt homesick. Yet to what was he returning? He feared he would no longer recognize his old haunts. From the little Valarien had said, all the old order had been swept away, leaving . . .?
He became aware that Leon was talking, and snapped out of his glum reverie.
". . . I hope you know where we're going, 'cause I don't know the area too well. I came into this valley from the east."
Kai looked a query.
"No, no jackals this side of the mountain - yet."
"Good," Kai said. "I have to find the Priataina Valley, which lies north and slightly east of the pass - the one I would have taken - which means it's probably due north of here."
"The Priataina Valley? I've not heard of it."
"No. It's supposed to be well hidden."
"Then how do we find it?"
"We have to look out for the Crivenigla."
"It's a rocky pinnacle. Valarien said I couldn't miss it . . . Anyway, at the head of the valley is Ogladal Pool, and in the cliff wall at the back of the pool is the portal."
"Oh, so no problem, then!"
Kai responded with a wry grin.
"No, no problem at all."
They were well over half way across the valley floor before they ran into trouble. Their route across country had been nearly as direct as the crow flies, and although Leon's mount was no match for Sadique in either power or stamina, the Saghan îl bred strong horses, and they had made good time.
It was nearly noon on the day after they'd left the little glen when they came upon a broad track running roughly north, and decided to follow it awhile. Around a slight kink in the road they saw, a short way ahead of them, a party of some dozen or so dwarves, mounted and leading several more ponies.
"Good luck, friend!" Kai exclaimed. "Perhaps theyre of Junak's kin, and can lead us to the Priataina Valley."
He galloped up to them as Leon cried, "I'd take off that . . . "
But the rest of the warning went unheard. Kai had no time even to give the traditional greeting before he was encircled by wrathful dwarves.
"Kill the scoundrel, brothers!" shouted one.
"Aye! Let there be one less of this evil band!" agreed another.
Only then did Kai remember that he was still wearing the Saghan îl tabard, Then he noticed bloodstains on the saddles and flanks of the spare ponies, and fear gripped him.
A flash of insight told him the dwarves were returning from the pass where they must have encountered "Nellek's lot" - and friends. By now Leon, too, had been captured while trying to curb their fury, and Kai grieved that he should be responsible for the death of one so young and spirited. He gave him an anguished look.
"I'm sorry," he cried over the hubbub, then a blinding pain shot through his head as the world spun round and turned black.