The lead mahout blew his signal horn. The drivers gave their strange hissing call and struck their beasts on the back of the neck with their pike-length staves. With a stomach-sickening lurch the bridgeback rose and Rik found himself twice the height of a man above the ground. He felt the usual moment of fear. Sometimes straps snapped or buckles on howdahs gave way and they tumbled to earth, leaving their contents to be trampled under the claws of the wyrms. Another prod, another hiss and the beasts strode towards the distant hills.
Rik had heard a great deal about the sense of power being astride a bridgeback gave. It was nonsense. He felt very much at the mercy of the twenty ton creature carrying him. He had no control over the thing whatsoever, a fact brought home to him with every uncomfortable step. He felt like a sailor on the deck of a ship in a choppy sea.
Occasionally the wyrm turned its long, long neck to look at the occupants of the howdah and he felt as if he was being weighed up as a snack. He could almost feel the hunger that burned like fire in the creature’s belly.
He was embarrassed by the sense of relief he felt as it gave its attention back to the leaves of passing trees. Occasionally the huge tail whipped upward and long snakes of turd emerged. They turned into pungent pancakes as they smacked the ground. There was a lot of farting as well, which the Barbarian claimed was probably how alchemists produced the fatal gas they captured in their glass grenades. He should know, Rik thought, since he was a master producer of flatulence himself.
As they marched he thought about how many people were misled by the great parades they saw in Place of Sorrow, Tower of Joy and other cities of the Realm. Like so many others he had always thought of wyrms as moving in lock-step like Guards on parade, disciplined as elite soldiers. He now knew that most of the time, those wyrms were controlled by Terrarch sorcerers using leashes, sorcerous adjuncts that allowed their wearer to dominate the beast by force of will.
When under the direction of a mere mahout, a bridgeback’s progress was more like a meandering stroll. They left the track to seek choice morsels from the branches of nearby trees and returned to it only in response to a great deal of prodding, hissing and chanting by their drivers.
Still, for all the maddeningly erratic nature of their progress, they moved very swiftly. The wyrms’ long stride ate the ground quicker than guards marching at double step. The foothills of the mountains came closer with alarming speed.
“This is the life,” said Weasel, fumbling in his pocket for a stick of biltong. The Lieutenant was far from their howdah, leading from the front as he always liked to do. With him were the wizard and Vosh. Rik shared the howdah with the Barbarian, Leon, Weasel and several others including the Sergeant. “No marching. No climbing any bloody hills. Just a nice, relaxing excursion into the countryside.”
“You call these hills?” said the Barbarian. “In the Northlands we would call them molehills, just as we would call those things you say are mountains hillocks.”
“Perhaps you would care to get down from the back of the beast and jog along beside us up them, as you were wont to do as a youth back in your rugged homeland?” said Leon in deliberate mockery of the Barbarian’s manner. The pipe had moved to the far left corner of his mouth and bobbed up and down cynically at every word.
“They are not steep enough to give me any exercise.”
“You’ll be getting exercise soon enough when we get where we are going,” said the Sergeant. They all looked at him, suspecting that, as he usually did, he had a better idea of what they were about than the rest of them.
“What do you know, Sergeant?” asked Weasel. “Don’t keep us in the dark. Spill the beans! Who is the little rat up front?”
The Sergeant gave one of his dry chuckles. A look of amusement made his little cheeks pinker and his small eyes even more monkey-like than usual. “You don’t think they have given us the use of their precious wyrms so that we can sample the fresh country air hereabouts, do you?”
“You never know,” said Weasel. “The Exalted may be feeling generous today.”
“Why have they given us ten bridgebacks?” Rik asked.
“To get us where we are supposed to go quickly, and it must be some distance away. Ask yourself why they send out a company of Foragers on wyrms into these hills? Ask yourself which direction we are heading?”
“Towards the sun rise,” Rik said. “Towards the border.”
“Nice to see you are awake, Halfbreed,” said the Sergeant.
“You think there is going to be some incident with the Kharadreans?”
“I don’t know, but something big is afoot. Vosh was brought to the Colonel in the wee hours, and the Lieutenant was rousted from his bed along with a few others. Look up ahead now, what do you see?”
Even at this distance Rik could see Sardec was studying a map which he had produced from inside his tunic. The wizard leaned close to his shoulder and seemed to study it with him. The mountain man nodded his head as if in response to some question.
“He’s looking at some sort of scroll,” said the Barbarian. “Is he going to work magic? I never knew the Lieutenant had that in him.”
“It’s a map,” Rik said. “He’s checking where we are going.”
Even as he said this, the Lieutenant leaned forward and said something to his driver. “We’re going a fair ways into the hills, or we would not be on these beasts,” he said.
“You think we might be crossing the border?” Rik said.
“I think we’re going near it.”
“It’s probably bandits though,” Rik said. “Has to be. If it were anything else we would be moving in force.”
“Most likely,” said the Sergeant with as much reluctance as if he suspected something else entirely. Visions of spies and secret missions and all manner of things from the cheapest form of storybooks danced through Rik’s head, but he dismissed them as just too fantastic.
The Foragers discussed the matter in low whispered voices as the wyrms strode ever higher into the pine-covered hills until the shadow of the ancient mountains lay across them and chilled the heat of the sun.
Spring in the mountains was like winter in the valley. Snow still covered the peaks. Sometimes it fell in light flakes driven from the higher valleys, and discomforted the wyrms. Doubtless they would have been worse tempered had they not been so sluggish from the chill.
On the first night, the Foragers made camp in a hollow with the bridgebacks picketed to the trees and set sentries exactly as if they were in enemy territory. The hill-men of these parts had no love for soldiers of any sort, reckoning them all to be tax collectors or spies or thieves. In this they were not always incorrect, Rik supposed.
While they made camp, the wizard set wards, the old rune-covered sort that dated from the arrival of the Elder Race on this world. Rik had plenty of time to witness the weaving of magic as he gathered firewood for the others. Cold hands and a sore back were the price he had to pay today for his missing button and his mixed blood.
When Master Severin spoke the words to activate the ancient runestones a chill ran up Rik’s spine and a shiver passed through his body. He suspected that part of his heritage made him unduly sensitive to the presence of sorcery. It might have been his imagination but it seemed to him that the wizard turned and looked in his direction. The twilight and the mask made it impossible to tell his expression.
Of all of the Foragers, only the Barbarian had grown less miserable as they reached the heights. The colder it got, the happier he looked. The chill air reminded him of the bracing cold of his beloved homeland, although of course, it was not to be compared in any way favourably to it. Rik suspected the Barbarian merely took pleasure in the fact the rest of them were uncomfortable. It provided him with a chance to boast loud and long about the hardihood of his people and, more importantly, himself.
Those not on sentry duty wrapped themselves in their greatcoats, broke out pipes and threw themselves down by the fires. Most chewed tough biltong. Weasel toasted some rock hard bread on the end of his bayonet. They had set fires in hollows in the woods. Rik dumped the last of the branches he had gathered beside the fire and slumped down to rest.
Corporal Toby strode to the fire. Rik looked up at him. From this angle his craggy features and huge body looked even more monumental. “You dropped this,” he said in a voice only slightly less loud than a musket being fired. He handed Rik something and then strode off. Rik looked at the small cold metal object in his palm. It was a tunic button. “Thanks,” he said to the departing back.
He opened his pack and fumbled through it looking for a needle and thread, then, despite the chill, he took off his tunic, wrapped his greatcoat back around him and, by the fire’s flickering light, began to sew.
Leon sat across from him, an odd look on his face as he surveyed their surroundings. He looked out of place and wary, a city boy from Sorrow, the night out of doors in this chill place making him uncomfortable. He caught Rik’s expression and said; “Not like night in the Old Quarter is it?”
“No,” Rik said. “It’s not.”
He was half fearful that Leon was going to allude to their time running wild in that city of thieves, and that the lieutenant would hear. He looked around but the Terrarchs were sitting apart, holding themselves as aloof as always.
“We’re a long way from home, Rik,” Leon said. It had been a long time since Leon had called him by his real name twice in one day, and the fact that he did so just then seemed a measure of his unease.
“We are indeed, Leon.” Rik stressed the name, hoping his old friend would take the hint.
“You think there really are giants and spider devils in these mountains?”
Rik felt the others around the fire shift and give the conversation their attention. He guessed such thoughts were on everybody’s minds. “If there are, I am sure Master Severin can deal with them.”
“How can you be so sure? What makes you such an expert?” asked Pigeon, puffing his chest out and walking splay-footed in the way that had given him his nickname.
“Because he knows,” said Leon. “He has read more books than anyone here, maybe even including Master Severin.”
That claim provoked quiet mirth from those that did not know Rik well. The Sergeant said; “It’s most likely true. Never seen anybody read like our Halfbreed. You’d think he was studying to be a lawyer or a sorcerer or one of those other mysterious things.”
Rik wondered if this was some sort of warning. It was the sort of thing an Inquisitor would like to know about. It also showed something of the Sergeant’s ignorance.
It was not that Rik would not have read a grimoire if he got the chance, it was just that he never would. They were things their owners took a lot of pains to keep out of other people’s hands. Rik could only dream of getting a hold of one someday. The Old Witch had taught him some things during what he laughingly thought of as his apprenticeship to her. She had even claimed he showed more than a trace of the Talent but that was when she had been deep in her cups, and oddly sentimental. That had been before the business with Antonio that had driven Leon and himself to flee the city in the company of Death’s own angels.
“I like to read. What of it? You’ve all been pleased enough to have me read you stories from the chapbooks of an evening.” That too was true. They were all of them fond of a story, those who could not read most of all.
“Where did you learn to read, Halfbreed?” asked Pigeon.
“In Shadzar,” Rik said, using the old name for the Place of Sorrow. “In the Great Bazaar.”
“Bet that was not all you learned,” said somebody from the dark. The fruity voice sounded like it belonged to Handsome Jan. Sorrow did not have a good reputation even among the regiments. They might be the gutter scum of the Realms but even they had to feel superior to something, and that something was the inhabitants of Sorrow.
“Was you a thief?” asked someone else.
“Everybody in the Place of Sorrow is a thief,” said Gunther. “If they are not a whore. It is a vile cesspit of every sort of wickedness.”
There was no sense in denying that. Rik felt a strange nostalgia for the covered courtyards and mazy alleys of his home. At least they were warm. He might still have been there now but he had taken the Queen’s gold crown and gone for a soldier.
Of course, if he had not, after the business with Sabena and the jewels, Antonio and his men would probably have had him hanging from a meat hook and Leon with him. Not even the Old Witch could have saved them, if she had been of a mind to, which she most likely was not. She had gotten strange in the later days, as all human sorcerers were said to eventually.
And Antonio was the most powerful crime boss in the city, rich enough to buy immunity even from the Magistrates. It had probably not been such a good idea to sleep with his mistress, Rik reflected. It had been a worse one to help her steal that magic crystal from Antonio’s strongbox.
“It’s a fun place,” said Weasel, just to be contrary. “I enjoyed our time there.”
“That’s because you fit right in,” said another shadowy figure out in the gloom. Weasel just chuckled as if he could not agree more.
“I knew a Terrarch whore there once…” he continued.
“There’s no such thing,” said one of the chorus.
“There is too, least she looked like one of the Exalted…”
“Means nothing, so does Halfbreed,” said somebody else.
“Maybe it was him in a wig,” said Pigeon.
Weasel chuckled again. “I think I would have noticed and so would your mother, since she was right between us.”
“Weasel’s your daddy, Pigeon,” said somebody and then looked up at the sound of footsteps. The Barbarian approached, bringing the hill-man Vosh. Weasel made a place for him by the fire and offered him some biltong and a swig from his special flask. The stranger took it gratefully. Weasel got right down to business.
“What are you doing here with us, Vosh?”
“It’s bad up here, Weasel,” said the stranger. He had the soft lilting accent of the hills. Rik nodded as his suspicions were confirmed. There was no way the stranger could have known Weasel’s name if they had not met before. The hill-man had been with the Lieutenant and the wizard all day.
“Things are always bad in the hills,” said Weasel.
“It’s been worse since the wizard came.” That quietened them. Nobody liked the thought of a wizard being up there, particularly not if they were going to have to fight against him. Wizards were always bad news.
“Wizard?” said Weasel, and even he looked a little worried.
“Renegade Terrarch. Showed up late last autumn. Whispered something in the Prophet’s ear and we all had to obey him without question. He turned the old manor house into a hellhole with his experiments. It was bad enough before he started digging the mine. After that…”
“Sounds bad,” said Weasel softly. No one else dared say anything at all. “Mine? Was there gold there?”
“We never saw any. It’s in a cursed unholy site too, near the ruins of Achenar, the old city of the Spider King.”
“What’s this wizard wanting? Why come to the bloody mountains for the middle of winter?”
“Don’t ask me, but it’s no good he’s been up to. He takes people down into the mine and they don’t come back up. At first it was strangers, but then it was our own — people the wizard said were going to betray us. The Prophet agreed. Of course he would, being more than half a wizard himself.”
“I can see where this is going,” said Weasel. “One night he started looking at you slantwise. So you decided that you would run to the Terrarchs and tell them the whole tale.”
“Better that than madmen loose in the mountains, raising ghosts and demons and god knows what else. It’s one thing to preach war with the Terrarchs. It’s another to start summoning the spawn of the Old Gods to help you. You lowlanders might not remember the old days but we hill-men have long memories…”
“Long memories of the time when you worshipped the scuttling hell-spawned soul-eating bastards,” muttered the Barbarian.
Weasel kept talking. “And the Exalted have promised you sanctuary because among the clans, no matter what the reason, a man who sells out is an enemy. It’s a good way to end up with your own severed dick in your mouth.”
The stranger looked ashamed and defiant. “You would have done the same,” he said.
“Aye, most likely. These wizards have names?”
“Alzibar. He’s a big friend of Zarahel…”
“Zarahel? The Prophet who has been stirring up the tribes?” said Rik.
Vosh nodded. “Thinks he’s the Liberator. Claims the Old Gods are coming back. Claims the old days will return. That the Terrarchs will fall.”
Rik shivered. No one present wanted to think about that. It was one thing to resent the Terrarchs but to have the Demon Gods rise from their graves, to have the old powers of darkness unbound and stalking the land, those were bad thoughts. Even if only a tenth of the things they had been taught about them were true, those were very bad thoughts.
He felt suddenly sure he had stumbled across the secret of their mission. They had been spun a story about the bandits, in case of spies in the camp. He knew what they were really after.
“And we are just kind of heading towards the exact valley where the Prophet and his brother wizard have their camp,” Rik said. Weasel nodded understanding, so did Leon and the Sergeant and a few others. “I wonder why that would be.”
As he spoke Rik noticed a strange silence had fallen over the group. He felt a cold presence over his shoulder and turned to find himself looking up at the silver mask of Master Severin. Its surface reflected the flames of the fire so that it looked like the whole top of the Terrarch’s head was ablaze. It gave him an even more demonic look than usual. His cold eyes gazed down, and Rik felt a momentary dizziness, and the oddest sensation that the wizard was looking deep into his soul. It was not a pleasant feeling.
Severin’s presence cast a pall over everybody. They said nothing, merely sat there like birds hypnotised by a snake. Rik thought the wizard was going to say something but he did not. He merely stared coldly, letting his wintery gaze fall on them, then he beckoned to the hill-man with one gauntleted finger and then strode silently back into the shadows from which he had emerged. The hill-man followed meek as a lamb to the slaughter.
Rik finished sewing the button on his tunic. There was no more conversation that evening.