In which Kai joins the enemy,
Kai left Laurenna in the mists of dawn on the following day. His relationship with Valarien was still somewhat strained, but both the wizard and the illusionist sent him off with a number of useful items for emergencies. These raised two hopes in his mind. The first was that he wouldn't need them. The second was that, if he did, he would be able to remember all the welter of instructions that hed been given for their use.
Scipius Magnus had restored Sadique to his normal equine form. As Kotar's men had no scruples about whom they attacked there seemed little point in further disguise. Furthermore, magical energies, though aweinspiring, were not limitless. The Grand Illusion had been abandoned the previous evening to conserve power for the coming attack.
Sadique, very fresh from the lack of a good gallop, pranced and caracoled along the streets to the north gate. Once on the road, Kai dropped his hands and the magnificent animal leapt forward glorying in his freedom. A pity he could not maintain his breakneck speed indefinitely Kai thought as he thundered down the road. He would probably reach his goal in a single day instead of the six or seven he was anticipating spending on the journey.
He looked back and was surprised to see that the mist around the town had thickened into a dense swirling fog that drifted across the surrounding countryside. Only the topmost tower of the keep was still visible and that was rapidly fading from view. Then again, perhaps he wasn't surprised . . . Whether or not it was a result of the fog, Kai had no way of knowing, but he thankfully saw nothing of Kotar or his bully-boys.
It was late afternoon before he encountered any of the sickening signs of Saghan îl activity and assumed he was now on the Lord Orsino's land. He considered he was probably safe from attack here. The raiding parties would have moved on to find yet more people to terrorize and more property to destroy. He was confident enough to stay on or near the road except where it meandered away from the direct route, but was not inclined to take too much for granted. Sooner or later he would see some of the enemy, he was certain, and he had no intention of letting them see him first.
He let Sadique rest at regular intervals and reckoned he would press on through the night, hoping thereby to pass beyond the Saghan îl's immediate theatre of operations. His hopes were unfulfilled but not to his detriment.
It was well after sunset when he saw a fire blazing some way ahead and to the east of the road. At first he thought it was some unfortunate farmer's home and barns that had been put to the torch, then realized that the blaze was smaller and nearer.
The hedges along the roadside were dotted with the occasional group of trees which provided shade for livestock in the heat of the day. Kai dismounted and led Sadique into a conveniently placed clump and tethered him. Drawing his cloak around himself, he moved with supple stealth towards the fire, blending almost indiscernibly with the shadows.
Raucous voices met his ears as he approached. Only the Saghan îl could be so cocksure as to build such a large campfire for their comfort or to make so much noise. They hadnt even bothered to post a guard, so confident were they of their safety. Their camp had been set up among the smouldering remains of a farmstead, presumably belonging to their latest victim. The ruined buildings provided excellent cover and Kai was able to come quite close to the ruffianly band of troopers.
As he took in the scene he felt his gorge rise. Only one hardened in the ways of war could have looked upon the enormity of it without vomiting. Kai came very close as it was.
The farmyard looked like an abattoir. In its centre, a dozen or so men were gathered round the fire in rollicking mood, passing round kegs of liquor. All around were mutilated corpses and dismembered limbs. They had all been hacked to pieces or torn apart. He could tell how many people had lived - and died - there. Their heads, on staves, stood around the camp as grisly decorations - eight of them, including three children. He would not otherwise have known.
It was the expressions on the faces, frozen at the moment of death, that caused the greatest revulsion. And Valarien had called the devastation "clean"! No deviltry maybe, but what need had such men of devils?
He dragged his fascinated gaze back to the living and forced himself to concentrate on what they were saying. Any information that could put an end to such destruction as he had witnessed at first hand, must be gleaned at all costs.
For over an hour he listened but heard only what disgusted him the more. The brave soldiers filled their time by boasting about their conquest of the little family group, exchanging jests and ribald comments and describing in the fullest detail what had been done to each person. How Kai yearned to make the butchering party suffer for their pitiless cruelty!
Eventually, one by one, the men fell silent as the combination of alcohol and fatigue at the day's exertions overcame them, until only two remained awake. These two appeared to be the party's leader and his second in command.
"Yeah, da boys done a fuckin' good day's work there, Sorle," said the leader, lounging comfortably at his ease, and looking round with evident satisfaction at the carnage all around them.
"Shame about de li'l gel, though."
"Shame . . . ? Sorle, you ain't goin' soft in yer old age, is yer?"
"Nah. A jus' meant it worra shame she di'n't last longer. Still, de men 'ad a good bit o' sport wiv 'er while she lasted, an' 'er ma more'n made up fer it, di'n't she!"
Both men laughed coarsely. Kai gritted his teeth. His patience was about to be rewarded, however.
"What's de orders fer tomorrer, boss?"
"Tomorrer? Let's see - we're pushing norf ta back up Nellek's lot, Ah fink. Dey're gonna take over de pass frew de Kadina Bassa - yer know - dem 'ills what joins on ta de Torath Sulari."
"Oh yeah. Gotcha, boss."
"Shou'n't fink well be needed though - 'cep' to clear out anyfink left alive to de east of de road. Den it'll be back ta join Kotar fer de Big Push west in four day's time. Our group's set ta go frew dat fuckin' town what tricked us a few days back."
"Yeah? I'm really gonna fuckin' enjoy makin' 'em fuckin' pay fer makin' monkeys outta us! I ope were de first ta get our ands on dat fuckin' magician . . ."
"If dere's any justice in dis fuckin' world, we will be, Sorle, we will be. I'm lookin' forward to vat meself . . . ! Wonder if we'll see our young Vash up norf. If 'e comes wiv us again, 'e'll let us 'ave de fella fer sure."
"Lord Vashtârik? A fort 'e wuz 'eddin' off west, after dat fucker what debollicked 'im."
" 'E was, till 'e bumped into dis uvver fella what 'ud seen 'im goin' norf. Lucky fing, dat. Saved 'im goin' off on a fuckin' wild goose chase." Kai grinned to himself at that.
"You reckon Lord Vashtârik will've got 'im by now, boss?"
"Bound to 'ave. 'E wa'n't far be'ind, de last I 'eard."
" 'E'll be in a good mood, ven. Wonder if 'e's kep' 'im alive . . ."
"Shou'n't be at all surprised, Sorle. 'E'll wanner take 'is time an' get ver most e'squisite pleasure out of it - after what dat fucker done to 'im . . ."
" 'Appen well get to play wiv 'im, too, den. Plen'y of fun in store fer us in de nex' few days!"
"Yeah! Dis is de life, an' no mishtake." The boss yawned hugely. "Better turn in now. De sooner we sleeps, de sooner we gets to 'ave our bit o' fun."
Kai continued to watch and wait. He considered all his options. His first thought was to remove these perverts from the face of the earth forever - to let them live would be an insult to humanity. But if killed them, would this betray his presence? He absolutely must reach the Starkamen Mountains now. If he failed, the whole of the pretty little country of Lascany would fall under the dominion of these vile creatures and their fellows.
His mission, now that he had seen precisely what they were fighting, seemed infinitely more important than it had back in Laurenna when he had thrown his objections in Valarien's face. His tantrum - may as well call it that for it was very little short of one - suddenly seemed rather childish. Churlish certainly.
He realized, deep down, that the wizard was merely organizing his forces as seemed best at the time. With his breadth of knowledge, perhaps Valarien already knew what sort of people they were dealing with. Kai had only seen the Saghan îl in action in a military context, and had not enjoyed that sight. While his experience had taught him very early in his career that nasty things can happen to a man in battle, it had not shown him the extreme depths to which human beings could sink, and he was appalled.
He reviewed his petty outburst with something like disgust. He'd been brought up to think well of himself, but only if his own actions merited it. Yesterday, they hadn't. At least he hadn't actually accused the wizard of high-handedness.
Probably Valarien had had no idea that he'd given offence. The expression on his face had suggested that that was the case. Wizards tended to be rather solitary creatures, or so Kai had been led to believe. Such individuals often lacked expertise in handling people. Tact was not in their repertory.
Thinking on, his own behaviour could be rather high-handed at times too, though he'd only just realized it. What was it that dear Merle used to say? 'The faults we dislike most in others are the faults that we see in ourselves'.
What a percipient girl she was even then. How old was she when he left? Seventeen wasnt it? She must be married now with children of her own, like. His eye fell upon the terror-struck face of the dead girl, fixed slightly askew on top of a stake.
And Gyldenburg was in thrall too! Perhaps her family . . . He blenched at the thought. Something akin to panic swept through him, leaving him shaking. He must return He pulled himself together. First, he had a job to do here . . .
In the farmyard, the fire was burning low and all was quiet now, barring the drunken snores from the sleeping killers. He decided to risk giving himself away. It would probably be some time before "da boys" were missed and by then, with luck, hed be long gone.
He slipped carefully out of hiding and set to work as executioner, quietly slitting each mans throat through to the spine with a particularly sharp dagger. It gave him absolutely no pleasure whatsoever. For one trained in knightly etiquette, it was an unsatisfactory operation, but a cut throat does not cry out in the night. Killing people in their slumbers also offended his sense of propriety even though his victims were unworthy of any such scruples.
Perversely, it also went sorely against the grain to give them such an easy death. He had to be content with accepting that repaying them in kind would be lowering himself to their level. It might also dehumanize him as they had been dehumanized by their excesses.
The job done, he surveyed the scene. He felt he ought to do something about those who had died earlier. It was not so much out of respect for the dead - they had passed beyond earthly cares - but for the sake of the living, friends maybe, who might come upon them unawares. He could not bury the family. Time did not permit. What then?
A piece of timber shifted in the fire, sending up a shower of sparks. It answered his question. There was plenty of wood left to create a funeral pyre. He then had the abominable task of collecting all the pieces of the bodies, or as many as he could find, and consigning them to the flames, with suitable prayers to the Gods for the reception of their souls.
Before he left, he searched the bodies of the leader and of Sorle, but found nothing. Sorle had been very like himself in height and build and it occurred to him that he might have less trouble passing through enemy held land if he himself were sporting Zervan's emblem. Nasty as it was, he set to work stripping off the troopers tabard.
As he wrenched it over Sorles head, the final thread of sinew gave way. The head flew off and went bouncing and skidding across the farmyard, ending face down in a cow pat. It gave Kai a satisfyingly malevolent idea.
Taking Kennoseigi, he sliced the heads off some half dozen more of the Saghan îl and rammed them on the staves to replace the heads of their victims. He was only sorry the faces looked so peaceful. His last act was to rinse out the bloodied tabard in the cattle trough. This was partly to remove the give-away stains and partly a symbolic gesture to wash away the evil taint of its former owner.
Kai rode on until dawn when he bethought him of one of the wizards little gadgets. He pulled off the road to the west where a rocky gully, clogged with bushes and a tree or two, provided shelter from enemy eyes. There he fished from his scrip a sheet of parchment, a stick of charcoal and a piece of clear crystal. This latter was spherical except for a flattened area which looked as though a circular sliver had been sheared off.
Resting the parchment on a boulder, he wrote out a brief message apprising his friends of the time of the impending attack on Laurenna. He then took the crystal which, Valarien had assured him, was already imbued with the appropriate magic, and ran the flattened portion along the lines of writing. It had grown quite warm by the time it reached the end of the message.
Following the wizard's instructions, he tossed the crystal vertically into the air. It reached its zenith and hung there for several seconds, twinkling in the rays of the newly risen sun. It spun round several times, oriented itself, then shot off southwards at high speed.
The Saghan îl tabard, which Kai had hung over his saddlebags, was nearly dry by this time, so he took off his elven cloak and dragged the tabard on over his hauberk. This protection, crafted by dwarves in distant Jahuba Nar, fortunately would not rust, though Kai sensed a faint surge of disapproval. He rubbed his hand over the stubble on his chin and felt that he looked every inch a follower of Zervan.
As it turned out later in the day, this did not work altogether to his advantage, though the effectiveness of his Saghan îl disguise passed its first test very early on. He had come to a tract of land untouched by the marauders. This was presumably the area assigned to Sorle and friends. It made him feel glad hed despatched them.
Ahead of him he saw a family group of peasants leading an ox-cart loaded with belongings. They likewise saw him and turned abruptly down a farm track off to the west making all haste. He considered following them to allay their fears, but decided that pursuit would most likely only distress them the more, regardless of the outcome. Anyway, he had no time to waste.
The rest of the morning proved uneventful and by mid afternoon, the prosperous farmland was giving way to rolling pasture peppered by outcroppings of rock. These were outliers of the distant hills of the Kadina Bassa to the West and the mountains of the Torath Sulari to the east.
A broad stream which had been rippling along gently to the west crossed the road in a shallow ford. On the other side of the road, it followed a narrower serpentine course down a pretty little valley.
At the head of the valley, not far off, the stream could be seen to flow from a fair-sized pool edged by alder and crack willow. The pools surface was disturbed by the tinkling of a sun-gilt waterfall that dropped veil-like over a little cliff, shimmering mesmerically in the golden light.
To one who had been fighting off the pangs of hunger for some time, and searching the while for somewhere to take refreshment, it looked like a demi-paradise. Kai turned off the road and dismounted, leaving Sadique to forage at will. He himself settled at the foot of the cliff where there was a slight overhang, and very soon had a brisk fire going. He looked up wistfully as a skein of wildfowl clattered overhead. A bow would have been most useful right at that moment . . .
He was jerked out of his reverie by a sudden kerfuffle on the far side of the nearest trees. Silence followed.
His senses fully alert, Kai drew his sword and went cautiously round the trees to investigate. There, he found a plump mallard drake lying on the springy turf. He was stretching out a hand to pick it up when an arrow thudded into the ground beside his foot.
"Hold, thief! The bird is mine!"
Kai froze, then very, very slowly twisted his head to look up at the cliff top whence came the voice. There stood a figure bathed in sunlight which turned his shaggy mane into a golden nimbus around his head and shoulders but this was no angel. He was clad in a tunic of thick dark fur and grubby leather chausses. Moreover, he had another arrow nocked and the bow fully drawn . . .