Which introduces another of Valarien's chosen ones.
The gargantuan being made as if to advance upon them, then gave a great bellow of anger. It thrashed its arms as though something had it tied by the knees. Its eyes flared as it turned its head and torso to look behind and down, roaring the while.
The roars turned to high-pitched howls and the arms flailed more wildly. It seemed to be struggling with an invisible enemy which was inexorably confining its movements and slowly compressing it. The struggle continued for some minutes until, with a final wail, it collapsed into a heaving glutinous mass that dissipated like a fog.
"Well, I'll be " breathed the king. "That was a wondrous spell, wizard."
"It was no doing of mine," Valarien declared, his eyes focussed above the shoulder of the mountain above the pass, "but I think I know whose it was."
The rest followed his gaze to where a series of small puffs of white smoke floated skywards on the still air.
"Omanisa. I think, gentlemen, it is time we were going. Thank you once again for your - um - kind hospitality. It was most - um - enjoyable."
If the wizard looked as if he was speaking through a mouth full of pickled onions, King Erik, at least, did not appear to notice. He bid his guests, or rather, honoured friends, a fond farewell, assuring them of his life-long goodwill and a warm welcome in the Bard's Hall any time they visited his kingdom. His warm wishes elicited a much warmer response from two members of the group who promised to take him up on his invitation as soon as maybe.
It was twilight by the time the four finally emerged at the southern end of the Sundering, half way up the Snake Range. The journey was uneventful. Gammer Otta, an old crone who was the embodiment of everyone's idea of a witch, gave them a cheery wave and a toothless grin as they rode past her cottage behind the large boulder. Once or twice, the white bird was sighted, but otherwise they were alone.
Leon found a suitable place to camp for the night sheltered from prying eyes and Valarien got the fire going. He had been wrapped in a veil of introspection for most of the day. Kai had forborne from interfering, riding in silent companionship beside him.
As they sat round the campfire in sleepy contentment, it did seem that the wizard had come to terms with his conscience. His face looked peaceful enough in the flickering light and the look of pain had gone from his eyes.
In the silence, came a faint cluck followed by the unmistakable call of a whippoorwill. Kai breathed in sharply. It was so long since he had heard that distinctive cry. He shivered in a mixture of nostalgia and excitement. Home seemed so much closer now.
Valarien had risen to his feet and was looking round - curiously, Kai noted, but not apprehensively. Ewan and Leon were sorting out between them who should take first watch when their attention was caught by a faint tinkling of bells, and they too became aware of the wizard's watchfulness. They followed his gaze in the direction of the bells.
"Trouble indeed, Valarien," came the gravelly reply. "You are not come too soon - as ever."
Omanisa's eyes twinkled in the dancing light, as though laughing at some private joke. He sat cross-legged beside the wizard.
"I have been awaiting you since the Moon of New Grass... However - news later. I know not your friends."
Thus prompted, the wizard made the necessary introductions.
"Valarien has said very little about you," Kai said, eyeing the man speculatively. "You are a shaman, I believe?"
Omanisa agreed this was so. He added, seeing that the wizard was looking a little put out," He would protect me from our enemies. The less that is said, the less can be overheard... He has said little about you too, save your name, which is not Kai. I have since learned much about you from your name alone, which shows one cannot be too careful."
Kai raised one eyebrow. "I am sorry, I had not thought to criticize," he said to the sensitive elf.
Valarien smiled slightly and dismissed the matter with a wave of his hand. He went on to enquire if Omanisa had attracted any of the problems that had beset their own journey.
"Nothing of any great significance, my friend," the shaman replied, "but then, I blend in with my background."
They all chuckled at this sally, for though Valarien sometimes made use of Scipius's disguise spell, it was plain he preferred to be seen in his full majestic wizardliness. Omanisa assumed a more serious expression.
"Well, thank the gods she did," Valarien commented, "or our mission would have ended at the other end of the Sundering."
"That was no big thing," Omanisa chuckled.
"Looked pretty big from where we were."
Leon's remark drew an outright laugh from the shaman.
"No, no," he protested, "it was merely a simulacrum. Although quite small, it projected itself upon the air so as to assume gigantic proportions."
"But - the sheep?" Leon queried.
"And did you count the sheep - before and after?" Omanisa inquired when Leon had explained.
"Well... no," admitted the barbarian, looking, Kai thought whimsically, rather sheepish. The shaman smiled a gentle reassurance.
"I think the intention was to delay you. Had it succeeded in frightening you away from the Sundering, it would have taken you many wearying days of travel to cross the Snake. Perhaps you caught the enemy napping, too, by your unexpected direction. They have discovered our position now, of course, though we may well have gained a tempo here. Their forces must be scattered for them to have relied upon such a feeble ploy."
"Nevertheless," Valarien demurred, "without your action, the simulacrum would probably have succeeded."
"Well, it didn't," said the shaman with finality, "and now we must take advantage of the time gained. Be sure our enemies have made the most of the time you have lost across the ocean."
"What do you mean?" Kai asked sharply, heart in mouth.
Omanisa looked inscrutably at the warrior as he considered his reply, keeping him on tenterhooks as he pulled out and primed an old clay pipe. A pungent aroma drifted across the camp as the shaman told his tale, his voice low-pitched and sombre.
"It was the Moon of Cherries Redding that I bid Valarien farewell. In the moons that followed, the evil seeped through the mountains into Utina Olgala, my beautiful country, seeking to corrupt my people. In any land, there are people, weak and foolish, who will succumb to the seditious lies of the servants of the Great Nameless One. Evil will always find greed and fear to feed upon. A pity it is that wickedness comes with a fair face, else it would never gain admittance save to the blackest hearts. So far, there is no great harm done, but our enemies have gained a foothold at least. While Chief Sawa holds firm, they cannot cause too much trouble, but I fear Hakan has fallen. Odagoma, too, shows signs of coming under their sway, which may be more dangerous for he has the ear of the young warriors. South of the mountains, it is a different story. Belsaria is completely under the dominion of the Dark Ones."
Kai dropped his head and shivered in horror.
"In the east, Sigoinia is on the brink of thraldom, and malignant tendrils are worming their way into the Marches here. What is happening in the west, I know not, but I doubt it is good. We must reach the seat of corruption without further delay."
"Gyldenburg," murmured Kai, his head still bowed.
Kai looked up sharply. Leon regarded his companion with a new respect. True, he had heard Kai's story back in Désirée's boarding house in Harlonne, but then it had sounded almost like a fairy tale. He had found it well nigh impossible to associate his fellow jail-bird with the grandeur of kingship. Kai had looked remarkably well in those crimson velvet robes though, he recalled.
"A king needs a country and a crown," Kai was saying quietly. "I have neither as yet. Time to think of such things when we have purged the corruption which despoils the land and enslaves my people."
The last words were spoken with suppressed passion and a smouldering look of fervour that none had seen before. The look faded.
"We are in your hands, Omanisa," he continued. "Which route do you recommend?"
"One which will not be expected."
Kai looked questioning.
"It is a longer route," the shaman went on, "but one which, in the end, may prove both safer and quicker - across the Great Fen."
"What?" Kai exclaimed in disbelief. "It is an evil place, shunned by all!"
"I believe our friend has a plan," Valarien interrupted hastily.
"Indeed. In the first place, who will think to look for us near the Great Fen? In the second place, I have means of crossing the Fen with great speed, which will bring us to Belsaria's border long before the Dark Ones expect us. We shall start at dawn. I will return a little before." He stood up. "One more thing. Get rid of the draperies, Valarien. We can do without a banner to advertise our presence."
The wizard glared at the space Omanisa had occupied, but the shaman was no longer there.
Touchy though Valarien could be upon occasion, he bowed to Omanisa's wisdom, and when the latter reappeared leading a rawboned appaloosa, the flamboyant raiment had been dispensed with. The wizard was wearing a cambric shirt, jerkin and breeches of black leather - and a brooding scowl.
In the east, the sun, not yet risen, was gilding the bars of cloud along the horizon and slowly driving away the purple night. Breakfast was a hasty affair after which they broke camp and set off down a rough goat track that zigzagged across the lower slopes of the Snake.
By afternoon, the gradient had slackened considerably and the five headed south towards the Great Fen. By day, the five rode at speed across the undulating plain that was the Low March, avoiding inhabited areas and seeing naught but grazing herds, rabbits, a number of snakes and lizards, and a few small ground-dwelling birds.
No doubt the skies above were kept clear by presence of Chilali with whom Omanisa had some sort of telepathic bond. She rarely came near the party, yet she seemed to be guiding their course around potential trouble spots.
On the few occasions that she did approach, settling high in some lightning-struck tree, Leon stared at her with open admiration. He had never seen such a magnificent creature before, with her sleek shining white plumage and her wild eye.
Once, he tentatively reached out to her with his mind, but she was off aloft once more as though scorning the advance. He never tried again and, for her part, she condescended to overlook the offence.
Each evening before sundown, Omanisa supervised the building of a rough wickiup, well camouflaged, in some sheltered place. In the centre of the hut, he cleared a space.
They had not been riding long before they reached outer fringes of the The Great Fen. Its miasma spread out across the plain to meet them on the tendrils of a nauseous yellow mist. The air was alive with the croaking of a thousand frogs and the whine of a million mosquitoes. Omanisa called a halt.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" asked Kai as they dismounted.
The shaman merely looked a reply as he delved in his saddlebags. He retrieved some small clay pots which he distributed among his companions, and bid them rub the contents on such parts of their skin as were exposed, and also upon their horses' flanks. The pale golden unguent had a pleasant floral smell, which, said the shaman, the mosquitoes would find thoroughly disgusting.
Next, Omanisa produced a sealed bottle of dark blue glass and a whisk of stiff fibres. The bottle contained a thick oily liquid which the shaman brushed on to the horses' hoofs. He then fed them some leaves which Kai recognised as the ones he used to keep sleep and hunger at bay. They became restless and skittish, champing at their bits.
More of the leaves were passed round to the riders. Finally, the shaman offered them the option of wearing a blindfold, least they see something they would rather not. All refused and they mounted up. Omanisa led the party out across the fen at a gentle trot.
Kai, immediately behind, was surprised to find how smoothly Sadique covered the marshy ground with no sign of becoming bogged down. He looked down - and found his horse's hoofs were no longer in contact with the surface. Rather, he was galloping atop the misty layer of vapour some inches above the fen Flying!
He closed his eyes and shuddered. Sadique lengthened his stride. Kai opened one eye to confirm the awful truth and found the passing scenery a blur. Leon was laughing in delight behind him. Ewan and Valarien likewise exhibited a kind of wild-eyed joy. He alone could not share their pleasure, closing his eye again, and clinging on like grim death throughout that nightmare ride.
The sun had set by the time the wild, breathless ride came to its end, although there was still a pale glow in the western sky. Kai almost had to prise his eyelids apart, and he found his limbs were abominably stiff when he came to dismount. He massaged them briskly as Leon was casually asking Omanisa whereabouts they were.
"We are just outside the border of Belsaria."
"Impossible!" Kai exclaimed. "That would be nigh on two hundred and fifty leagues in one day."
The shaman merely smiled a smile of quiet satisfaction and set about the hasty construction of the night's wickiup in the lee of a clump of alder trees. In the morning, Valarien found Kai on the other side of the copse looking across his realm in the direction of Gyldenburg, a faraway look in his moist eyes.
"Not long now, my friend," said the wizard, comfortingly.
Kai nodded. "A week should do it, with any luck," he agreed, "and then "
"Our - um - work begins."
"And I am afraid." Kai paused. "Afraid of what I may find."
What they found as they entered Belsaria, was a land in bad heart. That part of the country closest to the Great Fen was cattle country, much of it water-logged and rank with thistles, hemlock and giant hogweed. The animals themselves were thin and sickly, and moved around listlessly.
There were few people to be seen. Those they did see ran for cover the instant they saw strangers approaching. It was all very depressing. Even the sky over Belsaria was gloomy and overcast as though reflecting the mood below.
At midday, they encountered the cause of the terror they had witnessed. A body of a dozen men came riding over the crest of a low ridge. Seeing the five travellers, they changed course and rode towards them. Most of the men were Belsarian in appearance, but with hard emotionless features below their helms. The two leaders were clearly foreign - dark swarthy men with cruel faces and an imperious manner.
"Halt! " cried the larger of the two. "Who trespasses on the domain of our sovereign liege, King Kieran the First of Belsaria?"
"Merely travellers passing through," Valarien said quickly, seeing a martial light in Kai's eye and fearing what he might be about to say.
"No one passes through this land without leave. Show your papers."
"We have no papers," Kai declared indignantly. "Such were not required in King Walden's time."
"Walden!" The man spat volubly. "That weak fool! Things are much different here now. Off your horses, all of you, and hand over your valuables."
"Make me," Kai challenged.
The man's eyes widened in anger. It was probably the first time anyone had failed to yield to his intimidating manner. His hesitation was only momentary.
"Kill them!" he ordered.