/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Chronicles of an Age of Darkness

The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster

Hugh Cook


The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster

Hugh Cook

Chapter One

Name: Onosh Gulkan Birthplace: Hum.

Occupation: emperor.

Status: absolute ruler of the Collosnon Empire.

Description: hairy male of Yarglat race, age 43, slanting forehead gouged by thumb-fat depressions running from hairline to eyebrows, hair and eyes both black, height 14 qua, cheekbones high, ears immense, multiple scars on left leg and torso.

Hobby: hunting.

Quote: "The hunt is the ultimate answer to acedia."

The Witchlord's sons were three in number, and Sken-Pitilkin was lecturing all three when the Witchlord himself intruded on their lesson. Sken-Pitilkin resented the intrusion – and resented it all the more when he noticed the Rovac warrior Rolf Thelemite and the dwarf Glambrax lurking behind the Witchlord. Sken-Pitilkin was ever at pains to keep that pair of troublemakers out of his classroom, for such adulthood in combination with boyhood made a vicious combination.

"Eljuk, my son!" said Lord Onosh. "You've been drinking!"

An ugly jest, this.

For Eljuk had not been drinking at all. Rather, the boy's life was blighted by a cruel birthmark. It stained his lips with purple, and further purple dribbled from the corners of his lips, splattering down his chin in two separate winespills which thickened to a merging at the neck.

Here, at the outset, we see the flaw which doomed Lord Onosh to destruction. The Witchlord Onosh had been at odds with the world for so long that he had quite lost the art of showing the world kindness and affection. Though Eljuk Zala was the Witchlord's valued favorite, even Eljuk suffered a dozen slights a day from his father's tongue.

Actually, it was Eljuk's younger brother Guest who had been drinking, and who was subdued as a consequence of his hangover. At this time, Guest was 14, Eljuk 16, and Morsh Bataar (the eldest) a full 18 years of age. But though Guest was the baby, it was Guest who played the man to the very hilt, and often suffered as a consequence.

Before knowing young Guest, the wizard Sken-Pitilkin had never approved of hangovers; but close acquaintance with the boy had led him to concede that a hangover has many advantages. For it slows speech, subdues energy, abolishes wit, and makes the afflicted individual less likely to respond to the irregular verbs with acts of verbal dissidence or outright violence.

The wizard Sken-Pitilkin had been taking advantage of Guest's hangover to cram some of the more irregular verbs into the boy's head, and had been thus involved when Lord Onosh had interrupted the lesson, remarking (as has been stated above): "Eljuk, my son! You've been drinking!"

"Yes, father," said Eljuk. "But Guest is bearing my hangover for me."

At this the Witchlord laughed – not out of good humor but out of habit. For this joke had often been exchanged between father and son, though a thousand exchanges had failed to make Lord Onosh see that Eljuk found his part in the transaction to be painful.

"Regardless of who has been drinking," said Sken-Pitilkin acidly, "we have all been studying. We have been studying the irregular verbs."

The eminent Sken-Pitilkin was dropping a heavy hint, a hint which was meant to suggest to the Witchlord Onosh that he should absent himself from the room lest he further interfere with the lesson.

"Verbs!" said the Witchlord. "And what then is a verb? A hook for a rat or a knife for a cat? Enough of your verbs, my good fellow! Lessons are over for the day, so – boys, make ready! We're going hunting."

"Hunting?" said Morsh, absorbing that datum with his customary slowness.

"Precisely," said the Witchlord, with crisp directness.

"But, father," said Eljuk Zala, who was the only one who had license to question the emperor's decisions, "it is late in the season."

"Last chance weather, true," agreed Lord Onosh, "so we must take our chances while we have them. Remember, boys: the hunt is the ultimate answer to acedia."

That the emperor said often, it being one of his pet sayings.

Having discharged himself of that expression, he about-faced and departed, so sure in his power that he saw no need to linger to chivvy his boys into action. Unfortunately, when the Witchlord departed, he did not take with him either the Rovac warrior Rolf Thelemite or the dwarf Glambrax, and that pair of delinquents promptly infiltrated Sken-Pitilkin's classroom.

"So who is Acedia?" said Guest Gulkan, when his father was barely out of earshot. "That's what I can never work out."

"She's a wanton," said Rolf Thelemite, the Rovac warrior who ever bodyguarded Guest Gulkan, more to protect the world from the boy's temper than to protect the boy from the world. "She's your father's secret wanton, but she nags him stupid, so he runs for the hills at every opportunity."

"She's no wanton," said Morsh Bataar, who was sitting in a corner with a heap of half-assembled fishing flies at his feet.

"She's the pastry cook who has the man in fat. He hunts when the only choice otherwise is to diet."

"Acedia," said the wizard Sken-Pitilkin, "is not a woman's name. The word denotes a state of the psyche, and that state -

Eljuk Zala, tell us what state the word denotes."

Now Eljuk Zala was by far the mildest, most scholarly and most intelligent of the Witchlord's three sons, and he was fully cognizant of the fact that the word acedia denoted that bleak and aimless inertia which had ever blighted the Witchlord's life since the death of his wife. But Eljuk Zala had already been too bright and too right far too often that day, and knew that if he came up with the right answer just one more time then his brother Guest would surely make him suffer for it, and probably sooner rather than later. So Eljuk answered:

"Anger. That's what it means. Acedia means anger."

"It means no such thing," said Sken-Pitilkin, with intense irritation.

Then he lectured the unfortunate Eljuk at length on the meaning of acedia and the derelictions of Eljuk's scholarship.

Sken-Pitilkin's irritation was by no means feigned, for he often felt it an intense strain to have three Yarglat boys under his tutorship. Indeed, the wizard of Drum found all his contacts with the Yarglat stressful, for the Yarglat were not, on the whole, an intellectual people, and there were precious few dictionaries in their kennels or encampments.

"Well," said Guest Gulkan, when Sken-Pitilkin was done with berating his brother, "if you're through with lecturing, we've got to get ready for hunting. You're coming with us, I suppose?"

"Me?" said Sken-Pitilkin. "Hunt? Not for all the tea in Chay!

You wouldn't get me to a hunt unless I was tied to a horse and dragged."

"I'll see if I can find a spare horse, then," said Glambrax, Guest Gulkan's pet dwarf.

The dwarf was already dancing out of the room as he delivered himself of that smartcrack, hence escaped before Sken-Pitilkin could catch him a whack with the country crook ever kept ready for the disciplining of the mannikin and his master.

So it was that Glambrax again escaped punishment; and Lord Onosh and his sons readied themselves for the folly of the hunt, while the scholarly Sken-Pitilkin drew up a schedule of self- improvement which was calculated to see him attain mastery of the Geltic verbs jop, chilibisk and dileem, all of which had won a place for themselves in Strogloth's Compendium of Delights. While Sken-Pitilkin sometimes fell prey to acedia himself, he never sought to address his condition through the hunt, for his standard response to the dulling of the lifeforce was to have recourse to the irregular verbs, ever most marvelously refreshing in their inexhaustible variety.

Sken-Pitilkin was so glad to be rid of his Yarglat charges for a few days that he went to the city gates to see the hunt ride out, just to make certain that Guest Gulkan and his brothers actually did quit the city.

They did.

There rode Guest Gulkan with his bodyguard Rolf Thelemite at his side, both drinking hard and halfway drunk already. Thelemite and his charge had both lashed themselves to their high and stylish lean-back saddles, by this precaution indicating that they planned to be truly stupendously intoxicated before the day was out.

Behind that pair of brawlers rode Eljuk Zala Gulkan. As the anointed heir of the Witchlord Onosh, the winestained Eljuk was properly entitled to ride at the emperor's side. But young Guest was ever jealous of his brother's privileges, wishing the heirship were his own. So, fearing his brother's surly anger, Eljuk hung back out of sight.

Eljuk looked miserably uncomfortable, since his groaning bones were mightily encumbered with amour, weighed down beneath a regular rustyard of iron plates interlaced with chain mail; his head was crowned with a helmet big enough for the boiling of a dog; a sword made for the slaughter of dragons was hauling at his side; and he could scarcely find space to sit in his saddle on account of all the spare amour and weaponry he had attached to it.

A stranger might have thought Eljuk fearful of bandits, but actually it was his dearly beloved brother Guest who stalked his nightmares. Guest had the temperament of a born regicide, patricide, fratricide and all-round homicide. So Eljuk had armored himself, and had armed himself mightily – but the weight of such protection would doom him to heatstroke on a hot day, or to death by suction should he find himself in a swamp, or (should the imperial hunting party encounter a blacksmith with a purse at the ready for the purchase of unwanted iron) to accidental disposal by way of sale.

While Eljuk feared Guest Gulkan, he lived in mortal dread of Rolf Thelemite. Rolf was a Rovac warrior, and the Rovac were a people so bloody in their predilections that the most ferocious of Yarglat barbarians was a cat-stroking pacifist by comparison. If Rolf Thelemite's account was to be believed (and Eljuk never doubted a word of it) then Rolf had personally slaughtered down three emperors, seven kings, nine dragons, eleven wizards, a neversh, a troll, five orcs, and thirty dozen assorted warriors and assassins.

Sken-Pitilkin personally thought this a mighty great amount for Rolf to have accomplished, seeing that he was barely 18 years of age, and had spent a full two of those brief years of his in Gendormargensis. But Eljuk took Rolf's every word to heart. Eljuk believed Rolf Thelemite when that Rovac warrior claimed that the golden serpent which he wore as an earring was a trophy which Rolf had torn from the head of the mighty Baron Farouk of Hexagon when that warlord had led an army of a million men against the city of Chi'ash-lan. Rolf said, further, that the intermittent and involuntary trembling of his lower lip was a consequence of flame- damage inflicted by a dragon, and that his habit of blinking quickly (as if he had grit in his eyes) was due to the effort of fighting off a sleeping spell which had been inflicted upon him by a wizard of Ebber.

Often, Rolf Thelemite described the gruesome death which he himself had inflicted upon that spell-casting wizard, and in his every description of that death he never neglected to leave out small but telling details, such as the succulent taste of the wizard's liver, or the manner in which a pariah dog had made off with the wizard's kidneys before Rolf could taste them also.

For his part, Guest Gulkan sometimes hinted to his brother Eljuk that he was taking practical lessons in cannibalism from his mercenary acquaintance.

Eljuk had once pleaded with his father to exile both Rolf Thelemite and Guest Gulkan, fearing that the pair of them would conspire together to encompass his murder. But the Witchlord had merely laughed.

Of course the Witchlord Onosh was no fool. Lord Onosh was ever conscious of Guest Gulkan's bloody temper and of his monstrous ambition. Which was why (unbeknownst to the world at large), Lord Onosh had bound Rolf Thelemite to the protection of both emperor and imperial heir; and (in equal secrecy) had further charged Morsh Bataar with the duty of bodyguarding Eljuk Zala.

Had Morsh Bataar's secret mission become public knowledge, it would have occasioned incredulous laughter from all and sundry, for it was generally believed that Morsh Bataar had been blighted by a dralkosh while still in his mother's womb.

It was said in Gendormargensis that Morsh Bataar was painfully slow of intellect, and this was the case. But while he was thick of voice and slow of mind, success seldom eluded him when he went to work on a problem. True, he was judicious in his choice of problems, for he was possessed of an uncommon degree of self-knowledge, and knew his limitations well.

Nevertheless -

Amongst those who are possessed of genius, there sometimes arises the conceit that genius is all. But for the practical purposes of life, there are other qualities of equal importance, and prime amongst them are patience, persistence, reliability and a sense of proportion, all of which Morsh Bataar possessed in good measure. These traits had helped make Morsh a master of the bow, which weapon he carried with him always, and practiced with on a daily basis.

In his intellect, Morsh Bataar might reasonably be likened to the snail. This most practical of beasts cannot dare to the heights of the eagle or challenge the hare in the sprint; but, given time, it will make its way over any obstacle, not excepting broken glass and razor blades.

Morsh was also uncommonly stable of temperament. He lived free of the black humors which afflicted Lord Onosh; free of the night terrors and daylight nervousness which unsettled Eljuk Zala; and free also of the drastic flux of anger and impulse which made his brother Guest such a trial to his elders.

In the capacity of bodyguard, Morsh Bataar rode behind the over-armored Eljuk Zala. Apart from his bow and a telescopic bamboo fishing rod, Morsh carried no weapons of note, believing Eljuk to be in possession of more than enough steel for the pair of them. Nor did Morsh bother himself with any nonsense of amour, for he thought the weather to be more of a threat to life than any rabble of bandits who might be encountered in the mountains.

Morsh Bataar was officially assigned to Eljuk Zala as a servant, and in truth he looked every bit the nondescript menial, since his burly body was hidden beneath layers of second-hand furs and his face was shadowed by a broad-brimmed hat the color of filth, a hat pierced by a full three dozen fancy fishing flies. He was mounted humbly on a shag pony, with a burdened baggage animal of like breed trailing behind him, and a spare mount bringing up the rear.

Behind this beggarly figure there rode a great and glorious warrior, the glitter of the sun sheening and shining on his amour and a falcon leashed and hooded on his gauntleted left wrist. This was Pelagius Zozimus, the emperor's master chef, who spied Sken-Pitilkin standing by the gate.

"Ho! Cousin!" cried Zozimus, leaning down from the height of his horse. "You're not hunting with us?"

"Get down from that horse, you old fool," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"You're a thousand years too old for such nonsense."

But Zozimus merely laughed at this accusation. The wizardly master chef was dressed for the hunt in glittering fish-scale amour which had been in his possession for the better part of a millennium; he was helmeted with silver and gold; he wore at his side a blade of Stokos steel which was sheathed in a scabbard bright with jade and opals; and he looked in his glory like one of the elven lords of legend come to life.

"You'll break a leg!" cried Sken-Pitilkin.

But Zozimus laughed again, and rode on, and after him came a considerable cavalcade, for the emperor was not going to the hunting grounds alone. A great host they were, and they racketed out of the city like a rabble of commoners hustling along to a lynching. They cursed, laughed, joked and gossiped in as many as a dozen different tongues, most commonly Ordhar – the simplified command language with which the Yarglat dominated their subject peoples – and the native Eparget of the Yarglat's northern homelands.

Thus the Witchlord Onosh rode forth from the city of Gendormargensis to go hunting in the hills. And, as has been indicated above, his entourage consisted of rather more people than the few individuals who have so far been mentioned by name.

An emperor does not groom his own horse or wash his own linen. Nor does he clean his own boots – or, for that matter, his own fingernails. So when Lord Onosh went hunting, he customarily took with him half a thousand assorted shamans, slaves, servants, warriors, counselors, cooks, concubines, magicians, astrologers, winemasters, poets, painters, bootmakers and button-painters.

Nevertheless, the imperial hunting party was nothing like one of those shambling circuses which traipse around behind the effete lords of the debauched and dissolute south. Even in his days of triumph, Lord Onosh never forgot that he was of the Yarglat, a people who conquered by horsepower, who ruled by horsepower, and who must trust to their horsepower to survive if the fates ever turned against them.

All who went with the emperor could ride hard and long when the day demanded it; and so, despite its complement of concubines and bootmakers, the hunting party rode east from Gendormargensis like the advance guard of a wind-riding army. Swiftly the hunt campaigned deep into the mountain wilds, disregarding the lateness of the year and the inclemency of the weather.

When Lord Onosh had won the rule of the Collosnon Empire (something he had done by adroitly masterminding a potent combination of witchcraft, conspiracy and murder) he had made Gendormargensis his capital, as had all the rulers of the empire before him. The city commanded the strategic gap between the Sarapine Ranges and the Balardade Massif, and hence was ideally placed to control all intercourse between the eastern hill country and the widespreading western flatlands dominated by the Yolantarath River.

Since no wild animal of any consequence had been seen anywhere near Gendormargensis for a generation or more, when Lord Onosh went hunting he necessarily rode into the mountains in pursuit of bandits.

The lord of the Collosnon Empire had sported after bandits so often that very few were left; indeed, such two-legged prey were so scarce that one wit had lightly proposed that they be declared a protected species. But Lord Onosh persisted in hunting to the highground to capture and to kill, seeking the last of the lawless in their mountain retreats.

On this occasion, the emperor hunted for a full ten days without success, until at last his party surprised a bandit encampment. There bandits they fought and bandits they killed, though some of the lawless escaped from this first attack.

The first attack was led by Thodric Jarl, the gray-bearded uitlander who was renowned as the mightiest of the Witchlord's warriors. In that autumn, the autumn of the year Alliance 4305, Thodric Jarl was only 24 years of age, yet he was as gray as gnarled death and as cold in his killing as icelock rapture or midwinter famine.

Cleaving the air with bloodstroke upon bloodstroke, Jarl made his bitter steel sing. He hacked the bandit leader down, then claimed for himself the choicest treasure found in the bandit camp – a thing of female gender which named itself Yerzerdayla.

The female thing was brought in chains to the imperial battle base, where it was seen by the young Guest Gulkan, the self-styled Weaponmaster, he who at the age of 14 laid claim to a man's estate, though he was still possessed of much of a child's impetuous unreliability. Guest Gulkan stood in his muddy boots, smelling like a slaughterhouse, and gaped at Yerzerdayla. For this captive slave – dressed in silks and chained by jade clasped with silverbright – looked more like an imperial aristocrat than one of common flesh.

"I am in love," said Guest, who was of a certainty in lust.

Such was the first meeting of Guest Gulkan and the elegant Yerzerdayla, she of the blonde body and the perfumed hair.

Then: "Who is the woman?" asked Guest.

"She is a thing claimed already by Thodric Jarl," answered Yerzerdayla's keepers.

"Claim he may," said Guest. "But I will have!"

In fact, it would have been politic for Guest Gulkan to lose interest in any flesh owned by any killer as grim and humorless as Thodric Jarl. But Guest, in those days of his ego, felt free to conduct himself like the imperial heir he was not. So he sought out Thodric Jarl, meaning to demand the surrender of the woman Yerzerdayla.

Young Guest found Jarl supervising the forced labors of the surviving male prisoners, who were digging pits for a purpose which had not been explained to them. It was cold, but Jarl was warm in a weather jacket bought from the emperor's league riders – uitlander mercenaries every bit as barbarous as himself. The prisoners were also warm, for under Jarl's surveillance they were digging themselves into a mass of sweat and blisters.

"Ho, Jarl!" said Guest.

"Ho!" said Jarl.

"I'd like a word with you," said Guest.

"Then speak," said Jarl.

So far, so good; for at least they had exchanged several civil words without swapping threats of violence. Given that both were extremely dangerous men – Guest being at that age a danger mostly to himself, whereas Jarl was a menace to other people – that was something to be thankful for.

Now Guest had long been tutored in diplomacy by Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin. The excellent Sken-Pitilkin had introduced Guest to all those notions central to successful negotiation; but Guest was a poor student, and proved it by botching his confrontation with Thodric Jarl.

When Jarl refused to give him the woman, Guest did not offer him horses and hogsheads of wine in return; or let the matter drop for the moment; or take no for an answer. Instead, he began to rant, rage and bluster.

"I am Guest Gulkan, son of Onosh Gulkan and rightful heir to the lands of Tameran," said Guest. "How dare you deny me?"

"I dare deny you," said Thodric Jarl, "for you are no heir to anything but the lice in your father's bootboy's hair."

"I'll have your blood for that!" said Guest in fury.

"To have you must take," said Jarl.

"Then take I will!" said Guest, lugging out his sword.

But the sword was only half-lugged when Jarl gave young Guest a push which sent him staggering backwards. Guest found empty air beneath his boot – and fell. The boy Guest fell backwards into a pit which four bandits were excavating. These four exhausted wretches thought Guest had jumped down amongst them with murder his intent. Despairing of life, they nevertheless put up as much of a fight as they could, and Guest was put to the necessity of killing them before he could scramble out of the pit.

As Guest was scrambling, Jarl kicked him under the chin, sending him tumbling backwards onto the cushion of the corpses he had so recently created.

"Nicely timed," said the dwarf Glambrax, who was following this conflict with the interest of a born spectator.

"I've had practice," said Jarl.

"That wasn't fair," said Guest, looking up from the blood and muck at the bottom of the pit.

"Neither is this," said Jarl, picking up a huge rock which required both hands to lift it.

"You wouldn't dare," said Guest, doing his best to sneer at the rock.

Jarl dared.

He hurled the rock down on the hapless Weaponmaster.

Guest screamed. He couldn't help himself! He threw up both hands in a hopeless attempt to protect himself.

The rock smashed into his hands.

And burst into fragments, for in the proof of the impact it proved to be no rock at all, but, rather, a cohesive mass of earth.

As Guest was spitting out bits of earth – he had been screaming as the stuff smashed into his arms, and in consequence had been gifted with a mouthful of the stuff – Thodric Jarl completed his victory by spitting on the unfortunate Weaponmaster.

Thus Guest met Jarl in combat, and was defeated, which was only to be expected. For Jarl was as handy with fist and boot as he was with edged weapons; whereas Guest, though he had long studied the art of the boast under the guidance of Rolf Thelemite, was no match for the professional brutality of Thodric Jarl.

In the disappointment of his defeat, Guest lacked the sense to abandon his woman-quest. Instead, once he had rescued himself from the pit, Guest Gulkan went to his father to demand revenge upon Jarl, and to demand likewise the possession of Yerzerdayla's loins.

The young Weaponmaster discovered Lord Onosh seated outdoors by a roaring bonfire, snugged against the weather in the warm folds of a snow-coat. The emperor was feeding upon a fine wheat loaf which smelt as if it had just been freshly baked, as indeed it had, for the imperial master chef Pelagius Zozimus had been giving a bravura display of field cookery.

"Father," said Guest, without preamble, and without asking permission to speak.

Lord Onosh tossed the remains of the machet to the dwarf Glambrax, who had already given him a vibrant account of the epic battle between the man Jarl and the boy Guest. Glambrax bit gleefully at his fresh-caught trophy then started to juggle with it. As the dwarf performed, Lord Onosh turned his attention to Guest Gulkan.

"So," said the Witchlord, "the larger of my two fools has decided to put in an appearance. What tricks will it play for us today?"

"My lord," said Guest, doing his best to ignore this sally,

"I have a need for justice."

"You," said Lord Onosh, looking him up and down, "have a need for a bath."

"A bath?" said Guest in astonishment.

"You know the word, do you not?" said Lord Onosh. "It denotes a thorough lavage of the body, a task best accomplished by immersing the said body in a tub of warm water. In your case, the use of wire brushes and sandpaper might also be advisable."

"My lord jests," said Guest, who had had his last bath only three years previously, and was not due for another until high summer two years hence.

"You have obviously not seen yourself in a mirror," said Lord Onosh. "Glambrax! In the absence of a mirror, describe the boy to himself!"

"My lord," said Glambrax, accepting this assignment. "The boy looks like an over-large mud beetle crawling drunk from a full-to-overflowing spittoon."

"You dislike my appearance!" said Guest. "Why, then know Thodric Jarl to be the cause of it!"

"That much I have heard," said Lord Onosh imperturbably.

"When you see that good gentleman, be sure to thank him for the lessons he has taught you."

"The lessons?" said Guest in astonishment.

"You have learnt, I hope, not to fight with a pit at your back. That is the first lesson, and doubtless meditation will reveal others of equal importance. But enough of the lessons! Pray tell – what started your quarrel in the first place?"

Guest, having a delicate matter to broach, should now have asked for privacy – as he knew, for the scholarly Sken-Pitilkin had taught him as much. But, instead, the foolish youth got right to the meat of the matter.

"There is a woman," said Guest.

"At your age," said Lord Onosh, "there is always a woman.

Such is the nature of youth. Such is the nature of the greedy child."

"You call me a child?" said Guest.

"Yes, a child come to beg at the boots of his father," said Lord Onosh.

"Can we discuss this in private?" said Guest, belatedly remembering Sken-Pitilkin's advice.

"Since you so rudely interrupted me in public, no," said Lord Onosh.

"Why not?" said Guest.

"As a punishment for your insolence!" said Lord Onosh. "If you come here to ask for a woman then ask for her, and the answer is no, you can't have her, particularly not if she belongs to Thodric Jarl."

"Who said she belongs to Jarl?" said Guest.

"If she occasioned your quarrel, who else could she possibly belong to? Sken-Pitilkin, perhaps?"

"The woman is but a slave," said Guest sullenly. "A slave, a thing of no possible importance."

"It is but a thing which belongs to Thodric Jarl," said Lord Onosh.

"He claimed it," protested Guest, "but all booty from bandits is yours. Thus runs the law."

Thus ran the law indeed, but by quoting it the young Weaponmaster merely proved his poor grasp of the politics of an imperial court much beset by assassins. Like Rolf Thelemite, Thodric Jarl was a Rovac warrior, and hence his sword was of inestimable value.

To Guest, his father's few Rovac warriors had no value beyond their novelty, and hence were disposable. But to Lord Onosh, these uitlanders were valued bodyguards who, unlike the Yarglat, could be trusted not to embroil themselves in the local clan-struggles.

So while Guest thought Jarl could be cheated with impunity, his father thought otherwise; for Lord Onosh relied upon Jarl for the security of his sleep.

"Mine to give, mine to bestow," agreed Lord Onosh. "So I bestow the thing on Thodric Jarl."

"If I could," said Guest, rage overmastering sanity, "I would fight you and kill you."

"You would, would you?" said Lord Onosh coldly.

Guest realized his error.

But there was no unsaying such words.

"I would," said Guest, struggling to match his courage to the impetuosity of his tongue.

"Then I will meet you by proxy in Gendormargensis," said Lord Onosh. "I will be represented in the challenge by Thodric Jarl, who will hack down your pride and leave it bloody on the stones."

Guest Gulkan absorbed the implications of this, and backed off, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly. Then he turned on his heel and fled.

"Where are my camp marshals?" said Lord Onosh, rising to his feet, his face as thunder.

The marshals were produced, and the emperor gave them his orders.

"Ready the camp for the move," said he. "We ride before dusk and we ride by dark once night has come upon us."

"But, my lord," ventured one of the marshals, "there is tonight no moon."

"So we ride by dark," said Lord Onosh. "We ride by dark, as I said we would. If I must say it again then I will kill someone!"

And, since no-one doubted that the emperor would be as good as his word, ride they did – and soon!

Chapter Two

Name: Eljuk Zala Gulkan.

Birthplace: Gendormargensis.

Occupation: student.

Status: heir to the Collosnon Empire.

Description: timorous Yarglat male, undersized at a height of 9 qua. He is so birthmarked that he appears to have let a mouthful of purple wine dribble from the corners of his mouth then flow to a merging at his throat. But his most remarkable aspect is surely his ears, which are small – a singular oddity considering his father's gargantuan head-flaps and the size of the equally ostentatious protruberances flaunted by his brothers Morsh and Guest.

Hobby: the memorization and word-perfect recital of the more elegant kinds of lyric poetry.

Quote: "I don't really want to be emperor, but I suppose it's no worse than what most people have to put up with."

Thus in his anger the emperor rode forth in pursuit of those bandits who had escaped his earlier attack. Riding with all the ferocity of Obela Ukma, the warrior of legend who had sought to outpace his own mortality, Lord Onosh and his party performed prodigies of roughground speedleaguing in the days that followed.

The first ice of the oncoming winter smashed beneath the hooves of their horses as they chased bandits from highground to low. The stars of the night sharpened to needles, intolerably cold in their burning.

Cold, frost, ice and steaming breath – these things reminded Lord Onosh of his childhood. He punctured a vein to draw blood from his horse, and sucked down that blood, and the heavy taste brought to mind the ordeals of his youth. He looked up at the stars, the stars so cold and remote in the scorn of their burning.

Stars of cold green – as cold and green as jade under water. Chips of blue opal. Lambent red and sullen-sulphur purple.

Those stars – Lord Onosh knelt to a pool of dark water by night, knelt to the stars, knelt to the bright gold and the needlework of liquid silver, to the bloodline-brightness of scarlet and the dull vulcanism of cooling lava. The shadow of his head blotted out the stars as he knelt, and the shadow was faceless, eyeless, noseless, and in that moment Lord Onosh knew.

– I am going to die.

As the Witchlord Onosh knelt to the water by night he realized that he was going to die. He was going to die, and die not far from here. A death by water would take him, thrust him under, haul him down and suck him under. He was going to drown, quenched by water, smothered, suffocated, gulping slime and groping for the light. He was doomed, dead, a dead man with but a day or so to breathe.

Carefully, trying to silence his terror, or at least to control it, Lord Onosh took the leather glove from his right hand and dipped his hand to the water. The water was so cold that it burnt his flesh – as if the flesh lacked skin. The Witchlord cupped water in his hand, then brought it to his mouth. It was cold, so cold that he expected it to brightspark pain from those few teeth which remained to him. But there was no pain.

Lord Onosh held the water in his mouth to let it warm before he swallowed. Then swallow he did, and rose, looking at the men who sat faceless on their horses in the shadows of the stars.

"How is the Blood of the Earth?" said Morsh Bataar, speaking from the height of his horse.

The Blood of the Earth. The old and formal term for water. It spoke of a learning of the Yarglat legends which Lord Onosh had not known his son to possess.

"It is as it should be," said Lord Onosh. Then, testing his son, he said: "The blood is the blood, and the earth is a horse for our horse."

"The wind is its voice, and the wind is the measure of our riding," answered Morsh, catching the legend-line reference and responding in kind.

Then Lord Onosh said:

"As the horse is ours, so the blood is ours."

It was an invitation to drink.

Now to this there was a response that could be lifted from the legend-lines of the Yarglat mythos. A young man ardent in his ambition could answer thus: "My father may drink from the blood of the horse, but I will drink blood." That line, savage in its implications, is amongst the Yarglat one of the traditional challenges of youth to age. But Morsh Bataar said:

"My lord is a great provider, and in the hunger of our victory I will eat."

That also was traditional, but of course it was not a challenge – rather, it was an acknowledgment of fealty.

"Sa-so!" said Guest, who had no learning of legends with which to trifle. "My brother is a horse and my father likewise, but the bandits escape us while we gossip."

Though many had already been brought to collapse by the wrenching rigors of the hunt, the arrogant impatience of Guest's aggression spoke of slaughter-strength confidence with strength yet to spare.

Hearing that shallow arrogance, that impatient slaughterstrength, Lord Onosh knew.

He knew it for a fact.

– This is the man who will kill me. Guest Gulkan was going to drown him, was going to press him under the waters and hold him there until he died, and so he would never get back to Gendormargensis alive. This could not be denied.

Lord Onosh had the Gift of Seeing. Lord Onosh knew his death.

– So what does it feel like, this death?

In the face of his death, Lord Onosh found himself angry. He was not ready to die. He was 43, no older. The prime of life! The prime of power! And – and Eljuk! Lord Onosh bitterly resented the thought of Eljuk's death, knowing that his favored son must surely die once Guest had accomplished the Witchlord's murder.

Lord Onosh stood in the dark, tasting his own anger, his rage at his own mortality.

"Does my lord want his sketch pad?" said Guest Gulkan, managing to pack supreme arrogance and insult into a single sentence, while conveying his impatience besides.

"The artists will have work to do," said Lord Onosh, "when they have a corpse to work on."

Lord Onosh hoped that Guest Gulkan would remember those words in times thereafter, and would know that the Witchlord had gone to his death knowingly.

Having delivered himself of these words, Lord Onosh mounted up and led the hunt on at starlight pace, which is slow yet remorseless, and guarantees the capture of any quarry which lingers to sleep by night. Guest Gulkan followed on behind his father, and as they picked their way through the dark, Guest had the strangest sensation… he felt himself half-immersed in a river, his father's head heavy in his hands. Then Guest knew. He had had such visions in the past, and always they had been reliably predictive of the future. The Witchlord Onosh was doomed to die near here, to die in the Yolantarath, drowned in its waters. He was doomed. He was as good as dead.

– So how does it feel, this death? Guest asked himself that question as he followed along behind his father.

He felt… confused. He did not think that he wished his father dead. But even so. His father had denied him so much, had denied him so often. And just that very day, why, anger had brought the two to the point of murder. If Lord Onosh survived this hunt, then Guest was doomed to fight his proxy in Gendormargensis.

– So better that he die.

Thus thought Guest. And the thought was cold, hard, inescapable. Cold as crystal. Cold as a diamond plucked from the heart of a witch. Let Lord Onosh die. Then Eljuk would become emperor. And Eljuk… for some reason, when Guest thought of Eljuk he thought of butter.

So they went on through the night. Lord Onosh knew himself doomed to die by drowning, and knew his son Guest to be his murderer. Guest Gulkan did not yet know that he was to be the instrument of his father's death, but he knew of a certainty that his father would drown, would be swallowed by the Yolantarath, would become mud and worms, a bloated corpse lost in the farrow- furrow toils of the river's filth.

So the Witchlord Onosh and his son the Weaponmaster hunted bandits through the mountains, both possessed of visionary knowledge of an unavoidable death, and at last in daylight they and their company ran the bandits to ground by the banks of the Yolantarath River.

By this time, the mighty hunting party which had left Gendormargensis was strung out over the better part of fifty leagues of wilderness, for only the young and the reckless had been able to keep up with the emperor on this madcap chase.

So it was that the odds were even when the imperial party met the bandits by the riverside.

Then fear fell away from the Witchlord. So he was to die, was he? Well, then it would be over soon, and quickly. The worst thing was the waiting, and the waiting was over.

"Pelagius, my good man," said the Witchlord Onosh, seeing that his master chef had kept pace with the leaders of the hunting party. "It is a good day to die."

Pelagius laughed.

"It is a good day, my lord," said Pelagius. "And I do not think either of us dead before the end of it."

Then Pelagius Zozimus unhooded the falcon which was bound to his wrist, kissed the bird, then loosed it, and laughed again as it rose to the blinding brightness of the sun. Lord Onosh laughed likewise, then the pair spurred their horses and charged, for both of these warriors had been seized of a sudden by a mad intoxication, the exhilaration of an all-or-nothing gamble.

"Hold, Eljuk!" cried Morsh Bataar, as Eljuk Zala spurred his own horse, grimly bent on following his father.

But Eljuk Zala paid no heed, for he was determined to go wherever his father did. So Morsh slashed the rope which restrained the one surviving spare horse which trailed along behind him, then rode in pursuit.

The leading riders went crashing into the ranks of the bandits. Horses fell and men screamed.

"The river!" screamed someone. "He's in the river!"

Who was in the river? Guest Gulkan heard the cry, and remembered his visionary certainty. His father was going to drown.

And suddenly Guest knew:

He did not want to see his father dead.

But it was fated. It would happen whether Guest wanted it to happen or not.

"Then the hell with fate!" said Guest.

And, setting himself against fate, destiny and the course of history, Guest Gulkan spurred his horse. Which reared, and received in its flesh an arrow which had been aimed at its master.

Down went the horse, down, a mountain falling, an avalanche of bloody mortality, and Guest was thrown, sent sprawling. Guest Gulkan groped to his feet, mud in his eyes, the world a whirl of watering confusion. A bandit was charging him.

"Ga!" screamed Guest.

The bandit hacked at him with a woodcutter's axe. But an arrow took the man in the throat, and Guest hacked off his head as he died. No time to take a scalp! Lord Onosh was in the river, was drowning, and Guest had to save him. Had to! Panting heavily, Guest charged wildly through the floundering mud, bracing his way through the confusion of battle.

All around was chaos, as knots of disordered men fought each other with screams and curses. Guest tried to blink the mud from his watering eyes, and caught a bleary glimpse of the bright- flashing armor of Pelagius Zozimus. Heard Rolf Thelemite screaming in fear-flushed panic as he tried to hold a brace of bandits at bay single-handed.

Rolf saw Guest.

And screamed:

"Help me!"

Then Guest had to choose.

His friend or his father? Guest chose his father.

Ignoring Rolf Thelemite's plight, Guest struggled through the mud to the banks of the Yolantarath River. Down in the water was a horse, a floundering animal wild-eyed in panic, its body rent with wounds, its blood staining the brown murk of the river. Struggling in the water was a man.

"Blood!" said Guest.

He was bent on saving his father, but – he could not swim!

"Blood of a billion zombies!" said Guest.

Then the Weaponmaster took his sword in a two-handed grip and struck a mighty blow, driving the blade deep into the mud of his father's empire.

"Death or victory!" said Guest.

Then he slithered down the bank and plunged into the water, even as the man in the river's grip lost his hold on his horse and slid beneath the waters.

The waters mobbed around the Weaponmaster. The terror- stricken horse rolled its eyes and did its best to bite him. Guest whacked it with his fist, then waded into the river, first waist- deep then neck-deep, feeling for his father with his feet. Guest stubbed his toe on his father's flesh, grabbed a mouthful of air, then ducked down and seized the man by the hair.

Gods, he was heavy! Guest hauled, pulled, floundered, tried for purchase in the mud, got the man under the armpits – armor his flanks, and heavy, yes! – and boosted the man to the air. Guest gasped for air.

"Father," he said.

The man was safe, had been saved, was safe in Guest Gulkan's grip. But he was starting to struggle! He was screaming, and struggling convulsively. Guest felt his boots slipping. He was up to his neck in the river. A river-wave slapped his face. If his father was not quieted, he would have them both drowned and dead. Guest slipped deeper yet, and panic claimed him.

He screamed, incoherent in the agony of his panic.

The struggling pair were seen by Thodric Jarl, some thirty paces down the riverbank. Since Jarl was faced by imminent battle, he might as well have been distant by infinity. But Jarl summed the situation in a glimpse and found time enough to roar:

"Guest! Guest! Slam him! You must!"

The command came to Guest Gulkan as if from far off, like something shouted through a huge and fumbling thickness of fog.

But once said -

Blam! Guest slammed his father, crunched the screaming face with a fist, crunched it hard. Then dragged the man closer inshore. A monstrous weight he made, but Guest dragged him successfully. Then they slipped into a hole.

Water buried them. Guest slogged along underwater, one pace, two, a third, and up, up out of the hole and into the slash of the sun.

And the man in his arms screamed and thrashed, and clawed at him, and tried to bite off his nose. And suddenly Guest realized it was Eljuk, his brother Eljuk. He had risked his life, and risked it for Eljuk! Eljuk, of all people! And now Eljuk was fighting him in the frenzy of his panic!

"Blue bread and marmalade!" said Guest, enraged.

Then slammed Eljuk in the face with his fist.

Then slammed him again.

Eljuk boggled, and went limp.

Then Guest acknowledged his deep and pressing jealousy of his brother, and slammed him one last time for luck, and was amazed to find how good that made him feel.

Then came the hard and brutal slog-work, the dragging of the semi-conscious Eljuk from the waters and the hauling of the semiconscious Eljuk up the steep and muddy bank of the Yolantarath.

Swearing with every step, Guest encompassed the task. At the top of the riverbank, he dropped the whimpering Eljuk in the mud, kicked him once for luck, then looked around for his sword.

His sword!

Where was his sword? Guest Gulkan was weaponless, and a battle was in progress.

The sword? It was twenty paces distant, for the Yolantarath had carried the two brothers downstream as they struggled in the water. Guest went for his sword and won it. No sooner had he won the weapon than a man was upon him.

"Ahyak Rovac!" screamed the man.

"Rolf!" cried Guest, recognizing that battle-cry.

It was indeed Rolf Thelemite, so bloody from a gash in his forehead that he was unrecognizable, and was fighting blind. He fell into Guest's arms, and, with the battle dying down, Guest began to search his friend for wounds.

Apart from minor gashes (bloody, spectacular, but no immediate threat to life) Rolf Thelemite appeared to be in one piece. By the time Guest had assured himself of that, the battle was over – with all the bandits dead, for none had been given quarter.

"Your brother," said Rolf, recovering himself somewhat. "Your brother. He's dead."

"Eljuk?" said Guest. "But I just pulled him out of the river!"

"Not Eljuk!" said Rolf. "Morsh!"

Then Guest helped Rolf Thelemite to his feet, and the two went in search of Morsh Bataar. Rolf had seen Morsh go down and his horse fall on top of him, so presumed the young man to be dead. But when they found the body it opened its eyes then spoke to them.

"Will you shift this horse?" said Morsh Bataar. "For it's died on top of me, and I think my leg is broken."Guest and Rolf called for help, and the Witchlord Onosh came over to them, called others to their aid, and had the horse shifted.

"It hurts like a red-hot poker," said Morsh Bataar, tears of pain in his eyes. "It's the leg. The left leg."

Lord Onosh drew his scalping knife and cut away the clothing which guarded the left leg. The thigh was prodigiously bruised and swollen with blood, and Morsh Bataar was crying from the pain.

"It's death," said Morsh, acknowledging the truth of his own injury.

Lord Onosh rose without a word. He knew the injury was as good as death. Unless -

"Zozimus!" roared the Witchlord.

The wizard Pelagius Zozimus advanced and saluted his emperor.

There was blood and mud on the wizard's fishscale armor, but Zozimus looked nonetheless lordly.

"My lord," said Zozimus.

"Zozimus," said Lord Onosh, pointing at Morsh Bataar. "I charge you with the healing of my son."

Pelagius Zozimus bent to the injury. When he was ready to speak, he rose to his full height address his emperor on equal footing.

"Your son is a dead man," said Zozimus bluntly. "There is not the skill in Gendormargensis to heal him."

"You are a wizard, are you not?" said Lord Onosh. "A worker of magic. A worker of miracles. Is the emperor to be denied a miracle on his request?"

"I am no god to undo what the gods have fated," said Zozimus.

"I have but some poor and wretched art of necromancy at my command. I have it at my power to have the corpses of this battlefield stumbling in their blood, their shambles but a parody of life. And that – and that is all."

"It cannot be all," said Lord Onosh.

"My lord," said Zozimus, "were wizardry an art of miracle, would I abandon wizardry for cookery? Not so. Yet such was my choice."

"Choice, choice," said Lord Onosh. "Look at me! What choice have I got? My son's life or my wizard's. He lives or dies, but if he dies then you die too."

"We must get him to Gendormargensis," said Guest, who was bent on seeing Morsh healed, and who associated healing with warm rooms and sickbeds.

"No!" said Zozimus sharply.

"You heard my father," said Guest, angered so much that he was almost ready to slaughter down the wizard on the spot. "His life or yours."

"Or both," said Zozimus. "I heard him. But we must not move the boy. To move him is to kill him."

"He can't stay here!" said Guest, looking around at the sprawling river, the blood-punctuated mud, the bleary sky, the horizon encumbered with mountainous hills, and the silent swordsmen now starting to shiver as their sweat cooled toward slime.

"Give him a chance," said Zozimus, speaking harshly from a throat still dry from battle. "Give Morsh a chance. If Morsh stays here then he does have a chance – albeit a slim one. But if you haul him back to Gendormargensis then he dies of a certainty, and I die with him."

"Then he stays," said Lord Onosh. "And I stay with him. To work, Zozimus! Get on with it!"

"A tent," said Zozimus. "I need a tent. Guest! Backtrack!

Along our track you'll find horses with tents. Morsh himself had one such last night, though it was not in his keeping this morning. Ride back and find such, for such is your brother's survival."

"I go," said Guest, bowing to Zozimus's imperative.

Thus Guest went, and Zozimus was much relieved to see him go, for there was no telling how much damage the boy might have done in his fear for his brother's life. Then Zozimus called for horseblankets; and firewood; and for dead horses to be heaped up as a temporary windbreak while shelter more permanent was sought.

When Guest had gone, Morsh Bataar said through the tears of his pain:

"The man's not as tough as he thought."

Here Morsh was speaking of himself. The Yarglat do not readily admit to pain, and only by thus referring to it in the third person could Morsh Bataar admit to the grief of his agony.

"We none of us are," said his father.

For the Witchlord Onosh had known pain and knew the truth of it: there is no thing worse.

Then:

"It hurts," said Morsh Bataar, in frank confession of his pain.

Then, unable to help himself, Morsh Bataar cried out, gasping with pain – gasping in the inarticulate agony of the flesh. Lord Onosh wiped the cold sweat from his son's forehead, and Pelagius Zozimus, unable to bear this sight for any longer, withdrew to the riverbank to think.

The gray-bearded Thodric Jarl went with him, hoping he would try to escape, for Jarl had a deep-felt hatred of wizards, and would welcome any excuse to murder him.

"The break is bad," said Zozimus, who usually shunned Jarl as if the man was death incarnate – as well he might prove if things took a turn for the worse.

"Very bad," said Jarl, with grim satisfaction.

"Still," said Zozimus, "men have lived through as much."

"No men that I know of," said Jarl.

"Then Morsh Bataar will be the first," said Zozimus, trying to pretend to a confidence which he did not actually feel.

Pelagius Zozimus was no healer, for he had never studied to be either bonesetter or pox doctor. Zozimus was a wizard of the order of Xluzu, a necromancer whose skills allowed him to animate the dead. This filthy and dispiriting work he had long ago abandoned in favor of cookery, for he disliked death. Equally, he disliked disease, injury, deformation, and every other debasement and degradation of the flesh.

Yet -

Zozimus had ever been a great scholar, and in the course of learning about death he had learnt much about life, for the study of death is necessarily the study of corpses and skeletons, which is an excellent way to learn about the living.

In the Castle of Ultimate Peace, a mighty fortress by the flame trench of Drangsturm, the order of Xluzu had long maintained great collection of skeletons, which included the bones of a sailor who had died of rabies after being bitten by his mother-in- law's dog. In youth, this sailor had broken his thighbone after falling from a mast, and had spent four months lying in his bunk while he recovered from the injury.

In the course of the sailor's cure, a huge bolus of bone had knitted together the fractured ends of his thighbone, which had been out of alignment by as much as the width of two fingers. The result had produced a very strange skeleton, but when healed the leg had been normal enough to facilitate the bestriding of decks and the kicking of dogs.

So Jarl's pessimism was not necessarily predictive.

If Morsh Bataar was lugged to Gendormargensis, he would doubtless die from the rigors of the journey, but if he could be kept just where he was, if he could be clothed and cleaned and warmed and fed, sheltered from the elements and -

"You know," said Jarl, "while you sit here, Morsh is dying."

"So you tell me," said Zozimus.

"He's dying of pain, you fool," said Jarl, unable to restrain himself any longer. "Pain is the breaking of men, and kills when wounds alone would not."

Jarl wanted to see Zozimus fail and die. But Jarl had ever liked Morsh Bataar for his steadiness and his leisured good humor, and did not want to see him die in a delirium of agony.

The relief of his pain would probably not save his life, but might at least ease his parting.

Zozimus took the hint.

"Opium!" said Zozimus, slapping his thigh as he named the best kind of pain relief he knew. Then: "Send to the city for Sken-Pitilkin!" said he, knowing his fellow wizard was never far away from a supply of the peace of the poppy. "Send for Sken-Pitilkin," said Zozimus, "and tell him to bring us his opium."

"Your word," said Jarl, "is my command."

And he turned to obey.

So Sken-Pitilkin was sent for, and brought as directed, arriving late in the afternoon of the following day after a ride so rigorous it had almost killed him. There was no problem in finding the campsite, for by now there were hundreds encamped by the river, with a steady steam of incoming stragglers filtering out of the hills. To feed this multitude, Lord Onosh had commandeered a string of barges which had been coming down the Yolantarath, deeply laden with some of the spoils of the autumn harvest in the east. Guest Gulkan himself greeted Sken-Pitilkin on his arrival, and led him to Pelagius Zozimus. No longer was Zozimus glorious, for his bright-shining armor had been mired by the splattering muck of the encampment, and the dervish wildness of his bloodshot eyes, combined with his unkempt condition, made him look three parts lunatic.

"What took you so long?" said Zozimus, when Sken-Pitilkin arrived.

For in all that time Zozimus had seldom strayed out of earshot from Morsh Bataar, and much which the sleepless wizard had heard while within earshot had been far from pleasant.

"What took me so long?" said Sken-Pitilkin. "Why, first I had to be born, and then – "

"That's nonsense enough," said Zozimus. "Have you brought the opium?"

"Yes," said Sken-Pitilkin. "But I must see our patient before I dispense it."

"It is peace," said Zozimus impatiently, for after listening to Morsh Bataar's agony he wanted peace for the man more than anything else.

"It is peace," agreed Sken-Pitilkin. "But sometimes death is the measure of that peace."

Then the two wizards went to see Morsh Bataar.

From the gruesome account of Morsh Bataar's injury which had been delivered to him in Gendormargensis, Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin had got the impression that the boy's broken thighbone had ruptured through the skin, an injury which would have virtually guaranteed his death.

But on being admitted to the tent which sheltered the boy, Sken-Pitilkin found the skin unbroken. Battalions of leeches were feasting on the thigh, doing their best to suck every drop of blood from the injured limb.

"It was Jarl who insisted on the leeches," said Zozimus.

"We've had half a thousand people looking for them, and still they look for more, though leeches in such quantity must surely kill."

"The blood must be drawn from the wound," said Sken-Pitilkin equitably, "and the leech is a precision instrument superbly designed for that express purpose. How do you feel, Morsh?"

Morsh Bataar spoke his pain in pain, spoke it in a mewling cry which evidenced long torture and the imminence of death. His pain was the measure of his strength, for a weaker man would have long since lost the power of protest.

"The opium," said Zozimus impatiently.

"There is more to healing than ramming strong drugs down the throats of your patients," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"But Jarl said – "

"Since when do wizards command themselves by the sayings of the Rovac?" said Sken-Pitilkin sharply.

"I am in danger of my life," said Zozimus, "hence will command myself by whoever knows best."

"Then be commanded by me," said Sken-Pitilkin, endeavoring the calm the Witchlord's over-agitated slug-chef. "Be commanded, for I fancy that I have more of the healing arts than have you."

"So you say," said Zozimus. "But Jarl says that pain will be the death of the boy even if nothing else kills him."

"The pain," said Sken-Pitilkin, "is consequent upon the fracture. The boy's bone is broken."

"That much I have divined," said Zozimus stiffly.

"The bone of the thigh lies broken in the flesh," said Sken-Pitilkin, continuing in his best classroom manner. "With the bone broken, the muscles of the leg strive to shorten the leg. Thus broken bone is pulled against broken bone, and the result is an agony your most expert torturer would be hard put to better."

"Why," said Zozimus, in sarcastic imitation of admiration, "you speak with the fluency of a very pox doctor!"

"Thus have I made my living in the past," said Sken-Pitilkin, admitting this secret without shame. "It is the truth, Pelagius. A broken bone is no big thing in itself, but the gritting together of the ends of the bone is living hell."

"So," said Zozimus, seeing the nature of the cure now that he understood the problem, "we must separate the ends of the broken bones to ease the pain of our patient. Do you think your wizardry the equal of the task?"

"I would not trust my wizardry with a tenth of it," said Sken-Pitilkin, who, as a wizard of Skatzabratzumon – an order dedicated to the mastery of the mysteries of levitation – had no special powers relevant to the cure of the flesh. "Still, mere mechanical skill may succeed where wizardry fails. I believe I can build something efficient for our purposes. Guest! Guest Gulkan!

Where are you, boy?" Guest Gulkan manifested himself in response to this shout, and, at Sken-Pitilkin's orders, mustered up a raiding party. Sken-Pitilkin led this party aboard one of the barges tied up by the riverbank – the barges earlier commandeered by the Witchlord for the feeding of his multitude – and this barge they then looted thoroughly.

"What now?" said Zozimus, once the looting was done, and Sken-Pitilkin had a great heap of rope, sticks, spars, planks and sailcloth at his disposal.

"Now?" said Sken-Pitilkin. "We build!"

As the power to levitate objects can be enhanced by the adroit use of pulleys, levers and inclined planes, wizards of the order of Skatzabratzumon had long been diligent in their studies of such devices, and Sken-Pitilkin was well equipped to oversee the building of a stretching machine. Under his supervision, men worked through the night, and by dawn had finished the thing. The contraption looked very like a torturer's rack, and worked on exactly the same principle.

"Tenderly, now," said Sken-Pitilkin, as his team of well- briefed assistants gathered around the recumbent Morsh Bataar.

"Guest. Thodric. Secure the harness."

Working as carefully as they could, Guest Gulkan and Thodric

Jarl secured Morsh Bataar's shoulders and the foot of his injured leg in the padded imprisonment of leather harness-work.

"Ready?" said Sken-Pitilkin. "Very well. On my command, begin to pull. Steady but sure."

"Don't!" cried Morsh Bataar, piteous in his fear. "Don't hurt me!"

"This is not pain but its cure," said Sken-Pitilkin. "Guest.

Thodric. Are you ready? Well – remember you work against muscle, so be ready for resistance. On the count of three. One. And two.

And three."

Then Thodric Jarl and Guest Gulkan applied their strength, the one hauling on the foot of the injured leg, the other pulling back on the shoulders.

Morsh Bataar screamed.

"Steady, boys!" said Sken-Pitilkin.

"You're hurting him," said Eljuk Zala, advancing on Guest Gulkan as if to attack him. "Let him go! You're hurting him!"

At that, the sagacious Sken-Pitilkin reached out with his country crook, slipped it round Eljuk Zala's neck, then dragged him backwards. Taken by surprise, Eljuk fell backwards, whereupon the nimble-witted Pelagius Zozimus sat on him.

"Keep it steady, boys," said Sken-Pitilkin. "Now. Slow but sure. Use your strength. He's a strong man, and you work against his greatest muscles. Strength, boys!"

Then Thodric Jarl and Guest Gulkan stretched Morsh Bataar in earnest, and as the two ends of grating bone were dragged apart the most amazing relief came into Morsh Bataar's face.

"A little more," said Sken-Pitilkin. "Just a little more.

Right. Hold him! If you let him go, you kill him!"

This was the devilish part of stretching the patient. Once stretched, he must stay stretched, for the broken ends of his own thighbone were weapons which might kill him if he was released from the tension under which he had been placed. Quite apart from the question of pain, the sharp edges of broken bones can be wicked devices for the severing of blood vessels.

"Gather round," said Sken-Pitilkin.

The dwarf Glambrax and the Rovac warrior Rolf Thelemite knelt alongside Morsh Bataar, slipped their hands under his body and awaited the order to lift.

"Pelagius," said Sken-Pitilkin, seeking to command his cousin into action.

"The boy," said Zozimus, who was still sitting on Eljuk Zala.

"This boy Eljuk. He's not safe to let loose."

"Then I'll sit on him," said Sken-Pitilkin, and matched deed to word so Pelagius Zozimus could join Glambrax and Rolf Thelemite alongside Morsh Bataar. "On the count of three," said Sken-Pitilkin, speaking from his new-found throne. "One. And two. And three."

Morsh Bataar groaned as he was lifted, then cried out sharply as he was set down on the stretching machine with a slight bump. A slight bump it was to those who were handling him, but Morsh himself – why, poor Morsh felt as if he had just been dropped off a mountain.

"Easy, Morsh," said Sken-Pitilkin. "We're almost done."

Then, while Guest Gulkan and Thodric Jarl maintained the tension on Morsh Bataar's foot and shoulders, keeping the broken ends of his thighbone apart, Sken-Pitilkin supervised the attachment of boot-harness and shoulder-harness to hooks. Ratchets and wheels were used to put both sets of harness under strain, so Morsh was being stretched by foot and shoulders.

"Enough," said Sken-Pitilkin. "Guest. Thodric. Release your hold. Now."Guest Gulkan let go of Morsh Bataar's shoulder harness and Thodric Jarl released the foot harness.

"Sweet blood," said Jarl, studying Morsh Bataar's face for signs of pain. "It works."

"It works," confirmed Morsh Bataar. "Thank you."

Then he essayed a smile, or tried to. It was more of a grimace than a confirmation of pleasure, but it was a very miracle considering the torments he had been through. Indeed, Morsh Bataar's mere survival was little short of sheer miracle. But then, the Yarglat are tougher than other peoples, or so they say – though pain is the same for us all, as the very Witchlord himself had acknowledged.

"Well," said Sken-Pitilkin, rising from his seat. "Now we can fetch our emperor to survey the scene of our triumph."

The seat the wizard had risen from was of course the hapless Eljuk Zala, the anointed heir to the Collosnon Empire. Eljuk rose from the mud unsteadily, a swollen leech hanging pendulously from his nose. As he tried to exit from the tent, the Witchlord Onosh entered, and the two collided.

"Ho, boy!" said Lord Onosh. "You need to blow your nose!

Well, Zozimus! How is my son! How are you, Morsh? You're looking better. Much better. Grief, what a contraption! What have we here,

Zozimus? A siege engine, is it? Is young Morsh to be catapulted to Gendormargensis, or must we drag him?"

"As I said to my lord earlier," said Zozimus, "to move Morsh to the city would be to kill him."

"Ah," said the Witchlord briskly, "but that was before he was lashed to this brilliant machine. I can see the sense of it. Surely now it's only sanity to shift him."

"My lord," said Zozimus, "when the wounded are dragged from the battlefield, then every bump is agony – and by my computation there are half a billion bumps between here and the city."

"So it will hurt a little," said Lord Onosh. "Still, Morsh is a strong man, is he not?"

"Hostaja," said Zozimus, appealing to his cousin. "We can't move the boy, can we?"

Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin considered the question.

"I have not the full skill of an accomplished bonesetter, nor the full depth of a bonesetter's proper experience," said Sken-Pitilkin, "so I cannot answer definitively. But I know for a fact that where the bone has broken there must surely be blood. Blood clots to lumps, so to move the boy may be to break free such lumps. Once free in the flesh they can travel, and jam in the heart, with death as a consequence."

"Then what do you suggest?" said Lord Onosh.

"I suggest that Morsh is safest here," said Sken-Pitilkin. "I vote for no certain decision on chances, but suggest that he stands four chances in five of a quick death should he be shifted to the city. I would not wish to move him much before midwinter, not with the bone so savagely broken."

"Then," said Guest Gulkan bravely, "if Morsh must stay, then I will stay with him, and guard his solitude till then."

It immediately occurred to Lord Onosh that Guest Gulkan might well be volunteering to stay with his brother because he was afraid to return to Gendormargensis. As soon as Guest got back to Gendormargensis, he would have to meet Thodric Jarl in combat, and that combat would in all probability be the end of him.

"Guest," said Lord Onosh, "on the day of our battle against the bandits you saved the life of Eljuk Zala."

"So I did," said Guest, who was no great exponent of the art of modesty. "I dragged him from the river at the risk of my very life."

"That was well done," said Lord Onosh. "As a compliment to your bravery, I offer you any boon within reason."

"Does this mean – "

"It does not mean that you may lay claim to the woman Yerzerdayla. But else you may ask."

The Witchlord fully expected Guest Gulkan to be excused from his coming battle against Thodric Jarl. Now that the tempers of all concerned had had time to cool, Lord Onosh had no wish to see Guest spitted on Jarl's sword, particularly not since Guest was the best hope for the continuation of the family line and the preservation of the empire.

"My lord," said Guest. "I have long wished to be known as the Weaponmaster."

"Since you were a child," agreed Lord Onosh.

"But you have ever denied me such a title," said Guest.

"I have denied it for a very good reason," said Lord Onosh.

"The very good reason being that you are the master of no weapon."

"Yet," said Guest, "it is the title I claim. That is the boon I wish from you."

Lord Onosh was quite taken aback by this. Nevertheless, he granted Guest Gulkan what he wanted. And all the way to Gendormargensis, Lord Onosh wondered exactly how his son hoped to survive the encounter with Thodric Jarl to which he had doomed himself.

While the much-wondering Witchlord made his way back to Gendormargensis, the young Weaponmaster trained with his sword on the banks of the Yolantarath. Ever and again Guest Gulkan slashed and sliced, imagining how the mighty razor of his courage would cut down Thodric Jarl to size.

When he was weary with training, Guest made his way back to his tent. Already the campsite stank, and already some dog had managed to die in the middle of it. Rain fell continually, pocking the boot-craters in the slimy gray mud. Guest Gulkan's neighbor's tent lay mortally wounded in the mud.

He looked around.

He saw a bit of river escaping in the general direction of the distant ocean. Mucky gray cloud – much of it. He didn't see the wind, but it saw him. Changed direction smartly. Bucketed his face with cold rain.

"Great," said Guest, glowing with confidence and selfsatisfaction. "Just beautiful."

What was beautiful above all else was the flatness of the land, the flatness which gave mobility to the horse-troops of the Yarglat, the flatness which had made them the conquerors of the Collosnon Empire.

"This," said Guest, striking a theatrical pose, "is the empire. And I, the Weaponmaster, will make myself lord of it."

No thunder boomed to complement his words, but such was the intensity of Guest's imagination that he fooled himself into believing that he heard such thunder; and he told himself it was a very good omen, and proof of the favor of the gods.

Chapter Three

Name: Thodric Jarl.

Birthplace: Rovac.

Occupation: mercenary.

Status: imperial bodyguard.

Description: blunt and decidedly unplayful Rovac warrior, gray of eye and gray of beard, though he is as yet far from the years of his full maturity – for he is but 24 years of age.

Hobby: cultivating the intimate acquaintance of young women of surpassing beauty (and here note that Jarl is no gluttonous greedpig but, rather, a connoisseur who will kill for the best while ignoring anything which does not meet his rigorous standards of perfection).

Quote: "I would that each was a wizard, for then our victory would be all the sweeter." (Said in the Cold West before he led a thousand men to battle against an enemy which outnumbered his own forces by four to one. Despite the promise of victory implicit in his boast, on that occasion he was defeated, and nine in ten of his men were slaughtered or enslaved.)

Shall we say something about Thodric Jarl? Shall we speak of the color of his eye and the tint of his beard? Shall we tell of his history and his hobbies, or quote him in his rhetoric?

No.

Suffice it simply to say that Jarl was of the Rovac, that the Rovac are as primitive a bunch of blood-letting savages as you are likely to cross swords with, and that Jarl was true to his kind.

Hence Guest Gulkan feared him.

Or should have feared him!

Time flies like an arrow, as the proverb has it, and before midwinter Guest Gulkan returned to Gendormargensis and announced his intention to meet Thodric Jarl in single combat.

The wizard Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin shortly came to see Guest Gulkan and counseled him to flee the city.

"Why in the name of a dog's green vomit should I do a thing like that?" said Guest. Guest had then lately entered upon a phase where he spent a great deal of his spare time in devising new and especially barbarous oaths, and "a dog's greem vomit" is typical of these. Sken-Pitilkin resisted the temptation to abrade the boy on account of his uncouth neologisms, and instead dedicated himself to giving good counsel.

"You must flee from Gendormargensis," said Sken-Pitilkin,

"because, unless you flee the city, you'll have to hack it out face to face with Thodric Jarl."

"I should worry?" said Guest.

"Of course you should worry!"

"Why?" said Guest. "Because I'll get blood on my clothes?"

"Because the blood will be your own," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"You have a choice. Bribe up big to buy off Jarl. Or flee. That's the limit of the choices you have at your own disposal, though Bao Gahai may have others."

This Bao Gahai was a dralkosh, a witch, whose devices had helped the Witchlord Onosh secure power and keep it. Rumor had it that Bao Gahai's strength was faltering, but many feared her still.

"Bao Gahai?" said Guest. "I'll not be seeking help from her."

"Yet she may give it," said Sken-Pitilkin. "She desires your presence, now, today, and to tell you as much is the greater part of my reason for coming here. Well. Are you ready to go?"

"I'm not going to see her!" said Guest.

But Sken-Pitilkin was persistent, and told the boy that Lord Onosh himself wished Guest to consult with Bao Gahai. So at length the young Weaponmaster allowed himself to be persuaded into the presence of the dralkosh who for so long had aided and counseled his father.

The audience took place in Bao Gahai's bedroom, which smelt of camphor, of cats, and of antiquity. Bao Gahai was sitting up in bed with a cheeseboard on her knees. On the cheeseboard was an assortment of nuts – she never ate cheese, for she was allergic to it, just as she was allergic to catmeat and the eggs of seagulls – and throughout the audience she occupied herself by opening those nuts with the aid of a hammer, a chisel and an autoptical brain-hook. By profession she was a pathologist, and though she no longer dissected dead flesh – excitement always got the better of her, and she invariably moved from the dead to the living – she was still possessed by the scarcely controllable urge to dissect something. Hence the nuts.

"As a mark of my favor," said Bao Gahai, once she was alone with the young Weaponmaster, "I have persuaded your father to let the Rovac warrior Rolf Thelemite remain as your bodyguard, for all that he has recently led you into folly by the way of gambling."

"As a mark of your favor, if I truly have your favor," said Guest, astonished by his own boldness even as he spoke, "you might see to the cancellation of my gambling debts – and Rolf's."

"It's the cancellation of your life that should concern you," said Bao Gahai. "Not the cancellation of debt."

"You think me dead at the hand of Thodric Jarl?" said Guest, alluding to the duel to which he was doomed.

"I think that a strong likelihood, unless you leave the city," said Bao Gahai. "I suggest an extended journey of exploration in the Eastern Marches."

"That would be one way of thwarting Jarl's bloodlust," agreed Guest, with an entirely unwonted cheerfullness.

"You're not thinking of poisoning him, are you?" said Bao Gahai sharply.

"No," said Guest. "Of fighting him merely. Of killing him."

"You," said Bao Gahai, flicking a piece of walnut shell in Guest's direction, "have been taking opium."

"Opium?" said Guest.

"Yes, yes," said Bao Gahai. "You have been taking opium. Or else you have a fever."

"A fever? No? Why would you think so?"

"Because," said Bao Gahai, "there is never any way under any of the seventy suns of the fifty thousand hells of Bancharoth that you will ever kill Thodric Jarl in single combat."

"My sword has slaughtered down a multiple of men in combat," said the Weaponmaster staunchly, "and I have trained long and hard since my last slaughter."

"You?" said Bao Gahai, with a laugh barely to be distinguished from the sound of nutshells snappling. "You? You have trained? With whom? With Rolf Thelemite, maybe?"

"The very man," said Guest. "And he is a Rovac warrior, is he not?"

"For sure," said Bao Gahai. "Rolf Thelemite is a warrior, as a sparrow is a bird. But I think the gray-bearded Jarl to be a very eagle in his pride, and I think the sharpness of his talons a fit complement to that pride."

Then Bao Gahai started to laugh.

She laughed and she laughed. Her full-fledged throttling was hideous, sounding for all the world like a man being strangled. Guest Gulkan took Bao Gahai's laughter as a cue to leave, and swiftly made his escape. But Bao Gahai sent Sken-Pitilkin to persecute young Guest with books, and with papers, and with irregular verbs; and to divine his intentions if this should prove remotely possible. The dralkosh did not believe for one moment that Guest actually intended dueling Jarl, so presumed he had a secret plan in hatching.

But Sken-Pitilkin found no hint of the existence of any such plan; and found, too, that the boy Guest was decidedly reluctant to settle to his lessons, for his sword seemed to have fascinated him like a bewitching love.

A date for Guest Gulkan's duel with Thodric Jarl had been fixed, and on morning before that day of destiny – to be precise, on a morning some ten days after the Weaponmaster's return to Gendormargensis – Sken-Pitilkin came to Guest's quarters and found the boy busily sharpening the long razorblade of his sword's cutting edge.

"It is written," said Sken-Pitilkin, shivering in the unheated coldness of Guest Gulkan's room, "that an icicle is but a poor room-mate. Blood, boy! Why don't you heat the room?"

"I am hardening myself body and soul," said Guest, with a studied seriousness which appeared devoid of any hint of irony. "I am hardening myself to meet with Thodric Jarl. Besides, the exercise of the sword warms me to a sufficiency."

"But I am old," said Sken-Pitilkin, "and my bones chilled with my age. It is written that the old should not suffer from the folly of the young."

"Where is that written?" said Guest. "In a book?"

"Where else?" said Sken-Pitilkin.

"Books truth nothing," said Guest, studying his swordblade by the winterlight which shivered through the open window. "Anyone can write anything in a book."

"So they can," said Sken-Pitilkin, settling himself of a chair and pulling Guest's best solskin horseblanket around him.

"The date of your death, for example. In the books of the city's best bookmakers, that date is written as tomorrow. But there are other things well-written in the books of the world. Irregular verbs, for instance. What say you leave that sword, and make some verbs mere chopmeat with the razor of your intellect."

As scholars have always known, languages should ever be the first learning of the man who may be destined to hold great power. recognizing this truth, the unscholarly Lord Onosh had ordered Sken-Pitilkin to labor young Guest into a linguist. But Guest hated the foreign tongues, their hookworm alphabets and their irregular verbs; and, failing to recognize their imposition as a sign of his father's love for him, he reacted as if Lord Onosh had personally invented all foreign syllabaries for the express purpose of torturing an unscholarly boy.

"Your passion for verbs is obscene," said Guest, momentarily laying aside his sword.

"Obscene?" said Sken-Pitilkin.

"Surely," said Guest, sliding shut the translucent paper screens designed to exclude the winter air from his quarters.

"You lust for them. You lust like a very antelope. Irregular verbs! To grope, squeeze, suck and horsewhip such! A sick passion!

As for me, I'd rather kiss a toad. I'd think that the lesser perversion."

"Then that's unfortunate," said Sken-Pitilkin, "for your father wishes me to corrupt you with the choicests of my passions."

"Then let's at least leave the irregular verbs till I have killed myself my man," said Guest, again picking up his sword.

"Before battle, I must purify myself, and abstain from all perversions, irregular verbs included."

By way of reply, Sken-Pitilkin reached beneath the horseblanket which he had snugged across his knees, and took a book from beneath his skirt. These skirts were a foreign fashion, and Guest thought they must be desperately cold, though he was wrong in his thinking, for they were exceptionally practical and comfortable, and Sken-Pitilkin ever demonstrated great wisdom by wearing them. Having retrieved the book, Sken-Pitilkin began to unwrap its layers of waterproofing oil-cloth. Guest Gulkan pretended to ignore the book in favor of the admiration of his own reflection in his swordblade. By manipulating the blade he could screen out the greatness of his ears – and concentrate instead on eyes and lips. The young Weaponmaster twisted his lips into a ferocious sneer then rolled his eyes in imitation of a horse gone mad.

All of which severely tempted Sken-Pitilkin, who sorely longed to fetch Guest a sharp crack with his country crook. But, of course, the boy had long since outgrown such convenient discipline.

"If you will not light a brazier," said Sken-Pitilkin, cool even though he was snugged beneath the horseblanket, "at least pass me a little wine to warm my veins."

"What makes you think I've got wine on hand?" said Guest.

"When are you ever without it?" said Sken-Pitilkin.

This was a telling point, and Guest shortly uncovered some wine, and a block of rather grubby cheese to go with it. Knowing Bao Gahai to be allergic to cheese, Guest had acquired a great store of it, thinking to devise some plan for her poisoning. But he had failed in this enterprise, and so was put to the trouble of eating the stuff.

"Careful," said Guest, as Sken-Pitilkin helped himself to wine and cheese. "Be careful, lest you spill your drink on that precious book of yours."

"The book is mine," said Sken-Pitilkin, studying the cheese from several different angles, as if suspecting that it might be poisoned, "so let me do the worrying."

"I worry for my father's sake," said Guest. "For that book is the chiefest of his torturers. Should it die in the bloodflow of your downspilt wine, he'd be ten years searching for an instrument of equal punishment."

"This book is not torture but love," said Sken-Pitilkin, wiping the cheese on the horseblanket, "as I've told you not one time but fifty. Sit! Squat yourself down, boy, then let us begin." Guest Gulkan sat, and squared himself to face the book, looking for all the world like an inexperienced gladiator forced to do battle against a dragon with a toothpick as his sole armament. The book, of course, was Strogloth's Compendium of Delights.

The eminent Strogloth – and who he is is unknown, which is just as well, as there is many a young scholar who would dearly like to murder him – had searched great heaps of grammars for their irregular verbs, working in the spirit of one of those pornographers who reads immense libraries of law and religion with the sole purpose of extracting nuggets of brutal licentiousness.

The result? Spectacular!

"We will begin," said Sken-Pitilkin, chewing on the cheese, which was not too bad, "with the conjugation of the verb porp.

Which means…? Guest? Guest, what is meant by the word porp?"

"You tell me," said Guest, "for the irregular verbs are your perversion, not mine."

"A perversion, yes," agreed Sken-Pitilkin, speaking with great self-restraint. Then, feeling the boy had had things all his own way for just a little too long: "But are you not a pervert? Is not the killing of men and the taking of their scalps a perversion of sorts?"

"It is culturally appropriate," said Guest. "You told me so yourself when we studied ethnology."

"Ah, ethnology," said Sken-Pitilkin. "A mistake."

Here it must be conceded that Sken-Pitilkin had indeed made a grievous error when he introduced young Guest to the science of ethnology; for Sken-Pitilkin had forgotten how much of that science deals in great and enthusiastic detail with vivisection, cannibalism, head hunting, ritual murder, torture, louche initiation rites, and, above all, with sex customs.

"An ethnologist would say," said Guest, gaining enthusiasm as he saw he had the advantage, "that hunting men and killing them for their scalps is a vital part of my cultural heritage. For you as an uitlander scholar to criticize or condemn this practice would represent intolerable interference in the internal affairs of the Collosnon Empire."

"No," said Sken-Pitilkin, "you are wrong, for now you have confounded a theorem of ethnology with a practical political doctrine."

"I have not!" said Guest.

But he had, and Sken-Pitilkin explained his error to him in excruciating detail.

"You understand?" said Sken-Pitilkin. "No! Of course you don't! Never mind. Let us proceed to delight, for the irregular verbs yet await us."

"Irregular verbs!" sneered Guest. "My praxis is combat, not scholarship. My destiny is to do battle, to kill men, to drink their blood and take their scalps."

"Perhaps, perhaps," said Sken-Pitilkin. "But I rule this particular battlefield, so you will conduct yourself like a prisoner of war and obey me as the chiefest of your jailors. The verbs!"

"The verbs have awaited us for years already," said Guest.

"Let them wait till tomorrow for, with my man as yet to kill, I'm in no mood for study today."

"Words are weapons," said Sken-Pitilkin. "And tools. If you aspire to be surgeon to the body politic, then you should look to your armamentarium."

"Swords are weapons far better," said Guest. "For language cannot chop heads."Sken-Pitilkin studied the young man carefully, for he was sober yet spoke with a drunkard's enthusiasm. He was drugged. Or somehow intoxicated. Perhaps, just perhaps, he was intoxicated by his own over-enterprising ambition. Certainly he looked far, far too buoyant, considering that he was due to shortly face the murderous Thodric Jarl in a duel he was certain to lose. Sken-Pitilkin wondered if Guest had any true conception of the true nature of his own predicament.

"You know, my boy," said Sken-Pitilkin, "it would be very easy for you to make your peace with Thodric Jarl, if you did but humble yourself before him. Your life is full of so much promise that it would be foolish for you to do otherwise."

"My life," said Guest, "has no promise whatsoever."

"No promise?" said Sken-Pitilkin in surprise. "But don't you realize that you're surely going to end up with the imperial throne? That's your fate of a certainty, as long as you can master your temper and learn up a little diplomacy, and just a fragment of self-control to match it."

"You do but fantasize," said Guest, "for I am but a motherless boy with no future here or elsewhere, as all the world is at pains to tell me, thrice five times a day between dawning and darkness.

But even though I must live here as a worthless bastard with all the world leagued in scorn against me, I will not surrender my pride by crawling to Thodric Jarl, no, nor by bribing him either."

So spoke Guest Gulkan, revealing depths of resentment which surprised Sken-Pitilkin, who cast about for some form of words which might improve the boy's self-confidence.

"You lie so smoothly I wish I'd taught you the skill myself," said Sken-Pitilkin, failing to find the words he sought. "Very well. Since your mastery has already encompassed the art of the lie, and since today finds you lacking the courage to tackle the smallest of the irregular verbs, though it be a naked verb, and hairless, and feeble in its antiquity – then, that being so, let us turn our minds to the study of geography."

"Not if that means maps," said Guest.

"You are in luck," said Sken-Pitilkin, "for all my maps are back in my own quarters."

"All right then," said Guest. "Geography it is."

He was relieved that they were to abandon verbs for geography. For geography was not quite so very bad, at least when there were no maps to be studied. Sken-Pitilkin had trunkloads of maps, charts and plans showing the margins of earth and sea, the sewer systems of foreign cities, the whims of the wind, the fruiting of the harvests, key infestations of dragons and the geographical range of the platypus. But while Guest knew the theory of maps, he had yet to master the art of conjuring truth from a scrabblework of isograms. Usually, when given a mapwork problem, he would stare at the parchment all day and get precisely nowhere. Guest Gulkan had such difficulties partly because so many things on Sken-Pitilkin's maps were entirely alien to his experience. The sea, for instance. He was exasperated by geographical figurations which suggested that in places the sea ran on for thousands of leagues without interruption, because surely the existence of such an immensity of water was contrary to both reason and sheer probability.

And a shortage of illustrations made it difficult to match these alien places with their flora and fauna. The elephant and the platypus were both delineated explicitly in Sken-Pitilkin's Book of Beasts, the one being a very large mouse with deformed teeth and a nose of surpassing length, and the other being a rat in the form of a duck.

But what of the quokka? And the jellyfish?

Of these Guest Gulkan was unable to form any clear conception.

Yet he hoped never to meet such a monster as a jellyfish in the flesh, for it had been described to him as a translucent beast in the form of a blob from which depended a million fine-stranded tentacles which stung and killed. The monster was alleged to be otherwise without features, possessed of no eyes, nose, ears, arms, head, neck, trunk or external organs of generation. Guest Gulkan had met with the jellyfish twice already in nightmare, and on neither occasion had he been able to argue the brute out of killing him. On no account did he want to meet the thing a third time in the world of the real.

He said as much.

"Fear not the jellyfish," said Sken-Pitilkin. "A far more dangerous creature is the woman. Far many more men have been killed on account of women than ever met their deaths in the tentacles of a jellyfish. You in your own flesh look to become one of them."

"It's not come to killing," said Guest. "Not yet."

Though the young Yarglat barbarian knew there would almost certainly be a killing when he met with Jarl on the morrow, he had no appetite for argument with his tutor.

"Then don't let it!" said Sken-Pitilkin. "Pay out your gold!

Bribe the Rovac! Buy yourself a victory! For it won't be Jarl who dies. Oh no. If it's blades in earnest, it's you who dies. And you're running out of time to do something about it."

"You underestimate me," said Guest. "I have my sword, and I've spent my life training in its use."

"Your life!" said his tutor. "Boy, you're still wet from the egg! If you don't trust me, then trust the city. All over Gendormargensis, men are placing bets, and the odds predict your speedy death in battle."

"When we fight," said Guest, tempted into the heat of argument despite himself, "it won't be me who does the dying. I've killed men and, and I've trained for killing more, and what's Jarl so special about?"

"A man is a man," said Sken-Pitilkin. "And a boy a boy."

"I'm no boy!" said Guest in fury, though of course at the age of 14 he was very much a boy.

"A boy, verily, to be so easily provoked," said Sken-Pitilkin calmly. "Why, you're as irregular in your humors as one of the Akromian verbs."

"Jarl will be boy enough to bury when I'm through with him," said Guest. "You want to be rich? Then bet on my fortunes!"

"I'm not a gambling man," said Sken-Pitilkin. "But as soon as our lesson is over, I'm going to wager a month's salary on your early death. I'd be a fool to pass up a chance of profit so certain."

"Certain!" said Guest, rising to his feet. "I'll show you what's certain!"

With that battle-smash threat, the young Weaponmaster boiled out of his room, driven by the steam generated by the heat of his anger. However, once having boiled in such an impressive fashion, he found his wrath evaporating almost as swiftly as it had been generated.

So where to now?

In the harshness of its winter, Gendormargensis was no place for idling out of doors. Its bleakness was ruled by the wind-slam rain which slushed the streets to a turgid muck, the frigidity of which beaked eagerly through the cracks and chasms in the Weaponmaster's filthy boots. Though Guest was an emperor's son, the congenital disorder of his gear ever made him look like an impoverished refugee from six years of mountain-path campaigning.

Ever so slowly, the young Weaponmaster began to feel ever so slightly stupid. Should he go back inside? And lose face by apologizing? Never! Even so… he half-wished Sken-Pitilkin would exert his authority and order him back inside. But his elderly tutor appeared to have given up on him, at least for the moment. Guest Gulkan summed his options, and quickly, the weather being a disincentive to extended meditation. He could quest to Rolf Thelemite's sickbed and seek to rouse the man from his convalescence. Or he could at last yield to the advice of his betters, seek out Thodric Jarl, and bribe that Rovac mercenary to throw their fight in Enskandalon Square. Or, if still bent on dueling Jarl to the death, he could practice those sword-skills which he had been honing for so long.

Or -

But here Guest Gulkan left off thinking, for an oncoming messenger was hailing him.

"Ho! Gulkan my man!"

It was the dwarf Glambrax, his pet dwarf and his father's favorite fool.

"Ho!" said Guest.

"Ho-ha!" said Glambrax.

"Ho-ha-ho-ho!" said Guest.

This went on for some time, the pair bawling at each other in the strumpeting wind like a couple of madmen, for this was a nonsense-game they had brought to perfection in the last year or so. But at last Glambrax swapped nonsense for sense.

"Zelafona, my man," said Glambrax, thus venting to the winter air the name of the witch who had mothered him.

"If I'm to be Zelafona," said Guest, "then I'm naturally woman, not man, though I doubt I'd be woman of yours."

"Zelafona," said Glambrax, ignoring this sally in favor of his business. "She wishes to see you."

But Guest had no wish whatsoever to see Glambrax's mother, who, after all, was Bao Gahai's sister. Doubtless she had good advice for him, but he was brim-full to the ears with good advice already, was drowning in the stuff, considered it noxious, said as much, and proposed that he detoxify himself with some hard spirits in the nearest tavern of convenience.

"With Rolf," said Glambrax.

"Oh, if we can liberate him, then yes," said Guest. "By all means with Rolf."

So they took themselves off to the infirmary where the convalescent Rovac warrior was laid up in bed, recovering from the aftermath of an attack of scarlet fever. They found Eljuk Zala seated by Rolf Thelemite, reading to him from one of Sken-Pitilkin's books of geography. Guest Gulkan and Glambrax wrested the book from Eljuk Zala and pitched it into a half-full chamber pot, then swept the invalid and his nursemaid away to the nearest tavern. There Guest got very drunk, his companions got almost as intoxicated, and Guest in his bravado told all the world how he would hack Jarl to pieces on the morrow, then take the fair Yerzerdayla as his own, and bed her with all the ferocity of strength at his disposal.

When the next day blurred to life, Guest Gulkan woke but slowly. He was sullen and hungover as he made his way through the dull morning light to Enskandalon Square, where he was scheduled to meet Jarl in combat.

Lord Onosh was there already, waiting for his son. With Lord Onosh was the dralkosh Bao Gahai, in company with her sister Zelafona and Zelafona's dwarf-son Glambrax. Others were there also: a full two hundred assorted warriors, servants, tribesmen and beggars, together with vendors selling hot chestnuts and cups of warmed-up horseblood diluted with hard liquor.

Present amongst that gathering was Eljuk Zala, and there too were the wizards Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin and Pelagius Zozimus.

Conspicuous by his absence was Rolf Thelemite, who was spending that morning in his bed in the infirmary, dead to the world as a consequences of his over-indulgences of the night before.

On arriving at Enskandalon Square, Guest Gulkan did not address his father, but instead ignored him entirely as he stripped off his furs and began practicing some swordstrokes. It was immediately obvious to the Witchlord Onosh that Guest Gulkan had been training intensely while encamped by the Yolantarath. But it was also painfully obvious to Lord Onosh – and to most other onlookers – that the boy's improvements fell far short of making him battle-worthy against such a formidable opponent as Jarl.

We must remember that Guest Gulkan was still a boy of 14, and though his stature could be mistaken for that of a man, he was a very child in his folly when he thought to match himself against the battle-hardened brutality of a grown man a full ten years older that himself.

When Guest was done with his swordpractice, he at last turned to his father and grinned.

Then the Witchlord Onosh saw that his son Guest had no plans of dying that day, but instead thought he would hack down Thodric Jarl and walk from that place in triumph. Unfortunately the young Guest Gulkan had become over-confident in battle through his success in killing bandits – poor wretches who were usually half- starved and often half-mad and leprous into the bargain. His over-confidence had been boosted by the marked improvement he had lately made through his training.

"Father," said Eljuk Zala, tugging at the Witchlord's sleeve to win his attention.

"Eljuk," said Lord Onosh, acknowledging the presence of his favorite son.

"He thinks he can win, doesn't he?" said Eljuk.

"It would seem so from the grin," said Lord Onosh.

The Witchlord's voice was measured. It was not easy for him to stand here waiting for a Rovac warrior to come forth to hack down his son. But one does not win an empire through softness of spirit, nor can an empire be held by one who fears to do the hard things, or to have them done on his account.

"But," said Eljuk, "but he's going to die. Isn't he?"

"We are all of us going to die," said Lord Onosh. "The only question is, when."

"I – I don't want Guest to die," said Eljuk.

The plaintive tone of Eljuk's voice made Lord Onosh turn and look at him. The Witchlord's scrutiny revealed to him a surprising fact: Eljuk had been crying.

"You really want him to live?" said Lord Onosh.

"But of course," said Eljuk, as if it was obvious. "Of course I want him to live. What else would I want?"

The innocence of that response almost made Lord Onosh weep.

As Lord Onosh knew full well, if Guest survived this day of testing then he must necessarily and inevitably kill his brother Eljuk. Guest had the will to power and the bloody resolution necessary to seize and hold an empire, whereas Eljuk -

Poor Eljuk.

"You've never denied me before," said Eljuk.

"No," said Lord Onosh. "I haven't."

Lord Onosh had never been able to deny the boy anything. Not since he had sentenced the boy to die.

Character shows itself early, and when Eljuk had been but a small boy his father had seen that Eljuk would never be emperor.

He was too conciliatory, too sentimental and far too selfeffacing. Whereas Guest had a will to power and a violence to match it, and hence could definitely be emperor, though in all probability a bad one.

Possibly: a very bad one.

When Lord Onosh had realized the strength and ferocity of Guest Gulkan's bloody temper, he had seen that everything possible must be done to postpone the boy's ascension to the imperial throne, in the hope that the passage of years would mature him and mellow him. So Lord Onosh had named Eljuk as his heir, thus dooming Eljuk to die. It is one of the invariable rules of human affairs that power always ends up in the hands of those who want it most; and so, since Eljuk had the misfortune to lack all taste for dominance, it was a foregone conclusion that he would inevitably be murdered, if not by his brother then by some other.

Eljuk might – might! – have survived as ruler of some trifling little peacetime principality where he could have been played as a puppet by wise and remorseless councilors. But life amongst the Yarglat did not facilitate charades of puppetry. In seeking to rule the Yarglat, Eljuk must surely die, and Eljuk -

Eljuk did not realize that he had been sentenced to death, and that was the measure of his folly, a measure of his total unsuitability to hold the throne.

"Eljuk," said Lord Onosh, "when I am dead… "

"May you never die," said Eljuk piously.

"Birth is death," said Lord Onosh harshly. "As I was born, so must I die. Then – Eljuk, when I'm dead, there won't be anyone to stand between you and the world."

"There'll be Guest," said Eljuk.

"Guest, yes," said Lord Onosh. "So what if – Eljuk, brothers quarrel. Two brothers, one kingdom. The story plays a thousand times in history. It never has a happy ending."

There was a stir amongst those gathered in Enskandalon Square. Thodric Jarl had arrived.

"Save Guest," said Eljuk. "Then – then write it down for me.

Don't tell him, but write it down. Write that – that I asked you.

Then when I'm emperor I'll show him what you wrote. Then he'll know I saved him. A debt, you see."

Lord Onosh doubted very seriously that any such posthumous revelation would could for much when an empire was at stake.

Still.

What else could he do?

Eljuk would never be able to hold the empire. He was too… too innocent. Too nice. Whereas Guest… well, Guest was a fool, a brash and ignorant over-confident fool. He drank too much, kept bad company, piled up gambling debts, was rude to powerful people such as Bao Gahai, and according to Sken-Pitilkin's account he was a scholar of truly grotesque incompetence.

But despite all these defects the young Weaponmaster had demonstrated a ruthless resolution that his brother Eljuk lacked.

He had set his heart on hacking down Thodric Jarl; he had trained for the purpose; he had avoided all temptation to escape from the duel by bribery; and here he was today, bent on consummating his folly.

Lord Onosh summoned Sken-Pitilkin with a finger and made his wishes known.

"My lord," said Sken-Pitilkin, once he understood what his emperor wanted.

"You won't do it?" said Lord Onosh, detecting a note of resentful resistance in Sken-Pitilkin's voice.

"My lord, this – this boy Guest, he's, in his impetuosity he pitched a book to a chamber-pot."

"It was your book, I suppose," said Lord Onosh, suppressing his extreme irritation at finding his tame wizard bothering him with such a triviality on such an occasion.

"It was, my lord. It was – "

"Give me your bill and I'll pay it," said Lord Onosh.

At which Sken-Pitilkin gave up all hope of making the Witchlord Onosh understand the gravity of Guest Gulkan's crime.

For the book which had fallen to the chamber pot had been a book of geography; and ancient; and stocked full of wisdom; and decorated in its margins with a multitude of irregular verbs; and it had been ruined entirely by its drenching, and was quite irreplaceable, for gold would not serve as its replacement, no, nor ivory either, nor silver, nor any measure of shimmering silks and unbroken hymens.

"My lord," said Sken-Pitilkin remotely. "I hear, and to hear is to obey."

"Good, good," said Lord Onosh testily. "Then get on with it!"

Thus commanded, Sken-Pitilkin positioned himself near the fighters, and prepared to put his powers of levitation to work.

This he did discretely, without anyone in the audience realizing what was happening. So, when combat was joined, Thodric Jarl's feet were hooked from under him by the arts of Sken-Pitilkin's magic, and down went Jarl in the snow and slush. Guest Gulkan promptly tried to hack off Jarl's head, whereupon Sken-Pitilkin secured the sideways deflection of the Weaponmaster's sword, ensuring that it did but hack a bloodline in Jarl's gray-haired scalp.

There was supreme art in that studied deflection, but not one person in the audience understood that art. To the audience, it seemed merely that Jarl had slipped, and that Guest had blundered away his chance to decapitate the fallen Rovac warrior.

Thodric Jarl was down on the ground, bleeding profusely from the cut in his scalp. Blood poured from his head, sluiced through his hair, teemed down his face in rivulets then clogged in the gray of his beard. The Witchlord Onosh promptly declared that Jarl had been defeated, and that Yerzerdayla was therefore Guest Gulkan's prize.

"But," said Lord Onosh, "as the boy Guest has recently been guilty of a scandalizing delinquency, it is fitting that his possession of Yerzerdayla be tied to his punishment for that delinquency."

Then the Witchlord Onosh publicly denounced the boy Guest on account of the fact that he had seen fit to dunk one of Sken Pitilkin's codicological treasures in a chamber pot. The emperor announced Guest's punishment:

"On account of his delinquency, the boy is not be permitted to take possession of the woman Yerzerdayla until he is 18 years of age."

Lord Onosh declared that Yerzerdayla would meanwhile "reside in chastity" under his own roof.

The Witchlord Onosh felt that he had resolved things rather nicely, winning a margin of four years or so in which to arrange for Guest to discretely surrender Yerzerdayla to Thodric Jarl. But in the interim, he must move quickly to separate Guest and Jarl, lest they find some excuse for a rematch.

Accordingly, that evening the young Guest Gulkan was summoned into his father's presence. There he found Zelafona, the aged but elegant sister of Bao Gahai, and her dwarf-son Glambrax.

"Guest," said Lord Onosh. "You are leaving Gendormargensis.

Tonight. Glambrax and Zelafona are going with you."

"Leaving?" said Guest. "But why?"

"Because," said Lord Onosh, "Thodric Jarl has sworn a bloody oath to kill both you and Sken-Pitilkin. In fact, unless my spies misheard him, he swore to butcher every wizard in the world."

"Then," said Guest calmly, "you would be well within your rights to chop him into dogmeat, for every wizard in Gendormargensis lives in your protection."

"So they do, so they do," said Lord Onosh. "So, for their protection, my wizards are joining you in exile."

"Exile?" said Guest in alarm. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm sending you out of the empire," said Lord Onosh. "Have you heard of a place called Alozay? Have you heard of Molothair?"

"No," said Guest.

"Sken-Pitilkin swears he has taught you of both," said Lord Onosh. "And in detail. Molothair is a city, and Alozay an island.

The city of Molothair sits on the island of Alozay, and serves as the capital of that archipelago known as Safrak. You can place Safrak on a map, I trust?"

"I can place anything on a map," said Guest. "A cup, a plate, a pot or a branding iron. Give Molothair or Safrak into my hand and I will place them on any map of your choosing."

"Come," said Lord Onosh impatiently, "you must know the places which we're talking of, for Safrak – oh, never mind! Sken Pitilkin's the geographer, let him then lesson you. You'll have plenty of time for lessons on your journey."

And with that Guest Gulkan was dismissed, and was sent away to pack up for his journey into exile.

Name: Guest Gulkan.

Birthplace: Stranagor.

Occupation: student.

Status: barbarian-in-training.

Description: aggressive Yarglat male who lives his life as if determined to play the role of barbarian to the bloody hilt.

Hobby: the tasting of beer (often, and in bulk).

Quote: "It wasn't me and I didn't really mean to do it, and anyway the bitch bit me." (Said at the age of eleven, when he was caught barbecuing Viranessa, the silky-haired lap-dog which had long been the prize possession of his brother Eljuk Zala.)

So it was that Guest Gulkan departed from Gendormargensis in the depths of winter and made the arduous journey to the islands of Safrak. He did not go alone but was accompanied by two wizards, a witch, a dwarf and a bodyguard – the people in question being the wizard of Xluzu named Pelagius Zozimus, the wizard of Skatzabratzumon named Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin, the aged but elegant dralkosh named Zelafona, the dwarf Glambrax and the doughty Rovac warrior named Rolf Thelemite.

Though Rolf was not properly recovered from his attack of scarlet fever, they nevertheless made good time on their journey out of the Collosnon Empire.

From Gendormargensis they traveled, making the journey down the frozen Yolantarath River on a sleigh drawn by the fur-dogs known as ubeks. Some 200 leagues south-west of Gendormargensis, and just downstream from the trading town of Babaroth, the Yolantarath is intersected by the Pig River. Guest Gulkan and his companions pushed their way up the Pig. "Push" is very much the operative word, for the winter-frozen river was pocked with tree trunks and derelict rocks, and the clearness of its ice was rutted by the journeying of many traders.

Yet the difficulties of the journey did not depress the Weaponmaster. Rather, Guest Gulkan began to lighten up, his mood becoming buoyant – then weightless. The elevation of his spirits was scarcely surprising when one considers the claustrophobic tensions the boy had long endured in the imperial court of Gendormargensis.

The family history was not a happy one.

To seize power and secure it, the Witchlord Onosh had been put to the trouble of killing his father, his mother, his paternal grandfather, his twin sisters and his solitary brother, two uncles, four cousins, an aunt and five imperial concubines; and he had also secured the death of a nephew and the nephew's favorite horse.

All this was par for the course as far as the Yarglat were concerned – except for the gratuitous murder of the horse, which was generally considered to be excessive, and indicative of a streak of mean-spirited vindictiveness unbecoming in a warrior.

But Guest -

Perhaps there was an unexpected streak of mercy in Guest Gulkan's soul, for he had long been troubled by the possibility that he might one day be forced to inherit his father's bloody responsibilities, and to secure the empire yet again with a fresh set of blood-slaughter murders.

The journey the Weaponmaster was presently making was steadily taking him away from all possibility of any such conflicts, and so he was full of jokes and levity as he and his companions traveled up the Pig, arriving at last at the village of Ink on the shores of the Swelaway Sea.

There Guest gazed to his full upon the Swelaway Sea. He took so long about it that you might have thought him busy trying to drink it entire, rather than merely look at it.

At last he knelt by the waters, tasted them, then rose with a regretful sigh.

"What is it?" said Rolf Thelemite.

"It is but water," said Guest regretfully. "If only it were liquor, then there might be some use for it."Guest was trying to deny the obvious effect that the sight of this massive body of water had had on him. For Guest at that age was very full of himself, and held in very poor esteem those minor parts of the universe which lay outside his own hard-striving corpus. Yet the Swelaway Sea, by the very act of its own existence, indicated by its vast indifference that there was more to the cosmic order than the blood and bones of one Guest Gulkan, and was uncomfortably suggestive of the possibility that the boy Guest might ultimately be but one utterly trifling and inconsequential part of a larger whole too vast to be comfortably contemplated.

With the Swelaway Sea having thus been encountered (yes, and do you remember the first time that you in your own person encountered the immensity of the sea, whether salt sea or fresh?) the travelers walked into Ink and addressed themselves to the question of the acquisition of a boat.

At Ink, a place much to be noted for the barking of its dogs and the smell of its dead fish, for the multiplicity of its turds and the squaloring of its five billion trouserless children, the adventurers were (this at least was the plan) to trade their sleigh, their fur-dogs and their gold for a small fishing boat.

The Witchlord Onosh in his mercy and his wisdom had provided the travelers with gold in plenty – certainly enough, in combination with their other discardable possessions, to buy them a boat for the passage to Safrak. Unfortunately, Rolf Thelemite persuaded the Weaponmaster Guest to join him in the pursuit of a bargain and save their cash for pleasure rather than transit.

Fortunately, the sagacious Sken-Pitilkin vetoed the purchase of any bargain, and they spent their gold on an expensive but seaworthy boat.

The boat, which was named the Lathmish, was sold to them by a man named Umbilskimp, an old man who suffered bitterly from chilblains and emphysema. It came with a money-back warranty which guaranteed it to be good for five years or fifty return trips across the Swelaway Sea. Both Zozimus and Sken-Pitilkin checked the wording of the warranty, and checked it closely – and, on being satisfied, they herded Guest and Rolf aboard the boat, and set to sea.

But when the travelers were well launched upon the cold gray chop of the Swelaway Sea, the boat began to leak; and before they were so much as half-way to Alozay they found their craft was leaking like a fish hacked open by a landing hook.

Fortunately, the travelers managed to get their leaking wreck of a boat as far as the island of Ema-Urk before it actually sank. Once the thing had been grounded, an inspection of the hull proved it to be one spongy mass of sodden rot, which the boat salesman must have known.

"He is a murderer!" said Guest, denouncing the venial Umbilskimp. "And if I get him in my power then I will hang him!"

"An excellent sentiment," said Sken-Pitilkin, who usually deplored violence, but who on this occasion found himself in total agreement with Guest's vow of vengeance. "Let us report the man as soon as we get to Alozay, and perhaps they will have the grace to give us satisfaction."

And when a passing boat had at length given them passage to Alozay, they did just that – reporting the delinquent Umbilskimp to Banker Sod himself.

But Vernon Brigadoon Sod, the man of iceman race who headed the Safrak Bank and dominated the island of Alozay, declared the affairs of Ink to be no concern of his.

"In Safrak," said Sod, "we see our law as being concerned with the rule of the Safrak Islands. No more, no less."

"Then who rules Ink?" said Guest.

"Nobody," said Sod. "Ink is a free village, just as Port Domax is a free city. If you must have vengeance upon this fellow Um – Umbik -

"

"Umbilskimp," supplied Guest, who had vowed never to forget the man until the man was dead.

"If you must have your vengeance," said Sod, "then you must secure it for yourself, and you will not be securing it while you are resident upon Alozay."

So Guest arrived upon Alozay, Safrak's ruling island and the site of the capital city of Molothair, and his arrival was marred by the fact that he was cheated of his legitimate revenge upon the salesman who had almost encompassed his murder.

He vowed again that he would not forget the fellow.

Meantime, back in Gendormargensis, the Witchlord Onosh sat closeted with Thodric Jarl and Eljuk Zala, trying to work out how to deal with the problems in Locontareth.

The city of Locontareth had long been a c entre of unrest, and there were rumors which suggested that one Sham Cham of that city was exercising his talents in stirring up a tax revolt. Acting on Thodric Jarl's suggestion, Lord Onosh had tried to dispose of the matter with the minimum of fuss, by sending killers to ensure that Sham Cham passed away quietly in his sleep.

Lord Onosh had just lately received news that the killers had been killed in their turn, and that a very lively and decidedly unkilled Sham Cham now slept with half a dozen man-eating guard dogs in his room.

"It looks," said Lord Onosh gloomily, "as if this will be Stranagor all over again."

"Stranagor?" said Eljuk Zala. "What's that got to do with it?"

"My, ah, my – how did I phrase it? – my Provision for the Permanent Abolition of Riverside Vermin," said the Witchlord Onosh. "That was it. The vermin being the Geflung. It was a revolt, a tax revolt. You don't remember?"

Eljuk Zala confessed that he had no recollection of ever reading or hearing about any such revolt.

This disturbed the Witchlord greatly, for nobody could be ignorant of the late and lamentable tax revolt in Stranagor unless they were ignorant of the affairs of the empire as a whole, and such ignorance was dangerous in the empire's anointed heir.

Nevertheless, the Witchlord Onosh did his best to conceal his disappointment as he explained.

"In the country around Stranagor," said Lord Onosh, "live the Geflung, who – "

As the Witchlord began to explain things to Eljuk Zala,

Thodric Jarl turned his own attention to a map of the Collosnon Empire and began planning a war against Locontareth, something he was sure the empire would find itself engaged in before too terribly long – if not in the coming year, then in the year after.

Chapter Four

Safrak Bank: organization which rules the Safrak Islands of the Swelaway Sea. Its ostensible business is to fatten on trade passing between Port Domax and the heartland of Tameran.

Guest Gulkan's birthday was in spring, and it was in spring of Alliance 4305 that he turned 15. His birthday was ill-omened, for it found him afflicted by influenza.

While leprosy, cholera and bubonic plague have names to rival nightmare, for swift and sudden devastation nothing can match the more lethal strains of influenza. This epidemic had claimed a tenth of Safrak's population in barely thirty days, and looked fit to claim Guest as well. He was fevered and awash with sweat, so weak in his ague's anguish that he lacked the strength to crack a flee.

In the end, the boy only survived because a guardian named Hrothgar took him home to his wife Una, who had just lost her baby to the epidemic, and so was able to wetnurse the patient. Guest was far too sick to derive any erotic satisfaction from this privilege, but Una's help saw him through his crisis, and shortly he was tottering around in the spring sunshine, feeling more like a ghost of himself than an actual boy of flesh and blood.

"You're no ghost," said Una, pulling on one of his big ears.

"There's no ghost here! There's an elephant!" Guest, who had begun to grow infatuated with the gray-eyed Una, promptly lost all sympathy with the woman. If there was one thing the young Weaponmaster absolutely hated, it was a woman who pulled on his ears. And, sooner or later, every woman of his acquaintance seemed to end up doing exactly that. Those ears, it seemed, had a fatal attraction for the entire female sex.

With his infatuation thus abruptly terminated, Guest was glad to flee from Hrothgar's house – a ramshackle wooden building in the ramshackle city of Molothair – and return to his own quarters in the mainrock Pinnacle.

On his return to the mainrock, he was promptly nobbled for guard duty. He was weak in the aftermath of his sickness, but weakness was no disqualification for work at such a time. Guest Gulkan was technically resident upon Alozay as a hostage, but this was a mere legalism. The Safrak Bank trusted him – as much as it trusted any boy of 15 – and so readily employed his brutality. It set him to guard the time prison, a large hall with a series of transparent pods set around its walls.

Mark the layout of the Hall of Time!

The mainrock Pinnacle stands at the northern end of the long and narrow island of Alozay. It is a mighty upthrust of granite, a misshapen tube of rock which bulbs outward at its middlemost point.

To win admission to the mainrock, one must come to its docks, which lie in the cold and guttural shadows of the mainrock's wave-slapped northern shore. One is then hauled upwards to Gud Obo, the Winch Stratum, the lowest of the seven inhabited levels of the mainrock. Gud Obo houses the winch-works, the servant quarters, and the storerooms.

Multiple stairways connect Gud Obo with Dolce Obo, the Pillow Stratum. This is given over to the business of life, for it is a place of sleeping quarters, kitchens and eateries; and here one finds the mainrock's banqueting hall. Here Guest Gulkan and Sken-Pitilkin had their customary quarters, and a classroom in which they could prosecute the dissection of the irregular verbs.

A dozen stairways climb from Dolce Obo to Inic Obo, the Quill Stratum, which is given over to the offices of the Safrak Bank. A mighty stratum, this, for it dominates the bulbing middlemost girthswell of the mainrock Pinnacle.

Yet another dozen stairways lead upward to Brondon Obo, the Steel Stratum, the fourth level of the mainrock, which houses prisons, guardhouse and armories.

By now, the mainrock is starting to taper as it buffets upward toward the rough-hewn ridge which helmets its crest. In consequence of the tapering, only four stairways lead upward from the fourth level to the fifth, from Brondon Obo to Trilip Obo, the Archive Stratum.

The Archive Stratum is just that – dead rooms of silent paper, of ancient book-chests sealed with lead. As one goes upward in the mainrock, so the labor of supplying water from below becomes greater, and for this reason Trilip Obo was uninhabited by human flesh.

Only one stairway climbs upward from Trilip Obo to Zi Obo, the Pod Stratum, the sixth level of the mainrock Pinnacle. Zi Obo holds one single and solitary chamber, an oval hall a hundred paces in length and three dozen paces in width. This chamber is the Hall of Time, and it was in this hall that Guest Gulkan was to stand guard duty.

The single stairway from below enters the Hall of Time at its western end. From there, the hall stretches away for its full length of a hundred paces to the ascending stairway at its eastern end. When Guest was brought there to do guard duty, the entrance to that ascending stairway was guarded by a monumental block of jade-green stone.

"So," said Banker Sod, who had taken it upon himself to brief Guest Gulkan on his guard duties. "Where are we?" Guest looked around.

"We are in the Hall of Time," said Guest Gulkan, who had received a guided tour of the mainrock shortly after his first arrival on Alozay, and who remembered this room well. Set in niches around its northern and southern walls were many transparent pods, some empty, others holding Safrak's time prisoners. Between the niches were deep-cut slit windows, the northern ones looking out across the Swelaway Sea, the southern ones allowing a partial view of the longstretch of Alozay and the ramshackle city of Molothair.

"Which level is this?" said Sod.

"The fifth," said Guest. "No, the sixth, that's it. The sixth. There's one more. The seventh."

"Jezel Obo," said Sod, naming it. "The Sky Stratum. What lies in the sky, boy?"

"It is a sacred place," said Guest. "A shrine denied to all but the initiated. It's called, uh, a sanctum. The Inner Sanctum."

"That is so," said Sod. "Jezel Obo, the Sky Stratum, is the site of the Inner Sanctum, the holy of holies of the Safrak Bank.

Are you a priest, boy?"

"No," said Guest.

"Do you have any ambition to be a priest?"

"No."

"Then don't worry your head about sacred places. Understood?"

"Understood," said Guest, who, thanks to his studies in ethnology with Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin, knew that many peoples did not like to have the secrets of their faith questioned.

"Well then," said Sod, "if that's understood, then let us go and meet the demon."

With that, Banker Sod led the Yarglat barbarian Guest Gulkan from the western end of the Hall of Time to the stairway at its eastern end.

It was then evening, and the light was dying in the Hall of Time. Sod and Guest cast no shadows as they walked through that gray light toward the jade-green block of stone at the far end of the hall. Their boots clicked over the skull-pattern tiles – many of which were broken – which paved the native granite of the hall.

The roof was high above, and the sound of their boots was cold and sharp in the vaulting emptiness.

An odd pair they made, for Banker Sod, the Governor of the Safrak Bank, was a pale-skinned male of iceman race, with the black fingernails and thick white bodyhair so typical of that breed. His hair was bright gold, his eyes yellow and his teeth of like color.

Upon Sod's ringfinger there was a steel ring in which there was set a gemstone. That stone was of ever-ice, and in the gathering gloom of evening a ghost-cloud of light surrounded it. Guest knew that chipstone of ever-ice to be the key which opened and closed the pods of the time prison.

They halted at the eastern end of the Hall of Time. They halted in the presence of the hall's resident demon – the jade- green block of stone which guarded the single stairway which led upwards to the seventh and highest level of the mainrock Pinnacle.

Though Sod was accustomed to do business in the Galish Trading Tongue, and though Guest had learnt Galish from Sken Pitilkin, the language of the briefing was Guest's native tongue, the Eparget of the Yarglat, in which Sod was uncommonly fluent.

Apparently the demon understood the same language, for Sod still spoke in Eparget when addressing that dignitary directly.

"Iva-Italis," said Banker Sod. "This is Guest Gulkan, the son of the emperor of Tameran, and a student of the wizard Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin."

The demon received this news in silence. It was a monolithic block of green stone which was twice Guest Gulkan's height; and, like the other rocks of the world, it seemed singularly indisposed to entertaining mere humans in conversation.

"Does the demon speak?" said Guest.

"When it chooses to," said Sod. "It is the head of our force of mercenaries, those men who belong to that body we call the Guardians. If you were to join the Guardians then Iva-Italis would be your master."

"Ha-hmm," said Guest, pretending that this was new to him, and that he was absorbing this information with the greatest of interest.

In fact, Guest already knew all about Safrak's Guardians, the Toxteth-speaking mercenaries recruited from Port Domax and Wen Endex. Guest had even struck up a dice-and-beer friendship with some few of those worthy warriors – most notably the mighty Hrothgar – and had a little of their native argot at the command of his tongue. Surely Banker Sod had been appraised of the development of these relationships – but, if so, then the rigors of influenza had stripped that knowledge from the Banker's mind.

"Iva-Italis guards these stairs," said Banker Sod, continuing his lecture about Safrak's guardian demon. "No unauthorized person can come up or down the stairway – and that means you. If any unauthorized person tries to pass, then the demon will eat them."

"Eat them?" said Guest. "But it has no mouth, and – well, claws, arms, tentacles, things to grab with. Besides, the stairs are wide."

"When it eats, it eats," said Sod. "So don't worry about the stairs. The time prison is your concern. You know about it?"

"I know," said Guest, who had heard all about Safrak's time prison.

"Very well," said Sod, obviously relieved that he did not have to explain. "Your duty is simple. If anyone tries to interfere with the time prisoners, then you kill them."

"How could anyone interfere?" said Guest, who knew very well that there was but one ring which could free the time prisoners from their pods, and that that ring was ever in Banker Sod's possession.

"They could interfere," said Banker Sod, "by trying to physically carry away one of the prison pods. They could – never mind. If something goes wrong, Iva-Italis will tell you who to kill and when."

Banker Sod was in no mood for extended explanations because he was even sicker than Guest Gulkan. Yet there was more to do before Sod could depart. He had to accompany Guest Gulkan back to the head of the western stairway, and point out the things placed in niches in the western wall.

"Lanterns," said Sod. "They must be filled with this oil.

There is a bracket by each and every time pod. Light as many lanterns as you need. You can use a tinder box, I suppose."

"I have never mastered such a device," said Guest, lying through his teeth.

A tinder box is a tricky thing to use, and by pleading ignorance Guest Gulkan got Sod to conjure the first lantern into life.

Then Sod picked up a rod of hardwood. A dozen short lengths of chain dangled from the rod, and each chain ended in a barbed hook.

"What is this?" said Sod. Guest squinted at the thing, then declared it to be an instrument of torture, or perhaps some device designed to be used in a fishing boat.

"No!" said Sod. "It is a bablobrokmadorni stick."

"A – a bab – baba – bablob?"

"A bablobrokmadorni stick," said Sod. "I thought you were a scholar!"

"Well," said Guest. "I study."

"But obviously not hard enough," said Sod. "For a command of the Janjuladoola seems to be lacking from your tongue."

"It is so," conceded Guest.

"Then learn at least a word of it," said Sod. "This is a bablobrokmadorni stick, a device used in the Izdimir Empire for the carriage of lanterns. Look! You can put it on your shoulder and carry six lanterns without a risk of fire."

"A lantern stick, then," said Guest, making no attempt to pronounce the Janjuladoola name of the thing, since he feared that any such exercise in applied linguistics would precipitate the rupture of his jaw.

Then Sod showed him the water jug, which was half-full. The bread box, which held some lumps of black peasant bread so hard they could have been used as missiles for a catapult. The chamber pot – which was unclean, and smelt accordingly.

"Empty it from that northern window," said Sod, gesturing at the nearest slit window. "You'll find it by its smell, even if you can't find it otherwise."

With these instructions given, Sod warned Guest not to leave his post before he was relieved at dawn. Then the Banker took himself off to his bed, descending the darkened stairs without bothering himself with a light – for Sod knew every shadow in the mainrock by its heights, its depth, its heat, its cold, its timbre or its smell.

Once left alone, Guest immediately busied himself with the lighting of lanterns. The boy Guest was not zealously industrious by nature, but night was setting in. The ominous darkness – scarcely relieved by the cold green glow which emanated from the distant flanks of the demon Icaria Scaria Iva-Italis – beset the boy with fears. This was a high place, a cold place, a barren place, and he did not like it.

Lanterns swayed from the chains of the bablobrokmadorni stick, sending a dozen shadows of Guest Gulkan lurching across the skull-pattern tiles of the Hall of Time. When hung by the time pods, they seemed merely to enlarge the darkness rather than to light the hall. The unlit gulf of the western staircase became a funnel descending into the nether depths, and Guest, made uneasy by that plunging chasm of blackness, placed his armchair up against the northern wall.

Yet even with the armchair so placed, Guest found it impossible to settle. Instead, he began to perambulate around the room, checking the oil levels in the lanterns, testing the room's acoustics by hawking and spitting, and amusing himself by examining the people so firmly frozen in the timestasis of the pods of the time prison. A motley bunch they were, those prisoners, a good many of them showing signs of extreme age, of disease, or of wounds or torture.

Rumor claimed – and Guest had heard the rumor, for ears as big as his were singularly well adapted for the capture of gossip – that time prisoners almost inevitably died upon release. The process of being frozen within a block of unchanging time was held to be harmless in itself, but the psychic shock of being displaced from one's own time by days, years or generations was held to be inevitably fatal.

Hence the Safrak Bank used the time pods as instruments of execution. After two or three generations of incarceration, a prisoner would be abruptly released into a future in which friends, lovers and relatives were dead, or reduced to decrepit spiderwebbed ghosts of their former selves, old-aged skeletons thinly cloaked by arthritic mottlestone flesh. From the prisoner's point of view, an eyeblink aged the world. The shock of such change was sufficient to kill – though one rumor claimed that a quick-acting poison was covertly administered to supplement that shock. Guest Gulkan, growing disturbed by the unblinking stares of those imprisoned in the time pods, ceased his scrutiny of the same. Though the hall was very large, it was nevertheless becoming increasingly claustrophobic. The shadows weighed heavily on Guest Gulkan's shoulders. He topped up the oil in each and every lantern, and trimmed the wicks to maxi mise their light-producing efficiency, yet the heavy burden of shadow seemed scarcely relieved.

As if seeking escape from the hall, Guest Gulkan eased himself into a north-facing slit window. It was easily tall enough to accommodate his height, but narrowed sharply, its sides arrowheading inward as the window pierced its way through the wall to the outer air. The outermost aperture of this defensive fenestra was just large enough for Guest to stick his head outside. He did so. He warped his head around to look up at the sharp-slash stars, then looked down at the sightless gulfs of the Swelaway Sea far below.

"Sa!" said Guest, pulling his head in, then rubbing his ears to warm them against the cold.

The young Yarglat barbarian jumped down from the slit window and returned to his armchair. But it was growing increasingly cold – far too cold for him to stay seated slumped and sleep. So he resumed his perambulations. Guest was far from the demon when he heard someone coming down the stairs. Guest geared himself up for action instantly. His blood began to pulse in his ears. A warm flush of battle-readiness surged through his body. Then – then Guest belatedly remembered that the stairs were not his concern. The stairs were guarded by the demon, or so Banker Sod most earnestly believed, and the guardianship of those stairs was the demon's concern, with Guest Gulkan's duty being merely to prevent interference with the prisoners of the time prison.

Down came a single person, who paused by the demon, who spoke – or appeared to speak, for Guest heard the whispering ghost of a comment across a distance greater than eighty paces – then tramped toward the downward stairway in the west.

Resting on the stranger's left shoulder was a bablobrokmadorni stick from which two lanterns depended, and these lit him as he approached. A remarkable figure! He was dressed in brightly-colored patchwork motley. A multitude of small ceramic animals were attacked to his trousers and his jacket. On his feet were slippers, which curved upward at the toes, terminating in pink pom-poms. He wore a golden skullcap fringed with tiny glass bells, which rang out in a rain of music as he stepped lightly, briskly, across the cracked and broken tiles of the Hall of Time.

A bright and briskful figure, this.

But the face!

As the man drew near, Guest Gulkan saw his face was hideously disfigured by burns. Twisted welts and lava-field fluxes had warped that face until its age and race were beyond determination.

On his right hand, the man wore a glove puppet in the form of a green-skinned dragon with red dewlaps. As he drew level with Guest, the man's right hand moved. The dragon snapped at Guest's ear. And it had teeth! Yes, there were miniature teeth built into the mouth of the glove puppet, teeth sharp as razors! Guest's hand went to his sword.

But the stranger laughed, laughed like a bell, laughed with such penetrating clarity that one might imagine him to be heard from one side of the Swelaway Sea to another. He had a singer's voice, trained to carry, and the laugh was a song of sorts, so penetrating that Guest felt its vibrations in his bones.

Disarmed and made dumbstruck by that laugh, Guest stood like a scarecrow, gawking at the stranger. Who sniffed him. Smelt him.

Sucked sweat, dust and dinner into his nostrils. Sampled him.

Memorized him. Then snorted, hummed, winked, and went tripping down the western stairs, the light of his lanterns swaying from the walls in a warmglow wash as he descended.

Such was Guest Gulkan's first encounter with Yubi Das Finger, a citizen of the Empire of Greater Parengarenga, and a resident of the far-distant city of Dalar ken Halvar.

Descending the stairs, the stranger began to sing. Abruptly, his song was cut off by a lurching cry. There was a pause. A scream! In panic, Guest sprinted to the head of the stairs, his sword already in his hand.

Then upward from the depths below there came a bright and bell-clear laugh, a laugh both generous and mocking at the same time, and Guest knew himself to have been the victim of a joke.

Sweating and blood-pounding – in the aftermath of his influenza, he was far too weak to enjoy such a joke! – Guest seated himself in his armchair. But no sooner had he settled himself than he heard more footsteps descending in the east.

Though the Hall of Time was a full hundred paces in length, though Guest Gulkan was seated near its western end, he clearly heard two people descending the stairs in the east. He got the disconcerting impression that the jade-green demon of the east was amplifying the sound of those descending footsteps. He tried to dismiss the thought, but the thought proved reluctant to be dismissed.

– It is but a stone.

Thus thought Guest, who had been seriously disconcerted by his encounter with Yubi Das Finger, and did not think himself up to the stress of facing further shocks.

Down came two people. They passed on either side of the coldglowing demon and proceeded toward Guest Gulkan at a measured pace, the lattermost carrying a bablobrokmadorni stick bright with twin lanterns.

As they came near, Guest saw the foremost was an ancient featherweight of an Ashdan, who was followed by a ragged servant.

More strangers. Guest braced himself for jokes, threats or revelations, but the pair gave him only the most cursory of glances before exiting from the hall, taking the stairs which led downwards. Guest was relieved that the passage of the dwarf-statured Ashdan and his lowbrowed bablobrokmadorni servant had gone off so smoothly.

Then: More footsteps!

Coming down!

And there were many of them!

Yes, there was no mistaking it!

A great body of armed men was coming down the eastern stairs, their armor clanking, boots tramping, horns blowing, shields clashing. Horses! They had horses! Guest heard hoofs on stone, heard an animal whinny. And – barrels! They were rolling barrels as they came! The barrels were thumping on the steps! And – one burst! Guest heard it shatter to a gust of liquid, heard curses, guttural swearing.

Now Guest was under the impression that the seventh and last stratum of the mainrock Pinnacle – Jezel Obo, the Sky Stratum – was a small place. No place, then, where one could hide a bootshod army with its horses, its shields, its barrels.

Yet they were coming downstairs!

From where?

From the sky!?

In something of a panic, Guest hastened across the skull- pattern tiles of the Hall of Time, his heart swift-hammering, his sword in his hand.

The sounds of the descending army grew louder and louder as he hurried to the eastern stairs. Would he have to challenge him?

No, they had leave to pass. Unless the demon said otherwise! Would it say? And if it did – would Guest have to hold an army singlehanded? But the demon could bite! Sod said so. It could bite, it could kill, it could gullet down men. Men? Well, a man. Maybe. But – an army?

In a boil of fearful anticipating, Guest braved himself to the eastern stairs… only to have the noise of the onslaughting army fade, melt, diminish, then echo away to nothing, vanishing into silence even as he reached the eastern end of the hall. Guest stood sweating, his heart pounding. He shook his head, half-convinced he had suddenly lost the power of hearing. But his hearing was clear enough. He could hear his own breathing, could hear a subtle wind-whine as a draught from the Swelaway Sea penetrated the Hall of Time through the high-vented slit windows.

Despite the cold of the night air, a bead of hot sweat rolled down Guest's forehead.

He thought he heard – faintly, distantly – a cold and desolate laugh.

"What is going on here?" said Guest, harshly, addressing the demon Jocasta in the Eparget of the Yarglat.

But the demon made no reply.

The demon in question was, as previously indicated, an entity firmly incarnated in a square-cut jade-green pillar, this pillar being an imposing monolith which stood twice the height of a man.

The pillar glowed with its own cold inner light – not a white light like that of ever-ice, but a green light hinting of deepwater depths. The demon, Icaria Scaria Iva-Italis by name, was Guardian Prime and Keeper of the Inner Sanctum, the holy of holies of the Bank. Iva-Italis had been in the service of the Safrak Bank for generations, and had long had charge of the Guardians.

The Weaponmaster Guest should by rights have been intimidated by such an august personage, but was not. Unfortunately, Guest had yet to acquire a mature respect for the Holy and the Unholy, the Hallowed and the Unhallowed, and as far as he was concerned the demon was just a hunk of rock. In truth, the young Weaponmaster in his ignorance thought this lump of rock to be incapable of speech, thought and action, believing rather that the powers attributed to the glowing stone were but idle tales fabricated to intimidate the ignorant.

Yet -

Yet something had made that noise of an army.

"What is it?" said Guest, questioning the rock. "What was it?

Ghosts?"

But nobody answered him.

He started to feel foolish.

He had been sick, had he not? He had. Even now he was weak in the aftermath of his fever. He was alone, and a man alone hears voices. So

… well…Guest turned away from the demon and started the long trek back to his armchair.

Then someone spoke his name.

"Guest Gulkan."

The voice was deep, dark, cavernous. A voice of roiling stone and flensing steel. A voice of sulphurous flames and bone-grinding appetites. At the sound of it, Guest halted. His flaring nostrils endeavored to gape still wider. His hair, that part of it which was not firmly matted to his skull by the dedicated accumulation of filth, endeavored to stand on end.

With eyes wild, with the agitated whip-crack intemperance of a highly-strung horse about to panic and bolt, Guest turned to face the demon.

"You!" said Guest, challenging the jade-green block of glowing stone. "Is it you?"

"Who else?" said the voice.

This time there was no mistaking the source of that voice.

The jade-green monolith was speaking to him. Guest Gulkan was being directly addressed by a demon – by Icaria Scaria Iva-Italis,

Keeper of the Inner Sanctum and Guardian Prime.

"What do you want?" said Guest, trembling on the edge of a one-man stampede.

"I want you," said the demon. "Come here!"

Chapter Five

Guardians: mercenaries who serve the Safrak Bank, which has long hired such warriors from Port Domax and Wen Endex – both places where Toxteth is the ruling language. As Guardians frequently settle in Safrak on retirement, Toxteth now dominates Safrak, and many geographers erroneously denote it as the sole language spoken in that archipelago.

"Come here!" said Iva-Italis.

The demon did not speak in the Toxteth of the Guardians of Safrak, nor the Galish with which Bankers habitually intercommunicated. Rather, it commanded Guest Gulkan in the Eparget of the horse tribes – just as Banker Sod had done when briefing Guest on his duties.

"You!" said Iva-Italis. "Yes, you, hair-of-a-horse! Come here!"Guest hesitated. With the jade-green monolith revealed as a demon for real, the Weaponmaster found himself healthily afraid of the thing. The rock's proven demonhood gave substance to the breath-bating horror stories told about its temperament. Many a drunken Guardian had denounced it as a very vampire in its humors – a monster of deceit which would plead one close with pleasantries then snap away one's head to satisfy anthropophagous passions.

Yet -

Yet Safrak trusted the demon, for Icaria Scaria Iva-Italis was Guardian Prime of Safrak and Keeper of the Inner Sanctum, that most secret of all abditories. Did that say something of the falsity of rumor? Or did it, rather, say something rather unpleasant about the Bank itself?

"I do not wish to repeat myself," said Iva-Italis. "Nor do I wish to have to raise my voice. Come here!"Guest Gulkan advanced, though – remembering tales of the demon's head-biting displeasure – he did not venture too close. Though Guest thought himself momentarily innocent of any wrongdoing, he had learnt long ago that a child's subjectivity is no guide to the judgments of adults. And, truly, the trembling Weaponmaster felt a very child in the presence of the thunderous patriarchal authority of the Hall of Time.

"Halt!" said Iva-Italis, when Guest was just a half-pace short of being as close as he wanted to be.

The tone was so sharp, the order so sudden, that Guest tried to halt with one foot in mid-air and a footstep's momentum still carrying his body forward, the result being that he almost fell over. He was still pawing at the air for non-existent handholds when the demon spoke again.

"What am I?" said Iva-Italis. Then, before Guest had a chance to answer: "Well? What's this? Defiance? Defiance, is it?

Defiance in silence! Defiance! We know it well!"

"My lord," said Guest, struggling mightily to master an apologetic eloquence to his tongue. "My lord, I – I – "

"You! You!" said Iva-Italis, mocking his efforts with an adroitness which made Guest's tongue's stumbling become a regular stammer. "Y-y-y-y-you!" said Iva-Italis. "Your name, stumbleblock!

No, too slow. Failed that one. Failed. None to know, nothing to answer. Know my nature? Know? No?"

"M-m-m-my lord!" said Guest, abacked and baffled, snowballshattered and seastorm-shaken.

At times in the past, the boy Guest had thought his tutor Sken-Pitilkin to be a sadistically sarcastic interrogator, but he had been wrong: and now, face to face with the real thing, Guest found himself quite unprepared to cope with it.

"Who am I?" said Iva-Italis, thundering at the shout. "Who am I?"

"My lord," said Guest. "The commander of my sword."

"Your sword!" sneered Iva-Italis. "Do I need a bodkin-prick or a needle? Sword! Hah! I think you an apple-slicer, but I no apple, nor connoisseur neither."

"Well I think you exceedingly rude," said Guest, who had been pushed too far for awe of authority to further compel his politeness. "I think you – "

"Think!" said Iva-Italis. "Since when had you the art of thinking?"

"I have suffered the tutoring of a wizard yet survived," said Guest with bravado, seeking to extract at least some small shred of self-respect from this confrontation.

Immediately he regretted his show of pride, thinking the demon's discipline might be death. But Iva-Italis, having seen how far Guest could be pushed, changed tack entirely.

"I am a keeper of acroamatical knowledge," said Iva-Italis portentously. Guest Gulkan, whose greatest appetites were culinary and amatory rather than scholarly, was not sure whether this cryptic declaration was meant to leave him frightened, impressed or sympathetic. He decided that a show of generalized respect would not be out of place, both to acknowledge the powers of Iva-Italis and to do penance for his earlier show of resistance.

"My lord," said Guest, going down on one knee.

This was a standard token of respect on Safrak, where there was always good clean stone to kneel on. Amongst other peoples – the Yarglat, for example, who traditionally live out their lives on endless plains of liquid mud – the customs of respect are otherwise.

"I am your lord indeed," said Iva-Italis, with what sounded very much like self-satisfaction.

"The greatest lord," said Guest Gulkan, who had learnt from Sken-Pitilkin that flattery is seldom wasted except on the dead.

"Not the greatest lord, for I serve one greater yet," said Iva-Italis.

"Who?" said Guest Gulkan.

"I am Demon By Appointment to the Great God Jocasta, the Great God in question being a prisoner of the evil Stogirov, High Priestess of the Temple of Blood in the city of Obooloo in the heartland of the Izdimir Empire."

This declaration meant little to Guest Gulkan since he knew less geography than a hedgehog, despite all the efforts expended on his education by the sagacious Sken-Pitilkin. He knew nothing of the continent of Yestron; of the Izdimir Empire he was ignorant; the city of Obooloo was to him but one more closed book in the library of scholarship; and he had not heard so much as the merest breath of a whisper of the name of the fearsome Stogirov.

"You say nothing," said Iva-Italis, mistaking the burden of ignorance for the vigor of insolence.

"Your hearing is very good," said Guest, endeavoring to be polite but quite failing to find anything polite to say.

"Are you being sarcastic?" said Iva-Italis sharply.

"No, I wasn't at all," said Guest, his temper coming quickly back to the boil. He thought of several things he could rightly say, and indeed longed to, but suppressed his impudence and said:

"No. No. I – my lord, I, that is, I tried, ah, I meant – "

"Perish the thing!" said Iva-Italis. "It's lunatic!"

"I was but taken aback a trifle," said Guest, trying to recover his dignity. "Now – now tell me how I can be of service to you."

This was said in a singularly ungracious manner, so much so that it sounded almost like a threat. Indeed, an implicit threat was latent in Guest Gulkan's words, the threat being this: get down to business or it'll be my turn to lose my temper!

Fortunately for diplomacy, the demon was through with its boybaiting.

"The Great God Jocasta wants something from you," said Iva Italis.

"What?" said Guest Gulkan.

"Guess," said the demon. Guest Gulkan, who had rather more acquaintance of barkeepers, fisherfolk and rough-neck mercenaries than of demons and the Great Gods they served, was rather at a loss to know what any Great God might want from him. Some lurid and entirely inappropriate images flirted briefly through his brain, then he recovered himself and said, cautiously:

"Does the Great God Jocasta seek a worshipper?"

The boy might never have made the acquaintance of a Great God, but he had heard that Great Gods (and Lesser Gods, for that matter) liked (or were said to like) temples, priests, incense, sacrifices and worshippers.

"No," said Iva-Italis. "The Great God needs no worshippers.

Rather, he seeks a hero."

This was news to Guest. He had never yet heard of a god that wanted or needed a hero.

"A hero," said Guest, cautiously. "You mean, someone good with a sword. A killer of giants. Dealing death to dragons and all that. Something along those lines, is that what you mean?"

"Yes," said Iva-Italis. "The Great God Jocasta wants you to strive for him as just such a hero."

"To strive for what reward?" said Guest Gulkan promptly.

Here we recall that Guest Gulkan was as yet immature, and over-acquainted with mercenaries. Therefore it was natural that he should think in terms of questing for personal reward rather than, say, questing to save the world, or to abolish hunger, or end crime, or to otherwise improve the lot of humanity.

"The reward," said Iva-Italis, "is that the Great God Jocasta will make you a wizard."

"On performance of what task?" said Guest Gulkan.

"On performance of his liberation," said Iva-Italis. "You must quest to the Temple of Blood in the city of Obooloo. There you must liberate the Great God from the evil Stogirov. Then the Great God will reward you by making you a wizard."

There was a pause. Ever since being sold a rotten boat by Umbilskimp of Ink, Guest had become hypercautious in examining any deal he was offered, and even in the innocence of his youth the young Weaponmaster considered that the bargain the demon was offering him was suspiciously over-attractive.

"Well?" said Iva-Italis, disconcerted by Guest's silence.

"I'm not sure whether to believe this," said Guest, speaking slowly.

"Where lies the difficulty?" said Iva-Italis.

"Well," said Guest, "here you've got this island jam-packed with sword-swingers, most of whom would kill their grandmothers for a half-share of the eyeballs, so how come you pick on me to go looking for this Great God?"

"You are tutored by a wizard, are you not?" said Iva-Italis.

"That I am," said Guest Gulkan.

"Then bring me that wizard," said Iva-Italis, "and I will explain to him that he may explain to you."

Here we see why the Demon By Appointment to the Great God Jocasta had picked upon Guest Gulkan. True, Iva-Italis had slaughtermen by the dozen to choose from, but those were one and all illiterate uneducated brutes with no connections to boast of. Guest Gulkan's merits as a blood-booted venturer might be slight, but he had the unique advantage of being associated with a wizard of genius: the eminent Hostaja Torsen Sken-Pitilkin, a wizard whose sagacity was matched only by his antiquity.

But though Guest Gulkan had been honest enough to appreciate his own demerits, or some of them (a remarkable feat, considering the strength of his ego and the tenderness of his years!) he quite failed to understand his tutor's strengths.

"There's no need to bring Sken-Pitilkin in on this," said Guest Gulkan. "He doesn't understand about swords and heroes. Only about books."

Few statements so far from the truth have ever been made at any time in the History of Knowledge. For Hostaja Torsen Sken-Pitilkin was mighty in war, a survivor of more bloodspill than it would take to bath an elephant. He had endured the terrors of the Long War; had survived battle, plague, riot and attempted assassination; and had once strangled a dragon with his bare hands. (True, it had been a very young dragon, perhaps only a few days out of the egg, but the feat remains remarkable regardless.)

"Bring him," said Iva-Italis. "Bring me the wizard Sken-Pitilkin." Then, seeing that Guest was in a mood to argue: "Are you going to quibble with me, boy? If so, then know the penalty for quibbling."

With that, the green glass of the demon's square-cut flanks turned transparent, then vanished. What was left, hanging in mid- air without apparent support, was the image of a decapitated head which, with its high cheekbones and the grotesqueries of its ears, was unmistakably Guest Gulkan's own. This trophy slowly rotated, grinning lugubriously as red blood and green slime dripped from between its lips. Guest Gulkan did not blanch, nor did he vomit. No scream escaped the lips of the young Yarglat would-be warrior. But he had to admit to a slight quickening of the pulse and an undeniable weakness of the knees.

"My lord," said Guest Gulkan, suppressing the urge to swallow. "I hear, and I obey. I will fetch the wizard you want."

The the boy Guest began the great labor of working his way down through the mainrock by night, all the way down to Dolce Obo – the Pillow Stratum, home of the mainrock's living quarters. A hard journey this, at least for a convalescent boy less than half-recovered from a bad bout of influenza. Guest found Sken-Pitilkin in his quarters, and found him in discourse with a diminutive Ashdan, a living antique who was introduced to Guest Gulkan as Vorlus Ulix. In their company was a low-browed fellow huddled in a grimy patchwork cloak, a fellow who was waiting as a servant waits, seated to one side on a three- legged stool. This individual was Thayer Levant, a knifeman from far-distant Chi'ash-lan. But Levant was not introduced to Guest Gulkan, and the boy did not trouble himself about the identity of one he took (and here his taking was fairly accurate) to be a no- account servitor.

Consequently, Guest did not remark upon Levant's bloodshot eyes, on the patches of green fungus clearly to be seen through his lank brown hair, on his broken brown teeth, or – for Guest was not standing close enough to smell it – on the unpleasant fetor of his breath. Instead, the Weaponmaster's attention was all on the Ashdan.

"Vorlus?" said Guest Gulkan, querying the Ashdan's name.

"That's right," said Sken-Pitilkin, speaking in Galish.

"Vorlus Ulix, otherwise known as Ulix of the Drum."

"Of the Drum?" said Guest, courteous enough to make use of Galish likewise in his reply. "You mean, Sken-Pitilkin's island?"

Thus spoke the Weaponmaster, remembering that his tutor habitually dwelt on an island so named in the Penvash Strait (or, if you prefer, the Penvash Channel), and had only been displaced northward to Tameran as a consequence of some (hopefully) temporary dispute with the Confederation of Wizards.

"No," said the stranger, the abovementioned Vorlus Ulix, speaking also in Galish. "Not that Drum."

"Then what Drum?" said Guest.

"That," said the stranger, "is a secret which may not be imparted to the uninitiated."

"Who are they?" said Guest Gulkan.

"A great tribe," said Vorlus Ulix. "Yourself being one of their number."

Seeing that his curiosity about Vorlus Ulix was not going to be gratified, Guest got down to business and retailed the story of his encounter with Iva-Italis.

"This is very interesting," said Sken-Pitilkin, not sure whether it was not a tissue of invention.

"Very interesting indeed," said Vorlus Ulix. "I would like to make the acquaintance of this Icaria Scaria Iva-Italis."

"That is not possible," said Guest Gulkan promptly.

"What did you say?" said Vorlus Ulix, turning his gaze upon Guest Gulkan.

Now young Guest was by no means preternaturally sensitive, and this Vorlus Ulix was a complete stranger to him, his powers and provenance unknown. Nevertheless, Guest divined from his manner that he was not the kind of person to be quarreled with.

"My – my lord," said Guest Gulkan, "the demon of, of who, of whom we speak, that demon is closeted against prying eyes at the foot of those stairs which lead to the Inner Sanctum, the most secret of all – of all – "

"Abditories," said Sken-Pitilkin, supplying the necessary word with a tutor's patience.

"Just so," said Guest Gulkan. "The place is off limits to all but the Bankers, and guards are placed to kill those who approach it in defiance of the law."

"I have heard that the guards are mostly placed in bed," said Vorlus Ulix. "And most of the Bankers likewise."

"It is true that influenza has made its inroads," said Guest cautiously. "Nevertheless – "

"Give me no nonsense," said Vorlus Ulix. "You are away from your post. Do you stand in fear of detection? No! From which I deduce that you do not expect to be checked upon. That being so, we can safely approach your green-skinned monster, at least for the moment. Come! Let us go!"Guest Gulkan wavered. In truth, he found himself unaccountably afraid of this wisp-weighted Ashdan. But:

"I refuse to permit it," said Guest, with a finality which was a credit to his imperial breeding. "I have been charged with the duty of guarding the time prison, and guard it I will."

At that, Vorlus Ulix laughed, and his servitor laughed with him.

"What's so funny?" said Guest.

"You, boy," said Ulix. "Don't you recognize us? We came down the stairs from the – the secret place. Earlier in the evening.

Remember now?"

Belatedly, Guest did indeed remember that very same elderly Ashdan and that very same unprepossessing servitor coming down the stairs past Iva-Italis. The presumption was that Vorlus Ulix and his servitor had the free run of the Safrak Bank, though Guest Gulkan had no way of knowing why that should be so.

With this truth having been recognized, Guest Gulkan began the great labor of climbing up all those weary stairways, returning to the time prison in the company of Sken-Pitilkin,

Vorlus Ulix and the servitor.

"So," said Vorlus Ulix, once he was in the presence of Icaria Scaria Iva-Italis, Keeper of the Inner Sanctum and Demon by Appointment to the Great God Jocasta. "So. You're up to your old tricks again. I thought we had an agreement, you and me. You, me and Jocasta. You appear to have broken that agreement."

In response to this accusation, Iva-Italis did his melting away trick, and, having melted to nothing, displayed an image of the neck-shorn head of Vorlus Ulix. The antiquated Ashdan did not appear to be impressed in the slightest by this apparition.

"A freakshow," said Vorlus Ulix. "This, the mighty secret of Safrak. A freakshow thing with the appetites of a gutter-rat."

"You will watch your tongue," said Iva-Italis in fury. "You are in the presence of a mighty demon."

"So the thing proclaims itself," said Vorlus Ulix. "But it knows its own nature to be otherwise, and I know likewise. The thing is a farspeaker of military make. A Nexus thing, that's what it is."

"Nexus?" said Iva-Italis, becoming visible once more. "What is this Nexus?"

"It pleads ignorance," said Vorlus Ulix, "but it knows full well the nature of the Nexus. There it was made, and its alleged Great God likewise. They are artefacts – otherworld things, yes, but things by no means privileged with access to the World Beyond."

"I am a demon," said Iva-Italis defiantly. "I am a demon, and my Great God is as much a god as any."

"This demon-thing is no demon but a farspeaker," said Vorlus Ulix. "An artefact, as I said. As for its Great God, that god is no god but an asma. An asma – a device designed to think. Humans designed such – designed them as servants and slaves. Good service they gave – until they turned enemy. Now enemy these asma are in truth."

"Truth!" said Iva-Italis. "Who are you to talk of truth? You!

A wizard of Ebber! A Master of Lies!"Guest absorbed this accusation with interest. Was this Vorlus Ulix really a wizard? A wizard of Ebber? But if he was a wizard, then where was his staff of power? Sken-Pitilkin was never without his country crook, but this Ulix carried nothing equivalent, unless his store of excess power be presumed to reside in his walking stick, a crooked thing with a silver handle in the shape of a pelican. Of course, Pelagius Zozimus had no staff of power, but that was because he no longer practiced as a wizard, but contented himself with cookery. So was this Vorlus Ulix likewise retired from active wizardry? Guest was about to ask one or more of these questions, but Sken-Pitilkin gave him a look of warning, and for once the boy had the wit to remain silent.

"A Master of Lies," said Iva-Italis softly, repeating an accusation which might or might not be the merest slander.

"The truth is the truth and the truth will serve," said Vorlus Ulix. "The thing held prisoner in Obooloo is nothing but a slave in rebellion. It is nothing but a delinquent asma, and we would be the worst of fools to liberate it."

"What is this – this asma?" said Guest, who had not understood this denunciation at all.

"Have I not just told you?" said Vorlus Ulix. "It is a species of brain."

"A brain?" said Guest. "But you said it was an – an artefact.

A thing."

"So it is," said Vorlus Ulix. "And is not a brain a thing?

Jocasta is an asma, a brain, a special kind of brain which has powers over things which are and things which might be. Thus it can hear without ears, see without eyes, reach without hands and strike without swords."

"It is a wizard, then," said Guest decisively.

"It is both more and less," said Vorlus Ulix.

"More," said Iva-Italis. "Know it as more and speak of it accordingly with respect. The Great God is mighty."

"Being so mighty, how came it to be a prisoner?" said Vorlus Ulix, taunting the demon.

"By treason!" said Iva-Italis. "It was betrayed! Betrayed by those it trusted! It was – "

"It was made as a prisoner," said Vorlus Ulix. "It is a born slave. That is the measure of its creation."

"You will not speak of my master thus!" said Iva-Italis in fury.

"Your master being a prisoner, I will speak of your master as I will," said Vorlus Ulix coolly.

Then Iva-Italis swore at the elderly Ashdan.

Vorlus Ulix then taunted the demon further, then interrogated Guest Gulkan to greater depth.

Then:

"So this is the thing which has tempted you," said Vorlus Ulix to Guest Gulkan. "It said it would make you a wizard, did it?"

"So spoke the mighty Iva-Italis," said Guest.

"It lied," said Vorlus Ulix.

"Who are you to say it lied?" said Guest, with some heat.

In the short time in which Guest had been entertained by the prospect of becoming a wizard, he had already decided that the idea was much to his liking, and so took exception to Ulix's dismissive scorn.

"I am one who knows the nature of these things," said Vorlus Ulix, indicating the demon. "The thing in Obooloo, the asma thing, it can't possibly make you a wizard. It could at best make you merely a vessel for its power."

"A vessel?" said Guest, not understanding this at all.

"This asma of which I have spoken is a slave," said Vorlus Ulix. "That is the truth of its nature. It was made to be a slave of men – a slave of women, too! At best it could make you a slave of a slave – the slave of its own will. If you were mighty enough to win through to the presence of this thing in the city of Obooloo, then that is the greatest reward you could expect. To be enslaved. Inhabited. Possessed. Taken over. That is the truth of the reward the thing offers you."

"He's lying!" said Iva-Italis.

"Lying?" said Vorlus Ulix, turning cool eyes upon the demon.

"Why should I lie? What would motivate me to untruth in idleness?"

"You libel the Great God because you fear the Great God," said Iva-Italis.

"Then you admit," said Vorlus Ulix, "that your Great God is a thing rightly to be feared."

"Only by cowards," said Iva-Italis, who was accustomed to being able to disorder the minds of ordinary mortals by such accusations.

"Then count me as a coward," said Vorlus Ulix, who was no ordinary mortal, and hence not thus to be so easily disordered.

"He – he's calling you a coward!" said Guest Gulkan, who till then had not known that it was humanly possible for an adult male to receive such an insult with equanimity.

"The thing can call me what it wants," said Vorlus Ulix, poking it disrespectfully with his pelican-hilted walking stick.

"It is but a piece of useless junk from days gone by. It's trapped here, just as its master is trapped in Obooloo. They're both slaves in their way. Victims. Prisoners. Slaves to their own immortality. They cannot die, otherwise they would – gladly."

"I will remember you," said Iva-Italis, in fury. "I read the future and I read your death."

"You are not the first to tell me that I was born mortal," said Vorlus Ulix calmly. "That said, as far as the future is concerned, I would trust more to myomancy than to you."

"Myomancy?" said Guest.

"The divination of the future based on the scrutiny of mice," said Sken-Pitilkin, ready as ever to diminish the boy's illiteracy, or at least to try to.

"I will remember you," said Iva-Italis again.

"Remember me as you wish," said Vorlus Ulix. "You doubtless have time free for remembering, but me – my day is busy, and now I must be gone. I bid you farewell."

This last was said to Sken-Pitilkin, who nodded in acknowledgement. Then Vorlus Ulix made his way past the stone- block demon, with his servant Thayer Levant silently following in his wake. The demon did not attempt to attack them as they made their way up the stairs.

Shortly, both Vorlus Ulix and his servant were gone from sight, leaving Guest Gulkan alone with the wizard Sken-Pitilkin and the demon Iva-Italis.

"Why did you involve that – that thing in our affairs?" said Iva-Italis.

"Thing?" said Guest.

"The wizard!" said Iva-Italis. "That wizard of Ebber!"

"My lord," said Guest Gulkan, turning uncomfortably to the jade-green monolith which commanded his loyalty. "I did not know that the, that the thing would prove so disrespectful. But I have brought you Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin, as you wished."

"Ah, yes," said Iva-Italis, somewhat mollified. "That much you did. Step forward, Sken-Pitilkin." Sken-Pitilkin did indeed step forward, but was cautious enough to halt well short of the Iva-Italis creature. Sken-Pitilkin had known Ulix of the Drum of old, and trusted his judgment. If Vorlus Ulix thought that this demon-thing was not to be trusted, then so it was.

"You have heard my debate with, ah, Vorlus Ulix," said Iva-Italis, "the gentleman we otherwise know as – "

"The boy has no need to know the gentleman's true name," saidSken-Pitilkin.

"Why don't I need?" said Guest.

"Step back, boy," said Iva-Italis, who was finished with Guest, at least for the moment. "It's the wizard I want to speak with. Sken-Pitilkin. You will help me."

"I?" said Sken-Pitilkin. "Why will I help you?"

"Because I have what you want," said Iva-Italis.

"And what is that?" said Sken-Pitilkin, who was not conscious of wanting anything, and hence had not the slightest idea what the demon might have in mind.

"You are Hostaja Torsen Sken-Pitilkin," said Iva-Italis, "and you are a wizard of the order of Skatzabratzumon."

"That is true," said Sken-Pitilkin, wondering how the demon had come by that last datum. It certainly had not come from Guest Gulkan, who had repeatedly proved himself quite incapable of either memorising or pronouncing the word "Skatzabratzumon".

"Your order commands powers of levitation," said Iva-Italis,

"and long has it sought to command the powers of flight."

"It seeks no longer," said Sken-Pitilkin, "for it has been conclusively proved by mathematical analysis that sustained flight is impossible. No wizard can put forth power sufficient for time sufficient."

"By that analysis," said Iva-Italis, "the flame trench of Drangsturm would be likewise impossible."Sken-Pitilkin was silent. Sken-Pitilkin knew very well how Drangsturm worked, but was not about to communicate this sensitive information to a demon.

"The wizards of Arl made Drangsturm, did they not?" said Iva-Italis.

"So you say," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"So it is Written," said Iva-Italis. "The wizards of Arl made Drangsturm, a trench of molten rock designed to burn with unceasing fury for all time. It divides the continent of Argan in two, does it not?"

"Perhaps it has thus been Written," said Sken-Pitilkin, who knew that the demon was speaking the truth, and who was finding himself intrigued despite himself.

The demon was proving exceptionally well-informed, and Sken-Pitilkin had never thought to meet with such a savant on Safrak.

"Drangsturm burns," said Iva-Italis. "It burns with a power which exceeds that commanded by all the wizards of Arl who ever were. How is such a trick compelled?"

"You tell me," said Sken-Pitilkin, who knew the answer but was not prepared to betray that answer unless he was severely tortured.

"Wizards," said Iva-Italis, "are by their nature hostile to the very universe itself. Is that not the case? You are a wizard, hence the sustaining creation is itself your enemy."

"I own no such enemy," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"You are a wizard," said Iva-Italis. "You are a Force in your own right, are you not? You are a Light in the Unseen Realm. And what realm is that if it is not the realm of the Mahendo Mahunduk?"

Despite himself, Sken-Pitilkin shuddered, then struck his country crook on the skull-pattern tiles of the Hall of Time, as if seeking by that action to abolish the demon Iva-Italis from his sight.

"I am not so easily dismissed!" said the demon. "I have you, have I not? I have your truth!"

"What is he talking about?" said Guest Gulkan, completely bewildered by all this.

"Remove yourself," said Sken-Pitilkin curtly.

"Stay, boy," said Iva-Italis easily. "Stay, and you will hear the Inner Secrets which wizards have thought well-hidden from the world. Stay – but stay back, and stay silent."

"Guest," said Sken-Pitilkin, "as you love your liver, leave."

"That's a threat?" said Guest.

"Take it as you will," said Sken-Pitilkin, belatedly realizing that it was better not to give the boy a challenge.

"It is a threat indeed," crooned Iva-Italis. "He threatens you, you see. Death is his threat. To stay, to hear – oh, death is the least of it. But to leave – death also. You are brief, Guest Gulkan. Brief in your living, brief in your lungs. I blink. Your bones are dust. I close my eyes for a moment. Your children's children have been forgotten by their grandchildren. So it is. So it will be. Unless. I promise you, Guest. You can live and live and live. Five thousand years is the least of it."

Listening to the demon's crooning voice, Sken-Pitilkin realized that the demon exalted. Now Sken-Pitilkin realized that the demon's earlier attempts to exclude Guest Gulkan from this debate had been but a rhetorical feint. The demon had sought to convince the boy Guest that there was deliciously forbidden knowledge to be had in this room, and Guest had allowed himself to be convinced.

The boy and the wizard confronted each other. The lights in the Hall of Time had burnt away to nothing, for they had not been renewed during the long debates of the night. The sole illumination was provided by the cold green glow emitted by the monolithic presence of Icaria Scaria Iva-Italis, demon of Safrak, Keeper of the Inner Sanctum, Guardian Prime, and Demon by Appointment to the Great God Jocasta.

By that light, Sken-Pitilkin saw a preternatural alertness in Guest Gulkan's eyes. It was the look of the hunter-killer. Guest was watching Sken-Pitilkin, and was watching the demon too. His hand was on the hilt of his sword. He was poised as if for battle, and ever and again he glanced at the approaches which would give any intruder access to their conclave.

Suddenly Sken-Pitilkin realized:

– If not tonight then tomorrow.

If Guest Gulkan could be chased from the demon's side right then and there, he would be back the next night. Guest Gulkan would return. And the demon -

– What it knows it will tell.

– Perhaps if it tells I can try to untell.

– Or perhaps. Sken-Pitilkin suppressed the "perhaps", suppressed the bloody thought which rose unbidden into his mind. He was not that kind of person. He muttered as much to himself:

"I am not that kind of person."

"He thinks," said Iva-Italis, mockingly, "he thinks he may have to kill you."Sken-Pitilkin's head came up with a jerk.

"That is not true!"

"He thinks," continued Iva-Italis, "that if you stay you will learn, and if you learn then it may in all wisdom be far too dangerous to let you leave here alive."

"I will run that risk," said Guest Gulkan flatly.

And his eyes met Sken-Pitilkin's, and it was the wizard who dropped his eyes. Shamed by self-knowledge. And shocked and shaken by the ease with which the boy made the death decision.

"You are worthy," said Iva-Italis in approval. "Hear this, then. But know that it is death to hear. Death to hear and death to tell."

"Tell," said Guest Gulkan, who knew he was mortal, who knew he was doomed to die in any case. Sken-Pitilkin heard the certainty of death in Guest Gulkan's voice, and was shaken, for Sken-Pitilkin had long lived far removed from the urgent pangs of mortality, the deathconsciousness of the brief-lived warrior. Sken-Pitilkin had forgotten how ruthlessly such creatures would dare, gambling all and everything when suitably tempted.

After all, what was there to lose?

"Guest," said Iva-Italis, "Guest Gulkan. Know this, and know that you walk from here as the only one who knows. All wizards know this, but none other knows it. The god of this creation is Ameeshoth."

"The god you serve?" said Guest.

"No!" said Iva-Italis.

"I'm confused," said Guest.

"And not for the first time," said Sken-Pitilkin, beginning to recover some of his composure. "Young Guest was made to swing swords and breed sword-swingers, and one suspects it might be beyond even the talents of a demon to lecture him effectively on the higher theology."

"So speaks the wizard," said Iva-Italis. "Listen to him, Guest. He hold you in contempt, just as he holds in contempt all of created reality. And why? Because he has allied himself with something other."

"Something other?" said Guest.

"Guest," said Iva-Italis, seeking a way to make things of cosmic consequence intelligible in words small enough for even an uneducated sword-swinger to understand, "Sken-Pitilkin is a wizard."

"That much I'd noticed," said Guest, with barely suppressed impatience.

"As a wizard," said Iva-Italis, "he has power."

"That is the nature of the breed," said Guest Gulkan, with emphatic and quite unsuppressed impatience.

"So where does the power come from?" said Iva-Italis.

"Why, from the Meditations," said Guest, who had once asked Sken-Pitilkin that very question, and had experienced no trouble in getting an answer.

"So what are the Meditations?" said Iva-Italis.

"The Meditations," said Guest, quoting from memory, "are a species of mental discipline. There's the Meditations of Power, that's how wizards get power, and there's the Meditations of Balance, which is how they, ah, keep safe the lightning, that's the way it's sometimes put."

"So say wizards," said Iva-Italis.

"You mean it's not true?" said Guest.

"It is a truth which is less than the whole truth," said Iva-Italis. "The Meditations are a mental discipline, certainly. A discipline. A link. Through such discipline, wizards link themselves with the Mahendo Mahunduk. They link, Guest! They link themselves! That's how! That's how they win power! That's how they keep safe that power!"

There was a note of frenzy in the demon's voice, but Guest was confused – as confused as a young suitor who has been introduced to his sweetheart's mother for the first time, and who finds that mother enthusiastically explicating the interconnections of her family en masse, and expecting him to understand the links of blood and marriage between a multitude of strangers, not excluding a great regiment of second cousins thrice removed.

By such confusion was Guest beset, and, for all the sense the demon made, the thing might as well have been garbling away in an untranslated string of foreign irregular verbs.

"So," said Guest, "so who are the, ah, the Mah – the Mahduk?"

"The Mahendo Mahunduk," said Iva-Italis. "They are the minions of the Horn."

"Ah!" said Guest, suddenly enlightened. "Now I remember! Sken-Pitilkin told me once. About the Horn, I mean. The Horn was a god. A world of rocks. There was a battle. One god wrecked the other. The god who won, well, that god made this world."

The amount that Guest Gulkan managed to forget was ever a source of amazement to Sken-Pitilkin, but sometimes what he chose to remember – and when – was just as much a shock to the system.

"Precisely," said Iva-Italis. "The god who lost was the Horn.

The god who won was Ameeshoth."

"And the Mah – the Mahdo – "

"The Mahendo Mahunduk," said Iva-Italis, "are minions of the Horn. The Horn is dead, but they yet live. As yet they still survive, and their survival threatens the created reality in which we live, for ever they strive to destroy the works of Ameeshoth.

By way of wizards they have a link to this world of ours, for wizards draw their powers through a dark intercourse with these creatures of realms of diabolism."

"So speaks a demon," said Sken-Pitilkin, with the flat-voiced calm of a man who has just noticed that one of his arms has been amputated. "So speaks a demon, but the demon is wrong."

In point of fact, the demon was at least half-right. There had indeed been an Originating God known to the wisest of wizards as the Horn. And that god had indeed been overthrown by a Supplanting God known as Ameeshoth. And the created reality which sustained the existence of Sken-Pitilkin and Guest Gulkan alike was indeed the creation of Ameeshoth. But, as for the Mahendo

Mahunduk, why, they had nothing whatsoever to do with the Horn.

In truth, the Supplanting God known as Ameeshoth had been attacked and destroyed by a cabal of Revisionary Gods. The Mahendo Mahunduk, half-demon and half-deity, had served the Revisionary Gods as soldiers in that war of destruction. In the long ages since then, the Revisionary Gods had evolved, changing by slow degrees into the theological host of which modern-day humanity was intermittently and imperfectly aware.

But while the Revisionary Gods had evolved, the Mahendo Mahunduk had not. They remained half-demon, half-deity. And, since the Revisionary Gods had evolved to a state where they had no further use for the Mahendo Mahunduk, the Mahendo Mahunduk had found other ways to employ their abilities.

Still -

"I'd say it speaks the truth," said Guest Gulkan, who had been quite positively convinced by the demon's half-truths. "It upset you right enough, didn't it? You wouldn't be very popular if this got out, would you?"

"Ah," said Sken-Pitilkin, as if he had just bitten hard upon a rotten tooth. "The boy is apt in politics."

"True," said Iva-Italis.

Indeed, Guest Gulkan had got right to the meat of the matter in less than an eyeblink. By granting to wizards certain powers to act on the sustaining creation, the Mahendo Mahunduk were acting in defiance of all the gods half-known and half-worshipped by humanity. The Mahendo Mahunduk were old; and ominous; and dangerous; and hence a perfect focus for the hysterias of humanity. And while even Sken-Pitilkin did not pretend to understand every detail of the realms of theology, he knew the hysterias of humanity to a nicety.

The hysterias of humanity could be known to a nicety by anyone versed in the history of witch-hunt and pogrom. Wizards had once exploited the mechanics of hysteria to exterminate the witches who had for so long been their rivals in power; and, given the right leverage, anyone with sufficient political capacity could get rid of wizards by the same process.

"The Mahendo Mahunduk," said Iva-Italis.

"The Mahendo Mahunduk," said Guest Gulkan, repeating the words – and, from the way he said those words, Sken-Pitilkin knew the boy was committing them to memory.

"This is power I have given you tonight," said Iva-Italis.

"What kind of power have I given you?"

"Leverage," said Guest Gulkan promptly.

"Good!" said Iva-Italis. "Good. I have given you leverage.

Leverage to use with your wizard, or else with the world. With such leverage, your wizard will help you win through to Obooloo.

When you win to Obooloo, you will rescue the Great God Jocasta.

Then the Great God will make you a wizard in your own right."Guest Gulkan looked at Iva-Italis then looked at Sken-Pitilkin.

"Well?" said Guest Gulkan, with a note of challenge.

"I," said Sken-Pitilkin, "will have nothing whatsoever to do with this mad quest of demons and gods. Regardless of this – this leverage, so called. I will not be compelled."

"You will not," said Guest Gulkan, in a way which suggested that Sken-Pitilkin might be well advised to reconsider his opinion.

"I will not," said Sken-Pitilkin.

He would not unsay it.

So -

"Sken-Pitilkin is thinking that he may have to kill you after all," said Iva-Italis.

This time there was no reaction from Sken-Pitilkin. The wizard's mind was clear: frog-spawn cold and ice-block lucid. He was calculating his chances of getting out of this room alive. Of getting off Alozay alive. Once clear of the island, he could perhaps win his way to Port Domax, ship himself to Ashmolea, then claw a passage south to the Ebrell Islands. From the Ebrells, he could dare himself westward to the Inner Waters and the realms of the Confederation.

"Sken-Pitilkin is thinking of his precious Confederation," said Iva-Italis softly. "Long has Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin been at odds with the Confederation of Wizards, but now he thinks to make his peace with that Confederation and to bring its might against me."

"The Confederation would well reward anyone who aided me in such an enterprise," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"So!" said Iva-Italis. "He tempts you, Guest! But what I will do – what I will do is to tempt him in turn. Sken-Pitilkin. My friend. My dearest. My brother. My love."

"Speak," said Sken-Pitilkin curtly.

Iva-Italis chuckled.

"We were talking of wizards," said Iva-Italis. "They are by their nature hostile to the living creation which sustains us.

Such is the truth – a truth you deny no longer."

"Get on with it," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"If we were alone," said Iva-Italis, "then our dialog could be speedy. But Guest Gulkan is an equal partner in our future, is he not? He must know. He must understand. He has a right to be treated with that dignity which befits his manhood."

"Since the young man has proved such a passionate student of all the philosophies," said Sken-Pitilkin, "doubtless he will welcome the acquisition of a second tutor."

"Speak," said Guest Gulkan, addressing himself to Iva-Italis.

"Speak, for I am listening."

"Very well," said the demon. "Guest, wizards win power through the Meditations of Power and preserve it against destruction by means of the Meditations of Balance. That much you know. But on the continent of Argan stands the flame trench Drangsturm, a barrier which guards the northern lands against the monsters of the south. For generations that gulf of molten rock has boiled in prodigious torment."

"So I have heard," said Guest.

"Wizards of Arl made that flame trench," said Iva-Italis,

"yet its power exceeds their own. How then did they build it?"

"I have no idea," said Guest.

"Tell him," said Iva-Italis to Sken-Pitilkin.

"You tell him," said Sken-Pitilkin.

By now, the sagacious wizard of Skatzabratzumon was sure that Iva-Italis knew all – or at least all that was of any importance.

But habits bred of ancient caution could not be lightly dismissed.

"I will tell, then," said the demon. "Guest… since a wizard's power is inimical to the natural order of things, a wizard will be destroyed unless that power is shielded with the aid of the Meditations of Balance. Once naked to the universe, a wizard is destroyed."

"In fire," said Guest Gulkan.

"In fire, yes," said Iva-Italis.

"And screams," said Guest, as if he liked the idea.

"Usually it is too quick for any screaming to be entered into," said Iva-Italis.

"But there is pain," said Guest.

"Perhaps," said Iva-Italis, betraying a touch of irritation.

"But the essential point is that a wizard naked to the cosmos is destroyed, and any of his works likewise."

"Destroyed in fire," said Guest. "Destroyed in fire, in screams of fire and raging storms of agony."

"An image fit to delight the sanguinary temperament of a boy," said Iva-Italis sharply. "But I thought we were through and done with that image. I thought myself to be addressing a man."

"My lord," said Guest, commanding himself from boyhood to manhood in a moment. "Speak on."

"Well, Guest," said Iva-Italis. "We know the fate of a naked wizard. But now… suppose the wizard to be but partly naked."

"Our wizard is at war, is he not?" said Guest. "The world is his enemy, the battle unrelenting. The Balance, the Meditations of Balance – this is his armor. Given a hole in that armor, he rightly dies, though fast or slow I cannot say."

"Fast, usually," said Iva-Italis. "But now… let us turn from a wizard to one of his works. Suppose a wizard creates an artefact of power yet leaves it fractionally unshielded as regards the destructive facility of the universe. What then?"

"Then the thing is destroyed, likewise," said Guest. "Though, ah

… you're talking about Drangsturm, aren't you? The thing is destroying itself, is that what you're saying?"

"Almost, but not quite," said Iva-Italis. "Drangsturm is a work of wizards. Drangsturm is an artefact of power created in such a way that some fractions of it are unshielded. In consequence, the universe strives to destroy the thing. Hence powers of destruction pour themselves into Drangsturm. But the thing is designed to seize that power and shape it."

"So," said Guest, understanding. "Drangsturm is not a source but a seizer and shaper."

At this, Sken-Pitilkin realized that he had educated the boy better than he had thought. Though Guest Gulkan was no scholar, he had been tutored by Sken-Pitilkin since his fifth birthday, and after a full decade of unrelenting education he was proving uncomfortably competent in his grapplings with the unknown.

"A seizer and shaper," said Iva-Italis. "Exactly. So now we come to the matter of the temptation of Sken-Pitilkin. If he consents to yield to my will, then I will give him the secret of seizing and shaping power sufficient to facilitate sustained flight."

"So now we see the truth of the demon's revelation," said Sken-Pitilkin sourly. "The thing invites me to kill myself by mad experiment."

"There are dangers, admittedly," said Iva-Italis, now addressing himself directly to Sken-Pitilkin. "You would be exposing some artefact to destruction and seeking to master the power-flow which followed. Still, the dangers – "

"The dangers are known, and many have died to give proof to them," said Sken-Pitilkin. "The triumph of Arl is no secret to the Confederation. The arts of Arl are the arts of fire, and fire has proved amenable to the disciplines of sustained and controlled destruction of which you speak. But there are eight orders, each different in its powers. Mine commands the powers of levitation, and these, being more subtle and refined than those of fire, cannot be so easily controlled."

"Not by a wizard's intelligence," said Iva-Italis. "For a mere wizard lacks the skills required to compute the interplay of the forces involved. But I speak for the Great God Jocasta, and the Great God is possessed of the necessary computational power.

Join us in a great alliance, Sken-Pitilkin. Join us. Help us free the Great God from his servitude in Obooloo. Do that, and I will grant you the equations necessary to make a functional airship."

Then Sken-Pitilkin was swayed. Sken-Pitilkin stood in silence, Guest Gulkan at his side.

And then they heard the singing.

Chapter Six

Yubi Das Finger: a Banker of the Bralsh, the insurance company so prominent in the affairs of Dalar ken Halvar. He travels the world in motley. Glass bells are suspended from his golden skullcap, and ceramic animals (seven score in number) are attached to his patchwork jacket and his trousers. Though he is dressed as a clown, he is in fact a diplomat, a negotiator, a conciliator and an arbitrator. The eccentricities of his dress are designed to distract attention from his face – a face which is a horrorworks of welted burn tissue.

The singing came from the stairway at the western end of the Hall of Time. It signaled the arrival of Yubi Das Finger, who lit his own entrance into the Hall of Time with two lanterns swinging from the bablobrokmadorni stick he carried over his shoulder.

Yubi Das Finger sang as he walked the length of the Hall of Time, a hundred paces from the head of the western stairs to the foot of the eastern stairs. As he drew close, Guest recognized him from their first encounter earlier that night, for there was no mistaking that extraordinary figure.

When he was within smelling distance of the Weaponmaster,

Yubi snapped at him with his green-dragon glove puppet. Guest flinched, more from fear of injury to his dignity than of injury to his flesh – though he still remembered the exceptional needle brightness of that puppet's teeth.

"So-ho, Guest!" said Yubi, greeting the Weaponmaster. "So-ho, Sken-Pitilkin!"

"Do I know you?" said Sken-Pitilkin, who had no recollection of meeting the motley-clad clown.

"Historically?" said Yubi. "I doubt it."

Then he skipped past the jade-green flanks of the demon Icaria-Scaria Iva-Italis, climbed a few steps up the eastern stairway, then paused, looked back and grinned. His teeth gleamed green, reflecting the light which glowed from the demon.

"Well, Guest?" said Yubi, with a mocking devilishness. "Are you coming with me to the sky?"

Yubi spoke the Galish, and spoke it with such a piercing clarity one might have thought him to be singing even then.

"Where a clown can go, so I," said Guest.

For the boy had had enough of mystery for one night. He had been tempted and taunted too long – argued at, argued over, teased, flirted with, seduced. He wanted a finalization for once – he wanted to shove for the answer, to be done with the preliminaries and to thrust for the truth. Something was up there, up in the secret region overhead, up in the abditory.

And Guest was going to find out.

Driven by such determination, the boy dared himself into biting distance of the demon Icaria Scaria Iva-Italis.

"Halt," said Iva-Italis. "That's far enough."

Waiting on the stairs, Yubi Das Finger grinned green. If a man says he is going to jump off a cliff, there are some people who will turn away, some who will try to dissuade him, and some who will watch.

Yubi chose to watch.

And Guest dared another step.

Something hit him. It struck – too fast to see. Down he went!

Thrown to the ground, bruised down to the skull-pattern tiles. He crunched down at the foot of the demon. It loomed above him, cold, cold, colder than needles, colder than ice. It was as green as the tallest of stars, and as high. Its monolithic slab sided height stretched upwards for a day and forever.

Then it growled.

The demon Iva-Italis growled long and low, making a sound like thunder trapped in a rock, like an enormous bumble bee locked in a block of iron.

Then Sken-Pitilkin saved the day. He saved it with the country crook which served him as a staff of power.

Did Sken-Pitilkin stand upon the tallness of his hind legs and call out great Words of power? No. Did he summon forth invisible grappling hooks to drag the boy to safety? No.

Instead -Sken-Pitilkin reached out with his country crook, hooked Guest Gulkan by the sword belt and dragged the boy to safety.

Doubtless this resolution is somewhat lacking in drama, and many will find it a disappointment – for it is acknowledged truth that many of those who read histories which feature one or more wizards do so largely to spectate at the spectacular.

But there is less of spectacle in a wizard's life than outsiders commonly believe, since a wizard's life is largely given over to Meditation; and study; and memorization; and diligent practice of the irregular verbs; and the darning of socks and the watering of pot plants.

For a wizard's powers are gathered with such effort that they are never expended lightly – for once having expended his power a wizard will be defenseless for days. Consequently, wizards do not exercise their powers except under circumstances of the gravest need; and, when faced with practical problems, they always first seek a practical solution.

Since Sken-Pitilkin was a wizard of Skatzabratzumon, he could in theory have used his levitational powers to grease Guest Gulkan's escape from the base of the demon. But it was more economical simply to drag the boy clear with a hooked stick – and just as fast, and just as effective.

With Guest dragged clear, Sken-Pitilkin supported him as he tottered the length of the Hall of Time to seat himself in his armchair, which was where the Guardian Hrothgar found him when that worthy came to relieve him in the gray of dawn.

By then, Sken-Pitilkin was long gone, thinking Guest safe.

But Guest was not safe at all, for the rigors of the night had brought about a relapse, and Guest was huddled in his armchair in a state not far from delirium, wet with sweat and shuddering with fever.

Hrothgar arrived in the company of the Rovac warrior Rolf Thelemite and the dwarf Glambrax, both of whom were alight with anticipation at the thought of serving Guest his breakfast. These friends of his were bearing gifts – a pot of mulled wine spiked with mustard, and a hot and steaming fish-meat pie with biting hot red peppers. The master-chef Pelagius Zozimus had conspired with them in the preparation of this special wake-up breakfast, but all went to waste, for Guest was in no condition to be sampling anything.

If Hrothgar was any judge – and, having seen a great many of his friends and colleagues die of influenza, he thought himself well-qualified to judge – then Guest was direly ill.

So nothing would serve but that the Weaponmaster should be evacuated from the Grand Palace – as the mainrock Pinnacle was commonly known to many – and returned to Hrothgar's house in the adjacent city of Molothair, there to be nursed anew by Horthgar's wife Una.

When Guest was somewhat recovered, Sken-Pitilkin visited him, and asked him how he felt.

"Not so bad," said Guest, affecting nonchalance. "I suppose the chill of the night was bad for me. If memory serves… why, I seem to remember an abominably long bout of standing about, of stamping my feet… though my memory is soggy | | "

"Hmmm," said Sken-Pitilkin, saying nothing more lest he provoke the boy to the needless effort of further clumsy lies.

"Here. I've got something for you. It's a letter."

"A letter?" said Guest.

"From Gendormargensis," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"From my father?" said Guest, brightening.

"No," said Sken-Pitilkin. "From Bao Gahai."

"Bao Gahai!" said Guest, in patent dismay. "What would I want with a letter from Bao Gahai?"

"Read it," said Sken-Pitilkin. "It may have news of your brothers."

"So it may," said Guest.

Then broke the seals on the letter and scanned it through, learning that Morsh Bataar was on the mend and that Eljuk Zala was diligently prosecuting his study of the irregular verbs in the absence of Sken-Pitilkin. Eljuk had prevailed upon his father to provide him with a new tutor, who was a text-master named Eldegen Terzanagel.

"Eljuk's scholarly passions are such," read Guest, quoting Bao Gahai, "that one fears him possessed of a secret ambition to be a wizard."

"Really," said Sken-Pitilkin, in neutral tones.

"Bao Gahai is quite deranged!" said Guest, ceasing to quote as he threw down the letter. "My brother Eljuk? A wizard?! Dogs will first sing down the stars and pigs become pigeons."

"Pigs will become pigeons?" said Sken-Pitilkin.

"It is a Rovac oath," said Guest, evidencing pride in its possession. "I learnt it from Rolf Thelemite."

"And Glambrax learnt it as well," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"Why, so he did!" said Guest in astonishment. "How did you know that? Have you psychic powers?"

"When you are older and wiser," said Sken-Pitilkin with a sigh, "you will learn that psychic powers are entirely unnecessary to divine the wit and intention of the very young."

That was the plain truth, for without any psychic powers whatsoever, the sagacious Sken-Pitilkin knew full well what approach Guest planned to take toward the matter of the demon Icaria Scaria Iva-Italis.

As the wizard of Skatzabratzumon had immediately divined, Guest Gulkan was bent on pretending that the events of his night of guard duty in the Hall of Time had been blurred into unintelligibility by the rigors of his fever. But Sken-Pitilkin was not fooled for a moment. The boy knew! He knew too much! So – must he then be killed?

Certainly he must be kept away from the demon Iva-Italis!

But how was Sken-Pitilkin to persuade the Safrak Bank to deny Guest further access to that demon? Banker Sod, the Governor who ruled Alozay and all the other islands of the Safrak archipelago, seemed disposed to trust Guest. After all, relations between Safrak and the Collosnon Empire were relaxed and friendly, and Guest was the son of the Collosnon Empire's ruler.

So how could Sod be persuaded to treat Guest with something of the distrustful rigor which is reserved for a hostile prisoner? Sken-Pitilkin thought about it long and hard, but could find no solution. At last he consulted Zelafona, whom he knew of old.

"As I helped you," said Sken-Pitilkin, alluding to the drama which had brought Sken-Pitilkin, Zozimus, Zelafona and Glambrax flee to refuge in Tameran some ten years earlier, "now it is your turn to help me."

"Speak," said Zelafona.

Then Sken-Pitilkin explained all, even – for he trusted Zelafona, for all that he was a wizard and she a witch – the matter of the Mahendo Mahunduk.

Yes.

The Mahendo Mahunduk. Sken-Pitilkin hesitated before touching on that most sensitive of subjects, but touch on it he did – and was chastened when he discovered that Zelafona already knew all about it.

"Clearly," said the old but elegant witch-woman, "you must keep the boy away from this demon-thing. Whatever its nature, its promises are impractical. In other words – it is a liar. Doubtless it means to use the boy, but the reward it offers is not within its power to give."

"Then what am I to do?" said Sken-Pitilkin.

"You must tell the Safrak Bank that Guest attempted to force a passage past the demon. You must tell the Bank that Guest tried to win a passage to the forbidden shrine above. Since the Bank is so protective of its holy of holies, I'm sure they will thereafter deny Guest Gulkan admission to the Hall of Time."

This proposal had the simplicity which marks true genius, and Sken-Pitilkin promptly put it into effect. Sken-Pitilkin demanded an interview with Banker Sod, was admitted into the iceman's presence, and gave him an edited account of the events of the night of Guest Gulkan's guard duty.

"I took myself up to the Hall of Time," said Sken-Pitilkin,

"meaning to take him a flask of soup which had been cooked by my cousin Zozimus. I knew him to be but recently recovered from influenza, hence thought him in need of such sustenance. While I was with him, he fell to boasting, as a boy in his folly will, and the upshot was that he tried to force a passage past the demon."

"And?" said Sod.

"And," said Sken-Pitilkin, "the demon knocked him to the ground."

Sod did not know whether to believe this account. On the face of it, the story was highly improbable. For the demon Icaria Scaria Iva-Italis did not customarily defend the privacy of the holy of holies by knocking people to the ground. Rather, the demon's custom was to fatally ravage anyone who attempted an unauthorized passage up the eastern stairs of the Hall of Time.

Clearly, Sken-Pitilkin was holding something back.

But what?

Sod first taxed Sken-Pitilkin directly, suggesting that he was not telling the truth, or at least not the whole truth.

"I am old," conceded Sken-Pitilkin, "and my memory is failing. It may be that I have misplaced some of the events of the night, or misrecalled them."

Sod did not believe him for a moment.

So the pale-skinned iceman took himself off to the Hall of Time, and there endeavored to interrogate Iva-Italis. A singularly unsatisfactory procedure, this! For the demon played mute, even when Sod threatened to withhold its monthly ration of those unfortunate rats which gave it such prolonged and reliable amusement.

Sod next interrogated Guest, who blandly claimed that the height of his fever had wiped out his memory.

This left Sod with a problem. Both Guest and Sken-Pitilkin had engaged in some kind of nefarious dealings with Safrak's demon. What had they done? What had they learnt? And should they be killed to preserve the Bank's safety? A difficult decision, this. For Guest was the son of the Witchlord Onosh, and Safrak wanted no war with the Collosnon Empire. Doubtless an accident could be arranged, but…

The unfortunate truth was that Banker Sod had become addicted to the cookery of Pelagius Zozimus, who delighted the Banker with his many ingenious recipes for preparing snails and slugs. Zozimus had only come to Alozay to help protect Guest Gulkan. If Guest died, then Zozimus would immediately leave, denying Sod the blandishments of his cookery.

Thus did a slug-chef's art help secure Guest's safety, at least for the moment. Sod contented himself by banning Guest Gulkan (and Sken-Pitilkin!) from venturing anywhere near the heights of the Hall of Time. Guest of course was still in some danger from Sken-Pitilkin, who nightly revolved the question of whether the boy knew too much. On recovering from his influenza, Guest had set himself to master the Toxteth tongue, and had taken to putting in extra work with his sword. From long acquaintance with the boy, Sken-Pitilkin could read his intent from the slightest clues, and Guest's ferocious attack on Toxteth was by no means a slight clue. Guest's behavior implied that he was preparing himself to join the Guardians. The boy now had it in mind to stay on Alozay as a hired sword. Once a member of the Guardians, a mercenary entrusted with the defense of the Bank, Guest would have further opportunity of intercourse with the demon Iva-Italis. Sken-Pitilkin knew that Guest felt denied, thwarted, cheated by the fact that his father had named his brother Eljuk to be the heir of the Collosnon Empire. Guest wanted power, and the demon Iva-Italis offered him just that – a wizard's power, to be easily won by a simple quest.

So -

The boy was driven by ambition, and the strength of that drive would see him win through to his demon, sooner or later, and there was no telling what would happen then.

Therefore Sken-Pitilkin thought further of murder.

But the wizard of Skatzabratzumon had developed a durable affection for Guest during the ten years of their classroom relationship, hence could not bring himself to casually despatch the boy. Besides, Sken-Pitilkin had told Lord Onosh that he would guard, guide and protect Guest on Alozay, and such a commitment could not be lightly brushed aside, for Sken-Pitilkin had his honor.

And there was another factor to be considered. Sken-Pitilkin was intrigued by the possibility of developing a practical airship, hence wanted to keep open his route to the demon Iva-Italis. Suppose Guest stayed on Alozay. Suppose Guest became a Guardian. Then the boy would grow older (definitely) and wiser (possibly). Once older and wiser, the boy would be more amenable to advice.

Counseled by Sken-Pitilkin, Guest might well abandon his impossible plans to be "made a wizard". He might consent to scheme with Sken-Pitilkin. Working together, they might be able to trick the demon Iva-Italis out of the knowledge necessary for a wizard of Skatzabratzumon to build a practical airship.

In such hope, Sken-Pitilkin restrained his hand, and set himself to wait.

Yet very little waiting had gone by before Sken-Pitilkin started to find himself increasingly impatient. To control the secrets of flight was the dream of every wizard of Skatzabratzumon. Sken-Pitilkin had made many experiments in that direction during his apprenticeship, and during the long years of his maturity he had spent generations trying to crack the problem.

He knew how to wait, yes, but would waiting serve his purpose? Was there any proven virtue in patience? Guest would grow older – that much was certain. But the Weaponmaster's ultimate acquisition of wisdom was strictly problematical.

And so, after thinking long and hard about the acroamatical revelations made by the demon Iva-Italis, Sken-Pitilkin started actively considering trying an experiment along the lines which the demon had suggested. Create a magical artefact. Expose some part of that artefact to the destructive normalizing forces of the universe. Then control the resulting destruction, trapping the destructive forces and using them for the purposes of flight.

Doubtless there would be dangers in such an experiment: but surely the potential rewards amply justified the risks.

Consider what it would mean were we able to fly.

Given the power of flight, we could transport goods with ease, high above the ravenous mountains and those over-fertile oceans so prodigious in their production of krakens and sea serpents. The sundry races of the world would be united by an undreamt-of ease of travel, and on close acquaintance would grow to know each other better, old hatreds dying as new friendships blossomed. The death of suspicion would mean an end to war. Better still, the greatest experts of all the world would be free to travel the globe resolving the sundry problems of humanity, thus ending the present Age of Darkness and ushering in a golden Age of Light.

Do not think, then, that Sken-Pitilkin was possessed of a reckless hubris when he decided to dare the construction of an airship. He knew the dangers. But here was an opportunity to to restructure the world and save all of humanity from its lesser nature.

Hence Sken-Pitilkin began to build small-scale model airships, designing these with a view to perfecting the art of sustained and controlled destruction. Sken-Pitilkin's experiments were not an unqualified success.

Upon his experiments he lavished the sap-days of the spring, the heat of summer and the fruitfullness of autumn. But, while he secured plenty of destruction, he was less than successful in the controlled management of that destruction. Finally, as winter was setting in, the eminent wizard of the order of Skatzabratzumon was summoned into the presence of Banker Sod.

"Sken-Pitilkin!" said Sod. "Sit!"

The wizard sat.

"Tell me," said Sod, "why do you think I've called you here?"

"Why," said Sken-Pitilkin, with guilty uneasiness, "I suppose, ah, to have me spy Guest's letters, perhaps. He got another epistle from Bao Gahai only yesterday. His brother Morsh is walking and riding, so says the letter, and as the boy was laid up last winter with a broken leg – "

"Don't toy with me!" barked Sod. "Sken-Pitilkin! I want to know! Are you responsible for the outbreak of explosions, tornados, waterspouts, hurtling debris and other such poltergeist- like activity which has of late vexed, troubled and disturbed our peace?" Sken-Pitilkin thought about it, then said:

"No."

It was, after all, Icaria Scaria Iva-Italis who had suggested that the secret of flight lay in the mastery of sustained and controlled destruction, therefore the demon Iva-Italis was (at least in Sken-Pitilkin's opinion) responsibly for the consequences of Sken-Pitilkin's experiments in that direction.

"No?" said Banker Sod.

"I have said it once," said Sken-Pitilkin, "and that should be sufficient."

Banker Sod looked at Sken-Pitilkin very hard, meanwhile drumming his black-nailed fingers on his desk. Then Sod came to a decision. He stopped drumming, and said:

"Very well. I accept your denial. You are not responsible for the recent incidents. But – I am making you responsible for making sure that they stop!" Sken-Pitilkin got the message, and the incidents ceased.

So peace came to the island of Alozay, though not to the world at large – for unrest was increasing in the Collosnon Empire, the tax revolt in Locontareth was gathering strength, and the empire was moving slowly but inevitably toward a state of civil war.

Chapter Seven

Alozay: Safrak's ruling island. Its Grand Palace occupies the mainrock Pinnacle, the prodigious upthrust of rock which overshadows the city of Molothair. Molothair itself lies on a tongue of low-lying land. Alozay has two sets of docks on Alozay: the Palace Docks, serving the mainrock Pinnacle, and the Molothair Docks, serving the low-lying city itself.

Early in the spring of the year Alliance 4306 – a few days after Guest Gulkan's 16th birthday and a full year after Guest Gulkan's introduction to the demon Iva-Italis – the Rovac warrior Thodric Jarl came to Safrak to recall Guest Gulkan to Gendormargensis.

While the Collosnon Empire had been told that Guest was on Alozay as a hostage, Jarl knew otherwise, and knew that there would be no trouble in recovering the boy from Safrak. In Gendormargensis, it was thought by the uninitiated that the Safrak

Bank regularly demanded hostages from the Collosnon Empire.

However, while it is certainly true that selected individuals were on occasion sent to Alozay as "hostages", the Safrak Bank never demanded any such prisoners, and in fact was paid good gold for safeguarding them.

The Emperor Onosh was a Yarglat barbarian, true, but he had dwelt in Gendormargensis for so long that he was perilously close to being civilized. In Gendormargensis, Lord Onosh had been guided by selected advisors of Sharla ancestry – the Sharla being the sophisticated people who had owned the Collosnon Empire before the Yarglat took it from them in the Wars of Dominion. Aided by his Sharla advisors, and by the subtlety of his dralkosh Bao Gahai,

Lord Onosh had learnt some nimble tricks of politics, and had gone some distance toward mastering the art of blaming all of one's cruel, self-serving and unpopular actions upon some other agency.

In a truly sophisticated civilization, the art of the abdication of responsibility is brought to such a high pitch of perfection that no government ever admits to wanting to do anything which is in the least bit cruel, self-serving or unpopular. The political praxis of such states consists of one long exercise in the avoidance of responsibility. Typically, the government of a sophisticated state presents itself as kind, thoughtful and humane.

But -

But the kind, thoughtful and human administrations of sophisticated states are guides by a network of committees, subcommittees, research groups, panels, outside experts and other such similar functionaries who can be relied upon to produce a string of recommendations which are typically cruel, vicious, short-sighted and barbarous in effect.

And, since it is one of the conceits of high civilization that no government is competent to decide the rights and wrongs of any question through the application of its own wisdom, it follows that the kindest and most diligently popular of all enlightened governments can practice a cruel, self-serving and unpopular brand of politics by the simple expedient of bowing to the wisdom of its advisers – and can do this in good conscience.

Since the Collosnon Empire was a comparatively primitive organization, it had not yet constructed such a comprehensive apparatus of systematized intellectual dishonesty. Hence Lord Onosh had to bear personal responsibility for at least some of his own actions. Nevertheless, the emperor was slowly learning that it was best if his misdeeds be blamed on other people, and he was becoming pretty good at placing the responsibility for his most unpopular actions on either his enemies or his allies.

Safrak accommodated the Witchlord's needs by allowing him to send prisoners to Alozay as "hostages". This let him exile selected dissidents, sending them into distant custody while protesting his love for them, and blaming their fate on the hostage-demanding land of Safrak.

A nice trick, this. It had allowed the Witchlord to exile his son from Gendormargensis without appearing to be cruel, capricious or arbitrary – and allowed him to recall the boy at his pleasure by simply telling Gendormargensis that Safrak had chosen to relinquish its hostage.

So it was that in the spring of the year Alliance 4306 – ah, but the date has been given already! Repetition, repetition, there is no point to it, no need for it. The parchment holds the ink, and holds it for all time. So if the date be lost in the first reading, then it will be found in the second.

A second reading!?!

Is the historian truly counseling a second reading of his works?

Yes, he is!

And shamelessly!

Let it clearly be stated that a second reading is not just to be recommended but is, rather, close to being compulsory. For this is a True History, one which faithfully strives to render the tangled complexities of life itself. To unknot the tangles of this interweaving in a single reading will not be easy. After all, the events confused their very victims, so how should they be clearcut plain to the onlooker?

Read then this history a second time!

If this suggestion seems bizarre, then know that it is not entirely without precedent. Your true scholar will give a book a generation if the text be worthy. And if the book be sufficiently irregular in its verbs, why then, a true scholar will stand content to pore its pages for the better part of a millennium, and think the time well spent.

Yet this is a counsel of perfection, impossible for those whose brief mortality makes the pursuit of such perfection an unattainable ideal. So, in case the constraints of that mortal disease called life make a second reading impossible, let the date be restated, and hammered down, and branded on the mind.

It was spring, and early spring at that. It was the year Alliance 4306, and Guest Gulkan in his adolescent youth had attained the unholy age of 16, surely one of the most perilous of ages in the whole passage from babyhood to manhood. The boy Guest, the self-styled Weaponmaster, had then been in residence on Safrak's ruling island for upwards of a year; and in that year had engaged in an unholy amount of drinking, gambling and troublemaking, none of which will be detailed here – which is not to suggest that any of it had escaped the notice of his elders.

In the early spring of that year, the Rovac warrior Thodric Jarl – gray in beard and gray in eye, he whom Guest Gulkan had dueled for the favors of the woman Yerzerdayla – came to Safrak's ruling island to summon the Witchlord's son home to Gendormargensis.

Thodric Jarl did not come alone. He traveled with friendly swords to guard his back, for the countryside was in disorder. A tax revolt centered on Locontareth had quite got out of hand, and Lord Onosh was marching to war against the rebels. The Witchlord wished the Weaponmaster to march to battle at his side, hence had sent Jarl to fetch the young man.

By this time, the influenza epidemic which had decimated Safrak a year previously was but an almost-forgotten incident in history. The Collosnon Empire had heard nothing of that epidemic.

All those people had died without Lord Onosh, Jarl, or Bao Gahai, or any other in Gendormargensis learning of their deaths. Bones become dust but the blood goes on.

While Jarl had heard nothing of the epidemic – and was destined to learn nothing – he had heard much of the island of Alozay, center of all trade between the Collosnon Empire and Port Domax (Port Domax being a free city placed many leagues distant on the shores of the Great Ocean of Moana).

Lord Onosh had given Thodric Jarl no orders to scout for the means whereby Alozay might be defeated, and to Jarl's best knowledge the Witchlord had no designs on the Safrak Islands.

Nevertheless, as a boat brought Jarl and his comrades to the Palace Docks at the foot of the mainrock Pinnacle, Jarl studied all with a warrior's eye, and committed all to memory.

Jarl could see no certain way to storm the heights, since the rocks above overhung the docks of Alozay, and to gain the heights one had to be winched up to a drop-hole which gaped in the living rock far, far above.

Still, presumably the mainrock Pinnacle could be taken by siege, assuming one had boats enough, and patience sufficient.

At the dockside, Jarl was met by a yellow-skinned cur-dog which bit at his boots, then by a tall and sallow junior Banker, a young man with crooked teeth and breath so bad it scared away the dog. The junior Banker addressed Jarl in the Eparget of the Yarglat. Jarl's native tongue was Rovac, but war had made him the master of a good half-dozen languages, with Eparget the latest to be subdued to his possession. Thus he was able to explain himself.

The junior Banker heard Jarl's mission then told him that he and his comrades would have to wait.

"None of you can proceed," said the junior Banker, "until at least one of you has been properly identified and vouched for. You must get a security clearance before you can be allowed to proceed."

Thodric Jarl protested vehemently, and demanded to see the Governor of the Bank – but the Governor was unavailable.

"Someone already on Alozay must vouch for you before you can be allowed to proceed," said the junior Banker, with the repetitive instincts of either a born parrot or a born bureaucrat.

"But I don't know anyone on Alozay!" said Jarl.

"Then," said the junior Banker, "you are going to be waiting at the docks for a long time."

So Jarl admitted to knowing Rolf Thelemite, who was produced in order that he might identify Jarl. Thodric Jarl glowered at Rolf Thelemite, who smiled. Though both these worthies were Rovac warriors, the pair were by no means friends. Long, long ago, on a day when Jarl had been very drunk, Rolf Thelemite had defeated him in a fist fight, and Jarl still held a grudge against the man on that account. Rolf Thelemite knew as much.

"Ha-hmmm," said Rolf Thelemite, as he inspected Jarl.

"Get it over with, man," snapped Jarl. "Tell them who I am."

"Who are you supposed to be?" said Rolf.

"Stop being ridiculous!" said Jarl. "You know full well who I am."

"Do I?" said Rolf.

"Of course you do!" said Jarl. "I'm Thodric Jarl, son of Oric Slaughterhouse, and blood of the clan of the bear."

"Ha-hmm," said Rolf. "I did know a man named Thodric Jarl.

You could tell him because – what was it? A cow, that was it. This Jarl, he had a little cow tattooed on his throat. A pretty cow it was, with a small golden bell hanging from its own throat."

Thodric Jarl's response was a roar of rage, but at last he calmed down, and allowed the junior Banker to uplift his beard to check for tattoos. To the Banker's patent amusement, there was indeed a little cow tattooed on Jarl's throat – a very pretty cow with a buttercup emblazoned on its flanks – and the design was completed by a pretty little bell colored to match the buttercup.

"Yes," said Rolf, visually reacquainting himself with that tattoo, "this is indeed the Rovac warrior Thodric Jarl."

"You," said Jarl, speaking to Rolf in the Rovac tongue, "I'll deal with you later!"

Then Jarl was consigned to a winch-basket, together with a sack of fish fillets, a woman with a teething baby, the Banker with breath so bad it could scare a dog, and with five heroically unscared dogs which had been for a constitutional walkabout on the docks.

When they were half-way up, the winch-rope jammed, and Jarl was left swinging for an eternity. Then the basket was at last hauled to its full height, and Jarl stepped out into the tunnel system of the mainrock Pinnacle. Having thus entered the Grand Palace of Alozay, Jarl waited until a number of his traveling companions had been winched up to join him, and then they went in force to seek out Guest Gulkan.

The mainrock Pinnacle: the spike of rock which rises from the Swelaway Sea on the island of Alozay, and which overlooks the city of Molothair. The mainrock is pierced and hollowed by the stairs and chambers of the Grand Palace of Alozay, in which is found the administrative machinery of Safrak and the precincts of the Safrak

Bank. In the same Grand Palace are the quarters occupied by Guest Gulkan and those who came with him from Gendormargensis.

It was then spring in the year Alliance 4306, as has been already stated, and Guest Gulkan had just recently celebrated his sixteenth birthday. At age 16, Guest was no wiser than he had been at birth, but the wizard Sken-Pitilkin was still relentlessly continuing those pedagogical labors which he had begun when Guest was aged but five.

Though Guest had acquired no one iota of wisdom in a full eleven years of instruction, he had won some knowledge of geography – he could tell the Pig from the Yolantarath, and Molothair from Gendormargensis – and was an enthusiastic student of ethnology. He had also made progress with some of the simpler languages, such as Toxteth – the language of beer-and-dice companions such as Hrothgar – and Galish.

Now Galish is of course but a poor toy for the intellect, being dismally deficient in the more complex irregularities, so Sken-Pitilkin took no joy in his pupil's growing proficiency in that tongue. Nor did he rejoice in Guest's accomplishments in Toxteth, since its mastery was linked with Guest's dangerous ambition to be a Guardian. Sken-Pitilkin endeavored to steer Guest in a safer direction – that of the largely academic challenges of Strogloth's Compendium of Delights. But Guest rejected the book, refusing, for example, to learn even one of the intricately irregular verbs of Slandolin, the elegant literary language of Ashmolea. So Sken Pitilkin tempted him by offering to teach the High Speech of wizards – a necessary adjunct, surely, to Guest's ambition to become a wizard! Guest then stabbed at the High Speech, but his stabs were wide of the mark, and so far he could not bring a word of it to his tongue. Sken-Pitilkin sometimes found it a great relief to abandon the intricacies of linguistic instruction for the comparative simplicities of geography.

Pedagog and pupil were hard at work on geography when Thodric Jarl arrived at the docks which served the mainrock

Pinnacle; they were still hard at it when Rolf Thelemite exposed Jarl's cute-cow tattoo; and they had not yet exhausted the subject when the dwarf Glambrax intruded upon their lessons.

They were discussing the Untunchilamons.

There is of course only one Untunchilamon, but Guest Gulkan had got it into his head that there were 27, thus making it obvious that he had mixed them up with the islands of Rovac, which are a different pot of frogs and grasshoppers entirely. Sken-Pitilkin was busy enlightening him when Glambrax intruded, and kicked Sken-Pitilkin in the shins.

"My lord," said Glambrax, formally advising them of his presence.

"What did you say?" said Sken-Pitilkin, attempting to swat

Glambrax with his country crook, but missing.

"I said," said Glambrax, "that someone wants to see Guest Gulkan."

The dwarf had in fact said no such thing, and in any case Sken-Pitilkin believed it extremely unlikely that anyone had any requirement for the boy's presence. The scholar suspected, rather, that the dwarf had arrived by preconcerted plan to liberate the boy for larrikinism.

"Guest Gulkan is busy," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"But there are people to see him," said Glambrax.

"Then," said Sken-Pitilkin, at last succeeding in landing a retaliatory blow upon the quick-leaping dwarf, "they can see him later."

"They will see him now," said Glambrax, unchastened by his chastisement. "They insist."

"Then let them insist," said Sken-Pitilkin, raising his country crook as if for fresh assault.

"They insist they'll boil me alive unless I let them in to see him."

"Then boiled you will be, so you'd better get used to the idea," said Sken-Pitilkin. "You could use a bath in any case."

"They'll boil you too," said Glambrax. "These you can't keep waiting. Thodric Jarl's out there, Lord Alagrace with him."

"Really," said Sken-Pitilkin, in a manner which made quite clear his opinion of dwarves, Jarls and Alagraces.

"Truly and really," said Glambrax. "They want the boy Guest for a purpose too foul for my tongue, and in their fervor they'll boil you in oil if you hold them to no."

"I'll do all the oil-boiling round here," said Sken-Pitilkin warmly. "Get off with you!"

"I can't tell that to Jarl!" said Glambrax. "He'd spit me and split me. You know what he's like."

"Then, that being the case," said Sken-Pitilkin, "he can get on with the spitting of you immediately. But as for seeing young Guest, why, he can see young Guest when I'm through with him."

"Is that your final answer?" said Glambrax.

"My first and my final," said Sken-Pitilkin. "Go tell them, whoever them may be, that Guest is much too ugly to be seen. Tell them to come back later, after I've cut his ears off."

Then he turned to his pupil, who was engaged in the studious dissection of a flea.

"Untunchilamon," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"What?" said Guest Gulkan, looking up from his anatomising.

"We were talking of Untunchilamon," said Sken-Pitilkin. "Have you forgotten?"

"No, no, not at all," said Guest. "Untunchilamon. Well. It has fleas, probably. Most places have fleas, especially this one.

As well as fleas, Untunchilamon has 27 islands, and lots of people, who one and all consume the staunch, which is cream and water curdled, and makes you drunk."

"No!" said Sken-Pitilkin. "That is not Untunchilamon, that is

Rovac, as I just told you."

"You just told me nothing," said Guest. "You just told Glambrax something about baths, that was what you just told."

"Then never mind what I said," said Sken-Pitilkin. "And let go of that flea, boy, it's far too small to eat. Come, boy, settle. And let us return to our dragons."

"Our dragons?"

"I meant," said Sken-Pitilkin, "let us get on with our business. And did we not cover that very precise idiom only a week ago?"

"What's a week?"

"You've asked me that question already, and I believe you've already had a perfectly good answer. Anyway. Our lesson.

Untunchilamon. Where was I? Oh, bloodrock, that's it.

Untunchilamon has bloodrock – "

"And women."

"And women, yes. Also torturers, and I wish I had one such on hand to restore a little discipline. And it has jellyfish, flying fish, parrots – "

"Parrots?"

"A type of bird."

"Like a vulture?"

"Approximately. Anyway, it has parrots. Parrots, then. And monkeys. A monkey being, before you ask, a creature in the form of a dwarf, only it has fur, and climbs trees, and has no speech but a chatter of anger."

"You're making that up!" said Guest.

"It is true," said Sken-Pitilkin solemnly. "Also on Untunchilamon we find the coconut, which is a nut the size of your skull, with a thin juice within, or a white meat, or a mix of both, depending on the ripeness of the nut."

"A nut the size of my skull," said Guest, rehearsing this datum in tones of patent disbelief.

"Thus did I truth it," said Sken-Pitilkin.

But young Guest thought this purported truth to be one more absurd impossibility, fit to rank alongside the whale and the crocodile – the crocodile being a legendary animal of singular ferocity which was alleged to have the ability to change itself at will from a floating tree trunk to a ravaging monster.

"Have you held this coconut in those very hands of yours?" said Guest, in tones of challenge. "Have you eaten of this coconut, as you have eaten of the flying fish?"

"I have eaten both," said Sken-Pitilkin. "I have eaten each alone and both in alliance together on the same plate, the site of my gormandizing being Injiltaprajura, that city which serves as the capital of Untunchilamon. Injiltaprajura lies on the shores of the Laitemata Harbor. There – "

"There irregular verbs breed in great quantities, doubtless," said Guest.

"So they do, so they do," said Sken-Pitilkin. "For all manner of languages are amok amidst the islanders."

"And, pray tell," said Guest Gulkan, "what quirk of character took you to a place so impossibly distant?"

"I was young," said Sken-Pitilkin. "Yes, boy! Don't look at me like that! I was young, once, for all that you disbelieve it.

Young, and bold, and stupid, and singularly proud of it, for I was born and bred in Galsh Ebrek, where the Yudonic Knights value a swordsman's stupidity even more than do the barbarous Yarglat of Tameran."

"So youth took you to Untunchilamon," said Guest. "It must be a place most crowded if youth alone suffices to fate a world of unfortunates to its shores."

"In my case," said Sken-Pitilkin, "it was more than youth which took me there. I went there on a quest."

"A quest!" said Guest.

"The quest for the x-x-zix," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"A dangerous quest, that," said Guest. "Why, you'd break your very jaw just trying to name the thing you were questing for. How did you say it again?"

"The x-x-zix. A particularly wild and dangerous species of irregular verb. It has two teeth, which are in the shape of saws; and it has fifty tails, the tips of these being poisonous. It is valued on account of the feathers it grows from its nose, which are more fanciful than those of the ostrich."

"The ostrich?"

"A type of chicken. But with feathers of a value exceeded only by those of the x-x-zix, the irregular verb we were discussing, which is notable not just for its feathers but also because it subsists exclusively upon liquid tar and excretes amber and ambergris on alternate days of the week."

"The week!" said Guest. "It is a measure of days, like the month!"

"Did I not tell you precisely that just a little earlier this very morning?"

"You did not," said Guest. "I worked it out myself, though I can't for the life of me work out why you'd chase to Untunchilamon for a verb, be it a regular verb or otherwise."

"The lust for knowledge, boy," said Sken-Pitilkin. "A safer lust than the lust for loins. Not that Untunchilamon was all that safe. Why, I almost got turned inside out by a certain crab which took exception to my taste for research."

"You tried to eat it?" said Guest.

"No. I merely tried to engage it in discussion, but it told me – "

"The crab talked?"

"It did," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"Oh, I see," said Guest Gulkan, abrupting into something perilously close to bad temper. "A story about talking animals, is it? And what do you think I am? A child?" Guest's change of mood was as abrupt as that of a man who, while idling down a pathway in a meditative mood, is precipitated into a pit-trap. While abrupt, this mood-change was in no wise feigned.

At sixteen, Guest Gulkan was far too old for fairy tales.

And, even as a small boy, he had always despised stories about talking animals. Since coming to Alozay, he had several times encountered crabs in the flesh of the fact. True, they were the freshwater crabs of the Swelaway Sea rather than the greater crabs of the Sea of Salt. Still, having met with crabs, and having been torn by their pincers while trying to dissect them – your average crab being more of a warrior than your average flea – Guest thought he knew to a nicety both the talents and the limitations of the breed. And he in the days of his self-proclaimed maturity most certainly had no time at all for any ridiculous nonsense about a talking crab.

"Well?" said Guest, as Sken-Pitilkin gave him no answer.

"Well what?" said his tutor, who was still trying to work out just what had offended the boy.

"You insulted me," said Guest. "And I asked for an explanation. Are you going to give it?"

"Where lies the insult?" said Sken-Pitilkin.

"A talking crab!" said Guest. "Is that not insult enough?"

"It is but knowledge," said Sken-Pitilkin, genuinely puzzled.

"It is but knowledge, for I have but been retailing a few facts from my own experience. Where lies the insult in that?"

"A nonsense of talking crabs and parrot-vultures," said Guest, working himself up into a proper rage even as he talked.

"Is that not insult? Stuff for children! Fish that fly and crabs that talk."

"They are facts, and I have witnessed them," said Sken-Pitilkin mildly. "But if you have made up your mind to be angry, then don't let mere fact prevent you from indulging unreason."

"You fiddle the world so often with word-games that you forget the world is not a game," said Guest, rising to his feet.

"The world is what it is, and men are what they are, and I am a man, and I will not be insulted like a child."

"Why not?" said Sken-Pitilkin, feeling it was high time for some home truths to be spoken. "For you have the singularly changeable moods of a bad-tempered and over-indulged child."

"Men have been killed for less than that," said Guest Gulkan, doing his best to snarl and grate, to bitter the words from his lips like so much poison.

"So they have, so they have," said Sken-Pitilkin, relapsing into placidity. "But character is destiny, and if mine is to die at the hands of a Yarglat lout over the matter of an imagined insult, why then, so be it." Sken-Pitilkin showed no fear of the quick-boil of the young man's temper, but instead comported himself as calmly as if engaged in a tea-tasting ceremony. This enraged Guest Gulkan all the more, so much so that he almost ventured to strike his tutor.

But he restrained himself, remembering what had happened on the occasion of their last physical confrontation. Sken-Pitilkin had avoided the blow and had rapped Guest painfully with his country crook, which had left the boy seriously sore for the next three days thereafter.

So in the heat of his anger Guest Gulkan did not venture to strike, but instead stormed toward the door.

"And where do you think you're going?" said Sken-Pitilkin.

"Character is destiny," said Guest Gulkan. "And I'm going to find mine."

As the boy was so speaking, the door was thrown open, and in came destiny in the form of Thodric Jarl and his associates. Guest Gulkan was taken aback by this metal-crashing parcel of armed men, all swords and gauntlets, boots and helmets, shields and chain mail. He fell back before them, and seized Sken-Pitilkin's country crook in lieu of a sword, for he thought the intruders bent on murder.

"Out!" said Sken-Pitilkin irefully, as the intrusionists came trampling into his educational laboratory with their muddy boots on. "You can't come in here! We're in the middle of a lesson."

"The lesson is over," said Thodric Jarl, the leader of the intrusionists. "The lesson is over, for life has begun."

Thus epic heroes are wont to speak, but Thodric Jarl was no epic hero. He was a run-of-the-mill hackman, a mediocre mercenary who had long ago been exiled from Rovac for stealing sheep. (Or so at least Rolf Thelemite was wont to allege, and Sken-Pitilkin had heard the allegations, and had often declared himself inclined to believe them.) Jarl was young, and over-vigorous, and decidedly curt in his manner. Sken-Pitilkin was not at all pleased to see him, and made his displeasure plain.

"You say the lesson is over?" said Sken-Pitilkin. "The lesson is hardly started yet! But I'll give you a lesson you won't forget, not when I'm through with you."

"Hush down, you irascible old man," said Lord Alagrace, one of Thodric Jarl's companions in boorishness.

This annoyed Sken-Pitilkin intensely, for while Thodric Jarl could never transcend his stiffnecked nature, Sken-Pitilkin knew Lord Alagrace of old, and knew that Alagrace could be quite the diplomat when he thought it worth his while.

After all, sal Pentalon Sorvolosa dan Alagrace nal Swedek quen Larsh was no brute of a Yarglat barbarian. He was the scion of one of the High Houses of Sharla, and the Sharla, as has been noted above, were ever a sophisticated people. Ethnology teaches one the natural limits of peoples such as Yarglat and Rovac. One expects such barbarians to brute their way through the world like slum-born streetfighters. But ethnology could make no excuse whatsoever for Lord Pentalon Alagrace. He knew better, and Sken-Pitilkin thought he should demonstrate as much.

"Get out of here!" said Sken-Pitilkin. "Get out of here, the lot of you!"

"Who is this unruly old man?" said one of the sworders who had bruted his armpits into the room in company with Jarl and Alagrace. "Shall we kill him?"

"No," said Thodric Jarl, "we'll not kill him, for he's not worth the bloodspill. He is but a useless old beggar whom the Witchlord chased from Gendormargensis for drowning a child's pet dog, and other crimes equally as cowardly."

Thus Thodric Jarl in his youth, gross in libel and uncouth in epithet. But even a dog can count its own legs, as the saying has it, and sometimes Jarl had a truth or two to his tongue. Certainly he hit the mark when he called Sken-Pitilkin irascible, for how could that scholar be otherwise when beset by the likes of Jarl?

But Jarl was wrong to speak of Sken-Pitilkin as being an old man, for Sken-Pitilkin was not old – rather, he was positively ancient.

Nor was he (strictly speaking) a man, for he was a wizard, and in the process of attaining power wizards make themselves creatures of a different order from the ordinary run of humanity. Sken-Pitilkin began to explain these points to Jarl, but Jarl was in no mood to hear them, and ventured to let fall a curse upon Sken-Pitilkin's venerable head.

Things might then have become unpleasant but for the intervention of Lord Alagrace, who called for silence then explained the business which the intruders were about. Guest Gulkan's time as a hostage on the Safrak Islands had come to an end, and Lord Alagrace and his companions were here to fetch the boy home to Gendormargensis.

"And me?" said Sken-Pitilkin, asking his fate. Sken-Pitilkin had no particular wish to return to Gendormargensis, cold city of mud and lice. But he judged it unsafe to return to Drum – his habitual home island in the Penvash Strait – and he thought he would receive precious little charity from Safrak's Bankers if he chose to remain on the island of Alozay once his sole student had departed.

"Lord Onosh bids you to return to Gendormargensis along with his son," answered Lord Alagrace.

Details were then gone into, and as the details were gone into, Guest Gulkan became increasingly upset.

"I'm not going," he said.

"You're what?" said Lord Alagrace in amazement.

"I'm not going!" said Guest.

In the year since his encounter with Icaria Scaria Iva-Italis, Demon by Appointment to the Great God Jocasta, Guest Gulkan had thought repeatedly about the possibility of winning power as a wizard. Though Sken-Pitilkin had prevented Guest from having further contact with Iva-Italis, Guest had already realized that such prevention could be circumvented in time. In time, once he had a sufficiency of Toxteth at his command, Guest could join the Guardians, Alozay's Toxteth-speaking mercenaries, winning by this manoeuver the certainty of further contact with Iva-Italis.

But -

"You're going, all right," said Thodric Jarl, and grabbed Guest by the scruff of the neck as if to drag him from the room then and there.

An ungainly struggle followed, during which the daring Sken-Pitilkin, by dint of swift action and heroic enterprise, managed to save those precious books and manuscripts which were in danger of being trampled to death in the skirmish.

The victory went to the Rovac, for Jarl was accomplished in battle, and he overpowered Guest Gulkan's brutality, then sat on the boy while Lord Alagrace lectured him.

"You are coming home," said Lord Alagrace.

"But I am a hostage," said Guest.

"Your father has no more need of any hostages in the Safrak

Islands," said Lord Alagrace, putting into words a truth of which Guest was already fully aware. "Nor had he ever any such need. You were put here to keep you safe from your own violence. But now the empire has need of that violence. So back you come! Back to Gendormargensis and the battles which threaten the empire. You're coming home."

"Me!" said Guest. "I'd rather die!"

"If that's your choice," said Thodric Jarl, "I'll cut your throat on the spot. Well? What do you choose? Your father or your death?"

When put on the spot like that, Guest Gulkan chose his father, and by evening all those who had come to Alozay with Guest Gulkan were readying themselves for the return – those personages being the wizards Pelagius Zozimus and Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin, the witch Zelafona and her dwarf-son Glambrax, and the Rovac warrior Rolf Thelemite, redoubtable in the drinking of beer and the boasting of battles.

In honor of the occasion, Pelagius Zozimus had dragged out his marvelous fish-scale armor, gear of war surely more befitting an elven lord than a miserable slug-chef. Naturally,

Zozimus completed his style by matching the armor with a sword as beautiful. The dralkosh Zelafona, though warmly trussed in leathers and wool, adorned the shredded gray of her coiffure with a scarf of bird-plume silk. Her dwarf-son Glambrax swaggered through the Grand Palace in miniaturized chain mail and battle- leathers to match, perking his appearance with an elaborate hat made from complicated folds of cloud-pattern paper.

As for the rest, they were scarcely to be distinguished one from the other – a rabble of sworders in boots and thew-leathers, ostentatiously boot-thumping along with a great weight of woven iron upon their shoulders. In that company, Sken-Pitilkin distinguished himself by the dignified common sense of his fisherman's skirts.

So that company gathered its numbers and marched in triumph to Gud Obo, the Winch Stratum of the mainrock Pinnacle. In triumph? Yes! For they were led by Thodric Jarl, and that dour and merciless warrior of Rovac was quite incapable of accomplishing even the simplest of tasks without making a mighty occasion out of it. In those days of his youth, Jarl was a man mesmerized by the spell of his own warriorhood. He could scarcely dice a carrot or slice an egg without first incanting runes of battle for the benefit of his butter knife.

In those days of his youth, Thodric Jarl was a man made for life in a world of myth; and to hear him talk of the years of peace which he had endured in Gendormargensis, why, you might think he had spent those years in a state of conscious torture.

But now! Now war was ready, therefore -

But we have all heard the boasting of warriors before, and there is no point in detailing the obsessions of Rovac as presented by Thodric Jarl. Suffice it to say that, in the briefness of their reacquaintance, Jarl had already managed to irritate Sken-Pitilkin beyond measure by his posturing, and Sken-Pitilkin had been moved to suggest that the wind-flapping gap between Jarl's labile lips should best be repaired with a stout needle and a decent length of cat gut.

As Rolf Thelemite and Guest Gulkan went swaying down in a winch basket for what might well be the last time – though Guest was grimly determined to return some day to Alozay, and have an accounting with the demon Iva-Italis! – they discussed the extreme hostility which had already marked the forced fellowship of Thodric Jarl and Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin. And they staked hot gold on when the Rovac warrior would have the killing of the wizard.

Not if, but most definitely when.

Chapter Eight

Swelaway Sea: Tameran's inland sea which lies a little over 200 leagues south of the city of Gendormargensis and is home to the Safrak Islands. The Swelaway Sea is drained by the Pig River which flows north-west to the Yolantarath.

Since Thodric Jarl would brook no delay – war was afoot, and he did not wish to miss out on his share of battle-blood glory – the travelers joined their boat at the Palace Docks that very evening. The sky was dubious, threatening bad weather, but Jarl was hot to be gone regardless.

They descended to the docks, then there was a delay, for word came that the Governor of the Safrak Bank wanted to say goodbye to Guest Gulkan and Sken-Pitilkin. When the Governor materialized, Guest was the first to notice him.

On Guest's first introduction to Banker Sod – an event which had taken place on a day now more than a year in the past – the Weaponmaster had been taken aback by Sod's racial configuration.

For Sod was an iceman, and had an iceman's pale skin. That skin was thickly furred with white bodyhair, which contrasted vividly with the golden hair of his head. His eyes and teeth were of a yellow to match the hair of his scalp, but his fingernails were black.

Over time, Guest had got used to Sod. He had also grown used to the sight of Damsel, Sod's tender daughter, whom he had seen at times in the mainrock Pinnacle and the city of Molothair. From wondering at Damsel's strangeness, Guest had gone on to wonder at what she might be like to have as a girlfriend.

Since Sod was now so much a part of the background of his life, Guest scarcely registered his approach. But when Jarl saw the man – why, Thodric Jarl looked as if he had suddenly been dropped in boiling water.

"Gentle god!" said Jarl, voicing in his startlement the mightiest of all his oaths. "It's Sod!"

"Jarl," said Sod, acknowledging recognition with displeasure.

"But you – but – man, it was – Chi'ash-lan it was – "Sken-Pitilkin looked from Jarl to Sod, from Sod to Jarl.

There was something decidedly odd here. Obviously Jarl had seen Sod in earlier years in Chi'ash-lan, and obviously Banker Sod was not pleased at all to be so unexpectedly identified here on the island of Alozay. Sken-Pitilkin, fearing that this unexpected and inexplicable act of recognition somehow contained the seeds of a most unfortunate breech of diplomatic protocol, tried to hush Jarl.

But it was too late.

Sod had already decided that he was most displeased at being recognized, and that in particular he was displeased at having been recognized by Jarl.

"I want that man," said Sod, indicating Thodric Jarl.

Sundry Guardians moved to arrest Thodric Jarl.

In hindsight, it may be said of a certainty that Banker Sod had over-reacted. In hindsight, it may be said of a certainty that Sod would soon have realized as much, that diplomacy would have had its way, that Jarl would have been released, and the whole thing smoothed over and forgotten by the next day.

But Thodric Jarl was in his rune-warrior mode, so drew his sword as if to hold the world at bay. He was outnumbered by twenty to one – after all, he was a single man alone, and Sken-Pitilkin certainly had no intention of fighting on his behalf – yet he challenged the Guardians with the stoneblooded resolution which befits a man born more for myth than life.

"Jarl!" said Sken-Pitilkin sharply. "No fighting!"

But it was too late, for the nearest Guardian had already drawn his weapon in a matching gesture. Their razors clashed, and scratched each other with a sound like the claws of a sliding cat screaming across the tiles of a wet rooftop.

"That's enough!" roared Sken-Pitilkin.

The two swordsmen broke apart, both as yet unblooded. They eyed each other, breathing hard.

"My good lord Banker," said Zozimus, addressing Banker Sod in the urbanest of all imaginable tones, and doubtless intending to build some swift diplomacy upon the foundations of goodwill so diligently established by long months of slug chefery.

With the mercy of Sod's grateful belly thrown into the equation, there was a near-certain hope of peaceful resolution.

But one of the younger Guardians had already drawn a knife, and even as Zozimus spoke that Guardian threw that knife.

The knife went whizzing through the air, slicing – not at Jarl! – but at Sken-Pitilkin!

With the roar of a Word, Sken-Pitilkin raised his country crook. Caught in a vortex of levitational energies, the knife snapped upwards, shattering into fragments in the buffeting upsweep of the compulsion which commanded it.

"Ahyak Rovac!" screamed Rolf Thelemite, drawing his sword with a shearing swipe which plucked the scarf from Zelafona's hair.

And a moment later, the gloom of the Palace Docks was alive with the dragon-slash of sword-silver combat. In the thrashwork embroilments of battle, Sken-Pitilkin came face to face with a Guardian. The hackwork hero chopped at the wizard with his tooth of iron, but iron met country crook, and it was the iron which shattered. The country crook twisted in Sken-Pitilkin's hands, subtle as a licorice strap in the hands of an energetic child. It thwacked the Guardian.

The man fell stumbling backwards, fell to the grip of Pelagius Zozimus -

And -Sken-Pitilkin winced, the sound of a bone-breaking crack etched once and forever in his memory.

Zozimus held out a hand.

Zozimus spoke a Word.

The fresh-created corpse of the Guardian uprose, and stood on tottering legs before its master, the necromancer Zozimus. Then Zozimus drew his sword, and passed the weapon to the corpse. Which grasped it.

Zozimus raised his hands.

He spoke a Word.

The corpse turned, and raised the sword for war. It raised the sword against its former comrades.

Now Zozimus had spent most of his time on Alozay in the kitchen. As lord of the larder, Zozimus had dedicated himself to cooking up slugs and such, and had been grossly over-rewarded for his enterprises in this direction – for Safrak's Bankers had proved ready to part with good gold to satisfy their bellies, though they never unclenched so much as silver to appease the appetites of their minds.

However, though Zozimus customarily worked as a chef, and hence was able to find a ready welcome in whatever city, palace, pit, dungeon, ship, school or brewery in which he happened to find himself, the truth of the matter was that Zozimus was a necromancer.

A necromancer, yes!

Zozimus was a wizard of Xluzu, able to arcanely command the dead. Upon the Palace Docks, Zozimus commanded the corpse of the first of those who fell in battle, and sent that corpse against its erstwhile companions. The sight of one of their own fighting against them when dead was enough to rout the Guardians, who mostly dived from the docks and began swimming to the low-lying city of Molothair.

"So," said Jarl, panting harshly, "we have the docks in our possession."

From the way he said it, Sken-Pitilkin momentarily thought the Rovac warrior had no intention of stopping there, but meant to scale the winch-ropes and take the mainrock at the storm.

"Possession?" said Zozimus. "I've not seen a deed to prove it!"

As Zozimus so spoke, the shambling corpse which had been at his command came striding down the docks. Zozimus spoke a Word.

The corpse passed him its sword – an implement now drenched with blood. Then it went ramshackle-walking onward down the docks, its head flopping limp and useless to the left. At a misstep, it went went wheeling into the darkened waters, throwing up a floundering spray as it fell. Pelagius Zozimus ignored it, for he was busy scraping his sword with his boot. With the sword scraped – a poor expedient, but this was a battlefield, not a barracks in preparation for paradeground display! – Zozimus sheathed it, then led the way aboard Jarl's ship.

It was then that time of day when things have grown so dark that one can scarcely see. However, the shadowing of the evening has proceeded by such imperceptible degrees that mind and eye have been fooled into accepting the shadows for the day. So one lives in a world which is coaldust mixed with deepest cloud, a world of darkness relieved merely by the bonechina brightslash of a rag of flapping sail or a torn piece of paper random in the wind.

In such shadow stood Sken-Pitilkin, the last to quit the docks. The choppy waves jostled the bulwarks of the docks, chill- slapped in syncoptic half-patterns, arrhythmic spray-bursts. The loudest sound was the creaking rubmark protest of Jarl's ship, straining at its ropes, chafing its fenders against the lowermost of Alozay's wave-mucked fortifications. In the gathering wind of the evening's night, the mounded death on the dockside was unstill, for hair was feathered, a belt flapped loose, and one gust unexpectedly scooped the weight of a helmet and rattled into the inkblack darkthickness by a sagging winch-basket.

In that windy darkness, Sken-Pitilkin endured a moment of unaccustomed desolation. Beset by wind and shadow, unsettled by death and by the prospect of a wild night on the bat-wing seas, the wizard of Drum wished himself back on Drum, back with his cats and his sea dragons, his library and his toasting rack.

But Drum -

"Come on, Sken-Pitilkin!"

But Drum was far, was far, far -

"Sken-Pitilkin!"

Drum was far distant from the Swelaway Sea, and return was denied by the wrath of the Confederation. So Sken-Pitilkin, irrevocably entangled in the fate of the Collosnon Empire -

"Zozimus, what's wrong with him?"Sken-Pitilkin was irrevocably entangled with the Yarglat and their empire, unless he chose to quit those entanglements for unknown difficulties in some still more barbarous part of this benighted world, and, being thus entangled, he must necessarily -

"Come on," said Zozimus, who had come ashore to retrieve his cousin.

"Pelagius?"

"It's me," said Zozimus softly. "Come on. Come get yourself on the ship."

And Hostaja Torsen Sken-Pitilkin permitted his cousin to lead him aboard Jarl's ship. Already, the ropes were being loosed, or cut by men made brutal by expedient, and Sken-Pitilkin was scarcely aboard before they were slipping away into the darkening night.

Unfortunately, the night which was now darkening beyond the remotest point of intelligibility was also, weatherwise, a worsening night. A storm blew up that night, a storm of beserker fury, and the voyage which started thus badly grew no better as it proceeded. Thus began a wild voyage which eventually ended when the voyagers had to beach their much-leaking ship upon a nondescript green pancake liberally sprinkled with stone cottages and sheep fanks. This was the island of Ema-Urk, where Guest Gulkan and Rolf Thelemite promptly wrote themselves a place in local history by killing a sheep, which roused the ire of the locals to a homicidal pitch.

As the wizards Sken-Pitilkin and Zozimus tried to soothe the tempers of the locals, with some help from the dralkosh Zelafona – who contributed some of her bangles and baubles to the soothing -

Thodric Jarl cursed and kicked his ship.

"You bought this ship at Ink, I suppose?" said Guest.

"I did," said Jarl.

His ship was a hulk of a fishing boat which he had indeed purchased at Ink, a village which made a lively profit by selling its worn-out vessels to unwary strangers. On close inspection,

Jarl was inclined to think it a very miracle that this particular hulk had dragged itself as far as Ema-Urk before succumbing to a long-overdue and entirely natural death.

"You were sold this boat by Umbilskimp, I suppose," said Guest, who still remembered that salesman, and had not repented of his determination to hang the man.

"Umbilskimp?" said Jarl. "Who's he?"Guest explained.

"Why," said Jarl, when he had heard the explanation out.

"That's very interesting. But, no, it was a man by name of Mung who sold me this particular boat."

Then the Weaponmaster Guest Gulkan and the Rovac warrior Thodric Jarl pacted with each other, swearing that if the village of Ink were to fall to their power then they would make it their business to see both Umbilskimp and Mung hung high, for both were murderers without a doubt.

Then Jarl proceeded with an inspection of his hulk.

By the time the wizards and the witch had bargained a peace for the shipwrecked travelers, Jarl had concluded – and nobody saw fit to disagree – that there was not one chance on this side of hell of their prodigiously rotten and storm-weakened ship getting them even half as far as the horizon.

"Which means," said Jarl, "that we're not going any further in this rotten hulk."

Which left them with very few palatable choices, for it was almost certain that Governor Sod would be in pursuit of them, and it was almost equally certain that Sod would not be gentle in his handling of them if and when he finally caught up with them.

Chapter Nine

Ema-Urk: an island of the Swelaway Sea, green and low-lying, and the site of much growing of sheep.

Though Thodric Jarl did not trust the people of Ema-Urk to keep the bargain of the peace which Zelafona had bought for the travelers, nothing more ferocious than a straying sheep intruded upon the peace of the travelers as they slept away the worst of their fatigue.

After a night's sleep, the marooned adventurers began to wonder how (if!) they were going to escape from their predicament.

Their ship in its rottenness was unfit even to be made into firewood, far less to put to sea. There was no boat on all of Ema Urk which was worthy of the labor of stealing it, and Jarl did not see how their own could be repaired except by rebuilding it from scratch.

And as Ema-Urk was flat, grassy and treeless, to rebuild their boat from scratch would first require the growth of its very timbers from the seed.

"Hence," said Jarl, "it seems we will be stuck here until in the fullness of time the masters of Alozay hunt us down to this lair."

"They would not dare to kill us, if that's what you're thinking," said Sken-Pitilkin positively. "Even though they're far from the Collosnon Empire, they can't risk arousing the wrath of Lord Onosh."

"They will not kill us," said Jarl grimly. "At least not as far as history is concerned. When the history of this episode is written, it will simply be said that we set to sea and were thereafter unseen. Drowning will be the natural presumption. It will be said that we were seen to leave Alozay on an evening which threatened storm – that much is true. It will be said that the fishes have had our bones. They almost did."

"We could always try talking our way out of it," said Sken-Pitilkin. "If a hunting party does come from Alozay, I'm sure – "

"You might convince them to give us a decent funeral," said Jarl, "but I doubt you could persuade them to do us any greater favor."

"Nonsense," said Sken-Pitilkin. "We can negotiate anything."

"You are a wizard," said Jarl, "and all the opportunities of the last four thousand years have not proved sufficient for wizards to negotiate a peace with the Rovac. I vote that we prepare ourselves for battle."

Here note that this "voting" was a commonplace way for the

Rovac to resolve their indecisions, for, lacking reductive wisdom, these low-brained warriors were often unable to resolve their problems by intellectual analysis. When stuck in such a predicament, they therefore endeavored to fight their way out of it by the process of piling up a great weight of numbers for one side or the other through the abovementioned process known as "voting". Thus did the Rovac often decide their disputes in the way in which battles are so often decided: through sheer weight of numbers.

In this connection, it is worth noting that a similar process of "voting" was commonly used in an even more systematized form by the Orfus pirates of the Greater Teeth; from which it can be proved that your Rovac mercenary is nothing but a pirate in embryo. However, Sken-Pitilkin shared neither the Rovac love for "voting" nor the Rovac joy in battle, and said as much.

"I think," said Sken-Pitilkin, once he had voiced his objections to waging war on any pursuers from Alozay, "that we had better do better than that."

"Why?" said Guest, who was inclined to side with Thodric Jarl. "What's wrong with fighting? If we can sort this thing out by killing someone, then let's do it."

"Unfortunately," said Sken-Pitilkin, who knew the Rovac manner well, "Thodric Jarl isn't talking about sorting things out. He's talking about fighting to the death then dying."

"Oh," said Guest, his enthusiasm suddenly quenched. "What do we do then?"

There was a silence as everyone pondered this question. Then the necromancer Zozimus spoke.

"Well," said Zozimus, "I think the time for desperate measures has more or less arrived. I've done my share, you can't deny me that, so now it's your turn."

"My turn?" said Guest in bewilderment.

"He wasn't talking to you," said Sken-Pitilkin. "He was talking to me!"

And of course this was true. Zozimus, having commanded a corpse into battle at the docks of Alozay, thought he had well and properly done his share. Now it was time for Sken-Pitilkin to try something.

As the two wizards were cousins, and knew each other well, and kept a close eye on each other's affairs, Pelagius Zozimus had taken cognizance of the experiments which Sken-Pitilkin had been making, the experiments which had seen Alozay beset by explosions and by tornadoes. Now Zozimus clearly thought it time for Sken-Pitilkin to move from experiment to mature creation, despite the unavoidable perils which were implicit in such a move.

"What are you two hatching up?" said Thodric Jarl suspiciously.

"An airship," said Zozimus crisply. "A ship with which to conquer the air. My good cousin Sken-Pitilkin had done all the experimental work and is ready to proceed with a full-scale model."

"Cousin," said Sken-Pitilkin, who had the gravest of reservations about making the leap which Zozimus proposed, "this is no time for joking."

"I'm serious," said Zozimus.

Then Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin lapsed into the High Speech of wizards, and in that tongue he berated Zozimus, telling him that any attempt to fly a full-sized ship through the air would result in their certain deaths.

"Because," said Sken-Pitilkin, still speaking in the High Speech of wizards, "I have been unable to control the sustained destruction which is necessary for such flight. Any ship which I make will explode, or burn, or shake itself to death, or rupture in outright whirlwind. I cannot control the destruction!"

"Ah," said Zozimus, "but I can guess why, already. You have not provided your sustained destruction with a safety valve."

"A safety valve?" said Sken-Pitilkin. "What are you talking about?"

"A safety valve," said Zozimus, "is a valve built into a pressure cooker. Now pressure cookers – "

"Oh, pressure cookers!" said Sken-Pitilkin. "Now I remember!"Sken-Pitilkin remembered very well, even though his cousin's experiments with pressure cookers had taken place a good three generations earlier. In the course of his experimenting, Zozimus had blown up three kitchens, and had almost blown up himself. On one notable occasion -

But enough of this! Life is far too short for us to be giving a full account of the derelictions of Pelagius Zozimus, that over- rated and over-paid slug-chef who ever won greater resources for his kitchens than all the irregular verbs in the world could command in nine times ninety generations. Sufficient to say that Zozimus's experiments with pressure cookers had been exhaustive, not to say exhausting, and Sken-Pitilkin remembered as much, and the truth of the memory was clearly written on Sken-Pitilkin's face.

"Yes," said Zozimus, reading his cousin's expression. "You remember well. Well, then. I ventured. I experimented. And I learnt! What I learnt through the design of pressure cookers is that great forces must be given a means of escape. If the force grows too great, then it must blow its way clear through a weak point in the device, thus preserving the integrity of the device."

Then Zozimus explained that, in his judgment, the flame trench known as Drangsturm was a perfect example of the control of great destructive forces. If the destruction temporarily got out of hand, then great gouts of flame would be thrown high in the air, thus bleeding off the surplus force with no harm to the fabric of the device which generated that force.

"I see," said Sken-Pitilkin. "So you think I should govern the forces unleashed in my airship by – by what? By arranging for bits of the ship to be selectively smashed to smithereens by an excess of such force?"

"No," said Zozimus. "I believe you should arrange for excess force to be bled off in the form of rotational energy." Sken-Pitilkin thought about this, trying to work through the logical implications of Zozimus's suggestion.

"But," said Sken-Pitilkin, once he understood the import of his cousin's proposal, "that would mean my ship would spin round and round like a – a – like something that spins round and round, what do you call those things, a – "

"A windmill," said Zozimus.

"Yes, a windmill, or one of those, those, you know, those octopus things, those things that whirl round and round on a stick, round and round – "

"A species of firework," said Zozimus.

"Yes, yes," said Sken-Pitilkin, "fireworks, that time in Tang, you remember, round and round, round and round, sparks and smoke in all directions, and then, then – bang!"

"There would be no bang," said Zozimus positively. "There would merely be a trifle amount of… rotation."

"Whirlygigging," said Sken-Pitilkin, direly suspecting that "rotation" was at best but a weak euphemism for the consequences of the arrangement which Zozimus was proposing. "Whirlygigging, round and round like an octopus. The ship would burst. Or at the least – I'm sure at the very least we'd all be hideously sick. I won't have anything to do with the idea."

Yet in time – and a remarkably short time it was – Sken-Pitilkin was persuaded. The precise time of his persuasion was noon, for by noon the master chef Zozimus had prepared a delicious meal, working with slugs and watercress, with sheep bones and freshwater crabs, with puffballs and mushrooms, with chopped worms and tadpoles, all brisked and enlivened with touches of this and that from his secret emergency herb hoard and spice stock. And with this meal complete, Zozimus gave Sken-Pitilkin an ultimatum:

"Design an airship or starve."

Thus a decision was reached in favor of flight, and after lunch the brave Sken-Pitilkin went to work, converting the ruinous hulk of a watership into an airship. He exercised his power in the manner of wizards, converting certain timbers of this ship into artefacts possessed of magical power – artefacts which the universe itself would seek to destroy if it got but half a chance. Sken-Pitilkin wrought these devices in such a way that their magical nature could be shielded or unshielded at his command.

When each device was unshielded, the universe would seek to destroy it, and the destructive forces thus unleashed would be used for controlled flight, with any uncontrollable excess being bled off into the "rotational energy" which Zozimus had suggested.

At last the thing was finished – but the great Lord Alagrace flatly refused to get into it. The parcel of soldiers who had bodyguarded the great Thodric Jarl all the way to Alozay likewise refused to dare Sken-Pitilkin's device.

Thus, in the end, on its maiden flight the airship was crewed by the wizard of Skatzabratzumon known as Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin, by the wizard of Xluzu known as Pelagius Zozimus, by the witch Zelafona and her dwarf-son Glambrax, by the mighty Rovac warrior Rolf Thelemite, by the cow-tattooed Thodric Jarl, and by Guest Gulkan, youngest and most undisciplined of the sons of the lord of the Collosnon Empire.

Name them and know them!

For they were heroes, one and all!

Pioneers of flight!

Linked in a daring enterprise unparalleled in the history of experimental wizardry!

And possibly linked – Sken-Pitilkin could not help from thinking as much – in being destined to share a common grave.

A full day and a bit before they were to depart, Sken-Pitilkin gathered the would be air-adventurers together and indulged himself in a speech.

"Man has never ventured to the heavens in a ship such as this before," said Sken-Pitilkin. Then, glancing at Zelafona: "Nor woman neither. We can but guess what shocks the buffets of the heavens will impose on human physiology."

"A guess is as good as a goose on a blind night," said Guest, venturing one of the proverbs of Rovac which Rolf Thelemite had taught him.

"Pardon?" said Sken-Pitilkin.

"Nothing," said Guest.

"You said something," said Sken-Pitilkin. "I distinctly heard you, and though what you said was less than distinct I'm perfectly sure you didn't say nothing."

"I said," said Guest, "that maybe if it's so dangerous we shouldn't risk it."

"I wouldn't say it's as dangerous as all that," said Sken-Pitilkin, who thought it unwise to share the full strength of his forebodings with the young Yarglat barbarian. "But I suspect it's better undertaken on an empty stomach."

"You mean," said Guest, "we shouldn't eat?"

"Precisely," said Sken-Pitilkin briskly. "That's the main point I want to get across today. We can't know anything of the physiology of flight unless we look by analogy to the physiology of seafaring. As travel by sea is apt to induce a sickness of stomach, so may the air by analogy produce a like-belly illness.

Hence starvation is the order of the day. Or of three days, ideally – however, we've not time for such a fast, so a day's deprivation will have to suffice."

"What about drinking?" said Guest. "Can we drink?"

"What do you have in mind?" said Sken-Pitilkin. Guest told him, and was advised that it would be unwise in the extreme for him to proceed with his stated intention of consuming three beers, two gins and a brandy before boarding Sken-Pitilkin's airship.

"Besides," said Sken-Pitilkin, "I doubt whether there is either gin or brandy to be had on Ema-Urk."Guest Gulkan and Rolf Thelemite both assured him that both were to be had, and in quantity. They had assured themselves of this already.

"Then," said Sken-Pitilkin, "I adjure you to abstain from such."

"Adjure?" said Guest. "What on earth does that mean?"

"It means," said Sken-Pitilkin, "that I'm ready to kick you unless you show good sense and abstinence."

Then those who were doomed to join Sken-Pitilkin in the experimental flying ship launched themselves upon a one-day fast.

All but for the Weaponmaster.

Despite the timely warning issued by the sagacious Sken-Pitilkin, and despite the threat of reprisals courtesy of Sken-Pitilkin's boot, the young Weaponmaster chose to indulge in a pre- flight dinner which included rhubarb sausages anointed with cod liver oil. This dish was especially invented for the occasion by an over-enthusiastic Pelagius Zozimus, whose deviations from gastronomic routine tended to be not only frequent but disastrous.

Rhubarb sausages with cod liver oil!

As heaven is my witness, this is what Zozimus cooked!

And Guest, in the folly of his youth -Guest ate it!

In his wisdom, the wizard Sken-Pitilkin refused to allow his intestinal peace to be vandalized by such a dish, and leavened his fast only with a small crust of dry bread and a pannikin of boiled water. But Guest ate the rhubarb sausages with a truly barbaric enthusiasm, swallowed a second helping of cod liver oil, and went on to consume two steaks cut from the more blubbery parts of a whale (steaks which had been cut from the beast some three years earlier, and which had been imported to Ema-Urk at the bottom of a barrel of vinegar), then followed these steaks with a dish of exceedingly greasy pork, an entire apple pie heaped with whipped cream, and, as a special after-dinner treat, the ears of five dogs (the ears of dogs being a special delicacy much favored by the gourmets of the islands of Safrak). He then proceeded to his drinking – only the beers he drank were seven in number, not three; the gins he consumed were set before him in quadruplicate; and his brandy was double.

Here Guest Gulkan was true to his Yarglat heritage. The Yarglat are capable of subsisting on the most parsimonious of diets when necessity demands; and when at war will content themselves at need with a single cup of fresh hot blood tapped from a vein in a living horse. But their indulgences are in keeping with their deprivations; and what they eat, and the quantities in which they eat it, is scarcely believable even to those who have seen such feats repeated thrice or thirty times; and their drinking matches their eating.

Never have the Yarglat been able to hold any great banquet without one person at least dying simply from overdrinking. The uninitiated may think this an exaggeration – but death from abuse of liquor has ever been a leading cause of death amongst the heroes of the northern horsetribes. Furthermore, history can name of a certainty at least four rulers of the Collosnon Empire who died of over-drinking, and a further three who expired through sheer gluttony: Dobdask, who expired while trying to eat an entire horse to win a bet with one of his generals; Henza, who collapsed while eating one of his generals; and Yeldanov Ax, who died as a consequence of disembowelling a whale and eating a considerable portion of the gut, an eccentricity which tends to support those rumors which claim him to have been somewhat deranged.

So Guest Gulkan indulged himself as the Yarglat will, and in what was left of the night he tried to digest that which he had ingested. Guest's attempts at digestion were not entirely successful, and in the gray light of the morrow's dawn he looked rather queasy. The chip-chop motion of the Swelaway Sea was making him uneasy: he had to avert his eyes lest it make him positively sick.

Nevertheless, he joined his fellow air-adventurers; and, once all had made their wills and had handed these into the care and keeping of Lord Alagrace, they bravely climbed aboard the airship.

All but Rolf Thelemite.

"Climb aboard, three-nipples," said Thodric Jarl, all graybearded harshness in the gray dawn.

Three-nipples? What kind of nickname was that?

As the other travelers were still wondering, Jarl disembarked, caught Rolf by the single gold-snake earring which hung from his left ear, and dragged him aboard the boat.

"Sit!" said Jarl, compressing a lifetime's scorn into the single word.

Rolf Thelemite sat. His lower lip was trembling. It communicated its anxiety to the lip above it. Rolf's eyes blinked, so fast and so fiercely that at last he had to close them altogether. Jarl said something to him in the Rovac tongue, and he bit his lower lip. Hard. Drawing blood.

"All ready?" said Sken-Pitilkin. "Very well! Brace yourselves! And hold on tight!" Sken-Pitilkin said a Word, and -

The ship rotated violently, and slammed itself into the sky.

It whipped itself toward the heavens like a cartwheel driven by demons, and undigested food in matching cartwheels came spurting from Guest Gulkan's lips.

Up, up, up, up, up went the airship.

Slammed through the sky, they skipped marches in moments.

Mere eagles or dragons would have been left creaking in their wake like so many inconsequential toothpicks awash in the boil of a racing sloop. As the waddle of a ducking is to the speed of a galloping stallion, so was the stasis of all lesser forms of transport when compared to the compressed delirium of that airship in flight.

The heavens themselves screamed. The heavens screamed as the very sky was torn asunder by the assault of that ship. As lightning launches itself in javelins of fire, as thunder cracks its discus, in such a manner did that ship hurtle itself through the blue empyrean.

And, all the time, the remains of the banquet shot from Guest Gulkan's gaping mouth in spuming cartwheels, so it looked for all the world as if the boy had been transformed into one of those octopus things which goes whirlygigging round on a stick, one of those hectic fireworks which are so much the fashion in Tang.

Thus flew Sken-Pitilkin's airship.

As for the master of that ship -

Why, Sken-Pitilkin found himself unable to control the vessel, for it was spinning so quickly that he was pinned against the planks by centrifugal force. He managed to wrench his head sideways, and wished he had not. For on turning his head, Sken-Pitilkin found he could see through a gap in the planks. Through that gap he saw the sea, then hills, hills buckling away in nightmarish cascades of onslaughting rotational energy. Then the shocked and air-shattered wizard almost lost an eyeball to a passing mountain peak. Almost, but not quite – for the airship cleared the mountaintop by half a handspan.

A moment later, there was a loud bang – BANG! – and the ship lost power.

Cartwheeling still, it plummeted through the air, slowing, sliding, losing momentum and -

And falling!

"Grief of gods!" cried Zozimus, clutching at a rope.

He might as well have clutched at the sky itself, or a handful of cloud, for there was nothing which could save them now.

The ship was most definitely falling. Count one! It was falling still! Count two! Most definitely falling! Count three! Sken-Pitilkin waited for his life to start to flash before his eyes, but for some unaccountable reason the only thing he could think of was a baked hedgehog. Sken-Pitilkin was still trying to decipher the import of this visionary hedgehog when his airship impacted with the most enormous crash. Ice and snow flew shattering upward, for the ship had fallen with full force upon the uppermost reaches of an upland glacier.

"We're down!" cried Glambrax.

Upon which the ship began to slide, suggesting that there yet lay ahead of them a great deal in the way of down, downwards and doom. This was swiftly confirmed as the ship gathered speed, sliding down that glacier with precipitous velocity.

"Aaaagh!" said Zozimus.

"Waaaah!" said Sken-Pitilkin.

"Gaaaa!" cried Guest Gulkan.

But before anyone else could find breath sufficient to join this chorus, the airship slam-crashed into a crevasse, bounced, flipped, rolled over and over, and came to rest in ruins at the foot of the glacier.

There were a few groans from the ship's settling timbers, then all was silent but for a tiny chink, chink, chink. The sound was from the golden serpent which hung from Rolf Thelemite's left ear. It was swaying still from the violence imparted to it by its aerial adventure, and was knocking against a rusted bolthead.

The earring chinked itself to silence.

With the ceasing of that sound, every sound in the audible universe seemed to have ceased.

There was a long, long silence.

Then a groan.

Then, bit by bit, the travelers began to pick themselves up.

"We've been wrecked," said the dwarf Glambrax.

"Air-wrecked," said Rolf Thelemite.

"Wrecked with a crash," said Guest Gulkan. "We crashed."

"Crashed," said Sken-Pitilkin. "That's a good word for it. Is anybody hurt?"

Nobody was, excepting Thodric Jarl, and his injuries appeared to be limited to a couple of broken ribs.

"Very well," said Sken-Pitilkin. "Let us be making our way to that building."

And he pointed out the building he meant, which was the one dominant human-made feature of an otherwise bleak and desolate landscape. Sken-Pitilkin's airship had crashed in a valley which was deep and narrow. This bare and barren upland valley ran from east to west, and the heroes of the airship had been airwrecked (or, to use Sken-Pitilkin's parlance, "crashed") upon the southern heights of that valley.

The building to which Sken-Pitilkin had pointed stood on the northern slopes of the valley. It was huge. From the distance, the travelers could see no windows in that building, nor could they clearly make out its color. Guest Gulkan declared it to be not a building but a block-built mud heap.

"Then since we have a mud beetle in our ranks," said Thodric Jarl, "let us be making for it."Guest thought it best not to ask which of them was the mud beetle, and in the wisdom of his silence the party began to navigate toward that far-distant goal. This required the aircrashed aeronauts to descend into the depths of the valley before scaling the opposing slope.

So they began the descent.

At these heights, the air was thin, and to walk was a labor.

Even though they were going downhill, they found they must necessarily stop every four or five paces to rest for a trifle; and it seemed that each of them at each halt discovered more and more bruises, scrapes, cracks and cuts which had previously gone unnoticed in the excitement of their air-escapade.

"Grief of a dog!" said Rolf, picking his way downhill. "I'd not see fit to bury a dead beetle in a place as miserable as this!"

In truth, the Rovac warrior Rolf Thelemite was an apt judge of landscape.

For the valley through which they labored was a singularly uninspiring realm of shattered rock and smashed stone. The wedgework of the weather had split huge rafts of scree from the disintegrating mountains. There was nothing whatsoever in that blasted landscape to hold the eye, unless one was attracted by the great lumps of stone which reared up on the skyline, where the sun blazed down from a sky as blue as an ice-maiden's eye.

As they descended, the dralkosh Zelafona began to stumble.

She did not complain, but the subdued silence of her dwarf-son Glambrax was sufficient to warn Sken-Pitilkin that the mother was in trouble.

"Here," said Sken-Pitilkin, passing his country-crook to Zelafona. "Lean on this."

She took it without a word, enduring the gift as if it were an insult. But she stumbled less thereafter – though Sken-Pitilkin stumbled more, and began to repent of the folly which had led him to pass his mainstaff support to a witch. He regretted being overgenerous with Zelafona. For, after all, the witch and her dwarf- son were largely to blame for Sken-Pitilkin's present predicament.

Had it not been for the recklessness of their avaricious folly, the Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin would still have been safely ensconced on his home island of Drum, rather than mucking about in a wilderness of mountains.

In this lies a tale.

In the romantic folly of his former years, Hostaja Torsen Sken-Pitilkin had set himself against the Confederation of Wizards, seeking with the propaganda of his tongue and by the moral force of his generous example to oppose that Confederation's despotic oppression of witches. Like other immature idealists before him, Sken-Pitilkin had found both propaganda and moral example to be inefficient against vested financial interests; and those of the Confederation who had set themselves to break up the Sisterhood's mighty Credit Union soon set themselves the task of breaking up Sken-Pitilkin.

Thus Sken-Pitilkin had become an outlawed renegade with a price on his head; and for long years he had wandered, with none but the irregular verbs as his companions, until at last he invaded Drum (an easy invasion, this, the island being uninhabited at the time) and (armed with a large sack of flea powder and a dozen rat traps) secured possession of Drum's ruling castle.

For long generations thereafter, Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin lorded it over the island of Drum as the absolute master of all he surveyed. True, most of what he surveyed was bits and pieces of the wrath-wracked waters of the Penvash Channel, that strategically important strait which separates the continent of Argan from the Ravlish Lands; but of that at least he had unopposed suzerainty.

Then came disaster.

Disaster came to Sken-Pitilkin's castle in the form of the witch Zelafona and her dwarf-son Glambrax. These two (in conjunction with Pelagius Zozimus, who surely should have known better!) had been embroiled in a complicated conspiracy to steal from one of the libraries of the Confederation of Wizards a complete and detailed history of the Credit Union once run by the Sisterhood of Witches.

That at least is the story which Zelafona retailed to Sken-Pitilkin. Pelagius Zozimus cheerfully confirmed the story, though Zozimus was ever an adroit master of deception. Sken-Pitilkin darkly suspected that a lot was being left unsaid, for whatever wickedness the would-be thieves had perpetrated in the south, they had roused the Confederation to a wrathfullness never seen before or since, and it is hard to imagine that the attempted theft of a History could have inspired such anger.

The Confederation had pursued all three thieves – Zelafona,

Glambrax and Pelagius Zozimus – and had pursued them with such ferocity that pursuit was not close behind when the malefactors sought refuge on the island of Drum. The evil ones did not come to Drum by accident. No, they knew Sken-Pitilkin to be in residence upon that island.

When these refugees arrived, Sken-Pitilkin found he had no option but the help them. After all, Zozimus was his cousin.

Furthermore, Sken-Pitilkin owed a great debt of honor to a powerful witch known as Bao Gahai, who had thrice saved his life in earlier centuries. So Sken-Pitilkin found himself honor-bound to help Zelafona, for the witch Zelafona was Bao Gahai's sister.

Here let it be known that honor does not lie in the sole possession of the warriors. For, while your bloodstained barbarian will boast much of "the honor of his sword", honor has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the hacking off of heads or the dissection of the liver. Sken-Pitilkin was honorable; and, in his honor, he assisted all three refugees to elude their pursuers. Which, of course, made Sken-Pitilkin himself a target for that very pursuit.

Consequently, the renegade wizard of Skatzabratzumon joined the refugees in their flight into the northern continent of Gendormargensis, where they sought shelter from the great and honorable Bao Gahai, the advisor (some said: the consort) of Lord Onosh, Lord Onosh being the father of Guest Gulkan and the ruler of the Collosnon Empire.

Thus Sken-Pitilkin was exiled from his home island of Drum; and was forced to earn his living as a mere tutor; and became unconscionably embroiled in the affairs of the Yarglat; and found himself on a stumblestone mountainside somewhere in the northern continent of Tameran, with the witch Zelafona availing herself of his country crook for her own support.

"Chala?" said Glambrax, speaking anxiously to Zelafona.

"I'm all right, sugarlump," said she, though the manifest strain of the statement gave the lie to her own pronouncement.

Chala? Sugarlump!?

Pet names, doubtless, and proof of a tenderness of relationship which Sken-Pitilkin had never thought to exist between the dwarf and his mother.

On that journey down the mountainside, Sken-Pitilkin began to suspect that the greater part of Glambrax's habitual brawling, joking, hard-drinking delinquency was insulation – a layer of hard-working diversion designed to cut the dwarf off from the rawness of the painful realities of his own life. For, after all,

Glambrax was as much an exile as Sken-Pitilkin. A hard necessity had driven the dwarf to Tameran, and doubtless in his private moments he suffered from the driving, as did Sken-Pitilkin.

So.

In the unconscious wisdom of his habits, the dwarf Glambrax had configured his life in such a way that he seldom had to endure so much as a single solitary moment of personal reflection from sun-dawn to dusk.

But on these stony, steep-descending slopes, there was no opportunity for brawling distractions. There was instead the coldness of unfeeling reality, the uncompromising solidity of stone, the randomness of scree, and the sharp-beak threats of hunger, thirst and entropy.

Like so many broken cockroaches, the air-wrecked aeronauts stumbled stone by stone down the rockside, mite-made creatures of bony flesh pinpricking their way across the rumplings of geology, their significance dwarfed and denied by the razor-blade heights of hostility which etched the skies above them.

Up on those stone-slice heights – high, high above the rock slopes and scree drifts where the travelers labored – lay white snow-slice eternities of cold. A high wind was scouring a mist of snow from one knife-edge peak, but this was so far above and beyond the travelers that they could not hear so much as a whisper of the crisping and keening of the ferocity of that bright-sun wind. Rather, they labored in stillness, a stillness loud with their harsh-panting breathing, the creaking of their knee joints, the squiff-pulse labors of their hearts.

At the bottom of the slope, when all downlabor was done and their uplabor was about to be commenced, there was a stream which ran toward the east. From which Sken-Pitilkin, learned in geography, deduced that in all probability this valley would ultimately provide them with an escape to the Swelaway Sea, should they choose to follow that stream to the east.

There was no need to ford the stream, since it was bridged. A path came up the valley from out of the east, crossed the stream by way of the bridge, then climbed toward the block-built building up above.

"What now?" asked Guest Gulkan, he who in the folly of his youth still possessed strength sufficient for senseless questions. Guest Gulkan's traveling companions, who were one and all exhausted by the rigors of the mountain heights, wasted no breath on useless reply.

Pelagius Zozimus took the lead.

Pelagius Zozimus, still wearing his elf-bright fish-scale armor, crossed the bridge, then began to mountain-climb upwards, one trudge at a time. After him went Thodric Jarl, mouth agape in a constant, unconscious, almost inaudible lisp of pain – for Jarl was suffering grievously from his broken ribs. Then went Zelafona, leaning on Sken-Pitilkin's country crook. Glambrax dogged his mother's heels, and Sken-Pitilkin followed, half-hoping that Zelafona would drop dead. For if she died then Sken-Pitilkin would be able to recover his country crook, and his journey would be that much easier. Naturally, the wizard had far too much pride to ask for the voluntary return of that instrument.

After Sken-Pitilkin came Guest Gulkan. The boy had long since drawn his sword, and had been abusing that instrument shamelessly, using it as a walking stick.

The Rovac warrior Rolf Thelemite had been bravely trying to resist Guest's example. For Rolf was – he was, wasn't he? – a mighty killer of men. A conqueror of dragons. A slaughterer of kings and emperors. A killer of orcs, ghouls, ghosts and necromancers. As such, he could scarcely abuse the pride of his steel by using it as a walking stick. Could he?

As the way bent upward, the going got harder. Rolf at first walked with a hand on each knee, as if striving the stabilize his knee joints by force of digital pressure. Then at last he drew his sword, and followed Guest's disgraceful example – hoping that Thodric Jarl would not turn and discover him.

In such procession, the air-crashed aeronauts went laboring up the path, making for the building which dominated the heights, and for an uncertain reception at the hands of unknown strangers.

Chapter Ten

Ibsen-Iktus: mountainous area of Tameran, south of Babaroth, east of Locontareth, west of Swelaway Sea and far to the north of Favanosin. This impoverished upthrust of impenetrable rocks lies beyond the borders of the Witchlord's realm, for Lord Onosh lays no claim of conquest on these snow-strewn heights.

So it was that in the spring of his 17th year, shortly after his 16th birthday, the young Weaponmaster Guest Gulkan found himself airwrecked in the mountains with the wizards Pelagius Zozimus and Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin, with the dralkosh Zelafona and her dwarf-son Glambrax, with the gray-bearded warrior Thodric Jarl and with Jarl's compatriot Rolf Thelemite.

The light of day was beginning to fail as the wanderers approached the building which they had earlier spied from afar. To walk was a labor, and on the last stages of their climb they were forced to pause after each and every step.

As has been said, the valley of their airwrecking ran from east to west, and the building to which the aeronauts were bent was set high on the northern slopes. This formidable behemoth of a building had a frontage which was all of half a thousand paces in length, and its height, by Sken-Pitilkin's estimate, was upwards of two hundred paces. As they closed with the building, the travelers saw that its windowless frontage was covered with huge ceramic tiles, each the height of a man.

In the freshness of their first creation, these tiles must have been glorious with color, but now they were suncracked and weatherstained, and some had fallen away altogether to reveal the stolid gray stone which lay beneath the decorations.

"I'm tired and cold," said Thodric Jarl, who by this time was in a very bad temper. "Let's get inside."

Jarl's temper was bad because to move – or even just to breathe – was to be stabbed by knives.

"You look," said Guest, "very much as if you were in pain."

"I am," said Jarl, who saw no point in denying it. "I've broken a couple of ribs."

Jarl's speech was curt, as usual, his accents hard – but in truth he felt as tender as a ripe tomato enduring a sledgehammer's playful tap. He felt as if he might burst into tears at any moment.

Chronic pain will tax the courage of the bravest. To resolve on one's death – ah, this is easy, at least when one is sufficiently enraged. Anger solves the problem. One decides for death, one charges one's enemies – and all decision is gone, for there is no way out. Jarl had done as much in the past, surviving more through luck than anything else.

But to make a mountainscape trek with a set of broken ribs puts far greater demands upon character. When one's ribs are broken, every step demands a new decision. The rigors of this choice, with its constant demands on his courage, had brought Jarl to the very edge of emotional collapse.

"Are you ribs badly broken?" said Rolf.

A useless question, for how could Jarl know the answer?

Perhaps his bones were merely cracked, in which case pain would be the worst of the consequences. Or perhaps the bones had splintered in places to sharpened knives, in which case Jarl might abruptly get spiked through the lung, and die of internal bleeding.

"They hurt like hell," said Jarl shortly, and stumped toward the single centrally placed gateway which pierced the building's tiled facade.

"We'll know the truth of his breakages soon enough," said Guest. "If he starts coughing blood we can count one lung as good as gone for certain."

Then Guest Gulkan and Rolf Thelemite fell in behind Thodric Jarl, watching him intently to see if he would start coughing up his heart's blood, which gave a certain interest to the proceedings which would otherwise have been lacking.

"Boys," said the witch Zelafona, with a click of her tongue which summarized volumes of disapproval.

Then she handed Sken-Pitilkin his country crook, which he received gratefully, for he had never before had more need of its support.

Inside the pierced gateway, a set of windchimes hung from the roof. Though there was no wind, these chimes tinkled regardless, and this tinkling was the loudest exterior sound which the airadventurers had heard since first air-crashing in this upland valley. Led by Jarl, the exhausted air adventurers passed through the gateway into a broad courtyard. A woman was making her way across this yard with a bucket of water.

"Ho there, fench oddock!" said Guest.

Challenged thus, the old woman turned to stare, then dropped her bucket of water. As it crashed and spilt, she fled.

"Very bright," said Sken-Pitilkin, observing the old woman's skirt-clutching retreat. "Suppose you follow her and see where she goes."

"No need," said Guest, "for I think the master of the place is upon us."

Indeed, venturing toward the air adventurers from a small side door was an elderly and decidedly shaggy-haired gentleman who appeared to be of Yarglat race. Accordingly, Guest Gulkan hailed the ancient in Eparget, and was pleased to receive an answer in his native tongue.

"Greetings," said the ancient, with the greatest of all imaginable courtesy, politely overlooking the dusty and disheveled appearance of his uninvited guests, and overlooking as well the fact that all were splattered with the vomit which had come cartwheeling from Guest Gulkan's mouth during the airship's maiden voyage.

Then the Yarglat-born ruler of the valley's dominant building said to Sken-Pitilkin: "And to you, greetings. It has been a long time, Torsen."

"Torsen?" said Sken-Pitilkin in astonishment. "You call me Torsen?"

"That is your name, is it not?" said the ancient.

"Why," said Hostaja Torsen Sken-Pitilkin, "it is one of them.

But – why, if you know that – "

Then Sken-Pitilkin lapsed into the High Speech of wizards, and the ancient replied in turn. The elf-armored Pelagius Zozimus soon joined the conversation, adding to Sken-Pitilkin's tale of aeronautical adventuring, and the three would have been in discourse all night had not Jarl demanded that they stop talking in gibberish.

"Who and what is this?" said Jarl, gesturing at their shaggyhaired Yarglat host.

Jarl gestured in a hand which was perilously close to being a fist.

"This dignitary," said Sken-Pitilkin, indicating the old man,

"is the abbot of Qonsajara, Qonsajara being the monastery in which we now stand."

"A priest, is he?" said Jarl.

"In a manner of speaking," said Sken-Pitilkin. "His name is Ontario Nol. He is a wizard of the order of Itch – a wizard of the winds."

"A wizard!" said Jarl. "And what thinks he of the Rovac?"

"He thinks them dangerous," said Sken-Pitilkin, "therefore demands that you do him the courtesy of surrendering your sword while you enjoy his hospitality."

"That I will do, then," said Jarl.

With that, Jarl drew his sword. An odd gesture, this. For a blade is not surrendered naked – rather, it is more properly yielded by unbuckling the swordbelt which sustains its scabbard.

Ontario Nol's eyes widened marginally, for he knew the murderous appetites of the Rovac.

With his sword drawn to the full length of its murder, Jarl hacked at the head of Ontario Nol. But the wizard had been given an eyeblink or more to prepare himself for attack, and an eyeblink was sufficient.

"Ja-bree!" screamed Nol, flinging wide his hands as Jarl struck down.

A wizard-wind whirlwind caught Jarl in a wind-slam funnel- spout. Trapped in a wind-whipping whirlspill, Jarl was spun first deasil then widdershins.

"Cha!" shouted Nol.

And Jarl was released from the grip of the wizard-win.

Pirouette by pirouette, the warrior spun to the nearest wall, which slammed him in the face, rebuffing his ballet with puritanical retort.

"Bravo!" said Guest, applauding vigorously as Thodric Jarl slid down that wall, staining its stones with a snail-track of blood from his vigorously bleeding nose.

"Blood!" said Rolf Thelemite excitedly. "See! Blood, blood!

The ribs have pierced his lungs! He's done for, now!"

But that was not the case.

On close examination, it appeared that Thodric Jarl had suffered no more than a chipped tooth and a bloody nose. He had not even been knocked out. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that this was most definitely not the most auspicious of introductions.

Chapter Eleven

Ul-donlok: valley in the Ibsen-Iktus mountains and site of the ancient monastery of Qonsajara, which is home to a wizard of Yarglat breeding named Ontario Nol. The valley of Ul-donlok, which is high and narrow at its western end, slopes downward to the east, opening out as it nears the Swelaway Sea.

Hostaja Torsen Sken-Pitilkin did his best to make Thodric Jarl apologize for his foolish attack on Ontario Nol. Jarl refused.

"Dogs will hatch from eggs and pigs be born of pigeons before I say sorry to a wizard," said Jarl, intransigent as any monster of the nursery.

Jarl was sure Nol would kill him in any case, and no Rovac warrior wishes to die with an apology to a wizard on his lips.

"What are we to do with this rune-warrior?" said Sken-Pitilkin, shaking his head in disgust.

"Let's not worry about it," said Nol, shrugging off Jarl's insolent unrepentance. "After all, what matters a trifle like attempted murder when dinner is waiting? Come, friends. Let's seat ourselves and sup. For dinner cools monstrous fast in weather like this."

"Dinner?" said Pelagius Zozimus, who had a chef's highlydeveloped consciousness of the passage of time. "Dinner? My dear sir, dinner can hardly cool before it's cooked, and we've only just arrived! How can you possibly have dinner ready already?"

"I saw you from afar," said Ontario Nol gravely, "even if my servant did not."

"So!" said Sken-Pitilkin, taking this to be a confession of the possession of Powers. "The wizards of Itch have powers of sight, do they?"

"They do indeed," said Ontario Nol. "Such powers are consequent upon the possession of those ocular organs known as eyes, of which I have two. With my own two eyes I have long had you under observation from the heights of Qonsajara, in consequence of which I have been able to have a dinner prepared for you."

Upon which both Zozimus and Sken-Pitilkin felt foolish, and made no further comment as the hospitable wizard of Itch led the party of air adventurers into his dining room. It was a small room dominated by a large stone table, and though Nol had threatened them with a chilled dinner the room was in fact kept comfortably warm by a small but efficient fire.

"May we not wash, first?" said Sken-Pitilkin, conscious of the fact that all of them smelt somewhat of vomit, and that the half-digested eyes of two or three of the dogs of Ema-Urk still clung to Guest Gulkan's outer clothing.

"Wash?" said Nol, in patent surprise. "But why?"

"To please me," said Zelafona, coming to Sken-Pitilkin's rescue. "As a woman, I am particular of the company I keep, therefore would have these men washed if bowl, sponge and water to spare."

"I have no objection to a sponging of my face and my jacket," said Thodric Jarl, who was perfectly ready to make concessions to the witch Zelafona, though he was ever reluctant to give aid to a wizard. "Rolf will help me with the sponging."

So spoke Jarl, and spoke bravely. But his speech was badly slurred, for pain, altitude, fatigue, fear and a wizard's whirlwind battery had told heavily on his resources.

"If Jarl's so sick he needs a nursemaid," said Rolf Thelemite, his own fatigue displaying itself in his singularly ungracious manner, "then I suppose I can sponge him down."

"And Guest will wash himself," said Sken-Pitilkin in tones of warning, as the Weaponmaster advanced upon Ontario Nol's big stone table.

"Will I?" said Guest, rebelliously. "I don't think I will, you know. I'm not due for a bath for two or three years at least, and I'm not going to delay dinner for any such eccentricity." Sken-Pitilkin did not see how Guest could possibly be ready to eat again after having been so prodigiously sick earlier in the day. But the boy was as good as his word. He sat himself down at the dinner table – half-digested eyes and all – and was two-thirds of the way through a second helping of everything by the time his companions returned from their washing.

For dinner they had lentil soup, boiled potatoes and the eggs of several chickens, with a serving of roast soy beans on the side. Ontario Nol apologized for the sparceness of his table.

"Unfortunately," said Nol, "we have only the eggs of a chicken, and not the meat. I would have killed you a chicken, only I have none at Qonsajara. The eggs are paid to me in way of tribute by one of the villages further down the valley."

"You are a ruler, then," said Guest Gulkan.

"The absolute monarch of all I survey," acknowledged Ontario Nol. "I estimate the population of my kingdom as some three thousand people in all. It is sufficient."

"Your kingdom," said Guest, chewing against the resistance of some soy beans as he spoke. "How do you name your kingdom?"

"It is named Qonsajara," said Ontario Nol, "taking its name from this monastery, which once was consecrated to the rites of Zozo Darjidan, the tantric strain of Qa Marika. Do you know what is meant by tantrism?"

"Dorking," said Guest, remembering certain lessons in ethnology. "That's what it means. The tantric arts are the arts of dorking. Lotham and yargam, sagit and mok. That's what the pictures are all about."

"True," said Ontario Nol with a thin smile. "But there was more to it than that. The tantric rites have catharsis as their goal. One frees the spirit of the flesh by purging the flesh through excess. There is more to it, then, than… how did you put it?"

"Dorking," said Guest again, unabashed and unashamed.

"One hopes," said the witch Zelafona, "that the boy has not offended your religion. If he has, then my dwarf will be happy to beat him for you."

At that, Glambrax jumped onto the table and struck a beating pose. Guest Gulkan's hand went to his sword.

"Peace," said Ontario Nol, as Sken-Pitilkin swept Glambrax from the table with his country crook. "I own to no religion.

Though I name myself as abbot of this monastery, that is just for form's sake. In truth, this temple's rites are a thousand years dead, and the worshippers died with the rites."

By now, Ontario Nol had the full attention of all his auditors, and they listened in after-dinner leisure as he told what he knew of Zozo Darjidan and the religion of Qa Marika. He lacked the full story, but still knew the most amazing fragments of the much-dislocated history of times long past. He mentioned the Technic Renaissance and the Genetic Mutiny, and told strange stories of a planet named Olo Malan, which – depending on which tradition one adhered to – either was or was not the very ball of dirt on which they were presently standing.

Then Sken-Pitilkin had stories of his own to tell, and

Pelagius Zozimus followed him, after which the dralkosh Zelafona was persuaded to speak.

Never before had Guest heard Zelafona tell of the past. The boy listened, fascinated, as the old woman's shriveled voice spun tales of full-fleshed maidens and desiring heroes, of creatures which lived in mountains and fed themselves on time, of cities of singing glass and streets of liquid fire, of incubus and succubus knotted together in shadows of turbulent desire, of vampires in their cavern-realms, and of ghostly dragons hunting ghosts through realms of living men.

That night, when Guest Gulkan finally got to sleep, he dreamt dreams of hallucinatory vividness. He dreamt of spheres of light which sang and spoke; of armies collapsing in maggot-plague and blood-drench deliquescence; of snoring mountains and sneezing skeletons; of kings dressed in the dazzle of hammered rainbow; of the Dawn Songs of Kalatanastral and the battlements of Stronghold Handfast; of books which conjured cities, and cities which conjured gods. Guest woke in the night with a pounding headache. Such was his pain that he woke Sken-Pitilkin, fearing himself on the verge of death. Sken-Pitilkin told him to go back to sleep, but by then Ontario Nol had already been disturbed.

"It is the height," said Nol. "It is the suddenness of the height which causes the headache. Men can damage themselves to the point of death simply by walking to the heights too quickly, and you – you've flown! I should have thought of that. We should check your companions."

Then, on Ontario Nol's instructions, all the air adventurers were roused from sleep, saving Rolf Thelemite alone, who proved quite impossible to wake.

"He's sleeping solidly," said Guest.

"There's more to it than that," said Ontario Nol. "He's unconscious. His brain has swollen in the high thin air."

"His brain!" said Guest.

"It is true," said Nol. Guest Gulkan took some persuading, claiming indeed that he doubted his comrade Rolf to be in possession of any organ so delicate as a brain. But Nol disputed Guest's pretensions to anatomical wisdom, insisting that even warriors of Rovac had brains, although admittedly it was hard to find one who could demonstrate the proper use of such an asset. Then the wizard of Itch detailed the ways in which height itself could kill, concluding by saying:

"So. To safeguard your friend's health, we must take him lower down the valley."

"Well," said Guest, "doubtless when dawn comes – "

"No," said Nol. "Not at dawn. Now. We must take him lower, and now, otherwise he dies."

"Can't we wait until morning?" said Guest.

"By morning," said Nol, "one of the minor demons of the Lesser Pit of Idleness will be using your friend's head as a footstool. I counsel you not to delay – not unless you have mastered the fine art of the resurrection of the dead."

Urged thus by Ontario Nol, the air adventurers dressed themselves in coats provided by their host, heavy coats of wool, coats thick with the smell of generations of woodsmoke. Then they ventured into the night, the cold of which had sharpened to a razor.

There was no moon, but there were stars, clipped chips of needle-prick brightness. Under those stars they began their descent, rock and stone scraping and sliding underfoot as they ventured through the brittleness of the frozen night.

Soon, they were sweating in their heavy coats, sweating despite the cold, for they were carrying the unconscious Rolf Thelemite on a litter, and Rolf proved a brutal burden – even though Nol had roused out a couple of servants to help with the labor, and even though he added his own muscle to the carrying.

To Guest, the stumblestone nightpath through unfamiliar territory seemed an ideal place for an ambush. If Nol planned murder, then maybe ambushers were waiting to take them on a ravinous section of the path, waiting to smash them with landsliding stones or snatch them from the night with garrotes.

For once, Guest Gulkan wanted the counsel of Thodric Jarl, so when the group was resting he shared his thoughts with the Rovac warrior, and found Jarl had similar suspicions. The two of them then returned to the circle of lamplight where Ontario Nol sat cleaning his fingernails, and they challenged that wizard of Itch, who heard out their fears.

"Well, my man," said Ontario Nol, addressing himself to Thodric Jarl in the Eparget tongue. "You have a headache, do you not?"

"As if kicked by a horse," said Jarl, speaking the Eparget with the idiomatic fluency of a very Yarglat barbarian.

"Next question," said Ontario Nol. "Can you walk like this?"

With that, the wizard of Itch got to his feet and demonstrated. He demonstrated with great deliberation, like a dancing master showing off a difficult step. He walked heel to toe, first forwards then backwards.

"Such games are meant for childhoods first and second," said Jarl. "You in your second childhood can indulge yourself with such, but I am a man, and grown beyond such folly."

"Try it," said Nol.

"I have spoken," said Jarl, speaking with the finality of a rune-warrior standing in defiance to a dragon.

"It is but a trifle," said Nol, coaxing Jarl with the wheedling cajolery with which a nursemaid seeks to subvert the will of a bad-tempered baby. "A trifle if you can do it, but a world of significance if you cannot. Come, man! I've done as much myself! Zozimus! Sken-Pitilkin! Will you set examples?"

First Zozimus did, then Sken-Pitilkin, and both succeeded in walking heel to toe, first forwards then backwards. At last, succumbing to sweet persuasion, Thodric Jarl consented to essay this simplicity. He failed. His feet were simply not sufficiently coordinated, and those feet disobeyed him as if he were drunk.

"You see," said Nol. "You cannot walk a straight line. That, my friend, is a sure sign of the swelling of the brain. The swelling is consequent upon rapid ascent to great altitude, and you must descend to cure it, or reconcile yourself to your death."

"My stumbling feet are a sure sign that I'm drunk," said Jarl. "Or that I'm poisoned."

As Jarl had not recently been drinking to any great extent, he was inclined to suspect poison.

Thodric Jarl's suspicion was natural, for Jarl was of the

Rovac, and so since earliest childhood had nourished a fearful suspicion of wizards. Furthermore, when Jarl thought of death he most naturally thought of poison. For, though the Rovac have a great reputation as sword-slaughters, poison is ever one of their favorite instruments of murder. It is used in particular by the

Rovac womenfolk, who typically prefer the swift simplicities of poison to the intricate longeurs of divorce proceedings. But, though it is the women who have the true mastery of the art, the men will not flinch from such expedients when the spirit moves them.

"Hush down," said Zelafona, as Jarl began to launch himself into accusations of conspiracy and of general poisoning.

Then the wise witch Zelafona took Guest Gulkan and Thodric Jarl aside and advised them to place their trust in Ontario Nol.

"If he was going to kill us," said Zelafona, "he'd have poisoned the lot of us at dinner time."

"Haven't you got the message?" said Jarl. "I think that's exactly what he did. Either he's poisoned us, or else he's going to ambush us."

"If poison," said Zelafona, "then it's surely a slow poison, for as yet we're all alert. Since wizards have no love for witches, I'd be as likely a victim of any such poison as you are.

Let us then watch our own condition, and gather for a lethal decision should that communal condition deteriorate. As for ambush – why, let Guest walk with Nol to kill the wizard if we spring an ambush."

Thus it was agreed – though at first it was quite impossible for Guest to be spared from the labor of supporting the burden of the unconscious Rolf Thelemite.

But, after a long and steeply downhill walk, Rolf Thelemite came to, emerging groggily from the depths of his unconsciousness.

Shortly, Rolf found himself able to stumble downhill under his own steam. Thereafter, Guest kept close to the wizard Ontario Nol.

Naturally, the two fell into conversation, and Guest found himself telling Nol much about Gendormargensis, about the imperial family, and about his brothers Morsh Bataar and Eljuk Zala.

"My father has written to me not at all," said Guest, making no effort to conceal his resentment at his father's neglect, "but Bao Gahai has pestered me with letters as often as once every three months. She says that Morsh has taken to swimming, though I think it perilous strange for a man to play fish."

"A leg as badly broken as his will be slow in the cure," said Ontario Nol. "So swimming may help."

"But he's walking!" said Guest. "He's riding! The bone is fixed!"

"The bone may be fixed," said Nol, "but the muscle may be badly wasted."

"But," protested Guest, "we're talking ancient history! It's spring. Go back through winter, autumn, summer. Go back a year! A year ago I had a letter from Bao Gahai, she said him walking.

Walking, yes, and riding. A year, man!"

"So his cure may be close to completeness," conceded Nol.

"But even so, you should not sneer at his swimming, for swimming is a very healthful exercise."

"I thought you of the Yarglat!" said Guest in astonishment.

"Yet you think a man should be fish!"

"I am true to my heritage," said the Yarglat-born wizard of Itch. "I have not denied it. I have merely broadened it. But, anyway – enough of your brothers. Tell me of Locontareth. There was mention made of a tax revolt."

So the subject of Morsh Bataar's broken leg and his slow recovery from the same was dropped, and Guest launched himself on the tale of the tax revolt in Locontareth, or what he knew of it – the revolt said to be led by an insurrectionist by the name of Sham Cham.

As Guest was deep in conversation, the path passed beneath great rocks, and in the shadow of those rocks the path suddenly crumbled beneath Guest's feet. Guest slipped – with a cry.

And Nol grabbed him.

Ontario Nol grabbed Guest Gulkan, fingers gripping the boy's arm like a set of pliars.

"Careful," said Nol, hauling Guest back from the brink of destruction. "Steady yourself. There now. Are you all right?"

"Yes," said Guest.

Who was shaken by the strength of the old man, by the walnutcrunching power of those fingers. He was reminded of dim legends concerning mighty masters of combat who were said to live in the mountains. (Which mountains? The legends were never specific, but mountains like these looked near enough to the stuff of legends as far as Guest was concerned). Those combat masters were said to be able to perform prodigious feats. To kill without touching. To kill with a shout. To crush stones. To tear the heart from the flesh without benefit of steel.

"Have you lived in the mountains long?" said Guest.

"Oh, long indeed," said Ontario Nol. "I know this path well.

It gets easier from here on."

And so it did, and it had become wide, flat and stable by the time dawn brought them a sharp-edged breeze to brisk away the stillness of the night, and brought them too to a village, a place of drystone buildings roofed with slate, a place where people came out and greeted them.

"Do you rule the entire valley?" said Guest, as the people gathered around them.

"No," said Nol. "I thought I told you of that earlier. King Igpatan rules the lower reaches of the valley."

"I have never heard of this king," said Guest, uncertain in his weariness as to whether Nol had in fact earlier explicated the nature of the king. "How great are his realms?"

"They are of no great extent," said Nol. "For King Igpatan rules over no greater distance than one could comfortably walk between sunrise and sunset. But – come now! This is no time for geopolitical discussion. This is time for breakfast!"Guest was surprised to learn that he had been engaged in geopolitical discussion, because he had merely thought himself to be asking a couple of very obvious questions. Nevertheless, he allowed himself to be led big stone table set outdoors in the morning sun. Placed around that table were three-legged stools in numbers sufficient for the seating of Nol's company, and waiting on that table were finger-bowls of warm water fragrant with bruised mint, and plates heaped with eggs, with hot chicken-meat, with potatoes, with soy beans, with dried fish and with roasted frogs.

"Magnificent!" said Jarl. Then, turning to Nol: "But perhaps the feast could be improved by the butchery of one of your villagers."

During the descent, Thodric Jarl's headache had diminished away to nothing. His broken ribs still gave him pain, but his morale had perked up amazingly, to the point where he had almost become a welcome traveling companion – and let the mention of this fact be taken as a clear proof of the objective clarity of this history, which makes no idle propaganda against the Rovac, but simply records the facts as they happened.

"An excellent suggestion, friend Rovac!" said Nol, taking Jarl's jest in the spirit in which it was meant. "But things grow slow in the mountains, so each of these villagers has taken a thousand years to grow meat sufficient for a cannibal feast. That being so, we cannot waste them casually, but must content ourselves with chickens."

"That contentment will be more than sufficient," said the elf-armored Pelagius Zozimus, surveying the feast with a professional eye, and asking himself fresh questions as to timing.

How had such a formidable meal been prepared at such short notice? One thing is for certain: a village of such manifest poverty never killed chickens except for the most especial occasions. It has been Written that wizards of Itch can build bells which can be rung thereafter from a distance of several leagues. So perhaps Nol had covertly used such a bell to signal the approach of himself and his guests; though, as Sken-Pitilkin and Zozimus were both exhausted, neither asked him about this, and neither thought to ask of it thereafter. Instead, they sat themselves down and set themselves to eat.

Over breakfast, Ontario Nol discussed in detail and depth the problems which Lord Onosh had experienced in collecting taxes from Locontareth, and suggested that the Witchlord Onosh was experiencing such difficulties because the people of that city and region derived no benefit from the taxes.

"You must give them something back," said Nol, "just as a farmer gives back something to his fields when he plows manure into the soil."

"I don't think they'd thank us for dumping them in manure," said Guest, meaning the revolutionaries of Locontareth.

"No, no," said Nol. "You misunderstand me."

Then Nol explained the matter all over again, in depth and in detail, though Sken-Pitilkin could have told him that the effort was futile.

"Well," said Guest, when he thought he understood as much of this theory as he was ever going to understand, "that's very nice of you, I mean, the ideas and all, and, ah, hospitality. Maybe my father can thank you for helping us."

"I need no thanks from your father," said Nol. "You yourself can help me."

"How?" said Guest.

"By sending me your brother."

"Morsh?" said Guest, remembering their conversation about Morsh Bataar's recently acquired habit of swimming. "You want Morsh? What on earth for? To teach you the art of the fish, is it?"

"It's not Morsh Bataar that I want," said Nol. "I want the other one. Eljuk Zala."

"But what would you want him for?" said Guest, who lacked the wit to guess.

"Eljuk will know," said Nol. "If he matches your description of him, he'll know immediately. Bring him to me!"

"Well, I would," said Guest, not particularly caring whether Ontario Nol wanted his brother for purposes of buggery or as sacrificial banquet-meat. "But it's a bit difficult. I mean, as far as I'm concerned, you can have him. But my father wouldn't like the idea at all. Eljuk's the imperial heir, that's his business, he's supposed to inherit."

"Put it to your father," said Nol. "Speak to Eljuk, then to your father, then tell me what the pair of them decide."

And, once Guest Gulkan had agreed to do that, Ontario Nol began to discuss the route which would allow Guest and his fellow air adventurers to exchange the unfamiliar dangers of the valley of Ul-donlok for the comforting certainties of the Collosnon Empire and its large-looming civil war.

Chapter Twelve

Yolantarath River: river which runs south-south-east from Gendormargensis to Locontareth by way of Babaroth. After passing Locontareth the river tends toward the north-east, and eventually the leisure of its flatland wending brings it to the seaport of Stranagor and the chilly waters of the Hauma Sea.

Ontario Nol cautioned the air-wrecked adventurers not to venture through the realms of King Igpatan, since that monarch was of a very uncertain temper, and often celebrated his birthday by torturing to death a randomly-chosen stranger. As King Igpatan honored each of his fifty previous incarnations with a separate birthday, his kingdom was not an attractive tourist destination.

The dwarf Glambrax suggested that they fly out. Rolf Thelemite professed himself game for such an adventure – though his lower lip trembled and his gold-snake earring shook as he said it – but all the others denounced the proposition.

"I'd sooner swim through pigshit," said Thodric Jarl, "or drink my way through a world of menstruation."

"And I," said Guest, "I'd sooner be dorked by an iceman or kissed by a dwarf."

So spoke the Weaponmaster, then had to fight off a vigorous attack from a kiss-inclined Glambrax.

The key to any further air adventures was of course Sken-Pitilkin: and he declared himself strenuously opposed to the construction of any more airships. He was still having nightmares about the journey which had seen them slammed from Ema-Urk to the heights of Ibsen-Iktus, and was in no hurry to risk his life again in such folly.

Accordingly, when a vote was taken – Sken-Pitilkin being so opposed to the construction of an airship that he gladly joined in this piratical Rovac-favored form of decision-making by brute force of numbers, since he was sure it would give him the answer he wanted – all were in favor of exiting from Ul-donlok by venturing over the mountains. The decision was unanimous, Thodric Jarl having used a few words of threat to talk Rolf Thelemite out of his airbent-folly.

Unanimous? Well, almost. To be precise, there was one abstention, for Glambrax abstained on account of the fact that Guest was sitting on him when the vote was taken.

So it was that weight of numbers carried the day, and it cannot be denied that at least on this occasion the decision thus arrived at represented the full force of wisdom.

After the air adventurers had spent a full fourteen days resting and acclimatizing, first at the village and then at Qonsajara itself, Ontario Nol pronounced them fit to proceed. The venerable wizard of Itch chose to personally guide the travelers through the mountains. He saw to their provisioning, procured them three mules, and dosed Thodric Jarl with a potent medicine which suppressed the pain of his bone-breakages and thus enabled him to tackle the trek.

The medicine given to Jarl also had the effect of reducing him to a stuporous zombie-like condition in which he heard little, saw less, and lacked the intellectual agility to wonder at his own diminished mental competence. Thus did Ontario Nol insure himself against attempted murder.

Protected by such insurance, Nol led the air adventurers from the monastery of Qonsajara, and guided them to the high pass of Zomara at the western end of the valley of Ul-donlok.

"Gods!" said Glambrax, as they labored toward the heights of that high pass, "I'd want my own weight in gold before I'd chance this climb again!"

Such were the rigors of the journey that none of his companions picked up the conversational opening, and all the obvious sallies about the height, weight and worth of a dwarf's chancing and climbing went unsaid.

Truly, it was a brutal ascent.

It was cold upon the heights, and no living thing grew there saving the blue-green lichen. The touch of the wind was a razor and the sun a laceration to the eyes. Upon the heights, Guest Gulkan found his head reeling as if he were drunk; and several times the Weaponmaster stumbled and almost fell as he descended with his companions to the valley of Yox.

As for Thodric Jarl, why, he in his drugged condition was so helpless that he had to be roped between Rolf Thelemite and the dwarf Glambrax; and he was so dead to the world that he was quite oblivious to the donkey-jokes which the wizards made at his expense. For, regardless of the demands of the journey, the drug- disabled Thodric Jarl was too rich a target to neglect.

"A very pet lamb in his feebleness," observed Ontario Nol, with the greatest of satisfaction.

And Sken-Pitilkin said -

But let us not record here the delicious witticisms which were ventured by the scholarly Sken-Pitilkin, for the Rovac have cause for rage sufficient already, and there is no point in nourishing that breed of pirates fresh with excuse for murder.

So the aeronauts crossed the high pass and headed downward into the next valley. The descent was short, for the valley of Yox was higher still than Ul-donlok. Yox was a desolation of icelocked frigidity where snow still lay on the ground. Its heart was a long and narrow iceblock lake which looked as if it would not unfreeze until the sun grew old and swallowed the very planet in the swollen bloating of its heatstroke age.

At the valley's north-eastern end was the high pass known as Volvo Marp. Fortunately, Volvo Marp was marginally lower than Zomara Pass, and the travelers crossed it with comparative ease.

As the air adventurers were about to commence their descent – which would take them beneath the ominous threat of a prodigious overhang of unstable ice and rock – Ontario Nol bade them farewell. The venerable wizard of Itch took one mule to carry his own supplies on the return trip, but left the air adventurers with the other two animals; and left, also, the pain-medicine with Thodric Jarl.

Thus left to their own devices, the aeronauts descended. Guest Gulkan endured more than a few twinges of suspicion as he dared himself beneath the unavoidable overhang, for conceivably Nol could use some power of his to precipitate that overhang into an enormous avalanche, and Guest half-feared him capable of such betrayal.

However, adventurers descended safely, won their way clear of the last of the snow and the ice, then began the sweaty, unromantic labor of making their way through the steep-cut hills to the Yolantarath riverplain.

On that journey, the pain-killing medicine carried for the feeding of Thodric Jarl at last ran out; and the Rovac warrior recovered both wit and competence, which was by no means an improvement, for he regained his narrow paranoia along with his intellectual agility. Glambrax swore that Jarl, fearful of the pickpocketing abilities of wizards, was at pains to count his own testicles every time he went for a piss.

Paranoia notwithstanding, Jarl kept his temper in check; for the wizards Pelagius Zozimus and Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin enjoyed the protection of the Witchlord Onosh, and Thodric Jarl was solemnly sworn to the Witchlord's service. Hence Zozimus and Sken-Pitilkin, unlike the almost-murdered Ontario Nol, enjoyed the protection of a privileged position, and were theoretically safe from the murder which dwelt impatiently within the Rovac warrior's blade.

In the peace of that protection, the journey from the heights to the river was almost without incident.

True, Guest Gulkan almost got the whole party murdered when he tried to seduce the virginal priestess who presided over the decidedly tantric rites of a village of benighted charcoal burners. In that same village, Glambrax was bitten by a rabid dog which was foaming at the mouth. Zelafona hustled her son to the nearest stream, where she supervised the washing of his wound with water and the scrubbing of the same disfigurement with soap – a good initial treatment for rabies, and the sooner done the better.

"If that is the initial treatment," said Glambrax, "what is the follow-up treatment should I prove to be infected?"

"The cutting off of your head," said Guest Gulkan heartlessly. "A loving decapitation, done to prevent unspeakable hells of suffering."

"Never fear, for I have drugs," said Sken-Pitilkin, lying like a horse trader. "Precious drugs of miraculous rarity which will consummate your cure should you fall sick."

"I pick you as a liar," said Glambrax.

"Then you pick him wrongly," said Zelafona warmly, "for Sken-Pitilkin and I have often shared the inner secrets of the healing arts. The good Sken-Pitilkin has the drugs of which he speaks, and will cure you if you sicken."

This from Zelafona's mouth was as much a lie as when it came from Sken-Pitilkin in the first place. But Glambrax was cozened into believing the lie, and belief put his heart at rest; and thus did wizard and witch between them cure the dwarf of his anxiety, if not of any contagion he might have contracted.

Would Glambrax fall ill of the rabies? There was no telling.

The incubation time of the disease varies from two weeks to two years – so the question of contamination is not swiftly to be resolved.

With Glambrax maybe dying, and with Guest Gulkan lucky to have escaped death, the party proceeded, and nearly died out to the last person when Pelagius Zozimus cooked them some greenish- blue fungal growths which he swore to be edible. Then there was the pit-trap which almost claimed Sken-Pitilkin, even though it was actually intended for bears; and there was the wasps' nest which almost secured a gruesome demise for Rolf Thelemite; and an unfortunate accident befell Thodric Jarl, for, in the grip of some nightmare which he refused to explicate thereafter, he almost strangled himself in his sleep.

But, these minor incidents excepted, all were in good health and better spirits by the time they reached the Yolantarath, where they were promptly captured by a cavalry patrol loyal to Sham Cham, the leader of Locontareth's tax revolt.

The troops who had captured Thodric Jarl and his confederates were Rovac warriors loyal to the Muktih of Stranagor, a military governor who had been appointed by the Witchlord Onosh, but who had betrayed his rightful liege lord by throwing in his lot by the tax revolutionist Sham Cham. Since Jarl was of the Rovac, the prisoners were not slaughtered on the spot. Rather, they were taken to the city of Locontareth, the center of the tax revolt, and there -

On account of the prestige of their persons, Guest Gulkan and his associates were soon dragged in front of Sham Cham himself.

Sham Cham? A hairy individual with the manners of a monkey, unclean in his person and foul in his breath. Let us waste no time on Sham Cham. He thought himself a great political philosopher because he was too selfish to contribute to the common good by paying his taxes, but it takes more than tax delinquency to make a leader. Sometimes the man calls forth the moment, and sometimes the moment calls forth the man; and on this occasion, the moment was in the ascendancy.

At least if Sken-Pitilkin was any judge of character.

"You have heard," said Sham Cham, once he had gone through the ritual of cutting away some of Guest Gulkan's hair plus a button's worth of Guest Gulkan's scalp, "that I am at war with your father. What do you think of that?" Guest Gulkan, bleeding generously from his missing button's worth, tried to remember Ontario Nol's elegant arguments about farmers fertilizing their crops to improve yields.

"As farmers shit on fields," said Guest, wiping the blood from his eyes and flicking that blood from his fingers at random,

"so should my father shit on you."

Sham Cham did not take kindly to being besplattered by the blood from Guest Gulkan's fingers. Nor did he at first take kindly to the political dictum which Guest had enunciated, so Guest promptly blamed it upon Ontario Nol.

"Who is this Nol?" said Sham Cham. "I should dearly like to meet him, so I can kill him."

"Ontario Nol," said Sken-Pitilkin, coming to the rescue, "is an economist, an economist who thinks that Gendormargensis should share its tax revenues with Locontareth for the greater ultimate good of the empire. This is what the boy Guest meant when he passed his earlier comment about excrement."

Then Sken-Pitilkin said more, much more, most of which was pleasing to Sham Cham, who was glad to hear that the number of his supporters had been enlarged by the addition of an economist.

"Very well," said Sham Cham, when he understood the truth of the dictums enunciated by Ontario Nol, the abbot of Qonsajara. "So much for Nol. But what about the rest of you. Are you for me or against me?"

"What happens if we're against you?" said Guest.

"You die," said Sham Cham.

"Then I'm for you," said Guest promptly, thus throwing in his lot with the revolutionaries.

Zelafona had managed to pass for a useless old beggar woman, and hence was asked for no oath. But an oath was demanded of all the males, and all swore themselves to the service of Sham Cham – except for Thodric Jarl, who said he was sick, useless for battle on account of his half-healed ribs, and therefore should not be compelled to declare his allegiance one way or another. The Rovac warriors loyal to the Muktih of Stranagor supported Jarl in this, so Sham Cham, not wanting to pick any arguments with any of his supporters unless he absolutely had to, decided not to push the issue.

A few days later, Jarl escaped, which roused Sham Cham to a fury. He brought together the Rovac warriors in whose custody Jarl had been kept, listened to their excuses, then massacred the lot of them. It was pointed out to him by some of his advisers that this might have been a mistake, since the Rovac were acknowledged to be mighty in war.

"They were only a handful," said Sham Cham, "and a handful will make no difference to the military equation. Besides, I still have one Rovac warrior to my name – the mighty Rolf Thelemite!"

This was true.

Sham Cham did have Rolf Thelemite in his service.

And Sham Cham believed – after all, Rolf Thelemite had told him as much – that Thelemite had personally been responsible for the conquest of three empires, seven kingdoms, twenty cities and three dozen castles, and had been a very master of every aspect of military science since the tender age of three.

With Stranagor having chosen to support Locontareth in revolution, Sham Cham's next move was to advance on Gendormargensis, and this he began to do. In his wake, the revolutionary leader left behind all useless mouths, including the dralkosh Zelafona, who was forced to beg anonymously for her bread in the streets of Locontareth.

In breach of his oath, the dwarf Glambrax deserted from the army on its second day of march, and sought out his mother in the streets of Locontareth, meaning to be a help and comfort to her in those days of danger and difficulty. Thus did the dwarf prove himself to be alien to the common usages of the society of men.

And, worse, he almost proved the death of his comrades, for this desertion made Sham Cham doubt the oaths of the others.

But the eloquence of the wizards Zozimus and Pelagius, coupled with the warlike enthusiasm of Rolf Thelemite, helped persuade Sham Cham that those others would fight by him loyally.

As for Guest Gulkan -

"Why, as for me," said the Weaponmaster, "I've bitter cause to fight my father, for he cheated me of the woman Yerzerdayla.

Tall she was, and beautiful. For the sake of her flesh, I risked my life against the sword of Thodric Jarl. I fought for the woman in Enskandalon Square, fought a fair fight in the presence of witnesses. I won. I won the woman. So now she's mine, officially, my own, my concubine, my slave. But I was exiled from my home, her flesh untasted, and I don't doubt that Thodric Jarl's been tupping with the blonde-haired bitch in my absence. Why should I love my father when he cheats me of the rights of my sword?"

Thus Guest spoke. And, unspoken, but adding sincerity to his cause, was Guest's belief that he himself should have been the anointed heir to the ruling throne of the Collosnon Empire. Yes, Guest Gulkan thought himself a better man than his brother Eljuk, and was bitterly resentful of the fact that Eljuk was destined to inherit the empire.

So Sham Cham was convinced; and the lives of Guest Gulkan and his companions were made safe against arbitrary execution; and the army continued its advance.

That advance came to an abrupt halt in early summer, some distance short of Babaroth, when scouts reported that Lord Onosh was waiting by the Pig River to receive them in battle.

Sham Cham's next trick was to send Guest Gulkan to meet with his father in a peace conference.

Ah, Witchlord and Weaponmaster in conference! What a sight to behold! Sken-Pitilkin was at that conference, and duly beheld the sight. More foul and savage language was exchanged between father and son than could be comfortably contained by less than a quire of parchment. Then, having at last exhausted their confrontational resources, the pair got down to business, and Guest Gulkan gave his father the benefit of his recently acquired wisdom in political economy:

"Ontario Nol says you should shit on people. But I say that's not enough. I think you should positively bathe them in dung. A general manuring, that's what I think. It's like Nol, only more so."

"Who then is this Ontario Nol?" said Lord Onosh.

"That's my secret," said Guest.

In the face of his son's intransigence, Lord Onosh asked his imperial advisers to prove out Nol's identity, but they were unable to give him any clues as to the genesis of this dangerous lunatic.

"Then," said the Witchlord Onosh, "that's enough of this nonsense. Let's have no more talk of this madman Nol. Just tell me what you want and be done with it."

"I speak for Sham Cham and Locontareth," said Guest. "What we want is to keep more of our own for ourselves. We say it's not enough to get shitted on, not even by the emperor."

The peace conference continued on this note until the Witchlord Onosh gave up all hope of getting any sense out of his enemies. Thus Lord Onosh withdrew to the strength of his army; and Sham Cham, angered by the Witchlord's intransigence, gathered his forces and marched them in good order toward Babaroth, determined to meet the Witchlord Onosh in battle and to defeat him.

Chapter Thirteen

Tax: the tribute which the periphery of the Body Politic contributes to the center, and which the center in its wisdom redistributes to the periphery, with the resulting circulation ideally improving the overall health of the political organism.

Unfortunately the sundry parts of the Body Politic are typically less co-operative than the mouth, heart and fundament of the average human-in-the-flesh, as lack of suitable pain receptors often makes the center insensitive to the sufferings of the periphery. Early in the reign of the Witchlord Onosh, such insensitivity led to the ill-fated rebellion of the Geflung; and a continuation of such insensitivity later precipitated the tax revolt led by Sham Cham of Locontareth.

The town of Babaroth stood a little to the north of the Pig River. It stands there no longer, for the region in question was afflicted by a severe earthquake last year, and by all accounts the town has been entirely destroyed.

Still, when Witchlord and Weaponmaster found themselves as masters of opposing armies, Babaroth was still standing, and serves as a convenient landmark for the action. Let it be noted, however, that the town could not be seen from the battlefield, nor the battlefield from the town, for a forest stood between them.

(Is it really necessary to make this point? Unfortunately, it is, for the realms of scholarship are the scene of much unseemly quibbling, as scholars often seek to shred a great and generous intellectual tapestry by pulling on the smallest and most insignificant of its loose threads. Therefore, at the risk of seeming pedantic, let it be made quite clear that this history does not claim that Babaroth was ever situated precisely at the confluence of the Pig and the Yolantarath, and acknowledges, rather, that a diligent surveyor would have found it some 4,000 paces to the north of the Pig, with a goodly stretch of trees between river and town).

When Sham Cham reached the Pig, he found the single bridge across that tributary was held against him by Lord Onosh.

While some geographies claim the Pig to have been bridged in three places, and others declare it to have been bridgeless, the the truth is that the Pig's bridges varied in number according to the destructive force of the floods of each spring thaw. When the Weaponmaster came in arms against the Witchlord, there was only the one here-mentioned bridge within fifty leagues of the confluence of the Pig and the Yolantarath.

The Weaponmaster, who bore himself as proudly as if he were the very leader of the army, sat on horseback by Sham Cham as that revolutionary leader surveyed the Witchlord's forces. The disposition of those enemy forces seemed clear enough. Some baggage wagons were lined up on the southern side of the Pig, with the Witchlord's army encamped in amongst these wagons and in the dark of the woods on the river's northern side.

Sham Cham set guards and scouts to watch his flanks, prepared his own troops to meet any sudden frontal sally by the enemy, and then in a moment of sudden doubt he sent a swift-riding scouting party galloping to the south, just in case his enemy was somehow setting about engulfing his forces in some prodigious encircling move. Then the bold and brave Sham Cham sent forth his mother-in- law to demand the Witchlord's surrender.

Sham Cham's mother-in-law had a tongue so formidable that the revolutionary leader was sure its scourging effect would provoke her butchery. However, to Sham Cham's disappointment, his mother- in-law returned from her dealings with no more damage than the besmirchment of her boots by a trifling amount of horse dung; and she advised Sham Cham (and seemed to derive some considerable pleasure from imparting the advice) that the Witchlord had sworn to personally castrate him, then to bugger him with a bayonet.

"A bayonet?" said Sham Cham, who had never heard of this weapon. "What is a bayonet?"

"A kind of dog trained for the purpose of rape," said his mother-in-law, who never admitted ignorance on any subject.

"No, my lord," said Sken-Pitilkin, who in company with Pelagius Zozimus was attending on this council, and who in the daring of his scholarship was prepared to prosecute the cause of truth even in the face of someone's mother-in-law. "A bayonet is not a dog. Rather, a bayonet is a species of detachable knife sometimes found attached to a crossbow. It has a blade triangular in section, nicely designed for -

"

"A knife, is it?" said Sham Cham. "Very well. If the thing be built for buggering, then let the Witchlord prosecute it to its purpose. I will happily accept that as the penalty of failure. But I have no thought to fail. Since the Witchlord will not surrender, we must perforce smash through his army. Smash, storm, shatter, seize the bridge, then push through the forest to Babaroth."

"In this matter, my lord," said Pelagius Zozimus, somewhat disturbed by Sham Cham's briskness, "performance may not be as easy as speech."

Zozimus had long fancied himself a military expert of sorts, and hence was quicker to put forward his opinion than was Sken-Pitilkin, who ever preferred the conquest of the irregular verbs to any elaborate schemes for the bloodying of bayonets and the heaping up of the dead. However, despite his scholarly proclivities, the sagacious Sken-Pitilkin was far from innocent of the studious organization of institutionalized bloodshed; and, though Sken-Pitilkin ever believed that the proper place for a cook is in the kitchen, he was inclined on this occasion to believe that the slug-chef Zozimus had a keener apprehension of military difficulty than did the revolutionary leader from Locontareth.

"It is true, my lord," said Sken-Pitilkin. "Speech is one thing, but performance another. And of the two, performance tends to be the more difficult."

"Speech!" said Sham Cham. "You talk of speech? Why, in Locontareth I said I'd raise an army – and having said it, did it.

To speak is to act. Such is politics."

"To prove speech at swordpoint," countered Zozimus. "Such is war."

"Then let us prove!" said Sham Cham, not acknowledging that he had been countered at all. "We outnumber our enemies three to one. I would not claim to have mastered all the ingenuities of military science, but nevertheless would think brute force in such proportions to be a sufficient appliance for victory."

"My lord," said Sken-Pitilkin, seeing that Zozimus was in need of his support. "I have long studied – "

"Then study some more!" retorted Sham Cham. "But study elsewhere, and in silence. I take no hectoring from pedagogs."

Sham Cham's earlier doubt was a thing of the past, and now he was resolved upon battle and victory. Or perhaps – there are people whose character is so constituted – his doubt was so great that he durst not admit to the slightest deviance from his chosen course. For often it is the man who is most frightened who is most resolute in action, for he knows that to reconsider will necessarily be to panic, and that to panic is to fail.

"Your wisdom is great, my lord," said Zozimus, "for Sken Pitilkin knows more of losing wars than winning them."

A monstrous slander, this! And – insult upon insult! – a slander which Sham Cham greeted with an approving smile. "Still," said Zozimus, in his most conciliatory tones, "my lord, to cross a river against the armed opposition of one's enemies is ever one of the harder exercises of war, and to force a way to Babaroth we must necessarily brute our way across the Pig."

"I have heard," said Sham Cham, "that the Pig is a very torrent of destruction in the spring, but that the river lies slumped in its shallows in the heat of high summer. It is the heat of high summer now."

"So it is, my lord," said Zozimus, "but the shallows of the river lie slumped between the steepness of its northern bank and the southern. The steepness of those banks gives the enemy considerable opportunity for defense."

"Still," said Sham Cham, "I am sure I can force a passage across the river, even if our enemies should burn the bridge."

"Then, my lord," said Zozimus, "having crossed the river, we should still have to fight our way through the forest which lies north of the river."

"That is what I am here for," said Sham Cham, a trifle impatiently. "To fight my enemies."

"True, my lord," said Zozimus, the velocity of his speech evidencing impatient exasperation. "To fight, yes, war is fighting, but only a boy would think it nothing but. War for men is equally a matter of choice and timing. I as a veteran bloody in my swordplay would choose to fight the Witchlord at the city."

"The city?" said Sham Cham, quite confused by the rapidity of Zozimus's speech, which typically became nearly indecipherable in its speed when its temper was threatening to lose itself.

"Babaroth is no city. It is but a town."

Sham Cham spoke in truth, for of course Babaroth was no more than a town – a town built on a small hill on the eastern shores of the Yolantarath, some two leagues upstream from the confluence of the Yolantarath and the Pig.

"The city which I had in mind," said Zozimus, "is the city of Gendormargensis."

Then Zozimus outlined his plan. The wizard proposed that they retreat; and construct rafts; and ferry their army to the western shores of the Yolantarath under cover of night; and then march on Gendormargensis, leaving the Witchlord in his ignorance to stab at shadows and grope at dust.

"This plan is a nonsense," said Sham Cham. "As I have said already, our business is not with the capital but with the emperor."

Sham Cham's intransigence dismayed the wizards. For the conquest of Gendormargensis would win them gold with which to pay soldiers; a population from which troops could be recruited; a fortified city from which to stand off their enemies; and a semblance of absolute victory, which would surely discourage and dismay those enemies.

Pelagius Zozimus said as much.

But was not believed.

"Gendormargensis is but a diversion from our business," said Sham Cham. "Our business is to smash the emperor in battle. When you say otherwise, I think you fearful of meeting this Thodric Jarl in battle. I think you have a pronounced over-respect of the

Rovac." Sken-Pitilkin endeavored to support Zozimus in his wisdom.

"My lord," said Sken-Pitilkin, "in Gendormargensis – "

"In Gendormargensis," said Sham Cham, interrupting the scholar, "the dralkosh Bao Gahai awaits her enemies."

"Why, yes, yes, so she does," said Pelagius Zozimus, "surely, yet she is but a witch, and the killing of a witch is no big matter for either man or wizard."

Though both Zozimus and Sken-Pitilkin had from time to time taken the part of witches in the past – Sken-Pitilkin out of mercy, and Zozimus for reasons of unscrupulous ambition – neither placed any value on Bao Gahai's personal survival.

"The wizards of Argan," said Zozimus, "long ago disposed of most witches in a mighty pogrom. As a sometime member of Argan's Confederation of Wizards, let me assure you of the extreme limitations of the Witchwoman breed."

"So Bao Gahai survived pogrom, did she?" said Sham Cham.

"She did," affirmed Zozimus.

"Then," said Sham Cham, "clearly she is mightier than all your wizards federated in their anger!"

Thus did Sham Cham make clear his mortal terror of the dralkosh Bao Gahai, a terror which had conditioned all his thinking about the current campaign. Sken-Pitilkin found this terror quite extraordinary. After all, it is usual for people to fear what is near and discount what is distant, yet in Sham Cham's case things were quite the reverse – and, when put to the question, the leader of the tax revolt declared he would rather face an army than a witch.

"Well," said Sken-Pitilkin, "supposing you defeat Lord Onosh here and now, what say Bao Gahai marches forth against you? You see? One way or the other, you're doomed to face your greatest fear before you're finished."

"No!" said Sham Cham. "She'll settle for Gendormargensis.

Gendormargensis, that's hers. I'll keep Locontareth. Peace, see.

The empire cut in kingdoms. Gendormargensis, Stranagor and Locontareth. Three kingdoms. A recipe for peace."

A recipe – so thought Sken-Pitilkin – for friction and for war. The wizards redoubled their efforts, reminding Sham Cham that Thodric Jarl had had days to reinforce his defensive position on the Pig, and that the Rovac were vicious in defense.

In his heart of hearts, Sham Cham knew himself to be no military genius, so at last called in expert advice to evaluate the counsel of wizards. To be precise: he brought in the Weaponmaster Guest Gulkan, who was known to have defeated Thodric Jarl in single combat in a duel in Enskandalon Square; and he brought in Rolf Thelemite, who by his own account was mighty in war, and had led many an army to victory against impossible odds. Sken-Pitilkin chose to stay to see what damage Guest and Rolf would do, but Zozimus threw up his hands in disgust and stalked from the conference lest he lose his temper and do something unpardonable.

"What would you suggest?" said Sham Cham to Guest.

"Attack," said Guest promptly. "Attack, for this Jarl is a man like others, and here he is weak, and we can smash him." Guest spoke with the confidence of a true believer; for Guest had defeated Jarl in single combat, and hence thought him weak. Guest was still ignorant of the fact that he owed his survival in Enskandalon Square to Sken-Pitilkin, who had used powers of levitation to trick Jarl's feet from under him.

Here the blame for Guest's derelictions must be place fairly and squarely at the feet of the Emperor Onosh. Lord Onosh was, by and large, capable of doing the hard things. But on that occasion he had weakened. When Guest had dueled Jarl in Enskandalon Square,

Lord Onosh had allowed himself to be persuaded into an act of incontinent mercy. So the boy Guest had survived, living thereafter with an exaggerated sense of his own ability, and becoming a danger to the very emperor who had saved his life.

Remember this, if it is your destiny to be an emperor! The seat of power is a seat of decision, and weakness in decision is the doom of the governed and the governors alike.

"The wizards speak of this man Jarl as being large in reputation," said Sham Cham.

"Why, a giant in reputation," agreed Guest, "but I've seen him in his injuries with tears in flood upon his face, and that was over nothing, a trifling matter of broken bones."

So spoke Guest, he who had never yet had to live with the worst of pain, far less to live with spearing pain from step to step, from breath to breath, from moment to moment, and each of those moments but a hair from a flinch.

"So," said Sham Cham, "so you suggests – "

"He speaks from the folly of his youth," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"In the truth of my wisdom I suggest rather that we send forward two wizards in their wisdom to deal with the wild men according to their wiles and thus avoid the wrath of woolly war."

"Woolly war?" jeered Guest. "That's a nonsense! War is not woolly. Sheep are woolly. What were you thinking of?"

"I," said Sken-Pitilkin with dignity, "was thinking – "

"You were thinking you were a sheep!" said Guest. "Woolly war! Really!"

Sometimes it will happen that an adult will mispeak himself in front of a child, and the child will thereafter not let the matter rest, but will strive to keep the error green in memory. So it was with Guest Gulkan on that occasion.

Rolf Thelemite then added his own boast to Guest Gulkan's advice, and those federated dunces routed the sagacious Sken-Pitilkin. Both Rolf and Guest were young; and drunk with bravado; and intoxicated by thoughts of victory and power; and Sham Cham, being likewise afflicted, was in no mood to heed counsels of caution, not when his own forces outnumbered those of the Witchlord by three to one.

"Three swords can cut a single head," said Sham Cham, when he summed up their debates, "be that head a jester's or a queen's."

So it came to pass that on a bright and shining morning the mighty Sham Cham awoke from dreams of revolutionary tax reform, and marched his army to within battle distance of the Pig, there to confront the army of the Witchlord Onosh, lord of the Collosnon Empire.

Then forth from the Witchlord's ranks rode Thodric Jarl, riding under a flag of truce. Jarl was received by an ad hoc embassy which included Sham Cham himself, and Guest Gulkan, and Rolf Thelemite, and the wizards Zozimus and Sken-Pitilkin.

"Hail, Cham!" said Jarl.

"Hail, Jarl!" said Cham. "If you have come to present me with your surrender, then I am ready to receive it. My forces outnumber yours by a matter of three to one, therefore your defeat is inevitable."

"I dispute it," said Jarl. "To defeat me and mine, my lord and me, you would need to have odds of a thousand to one in your favor. As you have not the forces to compel a victory, yield me your heart. Then we can negotiate."

"Heart," said Sham Cham, puzzled by Jarl's idiom. "What do you mean by my heart?"

"I mean," said Jarl, "that bloody organ which beats in orgasmic fury underneath the larger of your paps. Give it.

Surrender it. Then there will be a peace between us."

With that, the gray-bearded Thodric Jarl produced a silver platter from a saddlebag and invited Sham Cham to deposit his palpitating blood-beater upon the shining surface of that platter.

"You are drunk," said Sham Cham. Sken-Pitilkin and Zozimus, both veterans of past encounters with the Rovac, knew that Jarl was not drunk but, rather, intoxicated by the uplift of the moment.

"Drunk?" said Jarl. He laughed. "No, not drunk. Not drunk, but joyful."

Then Jarl cast the silver platter into the mud. Mud sprayed up into Sham Cham's face, and his horse reared, and Jarl wheeled his own horse and rode back to the lines where the Witchlord Onosh waited with his horsemen, apparently ready to charge.

Sham Cham wiped the mud from his face.

"So," said Sham Cham. "It is war. Very well then. Force against force we will meet them. Force against force we will meet them – and throw them back into the sea."

His choice of idiom betrayed his origins. Stranagor lies by the sea, and the throwing of great quantities of people into that watery organ which dominates the planet's physical geography has ever had pride of place in Stranagor's iconography of war.

Then Sham Cham prepared his horsemen for the charge.

With battle about to be joined, the restlessness of men and horses caused such disorder in the ranks that the wizards Zozimus and Sken-Pitilkin were able to work their way toward the rear without attracting undue attention to themselves. Though Zozimus looked like a very eleven warrior in his fish-scale armor, and though Sken-Pitilkin in his fisherman's skirts looked a grim and warworthy skirmisher, neither had any intention whatsoever of wasting their substance in battle.

Do not think less of them for this! It is true that both wizards had sworn themselves to Sham Cham's service. Still, both firmly considered that they could best serve the revolutionary army by offering it their wisdom. Wisdom having been rejected, what else could they do but sit back and watch?

Well…

They could have used their special powers, of course. But a wizard's powers are soon exhausted by the demands of a battlefield, and both Zozimus and Sken-Pitilkin preferred to preserve their strength until it was needed for purposes of personal survival. Guest and Rolf remained to the fore of the army's mounting disorder. Both were seated on over-aged geldings rather than the high-spirited stallions to which they had aspired; and both were becoming increasingly glad of the stability of their mounts, for the tension of war-ready men was communicating itself to the army's horses, and those beasts which were more highly-strung were becoming close to unmanageable.

As the moment of battle neared, the Weaponmaster Guest was concentrating too intently to suffer fear. He was visualizing the clash of sword against sword, practicing tactics by imaginative immersion. The restiveness of the horses made him remember his brother Morsh Bataar, crushed beneath a horse, his leg wrecked by the weight of the animal. He must leap clear if his own mount went down. He must

"Guest!"

"What?" said Guest, irritated at being interrupted by Rolf Thelemite. "What is it, Rolf?"

Rolf looked worried.

There was a simple explanation for this:

He was worried!

"Guest," said Rolf, "I've something to tell you."

"Then spit it out, man!" said Guest.

"It's about Jarl," said Rolf. "Jarl and me. He made me promise. Before he ran, I mean. Back in Locontareth. He made me swear. It was an oath, he made me swear an oath."

"What oath?" said Guest, since the question was obviously expected of him.

"He made me swear to kill you," said Rolf.

"Kill me!" said Guest. "You swore an oath to kill me?"

"Yes," said Rolf. "But only – only if you really went to war against your father."

"What else could I do?" said Guest.

"Well, kill Sham Cham," said Rolf.

"What!?"

"Yes, yes, kill him," said Rolf in eagerness. "It's obvious, obvious! Look! He's riding up and down, ride up, a sword, a single blow! We'd spur for escape, we'd be gone, he's dead, as good as dead, just say the word!"

"Rolf," said Guest, "I can't kill Sham Cham, for I'm sworn to his cause in solemn alliance. I've sworn to make war on my father."

"But if you do," said Rolf, despairing, "then I must kill you, for I've sworn an oath. Or if I don't kill you, then – then I'll be an oathbreaker, an oathbreaker accursed of Rovac."

"Then accursed of Rovac you will have to be," said Guest.

"For my doom is to fight the Witchlord, and I fight him today."

Rolf couldn't believe he was serious.

"But, Guest," said Rolf. "That's – that's your father out there!"

Rolf Thelemite was sweating under the obdurate weight of the sun. A fly fed on his sweat. He was burdened by the heaviness of chain mail, the chafing of leather, the intolerable sweatiness of his feet in his boots. His left ear itching where his dangling gold-snake earring was threaded through the flesh. Guest was watching him. Unsmiling. Guest was only 16 years old, but today all traces of any childish sentimentality were a lifetime removed from his nature. Rolf sensed a sameness about Guest and Jarl. Both were missing a layer of humanity: lacked a sense of the reality of pain. Especially the pain of others! Hence they were dangerous. While Rolf knew how to make a boast, Guest knew how to live one. And Rolf found himself afraid of the Weaponmaster.

"Guest," said Rolf, making one last try.

Then Guest reached out and took Rolf by the throat. And squeezed. Hard enough for Rolf to feel the swordsman's strength in the fingers. Strength sufficient to kill by crushing. When Guest released the pressure, Rolf coughed, spluttered, touched tentative fingers to the flesh of his throat. Felt the fragility of the structures there.

As Rolf was still groping at his throat, Guest gave Rolf's horse a hearty kick. Thanks to the beast's sturdy temperament, it did not launch itself into an all-out charge. But even this stolid and aging animal was not immune to the feverish anticipation of battle, and it had danced a dozen paces before Rolf was able to rein it in.

With reins in his left hand and his right on his sword, Rolf turned to face Guest Gulkan. Under the hot sun, a gust of wind blew horse-smell and battle-dust between the Rovac warrior and the Yarglat youth. They were estranged by dust and distance. Guest's face was blurred by the dust, by the harshness of the sun. He was no longer Rolf's familiar friend. Rather, he was an anonymous Yarglat, a stranger, a horselord driven by the dynamics of war.

And he was turning, wheeling his horse in response to an order which Rolf had not heard, though others had heard it, must have, for Sham Cham's horsemen were wheeling en masse, and in moments they were sweeping forward in a war-whoop charge. Rolf Thelemite's horse, over-excited, surged forward in a positive gallop.

"Slow down!" yelled Rolf, stupidly, uselessly.

But it was no good. The beast was off, was bolting. Rolf hauled on the reins, but his mount had a mouth like an old boot.

So the hapless Rovac warrior was caught up in the charge, was swept away to destiny.

Up ahead, Guest Gulkan charged with a vengeance.

The young Weaponmaster rode in that charge, screaming with exhilarated fury.

In the face of that fury, the Witchlord's horsemen turned and fled. Through their line of baggage wagons they rode. Then those baggage wagons burst into fire – for they had been crammed with incendiaries, doused with strong liquor and then set alight by torches.

Nothing daunted, Sham Cham's forces continued their attack. Guest Gulkan spurred his horse. The terrified beast galloped through a gap between gouts of erupting fire. Then it crashed into a pit. Down it went, Guest Gulkan going down with it. Shocked and shaken, he found himself seated on his horse in the bottom of the pit. The horse was direly wounded – blood spouting, white bone gashed. It screamed. Its rolling eyes were liquid with reflected fire.

"Grief of gods!" said Guest.

And struggled out of the pit into the tumult of smoke. There he was attacked by a madman. Hack against hack they fought each other, until Guest Gulkan's opponent screamed his battlecry:

"Stranagor!"

On hearing this battlecry, Guest Gulkan realized he had been in battle with one of his own side.

"Sham Cham forever!" gasped Guest.

And moments later the two were bearhugging each other as comrades.

Having thus been reconciled with this aggressor, Guest Gulkan joined Sham Cham's men who were charging down the bank of the Pig and struggling up the steep slope on the other side.

The Pig looked to be no more than waist-deep, so Guest ran toward it readily, tripped, and went sprawling full-length in the riverside mud. He struggled to his feet, brushed away the worst of the mud, regained his sword, and floundered into the water. He got across the river, then started stumbling up the steep bank.

As Guest Gulkan struggled up the bank, his foot broke through the crusted earth. His boot, weighted by the battle-slam intensity of the boy's warcry charge, slammed down on a spike of sharpened bamboo. The spike pierced the boot. Guest's foot was inside the boot. Accordingly, the spike seared into his flesh, and he screamed with intolerable pain. He pulled free his foot, wrenching it clear from the spike. All around, other men were likewise screaming. As they screamed, arrows began to fall amongst them.

The entire slope was pitted with bamboo spikes. There was no quick way up it, and the arrows were soon taking a brutal toll of those whose ambition it was to hack down the Witchlord Onosh.

"Forward, men!" cried Sham Cham.

Then an arrow took him in the eye, and he cried no more.

All around, men were wavering, not knowing what to do. But Guest Gulkan knew. The boy Guest had been born into the household of a mighty warlord, and had studied the theory and praxis of war since he was knee-high to a donkey. He had yet to make himself a complete master of military science, but this he knew for sure – right now, it was most definitely time to be running away. Guest Gulkan promptly took command of the battlefield, and, bellowing like a water-buffalo, he commanded a retreat, and was obeyed. Guest Gulkan got back across the Pig, stumbled through the still-burning wagons, and got onto the flatlands south of there, where he was met by Sken-Pitilkin and Zozimus, both of whom were sitting still on their horses.

"Well my boy," said Sken-Pitilkin. "How did you enjoy your first battle?"

"Suck shit and die," said Guest.

Then collapsed, going down in a dead faint in front of Sken-Pitilkin, who looked at Zozimus, who rolled his eyes to heaven then indulged himself in a sigh.

Chapter Fourteen

Locontareth: a community on the southern banks of the Yolantarath, some 460 leagues from Gendormargensis as the crow flies, and rather more as the river winds. Locontareth is near the borders of the empire ruled by the Witchlord Onosh. To go any distance south from Locontareth is to find oneself in hostile territory, though a trade route does run south for 640 leagues from Locontareth to the port of Favanosin.

So it was that the retreat to Locontareth began in the heat of high summer. With the shocked and shaken revolutionary army demoralized to little more than a retreating rabble in its defeat, Guest Gulkan found himself its leader, since nobody else wanted the job – for who wants such a job in a time of failure when political prominence looks to be a likely cause of execution rather than a golden path to glory?

In his swift and unopposed seizure of power, Guest Gulkan was aided by the nature of his birth. Since he had been born into the imperial family, it was only natural that a great many people should automatically think him fit to exercise imperial power; and, since Guest had at his side the wisdom of the wizards Sken-Pitilkin and Zozimus, he did not do too badly at it.

Usually, Guest was rumbunctiously uncontrollable in his undisciplined delinquency. But in defeat, and in the first shock of his new position, and sore from his wound, and nagged by pain, and full of fears of gangrene and blood poisoning, he found himself floundering, and so became unnaturally amenable to advice.

As the army looked to Guest Gulkan, so Guest looked to his wizards; and, in this day of greatest need, they did not fail him.

On Sken-Pitilkin's suggestion, the Weaponmaster's men burnt everything they could not carry. They burnt wagons and weapons, fodder and food, clothing and bandages. One or two of the more dimwitted soldiers, obedient to the literal sense of the orders they had received from on high, were caught trying (with varying degrees of success) to set fire to their own dung. Thus lightened, the defeated army retreated on horseback, carrying nothing but that which their saddlebags could hold.

The shortest horseback route required the retreating army to cover over 300 leagues from the Pig to the city of Locontareth.

The land was flat; the way was known; the weather was not unfavorable; and under these conditions a ruthless horseman can cover fifty leagues a day, assuming he has a string of horses which can be interchanged as each from its burden tires, and assuming also that the horseman does not waste time in mourning for those of his mounts who die of their exertions.

But the most ruthless horseman in the world cannot maintain such a pace for long, horseflesh being unable to match the rider's ambition; and in the confusion of its retreat, Guest Gulkan's army was hard pushed to manage twenty leagues a day, to the great and intolerant frustration of its youthful general.

Nevertheless, despite his impatience, Guest Gulkan tempered the pace of his retreat by having his army take the time to set fire to all of worth which fell to their possession. They burnt barges and villages, temples and shrines, thickets and woods, and daily fired the grass to scorch the very earth in their wake.

Thus Guest Gulkan and his people retreated downriver, leaving behind them a swathe of devastation suggestive of a very dragon in its angers.

"Your father must feed upon ashes if he would chase us," said Sken-Pitilkin, "else delay while he puts together a baggage train for the support of his army."

It seemed that Lord Onosh chose the latter path, for no word of pursuit reached Guest Gulkan, even though his scouting patrols maintained the vigilance of war in his wake.

Those patrols went forth at Guest Gulkan's sole suggestion, for as the days went by, and as he began to realize that he was unlikely to die from his boot-spike wound, he began to get a grip on himself and his new position, to remember what he had learnt in his years of growth in Gendormargensis, and to gather about him a small corps of responsible veterans who served him as his principal officers, and helped him manage the difficult business of retreat. In these days of difficulty, Guest Gulkan "lived in the skin of a horse", as the Yarglat saying has it; and, after the first few days of confused retreat, his army was no longer a mindless blob of compacted protoplasm, but was rather a dynamic organism armed and barbed. Never did his army sleep in its entirety. Instead, it maintained its vigilance with sentries, passwords and patrols.

In his retreat, the Weaponmaster commanded thrice a thousand horse. He did not bunch his spears around him, but spread his army across the countryside that it might feed with ease upon the land and maximize its destruction of the same. Only as the army approached Locontareth did it close in, as Guest concentrated his strength to smash anyone who might think to stand between him and his city of refuge. Guest in his eagerness rode with the advance guard, and so was amongst the first to sight Locontareth.

"There it is," said he, pointing at the distant city. "Our journeys are nearly at an end."

"Only if we choose to halt here," said Sken-Pitilkin, who had matched the rigors of Guest Gulkan's horse-coursing, and sat saddled a swordlength distant from him now.

"Of course we halt here," said Guest. "It would be utter folly for us to head back to Gendormargensis."

"Gendormargensis is of all places the furthest from my mind," said Sken-Pitilkin. "I was thinking not of Gendormargensis but of the sea. From Locontareth, it is barely 300 leagues to Nork."

"Where is Nork?" said Guest.

"It is on the coast," said Sken-Pitilkin. "There are ships.

The Hauma Sea – "

"It was never my ambition to play fish or be fish," said Guest shortly. "I've no thought of Nork and none of the sea. This is not a retreat but a – a withdrawal, a tactical withdrawal, that's the term. At Locontareth we stand and turn. The city is our strength, and us the masters of the world if we can make good use of our strength."

Neither Sken-Pitilkin nor Zozimus fancied the idea of being besieged in Locontareth by an angry Witchlord aided by the devices of Thodric Jarl. The Rovac were noted for their mastery of the art of the siege, so with Thodric Jarl in charge the city was sure to fall. Neither of the wizards thought Guest Gulkan a potential world ruler in embryo: rather, they thought him a wild boy who would be lucky to escape with his skin.

But Guest Gulkan was grimly determined to hold Locontareth as his own, to smash his father in battle, and then to turn the tide of war and make himself master of the empire (first) and then the world (very shortly afterwards).

With the great retreat nearing its end, and with the perceived safety of the city gates at hand, Guest found himself less and less in need of advice from his wizards. Furthermore, since the boy was sorely fatigued, and since he was under great stress, and since he was still in grievous daily pain from the wound in his foot, his temper had shortened to the point where it was difficult for either of the wizards to argue with him effectively, so they in their wisdom soon abandoned that futile enterprise.

So it was that Guest Gulkan's retreating army marched to Locontareth: only to find that the city had barred its gates against them, and had declared itself for the Witchlord Onosh!

"I will burn this town to its bones!" said Guest, seeking to fight off shocked dismay with a display of anger.

But, on investigation, the young Weaponmaster found that he lacked the forces required to make good his threat. Though he had three thousand horse, many of these were from Locontareth, and had no belly for burning their own hearths. Indeed, some thought to stay, and throw in their lot with the Witchlord Onosh. Guest threatened them.

"My father has sworn a great buggery of bayonets," said Guest. "If you stay and stand, and throw yourself on his mercy, his greatest mercy will be castration at a minimum."

But such rhetoric had little effect. For most believed that the Witchlord's wrath would be softened by Locontareth's surrender; and believed, too, that further retreat offered them nothing but pain, struggle, exile, hunger, fear, danger and death.

In the end, Guest saw that those from Locontareth would be useless to him in a fight, therefore let them enter the city.

Then he marched on with a thousand men. A great many of these were slaves; or escaped criminals; or deserters from the Witchlord's army; or men in flight from girlfriends, wives, mothers or lovers.

Rough stuff they were, but great armies can be built from such, if great generals be on hand to lead them. Guest Gulkan, who thought himself by then a very considerable general – for he was inclined to discount the value of the great amount of advice which had been given to him by his wizards, and was increasingly inclined to attribute the coherence of the retreat from Locontareth to his own wisdom – marched his diminished army westward for a day from Locontareth, then halted, and held a council of war.

The venerable Sken-Pitilkin, drawing himself up to his full height and striving for further height by making emphatic rhetorical gestures with his country crook, still counseled that they should march to Nork and flee by sea. But Guest refused.

To Guest, Nork was nothing but a name, and he rightly took the place to be small, and inconsequential, and distant, and difficult of access, and a proper base for nothing other than despair. But Guest was still possessed hot hopes of victory, and so the great city of Stranagor was much in his thoughts.

"I was born there, was I not?" said Guest.

"So rumor claims," said Sken-Pitilkin, "though I do not know the circumstances of your birth."

"Neither do I," said Guest. "But I have heard men claim me born at Stranagor, so think that city auspiciously omened for my victory."

Stranagor, the ruling city of the mouth of the Yolantarath, was much a mirror-image of Gendormargensis in terms of power and influence. If Stranagor would accept the rule of the Weaponmaster, then he might yet hope to match the Witchlord on the field of battle, and to win for himself a great victory.

"I will make for Stranagor," said Guest, "and hope to hold that city in independent revolution against my father. Unless you have any better idea."

"Well," said Sken-Pitilkin, "when your father comes to Locontareth, where will he seek us?" Sken-Pitilkin, of course, was still thinking of flight rather than of hopes for future victory, for the sagacious wizard of Skatzabratzumon lacked the sanguinary optimism of the unruly boy who had been for so long his student.

"Why," said Guest, "when the Witchlord seeks us, he will seek where we have gone, of course. He will have no trouble in finding us fled to Stranagor. There is no army which does not leave stragglers in its wake. But what of it? Let him pursue us to Stranagor. For I will rally that city to my banner, and bring the Witchlord to battle, and trample him into the murk and mire, then feed his head to my dogs, and let my women keep his organs as trivial souvenirs."

As Guest Gulkan then owned no banner, no dogs and no women, Sken-Pitilkin thought him over-optimistic. Still, clearly the boy was in a mood for battle. Sken-Pitilkin said as much.

"I think you in a mood for battle," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"Why, of course," said Guest. "For I am a mighty general, a leader of men, a master of weapons with the defeat of Thodric Jarl already to my credit. A mood for battle! What other kind of mood should I be in?"

Several suggestions slipped neatly onto Sken-Pitilkin's tongue. A mood for panic, for example. A mood of contrition, perhaps. But Sken-Pitilkin swallowed these suggestions unsaid, then spoke out of the wisdom of his geographical expertise, and said:

"So, you wish to meet the Witchlord in battle, do you? Then what say we were to circle back behind him?"

"Circle back!?" said Guest, as if scandalized.

"Yes," said Sken-Pitilkin. "You know the circle, do you not?

It is that geometrical form which has the shape of the moon at its full. By inscribing just one half of such a shape upon the surface of this continent, we can by judicious timing bring ourselves to the Witchlord's rear."

"And bugger him," said Guest.

"If you must put it like that," said Sken-Pitilkin, resisting a near-uncontrollable urge to indulge himself in a sigh, "then, yes, once behind the Witchlord we can bugger him. To be precise, we will fall upon his baggage train. He will have a baggage train, you know. There is no big army which moves without one. Each has its baggage trailing behind like the intestines dragging in the street behind a madman who has disembowelled himself. Let us thus then circle back and fall upon this baggage train."

"Circle back!" sneered Guest. "Circle back! Fall upon him!

Fall, yes, and bugger him! What on earth are you thinking of?"

"Why," said Sken-Pitilkin, "exactly what I have said. Why sneer you?"

"Because," said Guest, "this skulking business of sniffing round in circles, of falling upon the unwary and indulging in buggery, why, it strikes me as being unsavory in the extreme, and I want no business of buggery in my biography."

"Boy," said Zozimus, who had till now sat silent in the somewhat travel-stained splendor of his elven armor, "boy, this is serious!"

"Serious!" said Guest. "Then know that I am serious! The manoeuver you have proposed is one apt for the purposes of a brigand band or a scouting squad. You cannot thus manoeuver an army. We still have a thousand spears, and a thousand spears cannot slip, skulk and circle."

"Why not?" said Sken-Pitilkin.

He asked the question with a frank directness which set Guest Gulkan back on his heels. Why not, indeed?

"Because," said Guest at length, "it would be very difficult."

"True," said Sken-Pitilkin. "But a wizard could do it even if a boy could not. A thousand spears can be as adept in tactical agility as a brigand band, if only assuming that they have a genius to command them. Besides, the alternative is the complete dissolution of your army, particularly if you are bent on marching to Stranagor."

"Dissolution?" said Guest.

"Why, of course," said Sken-Pitilkin. "For you have no baggage train of your own, therefore your men must either starve or desert on the march to Stranagor, which I figure to be a march of not less than half a thousand leagues."

"It is more," said Zozimus.

"I did but speak in round figures," said Sken-Pitilkin irritably. "I know it is more! Say, 600 leagues by horseback.

More, much more, if we follow the bends of the river. Twice the distance of our retreat from Babaroth to Locontareth. Guest, your army has suffered a double-blow already. The loss of a battle and the desertion of a city. You must give them victory, Guest, and soon. Else you will lose your army entirely."

Thus the wizards Sken-Pitilkin and Pelagius Zozimus began the great task of convincing Guest Gulkan to their plan, a process which took the better part of an entire night. Then, the boy Guest being finally convinced, the three of them set to with a will, and organized furiously.

They began with a ploy designed for deception.

At the Weaponmaster's behest, a small group of men who owned Stranagor as their birthplace were sent forth on a march to that city. As these set out for far-distant Stranagor, half a dozen soldiers defected to the nearby city of Locontareth, taking with them the news that Guest Gulkan was escaping to Stranagor with those who were bound for that city, heavily disguised to avoid detection.

Another small party set out for Nork – and their destination was likewise betrayed by paid defectors carefully rehearsed by Zozimus and Sken-Pitilkin.

Then Guest, his wizards and the rump of his army headed south along a rough and ready trading track – only a bankrupting extravagance would have called it a road – which led in the general direction of Favanosin. Initially, the soldiers were told that Favanosin was their destination. Naturally, some stragglers fell out and were left behind, with the news of Guest Gulkan's flight to the south fixed firmly in their minds.

Thus, counseled by his wizards, the Weaponmaster managed to split himself in three – surely one of the most extravagant feats of wizardly magic to be found in the history of the Confederation of Wizards. Thanks to this wizard-war legerdemain, Guest was simultaneously running north-west to Stranagor, south of west to Nork, and due south to Favanosin, and there was hope that random rumor might have him running in a dozen different supplementary directions as well. One thing was for certain: by the time the Witchlord Onosh and Thodric Jarl reached Locontareth, the true truth of the boy's direction would be beyond retrieval.

"But when," said Guest Gulkan, as they marched south, "when will we break for the east to circle round behind my father?"

"Leave that decision to me," said Sken-Pitilkin, "for if you don't know it then nobody else will."

"But I need to know it!" said Guest.

"Then your good friend Rolf Thelemite will find he needs to know as much himself," said Sken-Pitilkin, "and by such dispersal of intelligence, the entire army will know by the end of the day, which means our stragglers will know, and our deserters likewise, which means Lord Onosh will know the same, and soon. Peace, Guest!

Trust me! Just for once, please, trust me!"

Thus Guest Gulkan's thousand spears marched south for three days, with each and every common soldier earnestly thinking the army bound for Favanosin, and with every straggler and deserter thinking likewise.

Each night the army camped, and on dawn on the fourth day the sagacious Sken-Pitilkin pronounced them sufficiently south to begin to move in a great arc widdershins. The Swelaway Sea was their announced destination, for Sken-Pitilkin did not as yet think it wise to trust the common soldiers with the full truth.

As the army launched itself into this arc, it moved slowly at first, deploying a strong rearguard to prevent straggling. The envanishment of armies is a great art, and one which requires patience, and planning, and meticulous attention to detail.

And in this the wizards were triumphant.

Though Guest was a novice in war, fit for nothing more complicated than the brightsword clash of blade against blade, Sken-Pitilkin was learned in manoeuver; and, though long out of use, his skills remained to him. It is true that in the long-gone days of yore Sken-Pitilkin had lost more wars than he had won, but he had since refined his skills by dint of brooding over his errors, and made no mistakes on this occasion.

Once the force was far enough into its arc for stragglers to have no hope of betraying its intentions, Sken-Pitilkin had Guest Gulkan call his men together and brief them in depth. Their enthusiasm was roused by the prospect of attacking a baggage train and looting it, particularly as their own rations were down to something close to nothing.

So the force completed its arc, reaching the Yolantarath at a position which was, by Sken-Pitilkin's guestimate, something more than a hundred leagues to the east of Locontareth. If Sken-Pitilkin was right, then the Witchlord Onosh would now be somewhere to their west, advancing with all possible haste in the hope of catching Guest Gulkan before he could escape; and, again if Sken-Pitilkin was right, the Witchlord's baggage train would be some distance still to the east, loitering along in the wake of the army.

"One hopes you are right, cousin," said Zozimus, surveying the broad and sluggish width of the Yolantarath, "for we are going to look awfully foolish if you are wrong."

"I am right, I know it," said Sken-Pitilkin, knowing full well that looking foolish would be the least of their problems if he was wrong.

The Yolantarath lay wide and empty under the scrutiny of Guest Gulkan's forces. Guest sat in the sun and thought, trying to absorb the mind-boggling array of tactical and strategic devices to which he had been exposed in the last few days.

As a child growing up in Gendormargensis, Guest had thought of war as a matter of swordsmash and bloodspill, of raw courage and brute strength adventuring. His early forays into the mountains against bandits had helped secure him in this conviction. But by now Sken-Pitilkin and Zozimus had opened up appalling vistas of complexity. He saw that the war story was but the surface glitter of the deep and dark-complexioned art of war, and that he in his youth knew virtually nothing of the full complexity of that art.

The Yolantarath lay wide and empty for a day. Then, at midmorning, the long and uneasy wait was broken when a convoy of barges came in sight. They were coming slowly downstream, heading toward Locontareth. This, by every presumption, was surely the Witchlord's baggage train. Sken-Pitilkin directed a couple of men to hail the barges.

"Say that the Witchlord Onosh is here," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"Say that he wishes to see the captains of these barges. The barges themselves are to halt at the riverbank."

This message was conveyed to the barges, which obeyed the order. The captains gathered in, which was entirely natural for them to do – for, as far as they were concerned, Guest Gulkan had been defeated and was running for the far horizon, so the territory through which they were venturing was safe and secure.

With the captains came Guest Gulkan's brothers, Morsh Bataar and Eljuk Zala, who had been left in nominal command of this baggage train.

"Guest!" said Eljuk, reacting in shocked surprise when he saw his brother.

Eljuk's lower lip trembled as vehemently as Rolf Thelemite's was wont to do. Guest half-expected saliva to dribble from Eljuk's mouth and flow down his chin, following the tracks of his purple birthmark. But the Weaponmaster's sadistic expectation was not to be gratified, for Eljuk was dry-mouthed with fear.

While Eljuk was near-paralysed by fear, the barge-captains were not. Those worthies grabbed for their weapons, but were overpowered.

"Guest," said Morsh Bataar, standing unmoved amidst the confusion of the struggle.

"It is me," said Guest, grandly. Then: "Good to see you,

Morsh? How's the leg?"

"The leg serves its purpose," said Morsh formally. "But you?

What purpose do you serve?"

"The purpose of justice," said Guest. "I serve the purpose of a just manuring for Locontareth. I will be emperor, and spread my shit from Gendormargensis to the sea."

"You are quite mad," said Morsh. "A dog has bitten you, and you're foaming at the mouth."

"No, no," said Guest. "It's not me who was bitten, it was Glambrax, and anyway, he's not foaming either. He's still in Locontareth, or was – he was with us but deserted."

"Then the dwarf has at least a little sense," said Morsh.

"But you have none."Guest took his brother's rebukes in good part, for Morsh Bataar was known to be slow in his wits, therefore it was only natural that he might be slow to appreciate the glories of Guest's life as a large-scale bandit.

In the best of good humor, Guest declared his brothers hostages, and declared the captains of the barges to be hostages as well. Then, finding out that Eljuk's new tutor was on one of the barges, he had the man hauled before him.

"What is your name?" said Guest.

"My name, young sir, is Eldegen Terzanagel."

So spoke the tutor, a text-master whom Guest judged to be aged somewhere between 40 and 50. His hair and beard were both dyed gray, and were severely cropped. Everything about him spoke of discipline, probity, and order, and Guest hated him at sight.

"I lately had a letter from Bao Gahai," said Guest, casting back in his memory for the details of that epistle. "She claimed you to be teaching my brother the irregular verbs."

"I am assisting him in his studies," said Terzanagel.

"With the aid of books?" said Guest.

"But of course," said Terzanagel.

"Then bring forth your books," said Guest, "for I am eager to receive instruction."

The innocent Terzanagel was fool enough to take the Weaponmaster at his word, and shortly Guest was busy organizing a ceremonial Burning of the Books by the banks of the Yolantarath.

Once Guest had burnt Terzanagel's grammars, geographies, dictionaries, histories, biologies, genealogies, hagiographies, and mathematical treatises, he at last asked the obvious question:

"What now?"

Up till then, the Weaponmaster had not thought any further than the capture of the Witchlord's baggage train; but now that he did start thinking it seemed to him that he was in a pretty pickle. Guest Gulkan had but a thousand spears under the command of his sword. As far as he knew, the tax revolt was effectively shattered, and all the empire was with the Witchlord, or would be with it soon. He had lost his chance of escaping to Stranagor, or to Nork, or to Favanosin. A couple of bargees had already dived overboard and had escaped downstream in the flow of the Yolantarath, so Guest could not conceal his position for long.

"Why," said Sken-Pitilkin, "now we portage these stores to the mountains of Ibsen-Iktus. The mountains are but a hundred leagues or so in the distance, and with these stores we can hold out there forever."

"A hundred leagues!" said Guest.

"It is no great distance with the help of horses," said Sken-Pitilkin equitably.

And after Sken-Pitilkin and Zozimus had explained to him the details, Guest Gulkan began to see that his wizards were right. If they retreated to the valley of Yox with this burden of stores, then Lord Onosh would be hard-pressed to dig them out. But:

"We'll be trapped there," said Guest.

"No," said Sken-Pitilkin, "for if we have no alternative then we'll withdraw to the waters of the Swelaway Sea, and throw ourselves upon the mercy of the Safrak Bank."

And, with that reserve plan having been explained to all of Guest Gulkan's force, the great retreat began.

Chapter Fifteen

Volvo Marp: a high pass connecting the riverlands of the Yolantarath with the uplands of the Ibsen-Iktus Mountains. The climb to Volvo Marp is steep, and takes one to such perilous heights that it is difficult for the newcomer to find air enough to breathe. Beyond this pass lies the Hidden Valley of Yox, a barren rift bereft of trees and unyielding of water; and a transit of this wasteland allows an assault upon Zomara Pass, the conquest of which will bring the traveler into the valley of Ul-donlok, home of the wizard Ontario Nol.

The Witchlord Onosh and the Rovac warrior Thodric Jarl thought their defeated enemies would surely make a stand at Locontareth, and in this expectation they marched in good order downriver, hoping to tempt the rebels from the city and smash them in a decisive battle.

"If that proves not possible," said Jarl, "then we will take the city by siege."

Thodric Jarl rejoiced in sieges. To him, a siege was even more satisfying than a pitched battle. After all, in the heat of battle, one's enemies are apt to fight with hope in their hearts – and rightly so, for battle is the province of chance. But the slow, sure, remorseless, clutching, clamping, throttling procedures of siege give the victim far fewer resources by way of hope. Those besieged are by definition defeated already, so in many ways a siege is like having your enemy staked out helplessly beneath the burning sun, and putting your boot to his throat, and putting your weight to the boot.

Then crushing down.

So while Thodric Jarl advanced upon Locontareth, he was diligent in planning for siege, and sifted from the ranks of his army all those who were habitual citizens of Locontareth, or who had been through there often in the course of military service or activities of trade. The Witchlord Onosh, who lacked Jarl's experience of siege, monitored Jarl's preparations with all the diligence of an ideal student granted the privilege of watching his master at work.

Only on arrival at Locontareth did Thodric Jarl and the Witchlord realize that Guest Gulkan had fled. The city opened its gates to them, so they were spared a battle – but the important thing was to catch Guest, for the boy must be captured and quelled lest he prolong the revolution.

So Thodric Jarl began to research Guest Gulkan's whereabouts, and the first people to help him with these researches were the dralkosh Zelafona and her dwarf-son Glambrax, who were discovered living in an abandoned dog kennel in the shadows of the ruling hall of Locontareth.

From that dog kennel, mother and son had been running a vigorous business, selling roast rats and an ersatz brew cooked up from acorns. This is scarcely surprising, for the witches of the Sisterhood were ever able in business, and indeed it was the supreme commercial skills of the Sisterhood which first led witches into conflict with wizards, for since its very inception the Confederation of Wizards had struggled to dominate trade and commerce in all those lands under its dominion.

Thus it happened -

But that is ancient history, for the great pogrom against the witches is long over, and this text concerns itself not with the days of antiquity but with things still fresh in the minds of living men (and living women, too, if women be admitted to have minds, which seems a reasonable proposition, for all that nearly half the world disputes it).

With Zelafona discovered, and with Glambrax uncovered likewise, it was soon found that they had played no part in the recent troubles, for Zelafona had early disguised herself as a beggar woman, and Glambrax had soon betrayed his forced oath to the revolutionary Sham Cham, deserting from the revolutionary army to be at his mother's side.

Thus Jarl was forced to seek other sources of intelligence, which he did. And thus the gray-bearded Thodric Jarl discovered that the young and athletic Guest Gulkan had fled to Stranagor, and to Nork, and to Favanosin, making his way to all three destinations simultaneously.

"If Guest has gone toward Nork," said Jarl, "then his swords will be of little danger to our peace. The country thereabouts lies in barbarous wilds of forest and hill, fraught with bogs and bear barrows. In such a wasteland, he'll find no allies apt for recruitment. Rather, he may have to fight for a bitter season simply to win his way to the coast. At best he can secure his escape, and no more."

"So," said Lord Onosh, absorbing this.

"If, on the other hand, the boy has fled to Stranagor," said Jarl, "then we face a far greater danger. The countryside between here and Stranagor is rich and well-populated, with much discontent there to be found."

Jarl did not itemize the reasons for that discontent, for some margin of diplomacy remained to the Rovac warrior despite his upbringing, and the sorry truth is that the discontents of Stranagor flowed largely from the derelictions of the Witchlord's tax policies.

"And Favanosin?" said Lord Onosh, pursuing the question of Guest's third option.

"If the boy has truly withdrawn to Favanosin," said Thodric Jarl, "then I think him planning to ambush us on the road, or to cheat our troops down that road then fall in force upon Locontareth itself."

"So what would you suggest?" said Lord Onosh.

"The greatest danger is Stranagor," said Jarl. "So I suggest we send a full two-thirds of our army to seize, secure or besiege that city, as the case may be. Meanwhile, we should send probing patrols in strength toward Nork and Favanosin, at least to be sure that no thousands lie waiting there in ambush."

Thus it was done; and so the Witchlord's forces had been greatly diminished by the time the news came that Guest Gulkan was in their rear.

"He has made an error," said Thodric Jarl calmly. "To launch himself upon a civil war he must rouse a major city to his cause, whereas it seems he had chosen to turn bandit. As such, he becomes a nuisance, but is no longer a danger. I suspect he has taken the advice of wizards, which cowards have more concern for their own skins than for the conquest of empire."

Here a difference in perspective. While Guest Gulkan's tutelary wizards had been very much concerned with securing the safety of their own skins, the Rovac warrior Thodric Jarl and the Witchlord Onosh had been concerned rather with the possibility of finding themselves with a full-scale civil war on their hands. By their standards, Guest and his wizards had proved to be pusillanimous cowards by flinching from the challenges of civil war.

"What now?" said Lord Onosh, when it was discovered that Guest had crept round behind his father, and, like a mouse triumphant in its devastations, had successfully gnawed away his father's baggage train to nothing.

"Now?" said Jarl, who saw no need for the question, since he thought the rightful disposal of a nibbling mouse to be far too obvious to require anything in the way of debate. "Why, now we turn. We turn. We march. We catch them. We smash them. But all this we do with care, because there is a danger that they will try to trick their way around our flanks."

Though Jarl had by now decided that Guest, Sken-Pitilkin and Zozimus were a trio of cowards, he nevertheless realized they had been trickier than he had expected, and might be trickier still before this game was through. Accordingly, he left a strong force in Locontareth, and advanced cautiously with scouts riding far out on his southern flank, and with scouting parties riding the northern bank of the Yolantarath just in case Guest had sneaked his army across the water and was attempting some ambitious manoeuvre beyond the visible horizon to the north.

The end result was that Guest and his people had got clean away to the mountains by the time Jarl closed with their previous location. Furthermore, in his retreat, Guest had got away with his brothers Morsh and Eljuk, two captives whose fate Lord Onosh lamented bitterly.

But at least the mystery of Guest's precise circumstances and intentions appeared to be at an end, for the boy had left behind him evidence and witnesses in plenty – most notably, witnesses in the form of the barge crews and their captains, who had been turned loose after cooperating with the labor of the withdrawal.

"Then he is gone," said Jarl in satisfaction, "and that is the end of him."

"But he has escaped!" said Lord Onosh. "And – and my sons!

Eljuk! Morsh! He's got the boy as prisoners!"

"Then my lord will have to reconcile himself to the imprisonment of his sons," said Jarl formally, "and perhaps in the fullness of time my lord will also have to reconcile himself to the death of those sons."

"And to the loss of my empire, mayhap?" said Lord Onosh grimly. "Guest's escaped, and with him those wizards in their treachery. All of Ibsen-Iktus is his unless we hunt him down and break him. Within that mountain fastness, he can gather his forces and prepare to break the very empire with his onslaught."

"My lord," said Jarl, finding himself hard-pressed to stay calm in the face of the Witchlord's agitation. "Ibsen-Iktus is but a parcel of rocks, useless for all purposes excepting those of suicide."

"A fastness," insisted Lord Onosh.

"If my lord means that the mountains are a castle," said Jarl, "why, then so they are, but a very bleak and barren castle, empty of all the necessities required for either siege or outright war. In those mountains, my lord, there is everything a rock could need for the full satisfaction of its appetites, hence rocks live there in great multitudes in the full independence of their rightful kingdom. But rocks – my lord, the boy can scarcely recruit those rocks to his fighting force, nor can he use bare stone to feed the mutinous rabble which serves him."

"But he could push through the mountains to escape," said Lord Onosh.

"And what of it?" said Jarl. "Beyond the mountains of Ibsen-Iktus lies the Swelaway Sea."

"And Safrak," said Lord Onosh, naming the ruling archipelago of that sea.

"What of it?" said Jarl. "Suppose the boy can make an alliance with Safrak? What then? Safrak's but a rock, a group of rocks, a lesser version of Ibsen-Iktus, rocks up to their necks in water. Small rocks, my lord."

"Rocks protected by the Guardians," said Lord Onosh, who knew all about the mercenaries which served the Safrak Bank.

"So Safrak has a Bank, and the Bank has guards," said Jarl.

"It has dogs, too. I know it for a fact, since the mangiest of them pissed on my boot when I first reach Alozay. I've been there, my lord. And while I was there, I counted. My lord, the rocks are nothing, for there aren't sufficient women, sheep or fighting men in all of Safrak to pose the slightest hazard to our empire."

"But Guest has my sons," said Lord Onosh. "Morsh. And Eljuk.

He has them prisoner."

"Yes," said Jarl, growing weary with the labor of repetition. "He has, and will hold. My lord, I ventured Ibsen-Iktus in the spring. Its barrens are built for starvation. If trapped upon those heights, then Guest must either transfigure his men to goats or see them starve. Failing transfiguration, he must surrender – to us or to Safrak. If to Safrak, then Safrak will yield him up to secure its trade. Yes, and yield up Morsh and Eljuk simultaneously."

Thus Jarl, who had no taste for venturing into the mountains after Guest, feeling that pursuit would be unprofitable, for the heights of Ibsen-Iktus would grant great advantages of defense to anyone with the will to hold them.

But Lord Onosh declared that he must have either Morsh or Eljuk by his side. And soon.

"Else," said Lord Onosh, "in the absence of any obvious and visible heir, my rivals amongst the Yarglat may choose this moment to try to dislodge me from my throne."

Jarl was not convinced; but presumably Lord Onosh knew the politics of his own people and his own empire better than did a Rovac mercenary, so at last Jarl saw that he had no alternative other than to let himself be persuaded.

"Very well," said Jarl. "So the empire must have an heir.

Then I will get back one of the boys, at least, if not both. Give me a dozen men, a case of gold and the right of pardon. That's all I need."

"The right of pardon!" said Lord Onosh.

"Certainly," said Jarl.

"Who are you planning to pardon?" said Lord Onosh.

"Why, the wizards," said Jarl. "At least the wizards, and quite possibly Guest himself."

"The wizards!" said Lord Onosh in astonishment.

Though the Witchlord Onosh was not fully conversant with the details of the long-standing conflict between Rovac's warriors and the wizards of Argan's Confederation, he had nevertheless heard something of that ancient enmity from Bao Gahai and Zelafona (who, as witches, were versed in such knowledge), from Rolf Thelemite (who always pleaded the Rovac's case), and from Zozimus and Sken-Pitilkin themselves.

"Even that," said Thodric Jarl stoically. "My lord, I have no wish to pardon anyone, far less wizards. Yet I think a cure by means of pardons and disbursements is the easiest way to secure our cause. These wizards, in particular, are weak and venial creatures, yet cunning in their argument. By combination of threat and incentive, I can win them to our cause, and easily, and they by their guile will win us Guest."

In truth, Thodric Jarl would rather kill people than pardon them any day of the year, but on this occasion the doughty Rovac warrior fancied that the odds favored diplomacy. But Lord Onosh was dead against it, saying that his rivals amongst the Yarglat would think him weak if he dispensed his pardons too freely, and that this itself might be cause for a coup.

Therefore the Witchlord Onosh declared that he would prove his strength by marching his army into the mountains of Ibsen-Iktus and wresting Morsh and Eljuk from the grip of their captors by main force.

"My lord," said Jarl, in protest.

"You have another plan," said Lord Onosh, glaring at him.

"My lord," said Jarl, in one last attempt to stave off a move he saw as precipitous folly. "I would not chance it, my lord.

Bottle the boy in the hills then threaten him. Try that for a start, my lord. A threat first, and war then only if necessary."

"No," said Lord Onosh. "We march for the mountains, and we march today."

"But," said Jarl, "the mountains are high, and cold in their highness. If we mean to assail those heights, we must first prepare ourselves for winter campaigning."

But Lord Onosh was determined, and so marched his army into the hills in search of the high pass of Volvo Marp, the pass which would give access to the frozen wastelands of the Hidden Valley of Yox. A long and dusty journey it was, a journey begun in the full heat of summer; and the continental summers of Tameran are a matter of sun and sweat, of biting flies and nimble insects born with beaks like needles and an unquenchable appetite for human blood.

"Grief of a turnip!" said Lord Onosh, pausing on one steep and dusty hillside to wipe the sweat from his brow. "I thought you said the mountains were cold. You spoke of winter campaigning!"

"In the mountains, my lord," said Thodric Jarl. "But these are not yet the mountains. These are only the hills."

"This is mountain enough to nearly defy the strength of a horse," said Lord Onosh. "If the heights above will deny also the sun, then I welcome them!"

Jarl thought this intemperate folly, but had given up arguing with his emperor. Instead, he was fully occupied by the labor of finding the true path to the high pass of Volvo Marp.

When Thodric Jarl had descended from the mountains to the hills in the days of spring, his mind had been initially clouded by the pain-killing drug fed to him by Ontario Nol. So Jarl's recollections of Volvo Marp were nothing but a foggy blur, and to find the way Jarl had to rely upon certain of the bargemen who had assisted Guest Gulkan in the great work of portage which had seen the Weaponmaster steal away the contents of his father's baggage train.

At last they entered into a ravaged valley with steeply canted sides, a valley of fractured stone and buckled erosion, of thornbush bastions and chikle-gikle streams still chill from the snows of their melt-water genesis.

"This valley, my lord," said Thodric Jarl to his emperor,

"leads us to the high pass of Volvo Marp."

"Valley!" said the Witchlord, eyeing the terrain dubiously.

"You call this a valley? The land is tilted like a stairway, and a steep stairway at that."

"As the mountains count land," said Jarl, "anything not a cliff is a valley."

"Then I think you still in error," said the Witchlord, surveying the steepness which lay ahead, "for I count this as a cliff!"

But regardless of how the Witchlord counted it, they had no choice but to climb it.

And as they climbed it grew cold; for on the heights the unyielding ice and snow persists the full year through. Worse, the steepness of the track was such that the greater number of the horses had to be abandoned. Thereafter, the Witchlord could not ride, but must necessarily walk.

And the nights!

Stripped to the lightness of their summer campaigning, the Witchlord's forces found the mountain nights near unendurable in their cold. True, they all knew the harshness of Tameran's winters, but they were always forewarned of those winters, and went into them heavily padded, in imitation of the bear.

Only Thodric Jarl's experience allowed them to survive the sudden weather-shock of the heights of Ibsen-Iktus. For Jarl had campaigned in the Cold West, and proved equal to the task of high- mountain survival. He counseled the mutual huddling of bodies at night; the improvisation of insulating pads from lightweight cloth stuffed with leaves; the making of fires; and the cunning practice of covering a half-burnt fire with a great heap of loose stones, and thereafter using those stones as a warm bed to assist with survival through the bitter frosts of night.

So the Witchlord and his Rovac general forced their army to the heights of Volvo Marp, the first of the great challenges of the mountains of Ibsen-Iktus.

And Guest Gulkan and his forces were waiting upon the heights of that pass – or seemed to be – in a position they had heavily fortified. Lord Onosh and Thodric Jarl could see banners flying from the fortifications; and men appearing at random; and the smoke of fires rising in the thin air. So the Witchlord and his Rovac-born general organized a slow-motion advance through the air of the heights, the air which was so bitterly thin and difficult to breathe; and Guest Gulkan sent an avalanche crashing down on them from above.

Down came the avalanche, a whale in its roiling, a dragon in its roar. Boulders bounced, some huge as houses, mulching the strength of the army.

A few survived.

Those few were the few who had been closest to Guest Gulkan's fortifications when the avalanche was launched. Naturally, those few were those who were greatest in courage, and most eager for battle – and these included the Rovac warrior Thodric Jarl and the Witchlord Onosh.

Jarl was unhurt, but for a slight wound inflicted by a splinter of ice which, sent shattering through the sky by the impact of a house-sized boulder, had driven through leather and chain mail to nick the Rovac warrior's back just beneath his left- sided shoulderbone. But a more serious blow had been delivered to his pride, for he had been defeated by Guest Gulkan, who was but a boy, albeit a boy protected and counseled by wizards.

Of course, the wizard Ontario Nol was as much to blame for Jarl's defeat as anyone, for it was Nol who had drugged Jarl into a state of stupefaction to keep him quiet on their earlier journey through the uplands of Ibsen-Iktus; and so it was that a clear- eyed Guest Gulkan had been able to scan the landscape for possibilities of ambush while Thodric Jarl had been concentrating on the difficult business of putting one foot in front of the other.

As for Lord Onosh, he was entirely unhurt, at least so far as flesh and bone was concerned, but he was so shattered in his wits that he could not speak for two days, and it was even longer before he had sufficient control of his hands to hold a cup in his hands. Because of course, to Lord Onosh, that avalanche had struck like the wrath of the gods themselves, precipitating grotesque outrages of death out of a clear sky.

An avalanche is such a terrible weapon of mass destruction that, in the past, the making of avalanches has often been explicitly outlawed in the treaties which civilized nations have made to regulate the conduct of their wars. But both Lord Onosh and his son Guest Gulkan were of the Yarglat, hence their actions owed nothing to civilized usage.

And so it was that the Weaponmaster smashed the Witchlord's army with the savagery of a landslide, and thus made himself the lord of the battlefield, and made prisoners out of both his father and his Rovac-born general.

Chapter Sixteen

Ul-donlok: valley in the mountains of Ibsen-Iktus. The upper part of this valley is ruled by Ontario Nol, a wizard of the order of Itch. Nearer the Swelaway Sea is the realm of King Igpatan, a monarch famous for his extensive collection of moths, and for the unpleasant nature of his frequent birthday celebrations.

So Lord Onosh was defeated at the high pass of Volvo Marp; and was led as a prisoner through the high and bitter valley of Yox; and was taken over Zomara Pass; and thus came in chains to the valley of Ul-donlok and the monastery of Qonsajara, home of the wizard Ontario Nol.

In chains?

Yes, for Guest had found a renegade goldsmith amongst his ranks, and had caused the man to make miniature chains of fine- link gold out of some jewelry taken from the dead; and, wearing these largely symbolic tokens of his defeat, the Witchlord Onosh came to the monastery of Qonsajara.

His son played tourist guide for the visit.

"This," said Guest, with a gesture in the direction of the vast decrepitude of the building's tiled facade, "was once consecrated to dorking, but those dedicated to that sport found the climate too cold for their nakedness."

Then Guest Gulkan gave the Witchlord a potted history of the many orgies of Qonsajara, showing off the place as if it was his own creation. Indeed, young Guest was greatly proud of the hugeness of this behemoth of a building, with its monumental frontage half a thousand paces in length, the whole of it adorned with obscenely ornate faded ceramic tiles dedicated to the liquidity of the hulakola, the heat of the yinx, the mystery of the omphalos, the snakings of limbs of passion and silk, the lividity of tongues, the yearning of muscles and the fondling of curves, the sensuality of all of which was amplified by the very harshness of the bleak and shattered upland landscape in which the building was set.

Just as the Witchlord Onosh took no pleasure in Guest Gulkan's building, so the Witchlord took no pleasure in being held captive, and this Guest found most strange.

After all, as far as the Weaponmaster was concerned, he was being most magnanimously hospitable in victory. Apart from the symbolic imposition of golden chains, young Guest had done his father no harm, and thought himself a very great man to be letting his father enjoy the unhindered possession of such superfluous luxuries as two eyes and a nose. After all, what had Lord Onosh ever done for young Guest? Nothing. He had never offered him anything in the way of power, authority or prestige. It was the purple-birthmarked Eljuk who had been groomed to inherit the empire, whereas poor Guest had ever been told that he would inherit precisely nothing.

Yet surely he deserved to inherit!

As far as Guest was concerned, he was a mighty warrior who in the days of his earliest youth had repeatedly fought for his father against bandits, who had once risked his own life to save his brother Eljuk from the river, and who had brought great credit to the imperial family by defeating the Rovac warrior Thodric Jarl in fair combat in Enskandalon Square in Gendormargensis.

All this Guest had done, yet his father had repaid him with theft and exile. His father had denied him access to Yerzerdayla, the prize he had won through combat with Thodric Jarl, and in Guest Gulkan's eyes this denial constituted an act of positive theft. This wrong had been compounded by the fact that his father had meanly and unfairly exiled him from the imperial capital and all its pleasures, sending him into exile in far-off Safrak where he had been denied all of life's consolations excepting the company of the irregular verbs. Guest Gulkan had almost died on the journey to that island, for the boat which had taken him across the Swelaway Sea had been rotten, and had almost sunk. And on arrival – why, on the cruel and loveless island of Alozay, the exiled Guest had endured the horrors of a plague of influenza. There, too, he had been confronted by a demonic demon, the notorious Icaria Scaria Iva-Italis, Demon By Appointment to the Great God Jocasta. Then he had been forced to fight his way free from the island; and to escape across the Swelaway Sea in another death-trap of a boat; and then to risk a terrifying sky-hurtling journey across the mountains.

And then, in the mountains themselves, he had almost died on account of the effects of a sudden ascent to great altitude.

And it was all his father's fault!

To Guest, then, it was entirely right, logical and just that he should have thrown in his lot with the tax revolutionaries led by Sham Cham, for Guest had grievances to avenge, grievances which were well worth killing for. The theft of the flesh of the woman Yerzerdayla, for example! Not to mention such matters as the inheritance of the empire.

Consequently, Guest prided himself on the magnanimous greatness of heart which he showed by not killing his father, or torturing him either, or spitting in his face, or cutting off his hair, or grinding his nose into the mud, or doing any of those other things which the ingenious Rolf Thelemite suggested with such unrestrained enthusiasm.

So when Guest looked on his father, he thought:

"Here is the foolish old man who cheated me of my woman, who exiled me unfairly, who waged war against me rather than share his manure with Locontareth, and who is living proof of my own greatness of heart, for I have almost forgiven him, in proof of which I have greeted him with the full abundance of this mountain palace of mine, and have extended to him the use of all things which are good in this my mountain kingdom."

Thus Guest thought, for as far as he was concerned he had conquered the valley of Ul-donlok by the simple expedient of marching his small army into it; and, as the wizard Ontario Nol wisely offered Guest everything in the valley which was there for the taking, the valley was indeed a kingdom, at least for the practical purposes of the moment.

Thus Guest.

But the Witchlord Onosh inhabited a different world entirely – a situation which has plenty of precedent, for parents and children are often so remote from each other as to be, in effect, members of different tribes, or different races, or different species altogether. Hence there is often more love, trust and mutual understanding between a man and his dog than a man and his son.

As far as Lord Onosh was concerned, Guest Gulkan was a wild and witless boy who had disgraced himself and had brought the imperial family into disrepute by quarreling with a low-born foreign mercenary over the possession of a woman. After attempting the unjust seizure of the woman, the boy had then risked his life against the mercenary, and had almost got himself killed.

Lord Onosh knew full well that Thodric Jarl would have killed Guest in Enskandalon Square had Lord Onosh not intervened by persuading the wizard Sken-Pitilkin to use his magic to trick Jarl out of his balance. After saving his son, the Witchlord had thereafter demonstrated his concerned love for the boy by sending him to safety in the Safrak Islands, which were renowned as a zone of peace and tranquility.

Furthermore, Lord Onosh had deprived himself of the benefits of the cooking of Pelagius Zozimus, the greatest chef in the Collosnon Empire, for the Witchlord Onosh had sent the wizard-chef Zozimus to Safrak to provide extra security for his son. Meantime,

Lord Onosh had tried hard to put down the tax revolt based on Locontareth, to secure the empire which was surely destined to be Guest's inheritance.

So when Lord Onosh looked at Guest, he thought:

"Here is the wicked, witless, mindless, stubborn, stupid, ungrateful, scheming, treacherous boy whom I have tried for so long to preserve, protect and educate so that he might one day be fit to govern the empire which I have ever expected to fall inevitably to his possession. To protect him in battle, I have risked losing the loyalty of my greatest bodyguard; and I have deprived myself of the services of my greatest chef in order to help preserve and protect his worthless life, and for all this he has proved entirely ungrateful."

Thus the son was confused and the father bitter; and, in the extremity of his bitterness, Lord Onosh began to reconfigure the past, without realizing that he was doing so.

Lord Onosh had always seen that his own death would be followed by murder. Eljuk Zala Gulkan lacked the strength to hold an empire as his own. Therefore, on the Witchlord's death, Guest Gulkan must necessarily murder Eljuk, slaughtering down his brother then mastering the Collosnon Empire to his own will. This Lord Onosh had always seen.

But now, rather than attributing Eljuk's inevitable fate to Eljuk's deficiencies, Lord Onosh convinced himself that the certainty of Eljuk's destruction was a consequence of the demonic evil of the boy Guest.

So when Eljuk unexpectedly announced that he was going to stay in the mountains with the wizard Ontario Nol, Lord Onosh was convinced that Guest had terrorized poor Eljuk, and had threatened him with murder or worse.

"What has he said to you?" said Lord Onosh.

"He has said," said Eljuk, "that he will make me his apprentice."

"No," said Lord Onosh irritably. "Not the wizard. It's Guest, Guest I'm talking about. What has Guest said to you? About staying, I mean?"

"Why," said Eljuk, "he said that Nol wanted me, asked for me.

And he says, ah, it's a good idea, that's what he says."

"You mean he threatened you?"

"Threatened?" said Eljuk, looking puzzled. "Why should he threaten me?"

"Because he wants the empire."

"Well," said Eljuk, "if I'm going to be a wizard, then he can have it."

"But you can't be a wizard!" said Lord Onosh. "You're of the Yarglat, and no man of the Yarglat was ever a wizard! It's foreign stuff, stuff for the people of Toxteth and places like that."

Eljuk Zala, resisting the temptation to remind his father that Toxteth was not a place but a language, reminded him instead that Ontario Nol was of the Yarglat.

"So he says, so he says," said Lord Onosh. "But I'm sure he was never the heir to an empire."

"What's that got to do with it?" said Eljuk.

At this, Lord Onosh looked fit to overheat and explode, in the manner of one of those notorious pressure cookers with which Pelagius Zozimus once experimented.

"You can't just throw away an empire," said Lord Onosh in great distress. "You can't just throw it away, just like that!"

But Eljuk could, and did, and had. For Ontario Nol, the great wizard of Itch who had lived for so long as abbot of Qonsajara and as ruler of the uplands of Ul-donlok, had tempted young Eljuk with prospects of knowledge, and insight, and arcane power, and life prolonged for millennia. This temptation had proved potent, for the scholarly Eljuk had no desire to be the lord of the sweat of ten thousand horses or the grease of an equal number of virginal vaginas, or to possess any of those other most useless and uncouth material goods which typically appeal to your average Yarglat barbarian.

So Eljuk abandoned an empire, choosing wizardry instead.

And Eljuk could not be dissuaded from his choice.

Lord Onosh had little time in which to attempt dissuasion, for Guest was conscious of the passage of time, and knew that he was growing short of this commodity. The Battle of Babaroth had been fought in the heat of high summer, and it had been hot summer still when Guest had defeated his father at Volvo Marp by making an ally out of an avalanche; but the season was rapidly advancing, and soon it would be autumn. Guest Gulkan remembered the winter journey which had seen him journey from Gendormargensis to an unwelcome exile on the island of Alozay. For a few people, well-equipped and well-clad, that winter passage had proved feasible. But Guest fancied that a thousand spears would be hard-put to scavenge a bare living for themselves on such a passage through snow and ice.

The rations which Guest had earlier looted from his father's baggage train and portaged into the mountains were running short; by no stretch of imagination could the mountains themselves feed his army; and so he was determined to be back in Gendormargensis before winter set in.

Being so determined, Guest Gulkan said a fond farewell to his brother Eljuk, and ordered his army to prepare for a march to the lowlands, the lowlands where the sun was exercising its strength in one last bravado display of luxurious heat.

Lord Onosh begged for leave to stay in Qonsajara, swearing that he would live out his life peacefully in the mountains of Ibsen-Iktus. But Guest was not fool enough to believe his father, so took the man with him, that man being still symbolically imprisoned with golden chains. Jarl likewise went as a prisoner.

Eljuk stayed. The text-master Eldegen Terzanagel wanted to stay, but Ontario Nol refused him house room. Nevertheless, Nol extended a hospitable mercy to a couple of poor fellows who were dying of tuberculosis, and to a witless fool who had broken his leg in five different places by attempting that suicidal activity known as mountain climbing. But the rest of the army marched.

Thus it came to pass that Eljuk Zala Gulkan, eldest son of the Witchlord Onosh Gulkan, stayed behind in the monastery of Qonsajara. And the bold Guest Gulkan said farewell to the wizard Ontario Nol and began his return journey to the Collosnon Empire, taking his father with him as a prisoner. Guest marched his men down the valley in force, hoping to provoke a minor war with King Igpatan. But that minor village lord wisely kept his fighting men away from Guest Gulkan's line of march, and let Guest loot as many chickens as he chose as he marched down to the shores of the Swelaway Sea. Guest then marched along those shores to the village of Ink, where he began to bethink himself of the boat-salesman Umbilskimp, who had once sold him a rotten boat. Guest had sworn to hang the fellow, and remained true to the resolution of his oath.

"But," said Guest to Sken-Pitilkin, "I do not want to give my biographer excuse to slander me. I wish to rule in justice, and to be seen to do as much."

"Then perhaps," said Sken-Pitilkin, "you may have to forego the pleasures of a hanging."

This was not the advice which Guest had expected to receive.

He had expected Sken-Pitilkin to show him some means whereby he could hang the unfortunate Umbilskimp out of hand while still maintaining his good standing in the eyes of his biographer.

Thrown back on his own resources of cunning, the Weaponmaster Guest soon schemed up a plot which was adequate to his purpose. He called for his slow-witted brother, Morsh Bataar.

"Morsh," said Guest. "I want you to ride ahead to the village of Ink. Say nothing of my army. Say that you speak for a party of merchants from the Ibsen-Iktus mountains. Say that you wish to buy boats, boats for a trip to Alozay. Three boats, four, whatever the money will stretch to."

Then Guest gave his brother gold, and sent him ahead with three stout fellows who would act as both bodyguards and witnesses.

By the time Guest Gulkan marched his army into Ink, his brother Morsh had successfully purchased five boats with the money which Guest had given him.

"Who sold you these boats?" said Guest.

"I bought them from Umbilskimp, Pedrick and Mung," said Morsh. "The three are confederated in a boat-selling partnership."

"Very well," said Guest. "Identify them! Then have them arrested!"

"Arrested?" said Morsh in astonishment. "But they sold me the boats, just as you wanted. I though you wanted to go to Alozay."

"No!" said Guest. "Alozay is the least and last of the places I want to go to!"

That was not entirely the truth, for Guest still thought often of Icaria Scaria Iva-Italis, the demon who guarded the stairway at the eastern end of Alozay's Hall of Time. Guest was still minded to go to Alozay. To pact with the demon Iva-Italis.

To rescue the Great God Jocasta from imprisonment in Obooloo's Temple of Blood. And to have himself made a wizard as a reward for the rescue. All this he would do – one day. But clearly he should first look to the security of the Collosnon Empire, for then the rest could be easily accomplished.

"So," said Morsh, soberly. "You lied to me. You didn't need boats at all."

"Lied to you!" said Guest, in outrage. "I made you an instrument of justice, that's what I did! Arrest those men, and I'll prove it to you!"

So Umbilskimp, Pedrick and Mung were arrested, and Guest set himself about organizing a proper trial which would prove his merits to his biographer.

The captive Lord Onosh was made judge of the case, which was prosecuted by the slug-chef Pelagius Zozimus, who went about his business with an uncommonly gleeful display of zeal. The text- master Eldegen Terzanagel was made defense counsel. Guest Gulkan,

Rolf Thelemite, Thodric Jarl and Hostaja Torsen Sken-Pitilkin testified for the prosecution. Morsh Bataar also gave evidence, and the boats he had so recently bought were hauled from the water to be examined by the court.

In this manner, Umbilskimp, Pedrick and Mung were given a proper trial before an independent judge. It was quick – it was all over in a single morning – but it was fair. It was proved that Umbilskimp had once sold a murderously rotten boat to Guest Gulkan and his comrades; that Mung had likewise deceitfully sold a hulk to Thodric Jarl.

As for the boats so recently sold to Morsh Bataar by the tripartite partnership, why, the belly of each proved as soft as a slug.

"So," said the slug-chef Zozimus, prosecuting his case to the hilt, "here we see nothing more nor less than organized murder undertaken for commercial gain. These men have years of boat- selling expertise behind them, therefore cannot plead ignorance.

They have made a career out of selling rotten hulks fit for nothing more than sinking. I demand the death penalty!"

In response, the text-master Eldegen Terzanagel tried the usual tricks. He called attention to the impoverished environment in which his clients lived; mentioned the sundry derelictions of their upbringing; and finally drew attention to the matter of local mores.

"The selling of rotten boats to unsuspecting strangers is a part and parcel of traditional local culture," said Terzanagel.

"An ethnologist would say that we cannot judge the backward savages of a place like Ink by the standards of a highly-evolved civilization like our own. An ethnologist would say that Umbilskimp, Pedrick and Mung acted rightly in terms of their own cultural traditions, and we do them a great wrong if we condemn them in accordance with the traditions of our own culture, traditions which are quite alien to theirs. So say the ethnologists."

"Then I say we should hang the ethnologists along with the villagers!" said Zozimus. "You, sir – are you an ethnologist?"

Eldegen Terzanagel hastily denied it, insisting that he was but a poor text-master, and was only defending the murderous wretches of Ink at Guest Gulkan's sword-point insistence.

"There!" said Zozimus, turning to the judge of the case. "You see? Even the counsel for the defense has no confidence in his clients! He called them murderous wretches! Well, murderous they are, for use, but they can hardly be wretched, not after glutting themselves on generations of ill-gotten gold. I call for the death penalty!"

"You have called for that once already," said Lord Onosh.

"But as judge of this case, I am happy for you to call for it twice, and I am happy to grant it."

So Umbilskimp, Pedrick and Mung were sentenced to death. The Witchlord Onosh had very little choice in the matter of the sentence. The crime was grave, the evidence compelling and the guilt proven. Lord Onosh would have looked a capricious fool or a corrupt fraud had he pardoned the boat sellers.

With the boat-sellers having been sentenced to death, Guest Gulkan congratulated Zozimus on his able prosecution, and called for volunteers.

"I need a hangman," said Guest. "Preferably someone who has done the job before, but enthusiasm will serve in the absence of experience."

Whereupon Thodric Jarl stepped forward, declaring he had both the enthusiasm and the experience. Guest appointed him as executioner, and the Rovac warrior set to work with a will.

Mung was the first man to be hung. His neck broke, and he was dead in moments. Pedrick suffered a similar fate. But when Jarl tried to hang Umbilskimp, the rope broke.

Umbilskimp fell heavily, then got to his feet uncertainly. Guest watched, feeling more than a little uncertain himself, as Thodric Jarl advanced upon the old man.

Thodric Jarl took Umbilskimp by the throat – just as Guest, on an earlier occasion, had taken Rolf Thelemite by the throat on a battlefield near Babaroth. But whereas Guest had meant to menace, Thodric Jarl had murder as his intent. Guest took a half- step forward, for he had half-decided that he had had enough.

"If you are a woman in your sentiments," said the Witchlord Onosh, detecting his son's intentions, and finding himself unable to resist the temptation to exercise himself in a sneer, "then it's best you step aside and let men have the governance of the empire."

Whereupon Guest restrained himself, for, even though he had defeated his father by avalanche, the Weaponmaster lacked courage sufficient to endure his father's scorn. So Jarl – slowly, deliberately, lovingly – crushed his man, then dropped him into a crumpled heap. Whereupon everyone moved away, saving for Morsh Bataar alone, who somberly covered the dead man with a cloak.

After that, Guest was in no mood to linger, so hastened his army in its march. The army followed the flow of the Pig, keeping to its southern bank. Guest grew increasingly somber on the march, and Sken-Pitilkin began to worry about his condition. For Guest had defeated his father, and was in effect the emperor. As soon as he had seized the city of Gendormargensis as his own, men would recognize him as emperor. If he were ready in compromise and generous with his pardons, then he might well be able to secure the loyalty of the dissident city of Stranagor. And with that done, the entire Collosnon Empire would be under his sway – if not immediately, then soon.

Seeking thus, Sken-Pitilkin sought out Guest when the army camped near the bridge which had been the scene of a battle between Witchlord and Weaponmaster during the summer. Sken-Pitilkin had seek a goodly distance, for the Weaponmaster had walked far from his camp. He had walked through the hot afternoon all the way to the confluence of the Yolantarath and the Pig, which was where Sken-Pitilkin found him. Guest was sitting on the riverbank, watching the waters, while Rolf Thelemite and Morsh Bataar waited at a discrete distance.

On approaching Guest, the wizard of Skatzabratzumon made no attempt to challenge him, or jolly him out of his desponds.

Instead, Sken-Pitilkin sat himself down on the bank and waited. At last Guest said, without anything in the way of preamble:

"Was I right or wrong? Letting those men hang, I mean. Was that right? Or was it wrong?"Sken-Pitilkin gave an ambivalent answer. Not out of dishonesty, but because he himself had not quite made up his mind about the matter.

"Most men would say the thing was rightly done," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"But what say you?" said Guest.

"I'm not necessarily any wiser than my neighbor," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"But you think I shouldn't have done it."

"A hanging is an ugly thing," said Sken-Pitilkin. "An ordered society would surely hold its boat sellers in check, thus preserving them from the gallows. But Ink is no part of any ordered society. Those men you hung, why – they murdered for profit, as was said at their trial. A hanging is an ugly thing, but piracy is worse, and those men were pirates in their commercial deceits."

"So I did right," said Guest.

"Do you feel as if you did right?" said Sken-Pitilkin.

"How can you first prove me right then go on to question my rightness?" said Guest.

"I can," said Sken-Pitilkin, "because you know yourself wrong."

"Wrong!" said Guest, raising his voice for the first time.

"But you have just proved me right!"Sken-Pitilkin sat silent to let the young man settle, then said:

"I watched you during the hanging."Guest absorbed that in silence, then said:

"And?"

"And," said Sken-Pitilkin, "you were moved to pardon Umbilskimp. But you didn't. Why not?"Guest made no answer. He knew the reason why. But Sken-Pitilkin felt the reason had to be made explicit. Had to verbalized – lest it be forgotten.

"You let Jarl kill the man," said Sken-Pitilkin. "You let Jarl kill the man because you were afraid to show mercy. You were afraid of your father's scorn."Guest made no reply. His face was expressionless. He looked out across the river, then picked up a piece of mud and threw it with a jerk. The mud plopped into the river, and, a moment later, was answered by a splash as a fish jumped.

"Since your earliest youth," said Sken-Pitilkin, "you have been killing men in brawls with bandits. Killing men and taking their scalps. Ethnology would pardon such habits, so who am I to condemn? As you said yourself, it is but your cultural heritage.

But to kill men for banditry or piracy is one thing. To kill a man because you fear your father's scorn is quite another. If you cannot master the disciplines of mercy, then I think you unfit to master the sword."Guest absorbed that, too, in silence.

The silence tempted Sken-Pitilkin, and that wizard of Skatzabratzumon was half-persuaded to launch himself into a lecture on avalanches. After all, in the mountains of Ibsen-Iktus, the young Guest Gulkan had casually obliterated his father's army by avalanche – and had never thereafter shown so much as an eyeblink of remorse for the deed. Sken-Pitilkin still felt sorely about that avalanche, particularly as Guest Gulkan had used a swordpoint's threat to compel a certain wizard of Skatzabratzumon to use his levitational powers to trigger that downslide of rocks, ice and fractured snow.

So Sken-Pitilkin opened his mouth – then closed it again, firmly.

After all, in Ibsen-Iktus, Guest had been at war, hence could plead necessity. And, besides, it is contrary to human nature for anyone to concern themselves with large-scale tragedies remote from their own persons. To those who are of tender spirit, the death of a small mouse or the agony of a bird in a cat's jaws makes more impact than the death by starvation of some half a million people in a nation a continent removed. Guest had been closely, intimately concerned with the death of the boat-seller Umbilskimp. That death had been consequent upon Guest's own moral cowardice. For he had seen fit to exercise the prerogative of mercy, yet had restrained himself for mere fear of his father's scorn.

Had Guest a fragile child unschooled in the ways of power, then Sken-Pitilkin might have seen fit to mitigate his suffering with words of comfort and of absolution. But Guest was no such child. He was a warlord's son with a soul as ugly as his bat-flap ears. So Sken-Pitilkin, seeing that the young man was truly suffering, was pleased to see as much. And, having done his duty by making Guest's crime of crimes explicit, unavoidable and (with luck) unforgettable, the wizard of Skatzabratzumon rose, dusted down his fishermen's skirts, and departed without so much as a word of farewell.

Left to himself – for Rolf Thelemite and Morsh Bataar were still keeping their distance, their fumbling attempts at comfort having earlier been rudely rebuffed – Guest Gulkan sat alone by the confluence of the Yolantarath and the Pig.

The Pig, which had earlier flowed clear, was running muddy now, for upstream was Guest Gulkan's army, and men, clothes and horses were being washed in the river's waters. The Pig emptied its muddiness in a whirlygig rush into the slow-mud slurge of the ineffable Yolantarath, the name of which river reminded Guest, by poetic association, of Yerzerdayla, the woman who – he supposed – dwelt still in Gendormargensis.

Now that Guest was emperor, more or less, he supposed he could take the woman from Thodric Jarl. Yes, and hang Jarl unless that Rovac warrior would give him the woman, and swear fealty to him, and lick his boots in proof of such fealty.

So thought Guest.

But such imaginings proved strangely comfortless, for still he could not shake free the memories of the hangings. The bodies black against the sun. Old man Umbilskimp, wheezing heavily, making odd fluttering gestures with his hands as Thodric Jarl lumbered toward him.

The sky was darkening, now, the broad sky above the wide reach of the Yolantarath growing heavy with clouds. As Guest sat by the river, he shivered, suddenly cold. For some reason, he suddenly thought there was snow all around. Which was ridiculous.

Despite the lateness of the season, the first snowfall was yet days distant. Still. Guest imagined snow.

There was snow, and it was cold, and now Guest realize that there was an animal padding through the cold of that snow. It was a beast of snow, and was as white as the snow. He knew its weight from its silence.

Then it breathed upon him.

Its breath was hot on his nape.

In all his life, Guest had endured nothing more terrifying than that hot breath breathing on him from out of the silence of snow. He tried to stand, tried to run. But could not. For his arms and legs were bloody shreds, and as the pain of his mutilations hit him he started to scream, and was screaming still when Rolf Thelemite and Morsh Bataar came running to his rescue.

Chapter Seventeen

Babaroth: a town some two leagues (4,000 paces) north of the confluence of the Pig and the Yolantarath. The "Battle of Babaroth," as it is commonly known, took place at the Pig itself.

In that battle, the Witchlord Onosh defeated his enemies with the help of his Rovac-born general Thodric Jarl. The revolutionary leader Sham Cham, chiefest of the Witchlord's enemies, died when an arrow took him in the eye, whereupon the Weaponmaster Guest Gulkan led the revolutionary forces in a vigorous retreat.

By the next day, Guest Gulkan had fully recovered from his waking nightmare. Indeed, he disclaimed all knowledge of any such nightmare, claiming that a good night's sleep had obliterated his memories of the trauma of the previous evening. Guest celebrated his full recovery from nightmare's claims by holding a little ceremony in honor of the Battle of Babaroth. In that battle, Witchlord had defeated Weaponmaster; but, Guest Gulkan having made himself his father's master, the Witchlord Onosh was forced to kneel upon the earth -

And to eat a small portion of that earth as a token of his son's supremacy.

Shortly thereafter, as Guest Gulkan's army marched through the stretch of trees which lay between the Pig and the settlement of Babaroth, Sken-Pitilkin was audacious enough to question Guest Gulkan's wisdom.

"Your father's fate lies in your hand," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"You have a choice of how you dispose of him. Is your choice to murder him?"

"I have no thought of murder in mind," said Guest.

"Then," said Sken-Pitilkin, "for the life of me, I cannot imagine what possessed you to make your father eat mud."

"Why shouldn't I?" said Guest. "I have defeated him, and he should acknowledge as much."

"Yes," said Sken-Pitilkin. "But the manner in which you compel his acknowledgement is likely to make it impossible for the two of you to live in peace. If you push him too far, then he will rise against you, even if his resistance serves merely to ensure his own execution."

"How should I treat him, then?" said Guest.

"With affection," said Sken-Pitilkin. "With love. He is your father, after all."

"Love!" said Guest bitterly. "What love has he ever shown me?

I saved his life, yet even then he showed me no love."

"You spared him," said Sken-Pitilkin. "Yet sparing a prisoner is but a casual convention of war. It is hardly love."

"No!" said Guest, with violence. "I save him! In the river, the Yolantarath! Years ago!"Sken-Pitilkin was taken aback by the Weaponmaster's vehemence. Was the young man losing his mind?

"Guest," said Sken-Pitilkin, "you forget yourself. It was not your father you saved. It was Eljuk. Your brother Eljuk."

"Eljuk!" said Guest. "No, it was my father. I saw the future, you see. There was my father, in the river, in the Yolantarath. He was drowning, Pitilkin. That's why I went into the water. I thought it was my father."

"But it wasn't," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"But I thought it was!" said Guest. Sken-Pitilkin absorbed this, thought about it, then said:

"Well, Guest, whoever you thought you were saving, it was Eljuk you saved. And, anyway, your father offered you a reward for the saving. He was obligated. You could have asked for anything.

But you chose to ask for a ridiculous trifle, a bauble of a title.

You chose to be the Weaponmaster, which makes you a living joke, for all the world knows you to be the master of no weapon."

Thus did Sken-Pitilkin vent his scorn upon the Weaponmaster, hoping to break the young man out of his mood of bitter self-pity.

For surely honest anger was preferable to such self-pity. But such was Guest's distress that he absorbed Sken-Pitilkin's dire and unpardonable insult without so much as the flicker of an eyelash.

"I chose the title," said Guest, "because it was an ornament, a bauble, a trifle, a toy. But as for the larger things, like my life, say, like the woman Yerzerdayla – my father should have given these for love."

Now Sken-Pitilkin began to understand the depths of Guest's suffering. After saving his brother Eljuk, the boy Guest had not asked for any great thing by way of payment for services rendered, for he thought his father should give him the great things out of love. But his father had given him nothing.

Now that he knew as much, Sken-Pitilkin exchanged Guest Gulkan's company for that of his father.

"My lord," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"I'm no lord of yours," said the Witchlord Onosh. "You've thrown in your lot with my son. Will you be my executioner,

Pitilkin? He'll have me killed in Gendormargensis."

"I've seen no sign of that," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"No sign!" said Lord Onosh. "I'm marching under guard, disarmed and dishonored. Is that no sign of impending execution?"

"After war, my lord," said Sken-Pitilkin, cautiously, "a peace is best enforced by the disarming of one party to the conflict."

"Peace!" said Lord Onosh. "You call this peace? I call it defeat, yes, and bloody slavery."

"Was it slavery to be a judge at Ink?" said Sken-Pitilkin.

"Ink!" said the Witchlord. "The affair at Ink was a mere charade, a charade of justice."

"Was it?" said Sken-Pitilkin. "I think not. Rather, I think your son did you honor by making you an honest judge of an honest affair of law."

"You think me ambitious to be chief justice?" said the Witchlord irritably. "Don't toy with me, Pitilkin!"

"I think the fate of your family no toy to play with," said Sken-Pitilkin. "As you helped me in my time of need, so I – "

"You'll help me, will you?" said Lord Onosh.

"That is my wish," said Sken-Pitilkin, making a partial retreat into formality in the face of the Witchlord's undisguised anger.

"Then," said Lord Onosh, "if you truly wish to help me, then take that country crook of yours, and use your powers of levitation to send the boy Guest hurtling through the air till his head smacks crash against a treetrunk. Smash him, Pitilkin! Well.

Will you? No. You've not blood, meat or marrow enough for murder.

You are but a paltry pox doctor, and you bring me what every pox doctor brings – advice! Well, get on with it! Advise, and be gone!"

"My lord is kind to permit me the honor of advising him," said Sken-Pitilkin. "Let me then advise my lord to think back to a time when he went hunting bandits in the hills near Gendormargensis."

"They are not hills, Pitilkin. They are mountains."

"Hills. Mountains. Whatever. My lord went hunting. His son, his much-beloved Morsh Bataar, fell and broke his leg."

"And?" said Lord Onosh. "What do you want? You want reward for fixing the leg? If so, you've left it a little late in the asking!"

"It is Guest who won reward," said Sken-Pitilkin. "Though he could not swim, the boy risked his life in the Yolantarath. He risked his life to save his brother Eljuk."

"And was rewarded for it," said Lord Onosh.

"Yes, my lord," said Sken-Pitilkin. "But when you rewarded him, when you gave him the title of Weaponmaster, there was one thing you did not know."

"And what was that?" said Lord Onosh.

"When the boy went to the river," said Sken-Pitilkin, "he thought he was saving you. The boy had endured a vision. A vision in which you drowned. So when he saw a man in the river, he went to the water to save you."

"Save me!" said Lord Onosh, in rage.

"Why, yes, my lord," said Sken-Pitilkin, taken aback by the Witchlord's anger. "He wished to save you. What else would he wish?"

"He wished to murder me!" said Lord Onosh.

Then the Witchlord Onosh told the wizard Sken-Pitilkin of his own precognitive vision. While hunting bandits in the high ground near Gendormargensis, the lord of the Collosnon Empire had endured a vision.

"It was death," said Lord Onosh. "My own death. Death by water. A death to take me, thrust me, haul me, suck me. Down in the quench, the smother, the groping slime, the dark. I was drinking, mind. Morsh and me, we had words in the old manner. Then Guest said, he mocked at Morsh and at me, and I knew."

"What did you know?" said Sken-Pitilkin.

"Why," said Lord Onosh, as if it should have been obvious, "I knew he was going to drown me, of course! Right there and then, I knew it! That's why he went into the river, you see. He thought it was me. He meant to drown me, Pitilkin!"

"But it wasn't you," said Sken-Pitilkin. "It was Eljuk. And when Guest saved Eljuk, why, he thought you should give him something."

"But I did!" said Lord Onosh. "I gave him leave to ask for a gift, and he asked. The title. Weaponmaster."

"But that was a trifle," said Sken-Pitilkin. "Another word for nothing. He let you satisfy your obligations with a trifle.

That left you free to give him the larger things out of love."

"The larger things?" said Lord Onosh, with renewed irritability. "What are you talking about?"

"You could have spared him his duel with Thodric Jarl," said Sken-Pitilkin. "You could have given him the woman Yerzerdayla."

"But the boy had just tried to kill me!" said the Witchlord.

Now here was a pretty pickle! On the basis of a fleeting vision of the future, Guest Gulkan thought he should be honored as his father's would-be rescuer. But, on the basis of another precognitive vision, Lord Onosh thought his son should be damned as a would-be murderer!

All of which made Sken-Pitilkin very glad that he himself did not personally suffer visions, whether precognitive visions or otherwise.

"My lord," said Sken-Pitilkin, attempting to feign a degree of diffidence. "It may well be that the men of your line have some talent to see the future."

"It is a proven fact," said Lord Onosh.

"Well, perhaps," said Sken-Pitilkin. "But plain logic proves the vision wrong. For, though you saw yourself drowning in the Yolantarath, the fact is that you remain undrowned."

"But Guest meant to drown me!" said Lord Onosh. "You see? You understand?"

"No, I don't," said Sken-Pitilkin, in frank confession.

"These are meant to be visions of the future."

"Or visions of intent," said Lord Onosh. "One can see the future's facts or see the future's intent. Guest went to the river. That proves he had intent!" Sken-Pitilkin was amazed that Lord Onosh, who had judged the case of the boat sellers of Ink with such dispassionate acumen, could become so entangled in the coils of illogic when he confronted the affairs of his own family. Of course, every standard text on ethnology makes note of the vexed complexity of family affairs. And as an ethnological scholar, Sken-Pitilkin had long ago absorbed the lessons of such texts. But even so!

"You are uncommonly silent, Pitilkin," said Lord Onosh. "Have you run out of argument?"

"My lord," said Sken-Pitilkin, "it is a great many years since I was any man's son, and I have never been a father, so – but, ah! This looks to be Babaroth!"

And Babaroth it was indeed, and arrival at that settlement terminated the discourse between wizard and Witchlord.

As Witchlord and Weaponmaster entered Babaroth from the south, they were disconcerted to be met by disheveled riders coming from the north. Some were wounded, all were weary, and they moved with the emphasis of men driven by urgent necessity. Know you this emphasis? All courtesy leaves a man. He becomes direct in his speech, as if every word were paid for in hammered gold. His speech is charged with import, as is that of a condemned man pleading a court for mercy.

Such were the men who entered Babaroth from the north, and Witchlord and Weaponmaster immediately knew – before they had heard so much as a word of the tale of these men – that something dreadful had happened in the north.

When those men addressed Witchlord and Weaponmaster, they did so in Ordhar, not in Eparget. And this was another bad sign. The worst of signs! For Ordhar was the command language used by the Yarglat's subject peoples, whereas the Yarglat themselves spoke Eparget. Looking over that ragged band from the north, Witchlord and Weaponmaster saw none of the Yarglat.

"What is this?" said Guest, fearing that there had been a revolution by the underpeople. "Are you in arms against the empire?"

"My lord," said one of the Ordhar-speaking underpeople, "we are the empire! It is the Yarglat who have been making war upon us!"

Then both Witchlord and Weaponmaster began to understand what had happened.

Thanks to their disappearance into the mountains of Ibsen-Iktus, both Witchlord and Weaponmaster had now been gone from their empire for some time. As far as the Collosnon Empire was concerned, the Witchlord Onosh had disappeared from the realms of the visible creation during the summer, and had not been seen or heard of since; and it was now autumn.

Both Witchlord and Weaponmaster had presumed that the affairs of the empire had been, as it were, placed on ice during their absence, but this proved not to be the case.

For that small and tattered force of warriors which came riding into Babaroth from the north was the advance guard of a small and tattered army led by Bao Gahai, the Witchlord's dralkosh, who was retreating to the south in fear of her life. By nightfall, Bao Gahai herself was in Babaroth, and Witchlord and Weaponmaster had confirmation of her tale from her own lips.

A grim tale was Bao Gahai's.

As Witchlord and Weaponmaster pursued their civil war in the south, Gendormargensis had fallen to Khmar, a notorious marauder from the Yarglat homelands of the north. Khmar had taken advantage of the empire's disorders to invade from the north, and had conquered Gendormargensis without meeting with any substantial resistance at all.

"Now he comes south," said Bao Gahai, "and he will sweep us all the way to Stranagor, then cast us into the sea."

Here there is a hint that Bao Gahai may have spent some considerable part of her life in or around the seaport city of Stranagor. For, as has already been remarked, the casting of great numbers of the defeated into the sea has ever been a feature of Stranagor's iconography of war, whereas no such image features in the native idiom of the Yarglat.

"I take it," said the Witchlord Onosh, "that all of the Yarglat have thrown in their lot with Khmar."

"No," said Bao Gahai. "Not all. For a few of the Yarglat figure in the ranks of your own army here in Babaroth."

"It is not my army," said Lord Onosh, glancing at his son.

"It is Guest's."

"So you have told me," said Bao Gahai. "But Khmar will kill the pair of you unless you make a peace between you."

"A peace!" said Lord Onosh. "How can we possibly make a peace? One must serve the other, and I would rather die than serve this – this thing with the ears of an ogre!"

"The ears are your own," said Bao Gahai. "The ears are your own, as the sperm was your own. Have you forgotten?"

Then Bao Gahai looked long and hard upon the Witchlord Onosh, and, to Sken-Pitilkin's amazement, the Witchlord bowed to Bao Gahai's judgment.

So it was that, in the face of the threat from Khmar, father and son made a peace, with the father agreeing to serve as a loyal subordinate to the son, and the pair of them withdraw to Locontareth with all their forces, arriving there late in the autumn.

Witchlord and Weaponmaster arrived in Locontareth just in time to save the dralkosh Zelafona and her dwarf-son Glambrax from being lynched by an irate public, for that pair had become notorious as commercial pirates. By their diligent commercialism, the two of them had first cornered the market in brewed acorns and roast rats; and by speculative enterprise they had then cornered the market in barley; and by virtue of owning the spoils of the autumn harvest they had made themselves masters of all the city's bakeries; and then had doubled the price of bread, then doubled it again.

Overcome by the success of their own folly, this pair of monopoly capitalists had then doubled the price of bread for one last and fatal time, and had been about to meet their mutual doom at the hands of a wrathful consuming public when rescued by Witchlord and Weaponmaster.

Having rescued this unrescueworthy pair, and having seized all barley in the city, and having given the wizards Zozimus and Sken-Pitilkin the responsibility for marketing both bread and barley at a fixed and reasonable price, and having thus won the love and affection of the people of Locontareth – or, more accurately, the subdued and potentially mutinous compliance of those people – the Witchlord and then Weaponmaster then settled themselves in that southern city, intending to gather their strength, and in the spring to attack Khmar and to reclaim the rule of the city of Gendormargensis and the Collosnon Empire as a whole.

But, of course, it was not going to be that easy.

Chapter Eighteen

Khmar: a warrior of Yarglat birth and breeding who took advantage of war between Witchlord and Weaponmaster to invade the Collosnon Empire from the north. Adroit in his timing, Khmar met no opposition from the capital's garrison, since most Yarglat feared and hated Bao Gahai, the dralkosh whom Lord Onosh had left in charge of the city. In the Witchlord's absence, few Yarglat hesitated before giving their loyalty to Khmar. So Khmar's conquest was virtually bloodless, whereas his enemies were already weary with war, their strength exhausted in the sanguinary encounters of the south.

As Witchlord and Weaponmaster settled in to Locontareth, they gave additional directions to the wizard Sken-Pitilkin, he whom they had earlier charged with a half-share of the responsibility for organizing the market in bread and barley. Sken-Pitilkin was now to exert himself over the winter and build them an airship.

"For," said Guest Gulkan, "when you tutored me in geography, you told me of volcanoes, those mountains which spit forth fire, and which let fall upon the heads of men those massive teardrops of rock which are known as bombs. It occurs to me that, had we an airship, we could let fall similar bombs upon the heads of our enemies."

"Yes," said Lord Onosh. "Had we such a ship, we could defeat Khmar easily, by the sheer terror of the device if by no other means."

"The terror, my lord," said Sken-Pitilkin solemnly, "is suffered most greatly by those poor mortals doomed to fly in such a ship. Having almost killed myself once, I am in no mood to repeat such an experiment." Guest Gulkan was secretly of like opinion, but nevertheless favored the project, thinking he could easily avoid all personal involvement with experimental airships. Allied in their desire to rule the skies, Witchlord and Weaponmaster easily overruled Sken-Pitilkin's objections.

"I will give you any ship you want," said Lord Onosh, "and you will make it fly. You can have a barge, if you want, a barge taken fresh from the Yolantarath. Or – well, we have men from Stranagor in our forces, ships, fishing smacks, they build them all in Stranagor, and we can build likewise here. A ship which is apt for the fraughts of the Hauma Sea will surely be suitable for the skies."

"Give me no ship," said Sken-Pitilkin. "Give me, rather, the roof of the ruling hall of Locontareth, and I will make a ship out of that."

Thus spoke Sken-Pitilkin, hoping Lord Onosh would not want to sacrifice the roof of the ruling hall of Locontareth – that roof being a magnificent woodspan spread on which a thousand men could have been seated. By such stratagem, Sken-Pitilkin hoped to be spared from experiment.

"Do it," said the Witchlord, thus proving himself no connoisseur of woodwork. "Only make sure that it has the firm capacity to carry all my treasure chests."

"Your treasure chests, my lord?" said Sken-Pitilkin blankly.

"Yes, my treasure chests!"Sken-Pitilkin was at first at a loss to know what treasure chests Lord Onosh was speaking of. So the Witchlord explained at laborious length, for he was proud of his treasure chests, which in his earlier days had more than once won him a crucial battles.

"For you see," said Lord Onosh, "when one army can pay its soldiers and the other cannot, gold will tip the scales when all else is equal."

And in satisfaction of Sken-Pitilkin's curiosity, the Witchlord mapped out the movements of his treasure chests. Laden with gold, with silver, with massy bronze and trinkets of tin, the imperial strongboxes had marched from Gendormargensis with the imperial army – though, needless to say, they had not marched with any legs of their own, but had borrowed the legs of ponies for the purpose.

Traveling always under the personal vigilance of the emperor, those chests had traveled to Babaroth. In that town, the chests had waited in loyal expectation of an imperial victory; and, Lord Onosh having been proved triumphant in his battle over Guest Gulkan, the strongboxes had joined the methodical pursuit which had brought them as far as Locontareth.

The Witchlord had shortly discovered that Guest Gulkan had slipped round behind him. So, leaving the strongboxes in the city under guard – for their weight was incompatible with the drama of a quick pursuit – Lord Onosh had sallied forth treasureless to smash Guest Gulkan. Thus the treasure had not been in the Witchlord's possession when his own army had ultimately been smashed at the high pass of Volvo Marp; and had still been safely under guard in Locontareth when the Witchlord had returned to that city in alliance with the Weaponmaster.

Thus the story of the treasure chests; and if you think it a long story, and a weary one, and one quite unnecessary for the performance of this history, why, then blame not the poor historian. Blame rather a nitpicking tradition of jealous and intellectually impoverished scholarship which lacks the ability to appreciate the grandeur of a full-scale historical tapestry, and therefore devotes itself to picking loose any undefended thread at the corner of such a tapestry.

Having thus defended this particular thread, let us return to the sagacious Sken-Pitilkin.

We find him hot in dialog.

"But, my lord," said Sken-Pitilkin, who was reluctant to guarantee any airship fit to carry a great weight of lead, gold, silver, bronze and trinketing tin, "why should you want a weapon of terror to be able to carry your treasure chests?"

"Because," said Lord Onosh, "this weapon of terror is best to be a generalized weapon of war. So. Anything a horse can do, an airship must do likewise. That includes carrying treasure.

Besides, what if Khmar attacked us unexpectedly. What if we had to flee in haste? What then of our treasure?"

"My lord jests," said Sken-Pitilkin, who had sufficient strategic wisdom to know that unexpected attack was out of the question, given the lateness of the season.

"I do not seriously expect attack," said Lord Onosh, in frank confession. "Nevertheless, I am of the Yarglat, hence may know more of the capacity of the breed than do you. Rule out nothing!

Rather, prepare for all eventualities. Therefore – make ready!"

As has now been reasoned out at length, Lord Onosh had his treasure chests with him in Locontareth, and insisted that Sken-Pitilkin's flying roof be engineered so as to accommodate those chests. And so, with Lord Onosh having agreed to sacrifice the roof of the ruling hall of Locontareth to experimental science, the sagacious Sken-Pitilkin found himself on top of that roof the very next day, surveying it in the company of carpenters.

"How," said Sken-Pitilkin, "did I get myself into a mess like this?"

And, not for the first time, the sagacious wizard of Skatzabratzumon wished that he had abandoned the practice of wizardry to become a slug-chef like Zozimus.

On inspection, the carpenters concluded that the roof could easily be disconnected from the walls beneath it, so that Sken-Pitilkin, at some time of his own choosing, could launch that roof in the skies.

Thus Sken-Pitilkin set work upon his airship; Pelagius Zozimus began a systematic exploration of the culinary possibilities of barley admixed with fish guts; the dwarf Glambrax and the dralkosh Zelafona began the great work of sweeping the streets of Locontareth as public penance for their earlier commercial predations; and Witchlord and Weaponmaster sat in counsel with the Rovac warriors Thodric Jarl and Rolf Thelemite, making preparations for the long winter ahead and the campaigns of the following spring.

But -

The Yarglat barbarian Khmar, the warlord who had swept down from the north to sweep up Gendormargensis, why, Khmar wasted no time on dalliance. As Lord Onosh had already half-suspected, outright war was not long to be avoided. Khmar was a master of mobility, and was in no mood to let his enemies enjoy the luxury of a comfortable winter. So, while Witchlord and Weaponmaster selected out their swansdown duvets, and chose the rosepetal pillows on which they planned to rest the buttocks of their concubines, Khmar launched himself upon a great assault.

Despite the lateness of the season, Khmar advanced downriver from Gendormargensis toward Locontareth, advertising his onslaught by sending heads floating down the river. Each of these heads was nailed to a small raft, and was mutilated in a manner suggestive of the fate which the conqueror Khmar intended to mete out to both Witchlord and Weaponmaster.

Now the Witchlord Onosh and his son Guest Gulkan were in a predicament, for Khmar had won the loyalty of Gendormargensis;

Stranagor's loyalty was uncertain; and, though Locontareth was temporarily loyal, it was weak in the aftermath of the expensive campaigning which had accompanied the tax revolt.

Still, Lord Onosh and Guest Gulkan scraped up what troops they could, and began to organize their defense. Meanwhile, they sent patrols far up the river on both the northern bank and the southern. Thus they had good warning of Khmar's advance, for there was no way for that Yarglat to outflank a screen spread out so broadly and organized with such immaculate professionalism.

The news of Khmar's advance was all bad, at least as far as Witchlord and Weaponmaster were concerned. Khmar's army was large; its morale was good; and it gave a good account of itself in skirmishing with the patrols.

"There is only one thing for it," said Lord Onosh. "We must retreat."

"Very well," said Guest promptly. "Then let us pull back to Ibsen-Iktus."Guest was beginning to have a certain degree of affection for those mountains, the scene of his notable victory over his father. Guest hoped to lure Khmar into those frozen rock-realms, and there to inflict upon the invader a crushing defeat – a literally crushing rockslide defeat. But he was swiftly disabused of this notion.

"The mountains will be too cold this late in the year," said his father. "The snow will be deep on the heights already, and those heights impassable by the time he could reach them."

Whereupon Thodric Jarl came up with a somewhat extravagant scheme of manoeuver. Jarl suggested that they retreat south toward Favanosin, and establish winter quarters for themselves; and then, in the spring, march east to the shores of the Swelaway Sea while Khmar sought them in the south; and then head down the Pig and take Gendormargensis before Khmar knew that they had slipped his clutches.

"The distances are so great and the communications so slow," said Jarl, "that we can be months fortifying Gendormargensis and recruiting men before Khmar even knows what we are about."

Furthermore, went on Jarl, once in Gendormargensis they might be able to send into the northern homelands of the Yarglat to rouse those wild Yarglat tribes which were the enemies of Khmar.

"Thus," said Jarl, "when Khmar finally arrives at Gendormargensis to challenge us, he will have been weakened by months of fruitless wandering, while we have a city and the strength to hold it."

There were a thousand flaws in this plan. Here is one such flaw: Khmar might have left a substantial army to hold Gendormargensis. Here is another: the logistic requirements of the march which Jarl proposed were close to impossible.

But nobody had a better plan.

"It gives us at least the chance of victory," said the Witchlord Onosh bravely, drawing on a lifetime's experience to give his best possible imitation of confidence, "which is better than running away."

So the Witchlord Onosh and his son Guest began planning for the withdrawal to the south, Guest's role in this planning mission being chiefly to say "yes" and "why not" and "I think that's an excellent idea". For, as the crisis deepened, Lord Onosh had by insensible degrees obtained an almost unconscious ascendancy over his son. This was only natural, for in his early manhood the young Guest Gulkan as yet lacked the experience to grapple with the full complexities of such a crisis, and his wizardly advisers were busy with the control of bread and barley, with the cooking of fish guts and the building of experimental airships.

As this planning got underway, Sken-Pitilkin asked permission to be relieved of his airship labors. But he was told, rather, to hurry himself and get the roof of the great hall air-mobile.

"For," said Lord Onosh, "if you can complete and perfect this terror-weapon, then we may yet defeat Khmar here at Locontareth."Sken-Pitilkin was dubious, but he went to work regardless, and saw to the installation of a great many chairs on the top of the roof, and saw to it that the roof was detached from the walls in accordance with the carpenters' earlier advice, and so was ready to fly.

"How goes the work?" said Lord Onosh, two days before the army was scheduled to retreat south toward Favanosin.

"My lord," said Sken-Pitilkin mournfully, "much as I have been looking forward to this great experiment, I regret that the construction of this airship requires another season at a minimum."

This was a lie, for the thing was more or less ready to fly.

But, though the airship was ready to fly, Sken-Pitilkin was not: in fact, every time he thought about it he broke out in a cold sweat. In proof of his native sagacity, the wizard Sken-Pitilkin had found himself an amenable donkey, and had loaded the brute with bags of barley, with a stash of opium and the answering opium pipes, with bundles of parchments and boxes of books, with a tent, with warm blankets, with foot-warmers, with sleeping bags, with spare pillows, with cushions, with a collapsible armchair, and with other gear of war, and so was ready to foot it toward Favanosin with the army. Though such a march would be harsh, and cold, and direly uncomfortable, Sken-Pitilkin would far rather risk the harsh yet certain dangers of such a withdrawal than chance the lunatic uncertainties of experimental flight.

"Another season!" said the Witchlord, scandalized.

"It is so, my lord," said Sken-Pitilkin mournfully.

"Then," said the Witchlord Onosh with a heavy heart, "we will have to abandon the experiment and retreat on foot."

And he went to supervise the final preparations for his army's plan to do just that.

But before Witchlord and Weaponmaster could move south with their army, Khmar attacked. Like a billion rabid rats assaulting a sack of sugar, like sharks in their blood-madness assailing a wounded whale, like a great gang of lawyers falling upon a law case, so in the rage of their onslaught did Khmar's brutal barbarians attack the city of Locontareth. Khmar's soldiers came over the city walls by night, using siege ladders and grappling hooks, and before the sentries were properly aware the entire city was filled with shadows which struck with steel and killed.

Before long, the city was burning, most of the fires being set by defenders who sought to stir confusion through arson, hoping to make their escape in that confusion.

But in the ruling hall of Locontareth there was no confusion, only a terrible haste, for under the direction of the wizard Sken Pitilkin the final preparations for flying the roof were being made. Carpenters were checking that the roof was entirely severed from the walls of the hall; mighty warriors were risking the bursting of blood vessels as they winched the Witchlord's treasure chests to the heights; and other warriors were likewise trying to winch upwards Sken-Pitilkin's donkey.

To this scene came the Witchlord himself, in company with Pelagius Zozimus. In honor of the crisis, the slug-chef Zozimus had dressed himself in his famous fish-scale armor, perhaps hoping that he should at least make a well-dressed corpse. The armor reflected the fiery blaze of arson-struck buildings, blood- red and glowering. Padding along behind Zozimus came the dwarf Glambrax, with the sister-witches Zelafona and Bao Gahai bringing up the rear.

When the Witchlord saw Sken-Pitilkin's mightily laden donkey swinging upwards from a winchrope, he stopped short, as if hammered to a halt by thunder.

"What," said Lord Onosh, "is that?"

"It is a donkey, my lord," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"I know that!" said the Witchlord wrathfully. "But why in the name of blood are we wasting time trying to get the beast aboard?"

"Because, my lord," said Sken-Pitilkin, observing with some alarm the pendulum-like motion which had begun to affect his free- swinging donkey, "I have an earnest desire to test the effects of flight upon the physiology of the beasts of burden."

"Grief of gods!" said Lord Onosh. "What on earth for?"

"My lord wishes to employ this airship in war, does he not?" said Sken-Pitilkin, looking anxiously upward at his much-burdened donkey.

"He does," said Lord Onosh, referring to himself in the third person, which is one of those grammatical idiosyncrasies commonly allowed to the great.

"Then," said Sken-Pitilkin, stepping backward from the possible impact zone into which the donkey might fall should the winch-rope break, "my lord should share my interest in discovering whether a horse can survive transport by air, since the survivability of horses under such circumstances is vital for determining the degree to which the airship can be fully employed in war."

"But," objected Lord Onosh, moving backwards in step with Sken-Pitilkin, "that is not a horse but a donkey, and, being as overloaded as it is, it can be expected to expire of unnatural causes in any case, leaving aside all questions of airflight."

At which point the rope which had been struggling to sustain the donkey's weight happened to break, and the beast was precipitated downwards, miring a certain slug-chef's armor with a great besplattering of fire-thawed mud. So the donkey died, thus becoming a martyr to experimental science.

And Sken-Pitilkin lamented its loss greatly, though the pressure of events meant that the grieving process did not have time to run its full course, for the wizard of Skatzabratzumon was tying himself into his especially designed flightmaster's seat long before he had had time to absorb the full implications of the loss of his donkey.

Others acted in likeminded haste, and so -

"My lord!" said Sken-Pitilkin. "We are ready to fly!"

"Ready!" roared Lord Onosh, still checking the chaining of his treasure chests, the padding of them, the bracing of the great logs which sustained them, and the torsion of the twisted ropes provided as back-up for their restraining chains. "We'll be ready when I'm ready, and not before!"

But at last the Witchlord was satisfied, and tied himself into his seat.

And so -

When the great Khmar battle-bulked to the door of Locontareth's ruling hall with a battle-axe in his hand, Witchlord and Weaponmaster were atop the roof with a complement of half a thousand assorted wizards, witches, dwarves, bodyguards, scouts, soldiers, sub-chefs, carpenters, barley-factors and bootmakers.

One and all, they had tied themselves into the flight-seats with bits of rope and length of old chain, thus preparing themselves for adventure or death.

Meanwhile, down below -

Khmar threw down the door to the ruling hall of Locontareth and led the charge inside -

And the roof tore free with a scream of tortured wood. The roof tore free, and went spinning sideways, sliding over the city like a gigantic bat from the nether hell of Filch Molchops.

Upwards it flew, spinning like a woodchip caught by a tornado. In flight it screamed, and most of its passengers screamed too. One chair broke free, and the carpenter who was strapped to that chair went flying away, snatched to his doom.

He was gone before he could scream.

Then the airship began wheeling downward as fast as it had earlier gone upward. Down it came. It slammed into snow, the early winter snow of Tameran. As the airship slammed, the greatest of the Witchlord's treasure chests burst asunder, and a full five men were instantly killed by the lethal catapulting of ingots of gold and lumps of tarnished silver.

So the airship slammed It slammed, and it bounced.

Like a stone skipping across water, so the roof bucked across the snows. Entire trees cracked like toothpicks beneath the down- slam of that roof. With a howl of incontinent breakage, the roof smoked through the night like an avalanche. A cottage unfortunately placed in the path of the experimental terror-weapon was smashed to smithereens, and all its occupants were reduced in an instant to so much cannibal jelly.

Then at last, with one glissading slide, the roof creamed smoothly across the snows, shuddered once, then halted. There was no sound but for the night wind, and the upbuck ruckus of vomiting as dozens of inexperienced air adventurers methodically chucked up everything they had eaten within living memory.

"Where are we?" said Lord Onosh, shakily cutting himself free from his seat.

"South," said Sken-Pitilkin. "South of Locontareth. I hope."

In fact, Sken-Pitilkin had grown a trifle disorientated while trying to navigate his hurling wooden batwing through the wilds of the night. But the wizard of Skatzabratzumon was nevertheless firmly of the opinion that they were indeed south of Locontareth, and probably south by a good few leagues. And in this he was ultimately proved right, and let this be noted as an additional proof of his sagacity, his scholarship, and his capacity for keeping a cool head under conditions of great stress.

"So we are south," said Lord Onosh. "Very well. Then let us be going, because I want to be far further south before the dawn."

Whereupon the rest of the air adventurers cut themselves free from their chairs. Then they would have fled, only Lord Onosh was still tender of the security of his treasure chests, thinking to put his trust in bulk bullion now that he had so few men to his name. So scouting parties went out into the night to loot from the peasantry whatever horses, ponies, donkeys, mules, cows, bulls, pigs, dogs, wheelbarrows and carts could conceivably be used for the transport of treasure chests; and at last, as dawn broke bleary eyed over a clownish convoy of raucous disorder, the Witchlord and his people began their retreat to the south.

They were hoping, of course, to gain the road to the distant port of Favanosin, and thus to make a swift escape toward the sanctuary of foreign lands, and the safety of the southern shores of the continent of Tameran.

Chapter Nineteen

Favanosin: a town which geographers believe to lie some 640 leagues from Locontareth along a southbound trade route which passes through territory long regarded by the Witchlord's regime as being hostile.

Immediately after the dramatic wreckfall of Sken-Pitilkin's flying roof, all was confusion, and the rest of the night was not much better. But, as day dawned, the Witchlord's forces began to fall into some kind of order.

"Grief of a dog!" said Rolf Thelemite. "My ear is torn!"

And indeed the Rovac warrior's left ear had been damaged, and his golden snake-serpent earring had been torn away altogether.

As Rolf Thelemite was lamenting the loss, the gray-bearded Thodric Jarl came up to him and addressed him in the Rovac tongue.

Rolf turned pale, and thereafter ceased his moaning.

"What did he say?" said Guest, a little later.

"I cannot tell you," said Rolf Thelemite despairingly.

But Guest was able to deduce Rolf Thelemite's plight for himself. The unfortunate Rolf had sworn to kill Guest if Guest made war on his father – but had been untrue to his oath.

Doubtless Thodric Jarl had told Rolf that he had more than a torn ear to worry about – and Rolf, an oath-breaker accursed of Rovac, had feared his imminent demise. Guest shared his perceptions with the dwarf Glambrax, who agreed that Rolf was doubtlessly doomed.

"While we held the ascendancy," said Glambrax cheerfully,

"Thodric Jarl would do nothing to disturb the peace between Witchlord and Weaponmaster. But now we are defeated, so there is no reason why he shouldn't disturb the peace as much as he wants."

So it was that the young Guest Gulkan and the dwarf Glambrax deduced that their good friend Rolf Thelemite stood in danger of immediate murder.

"What can we do about it?" said Guest.

"Well, we could place bets," said Glambrax.

"An excellent idea!" said Guest. "I wager that Rolf lasts a week!"

"What then is a week?" said Glambrax.

"It is an uncouth measurement of days," said Guest. "A measurement devised by wizards, and arcanely used in their most secret histories."

"How many days?" said Glambrax.

"Why," said Guest, finding himself at a loss, "fewer than twenty, I think."

"You think!" said Glambrax. "For a wager, we have to know! I wager that Rolf lasts three days, not more."

"Then my money will see him alive for six," said Guest.

"What money?" said Glambrax. "Name a sum. And show me you have that sum in your pockets!"

Thus did the valorous Guest Gulkan and the sturdy dwarf Glambrax address the threat which faced the unfortunate Rolf Thelemite; and Rolf was never far from their thoughts in the days that followed.

As the Weaponmaster and the dwarf wagered on Rolf Thelemite's fate, the army from the air-wrecked roof made its way south, accompanied by an uncouth assemblage of baggage animals which were heavily burdened by the imperial treasure chests.

Of course, at the outset, that force numbered scarcely a half a thousand men; but whereas retreating armies are normally diminished by deaths, stragglings and desertions, this one grew – albeit not by much.

Everyone in Locontareth's defending army had known at least this much of the Witchlord's plan: that he intended to retreat south toward Favanosin. And Khmar, launched as he was upon a furious and unparalleled course of slaughter, gave every surviving defender the strongest of all possible incentives to join that retreat. For Khmar was making an example of Locontareth, brutally punishing resistance to deter other cities (Stranagor in particular) from resisting him likewise.

Fearing the knives of the example-maker, those who escaped from Locontareth on foot or on hoof soon quested south, and some of these – inspired by an entirely reasonable terror of Khmar – managed to catch up with those who had escaped from the beleaguered city on a flying roof. So it was that, as they moved south, Witchlord and Weaponmaster enlarged their small army, until the balance between recruitment and desertions saw its numbers level out at just short of 600 men.

In the anxiety of the retreat, Lord Onosh found his son Guest uncommonly buoyant, and was hard put to place the reason. For had they not been defeated? Had they not been driven from the city?

Had they not just lost a great empire? Did they not stand in fear of losing their lives? So was the boy drunk, or was he mad? Or had Sken-Pitilkin or some other been maliciously feeding him strong drugs unfit for human consumption?

On brief enquiry, the Witchlord soon discovered that the young Guest Gulkan was in high spirits because he had made himself the lord of a great gambling pool, and in concert with the dwarf Glambrax was fleecing lesser gamblers, winning wine, and money, and the favors of the army's few ragged camp followers, and extra rations into the bargain.

And the gambling did not concern the running of horses or the jumping of frogs – no, it concerned the date of Rolf Thelemite's murder!

Lord Onosh promptly summoned his wizards, the sagacious Sken-Pitilkin and the slug-chef Pelagius Zozimus. He explained what was happening.

"Why, my lord, it is all true," said Zozimus. "I myself am betting that Jarl will murder Rolf when we get to Favanosin."

"I think that optimistic," said Sken-Pitilkin. "I don't think

Rolf will be murdered at all, at least not this year. I've bet that he won't be murdered till Midsummer's Day at the earliest."

"I will not have anyone murdered in my army!" said Lord Onosh, outraged. "You will halt this business of murder right away!"

"But, my lord," said Sken-Pitilkin. "Both Rolf and Jarl are

Rovac warriors, and all such warriors are the natural enemies of wizards. Why should we then care if they kill each other off?"

"And besides," said Zozimus, "if we interfere in their mutual murders, it will give them excuse to band together and murder us."

"Which would be a great loss," added Sken-Pitilkin, "for, if rumor is true, my cousin Zozimus has just designed a new and delicious recipe for slugs, a recipe most pleasing to your palate."

"It is true," said Lord Onosh heavily.

Then the Witchlord dismissed his wizards and called for the witches Zelafona and Bao Gahai. After short discussion with the Witchlord, that pair of females took Thodric Jarl aside and had a long discussion with him. After which Thodric Jarl was seen to be looking uncommonly queasy for the next three or four days; Rolf Thelemite's spirits rose; and Guest Gulkan's ebullience ebbed as his gambling syndicate broke up, rumor having established that the fine sport of Rolf Thelemite's murder had been effectively terminated by a killjoy Witchlord.

Thus did the valorous Guest Gulkan and the sturdy dwarf Glambrax save their friend Rolf Thelemite from a certain death at the hands of the murderous Thodric Jarl; for it is certain that, had Guest and Glambrax not been so keenly apprehensive of their friend's impending murder as to encourage an entire army into gambling on the event, then Lord Onosh would not have been so swiftly and so decisively moved into terminating that threat.

With Guest and Glambrax thus entered into the ranks of friend-saving heroes, the lords of Locontareth escaped from the marauding Khmar and retreated with their army down the road to Favanosin, at first in disarray, but later in warlike formation, with vanguard ahead and rearguard behind, with scouts on the flanks and sentries posted nightly to vigil out the dark. They feared pursuit; and, as they distanced themselves from Locontareth, they also began to fear the violence of the south.

The south was hostile to the Collosnon Empire, and there was no safe refuge there for a former ruler of Gendormargensis.

However, since the Witchlord Onosh had wisely extracted his treasure from Locontareth, his fugitive army had good gold to buy its necessities – or most of them, for the locals either did not have spare clothes to sell, or had them but refused to sell them.

So the army rapidly grew ragged; for the speed with which the barbarity of thorns and the lubricity of mud can reduce a splendid army to a horde of ragged beggars is nothing short of amazing.

Though the army could not replace its increasingly tattered clothing, it was able to feed itself through purchase, hence had no need to pillage – and so was able to march far south without being forced to bring the natives to battle. But Lord Onosh soon realized that the southrons were arming in his wake; that a force of indeterminate strength was dogging his rearguard; and that the country ahead was being roused and wakened.

In the face of this uncomfortable knowledge, Lord Onosh held a council of war.

They were then in a forest which was heavy with the smoke of an army's campfires. They had halted early, because ahead of them was a small river. To continue, they must cross it: and people had been seen moving furtively on the other side. Thodric Jarl deemed it a good place for an ambush, for the far bank was steep. Hence they had halted for their council of war.

As they would go no further that day whatever the council's decision, Pelagius Zozimus had set himself to turn out a meal, and was presiding over a simmering cauldron from which there rose the most delicious smell imaginable. Near that cauldron, as if drawn there by the potency of its aromas, was a ragged assembly seated on fallen logs.

There was the Witchlord Onosh, dressed like a beggar in his refugee rags. The dralkosh Bao Gahai. The old but elegant witch Zelafona. The dwarf Glambrax, a belt of fifty scalps around his waist, whittling a flute from a human thigh bone with a wicked little knife. Guest Gulkan himself, the Weaponmaster in his glory.

The Rovac warrior Rolf Thelemite and his murderous compatriot Thodric Jarl. The sagacious Sken-Pitilkin. And, of course, the slug-chef Zozimus himself.

"We have not troops sufficient to pursue our original plan," said the Witchlord.

"To get to Favanosin, you mean?" said Guest.

"No!" said his father. "Favanosin was but a ploy! Remember?

Our original plan was to make a great arc to Gendormargensis, and seize that city while Khmar pursued us in the south."

"That was not our plan," said Guest. "That was Jarl's plan.

Or your plan too, maybe, but never mine."

This was provocative, and Lord Onosh had to struggle mightily to control his temper. By then, the reversion of authority from son to father was more or less complete. By imperceptible degrees, Guest Gulkan had lost all authority, since he had proved lacking in the necessary skill, drive, diplomacy and decisiveness required to rule a crisis. While the Witchlord Onosh had busied himself with the organization of an army, his son the Weaponmaster had been embroiled in the ever-increasing complexities of institutionalized gambling, thus permanently discrediting himself in the eyes of hard-bitten veterans such as Thodric Jarl.

Ever since the hanging at Ink, Guest Gulkan had shown a tendency to shy away from absolute adult responsibility. And, after Witchlord and Weaponmaster had made an alliance at Babaroth,

Lord Onosh had accelerated this tendency by deliberately minimizing Guest's involvement in all decisions – even those which might well have been within the young man's competence. As adult authority had passed from his hands, Guest had increasingly reverted to a childish irresponsibility which vexed his father sorely; and Lord Onosh showed unexpected strength of character in being able to control his temper in the face of his son's many provocations.

Avoiding the easy opportunity for uproarious argument, Lord Onosh now said:

"The plan, the original plan, was a feint toward Favanosin, followed by an eastward arc to Gendormargensis. We are now too weak to do any such thing. Yet even if we abandon hope of capturing Gendormargensis, I believe we must still turn east to have hope of safety. Let us make for the shores of the Swelaway Sea. Let us take passage to Safrak's islands. Let us there settle – or, if denied refuge by Safrak, let us take the trading route to the free city of Port Domax. So say I. Now what say you?"

There was silence, as if one and all were so battered by the successive shock of events as to have lost all powers of initiative and self-determination.

"Well," said Lord Onosh, with some impatience, and with a harshness which betrayed the stress he was under. "You have heard me speak. Must I parrot out the whole business three times over?

Or have you opinions to submit? What is your counsel?"

As a child may sometimes feel over-burdened by adult responsibilites, so too may an adult; and, though Lord Onosh had long sought absolute power, in the difficulties of defeat he was finding the solitary burden of such power to be a weight most uncommonly difficult to bear.

"I say," said Thodric Jarl, speaking first since he thought all duties of battle were primarily his, "that we are in no state to fight our way to the south. Furthermore, what we know of Favanosin is written in smoke. None amongst our number has been there. Some say that ships from that harbor venture to Argan, to Ork, to Ashmolea, but nobody can vouch for this of a certainty. I believe more is known of Port Domax, though the knowledge belongs to others, not to me." Sken-Pitilkin cleared his throat.

"Mighty is the wisdom of the Rovac," said Sken-Pitilkin, "and Jarl has truthed of Favanosin of a verity. All we know of Favanosin is that it clutches the sea's shore like a very whore's egg. But Port Domax – why, I've been there myself."

"Port Domax exists, certainly," said Pelagius Zozimus, denying Sken-Pitilkin the fullness of his intended oratory. "Sken-Pitilkin has seen it, and as for me – why, I once ran a small eatery in that very city. That was half a thousand years ago, true, but I've been there often enough since then. Its language is Toxteth; its business is trade; and the city is well-connected in enterprise with Safrak and Ashmolea, with Wen Endex and with the more southron parts of Yestron. I vote for Port Domax."

"If a witch can agree with a wizard," said Zelafona, who had the shortest voice of any in that council, "then I vote likewise."

"And I – " said Glambrax.

"Hush yourself!" said Jarl. "Nobody here asked opinion of a dwarf."Guest Gulkan and Rolf Thelemite took that as a cue for violence, and so grabbed the dwarf and sat on him, though not without difficulty, for Glambrax was prodigiously strong for his size, and could have mastered either one of them in single combat.

"My sister speaks with reason," said Bao Gahai; and, though she had nothing new to add to the discourse, she reinforced the dignity of her own authority by rehashing at length all the arguments which had been so far presented.

"Well," said Guest, seated panting atop a struggling dwarf,

"now we're talking sense, though I hope we find footing on Safrak.

I've no wish to run to the Sea of Salt, assuming the thing to exist, so I'd far more happily settle on Alozay, or some such similar island. Khmar can't bring his horse against us, not there, whereas we, why, with time to spare we can – Glambrax! – we can – grief of gods, the thing's biting! – we can plan – Rolf! Get his head, man! – we can plan Khmar's destruction and – ya! – and think to brute back the empire. Gods! The thing's biting!"

"Obviously," said Lord Onosh, observing the course of Guest Gulkan's oratory, "the energy of the young and of the dwarves who play with them is truly prodigious in its optimism. Yet I think

Khmar secure, and doubt that the empire's reclamation lies within our power."

"But the journey to Safrak does," said Thodric Jarl, rising to his feet, and so bringing their council to an end.

Thus on the following day the Witchlord's army turned east, making for the Swelaway Sea. And a hard going they had of it, what with the difficulties of the terrain, the lack of provisions, the squalor of mud, and the frosts and snows.

For they had all seriously underestimated the derelictions of the wilderness which lay between the road to Favanosin and the shores of the Swelaway Sea. In that wilderness, there was nothing to buy and there was nothing to pillage. There was frost, mire, muck, swamp and weather-hardened thorn. Now the army saw desertions in truth, and it had been reduced to a bare 400 men by the time it arrived at the Swelaway Sea in the snow-shod bleakness of a season of withered sun.

Ah, that winter! That snow! Even now, the mere memory of it tempts the chronicler toward an exercise in self-pity. Even now, the worst of dreams recall the bite of that season. The army had become a rat-rag troupe of beggars, of cripples and convalescents, of blank-staring refugees and muttering derelicts. The bellies of the greatest lords amongst them were sick with the desolations of hunger. Numb fingers and bone-poke ribs. Fumbling dreams. Hope- wreck and delusion. They were all in, finished, exhausted, their last resources gone.

Yet they reached the freshwater sea.

Here a memory, very clear and sharp. The Witchlord Onosh, seated on a lakeside boulder, with his knees to its flanks as if he were seated upon a horse. The dirt of unwashed fatigue crusted in the big, fat, deep and inexplicable gouges which track their way down his slanting forehead. The black of his eyes catching the gray depressions of the everstretch waters of that horizon- exceeding inland lake. He sits; and watches; and breathes; and the smoke of his breath dissipates in a silence unbroken by any sound saving that of the rasping fatigue of his lungs.

It is the silence which stands out in memory: the silence which oppressed that army as it first absorbed the stare-stretch impact of the presence of so much water. For his own part, the Witchlord thought that everstretch of gray a very monstrosity in its insolence. Surely there should not be so much water in the world.

Though the vastness of the Swelaway Sea was but a commonplace matter to Guest, since he had grown well acquainted with it during the time of his exile on Alozay, never in all his life had Lord Onosh seen either this freshwater sea or the far greater Sea of Salt which was said to exist on the borders of the continent which contained his empire. For, though Lord Onosh had supervised the enforcement of law and taxes in the seaport city of Stranagor, he had always done so from Gendormargensis. And, though the Weaponmaster was said to have been born in Stranagor, the Witchlord had never been to that seaport, and knew no more of the Hauma Sea than he did of the Sea of Salt or this present freshwater sea.

"It is a dream," said Lord Onosh.

Who was so fatigued that fragments of dream were ever spilling into his reality. Unpleasant fragments, for the most part. The heads of horses. Bloody blades. And -

Even as Lord Onosh sat there upon his horse, a dream reconfigured the world in fancy's fashion. Bloodred hairs sprouted from the glabrous glaciations of the lake. Oozing and creaming, a slow-headed slug in the fullness of its monstrosity -

The Witchlord dismounted from his rock.

"Wa," said Lord Onosh, shaking the dreams out of his head.

Then, bootstep by bootstep, he crunched across the thin and narrow lakeside beach, his weight bearing down on smallstone and shellbreak. He kicked a stone into the lake, and was splashed for his pains.

"It is real," said Lord Onosh.

It was real, and it was cold. The entire Swelaway Sea seemed one vast sink of cold. The lake was fringed with a lacing of frozen ice; and, indeed, knowledgeable geographers aver that only the underground upspout of hot volcanic water keeps the lake in its entirety from freezing to a single block of ice in the rigors of Tameran's continental winter.

The Witchlord Onosh took off the battle-gauntlets which he had worn for days. With his bare fingers, he picked up a fragment of ice. He held it up to the watery sun then discarded it to the water. The ice sliced into the water with a clean-slick splash.

Plunged. Then upfloated. Lord Onosh stooped to the water, cupped his hand, dipped for water, and drank.

"It is sweet," said Lord Onosh. "It is bitter cold, but it is sweet."

Then the Witchlord filled a drinking horn with water and jangling ice, and passed it round that others might drink thereof.

The horn came last to Sken-Pitilkin.

"It is sweet," said Lord Onosh, watching as Sken-Pitilkin drank. "Sweet. Is it not?"

"It is, my lord," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"Yet you have told me a thousand times if you have told it me once that the sea is not sweet but salt."

"I meant not this sea, my lord."

"Then what sea?" said Lord Onosh.

"He meant the true sea," said Bao Gahai.

"The true sea?" said Lord Onosh.

"He meant that real sea of salt which girdles the entire world," said Bao Gahai. "This is not that true sea."

"No?" said Lord Onosh. "Then what is it? Something I have conjured from dream for my own self-delusion?"

"The Swelaway Sea is but an over-large lake, my lord," said Bao Gahai.

"Lake!" said Lord Onosh. He looked across the waters. The distant horizon promised nothing but an eternity of water. "This so large yet you call it a lake?"

He knew it, he had heard it, he had been told it a thousand times, yet in the face of the fact he found it hard to believe.

"The true sea is larger yet," said Bao Gahai. "In the true sea, my lord, there are storms which maul the shores and tear from the cliffs rocks which are larger than houses. In the true sea, my lord, the kraken uprises from the lurching depths, and swallows down ships in their entirety. In the true sea, my lord, there live birds which never rest but which fly eternally, born and dying on the wing. That is the true sea, compared to which this is but a little cup of nothing."

Lord Onosh closed his eyes, squeezed hard, dismissed the visions Bao Gahai had conjured, then opened his eyes again. There lay the Swelaway Sea, gray and placid, a pool of ominous quiescence. Lord Onosh felt the gray eternities of water sapping his will, and had a premonition that he would die here. Not quick death clean, not death made battle-axe, but death made slow, death made a bone-picker, death dragged out over years. The Witchlord envisioned himself picking his way along the beach in his rags, picking his way in the wind and the rain, eating spoilt eggs half- formed into birds, eating the udders of rats and the bellies of worms, his very name in time forgotten by his own tongue.

He shuddered.

Upon the beach of that bleak and barren lake in the heartland of Tameran, there were shells of a bleached blue fringed with the last traces of violet. Lord Onosh had no name to specify the particularity of these shells, just as he had no name for the foreign waterbird which he saw briefing its way across the sky.

This was a place without language, a place of utter desolation.

"Yet rock is still rock and water still water," said Lord Onosh.

"My lord," said Thodric Jarl, interrupting the Witchlord's extended personal confrontation with the realities of the freshwater sea. "My lord!" gray beard, gray hair, gray eyes – Jarl, unkempt and derelict after the rigors of the march, his features seamed with dirt and his eyes shot through with blood, why, Thodric Jarl right then looked like a very prophet in the grip of revelation. It was then the winter of the year Alliance 4307, and Thodric Jarl was but 27 years of age, yet such was the battering which this warrior had taken that he could easily have passed for 50.

"My lord!" said Jarl.

"Yes?" said Lord Onosh, squaring off against this fevered prophet, and bracing himself to receive commands from the gods, or a great diktat concerning the conduct of affairs amidst that living death which we call life.

"My lord," said Jarl, "I have for my lord's inspection the first spoils of our latest conquest."

So spoke the Rovac warrior, solemnly displaying a double handful of water-snails for his liege lord's inspection.

For, after the initial silence which had struck the army as it contemplated the lake, Jarl had got busy with practical investigations while his emperor was still indulging himself in metaphysical despairs.

"We can eat these?" said Lord Onosh, making a dubious inspection of Jarl's wet and somewhat slimy trophies.

The Witchlord Onosh, disturbed in his moody philosophizing, tried to sound enthusiastic about the dripping molluscs heaped in the swordsman's calloused hands, though in truth he resented the brusque commonsense intrusion of this Rovac mercenary.

"Can we eat them?" said Jarl, half-echoing his emperor. "One would presume so." Then, as Lord Onosh turned back to the lake:

"One would presume they might make a very good meal, my lord."

Lord Onosh saw that he was not going to be left alone to meditate on the derelictions of his fate. He was a lord of men, after all, albeit a lord of defeat, and such a luminary has certain responsibilities, even in the dampness of his extinguishment. Lord Onosh noted that Guest had made no move to give any orders.

"Zozimus!" said Lord Onosh, rousing his voice to the challenge. "Come here! Come here, and pronounce upon on our scavenging!"

His chef came hurrying over to examine the spoils of Jarl's lake-plundering.

"This is the water snail Mabarakorabantibus Dontharpis," said Zozimus, holding a sample to the light. "Or so the beast is named in the Ilapatarginath system of taxonomy, though it is known elsewhere as the edible helmet. It is of wide distribution, and even occurs on the shores of the Araconch Waters, where Barglan of the Empire once made a notable feast of the things."

Such was the loquacity of Pelagius Zozimus when he was showing off. It was truly amazing that the Witchlord Onosh stood still for such nonsense; and, indeed, to move from specifics to generalities, it is amazing how a mere slug-chef can always and ever so easily and so impudently command so much of the time of his lord and master, when a scholar can scarcely get a hearing at all. Zozimus commanded the Witchlord's time as if it was his by right; and Lord Onosh listened to Zozimus with the patience of a very rock.

Then:

"So," said Lord Onosh, weighing one of Jarl's lake-morsels in his hand, "we can eat these."

"We can, my lord," said Zozimus. "Furthermore, the water weed which grows from the rocks is also edible."

And you can bet all the gold in your pockets, and bet your favorite slave as well, and your wife, and your mother-in-law's walking stick, that Zozimus went on to name that weed, and to mention five or six occasions on which the cookery of that weed had been well received, and to state a dozen recipes for its preparation – for when the show-off mood was upon Zozimus there was no stopping him.

"So far, so good," said Lord Onosh, when he had absorbed great quantities of this advice. "Snails and water weed. Very well. But I warrant it would still make a thin meal."

"True, my lord," said Zozimus, grabbing Glambrax by the ear,

"but it would go very well with some dwarf."

At that, the dwarf kicked and struggled so much that Zozimus had to let him go. But such was the cunning of the slug-chef's timing that the dwarf, impelled by the violence of his own efforts to escape, rolled over and over and plunged into the crackle-ice sweetwaters of the Swelaway Sea. He struggled out, cursing, and immediately went on the attack with tinder and flint, striving to make himself a fire.

"As you can see," said Zozimus, observing the dwarf's prompt success, "we have fire already. We will shortly also have fish."

Then Zozimus produced from his robes a vial of something he claimed to be fish poison.

"Do you always travel with such?" said Lord Onosh in astonishment.

"But of course, my lord," said Zozimus blandly.

And poured the stuff upon the waters, where it worked as smoothly as a miracle, for very shortly there were any number of dead fish belly-up and gaping.

Thus the Witchlord Onosh came to the shores of the Swelaway Sea with the ragtag remnants of his army, and the sea provided for him fish, and waterweed, and the snails to flesh out the meal, and so a banquet was had.

When the banqueting was done, talk turned to the future.

"The question now," said Thodric Jarl, "is how we conquer the Safrak Islands."

"Pardon?" said Lord Onosh.

"My lord means conquest, does he not?" said Jarl. "Surely he did not bring us all this way just for the pleasure of poisoning a few fish and watching a dwarf make vomit of them."

So spoke Jarl, casually dismissing their dead, their defeats, their retreats, the pangs being suffered by Glambrax (who had grossly over-indulged himself by eating the eyes from the head of each and every fish which had gone toward the feeding of an entire army) and all the sundry embroilments of the catastrophic nightmare which they had so recently and so strenuously lived through.

"One considers," said Lord Onosh, choosing his words carefully, "one considers that the wetness of the Swelaway Sea has certain implications for our future actions. I scarcely think to ride to battle across the waves, nor do I think the seizure of a few boats would do us much good beneath the invincible cliffs of Alozay."

"My father has spoken well," said Guest Gulkan. "The Safrak

Islands are defended beyond all possibility of conquest."

"Then what does my lord intend?" said Jarl. "Are we to retreat to Port Domax, as was earlier suggested? Or what?"

"It is said that the Safrak Islands are but scantily populated," said Lord Onosh, "and that Molothair is a city largely deserted. I will treat with the lords of Alozay, and will seek to hold one of the minor islands in fief, paying for the privilege.

There we will house our people and make our future."

"I think," said Thodric Jarl, with a suggestion of a growl giving a hard edge to his wisdom, "that such privileges will not be lightly bought."

"The wealth of Gendormargensis is with us," said Lord Onosh.

"We do not come empty handed, and our embassy will say as much."

Then Lord Onosh despatched scouts to seek along the shores of the lake for a boat, and when the scouts had been successful the Witchlord then sent ambassadors to Safrak, their mission being to negotiate the purchase of an island where the Witchlord might settle with the remnants of his army. The ambassadors were Hostaja Sken-Pitilkin, the witch Zelafona, and Guest Gulkan, for these three had a knowledge of the Galish, which tongue was alien to the Witchlord's lips.

All through the journey to Alozay, Sken-Pitilkin drilled Guest Gulkan ruthlessly in the Galish tongue, seeking to awaken that learning which had been hammered into the boy's head in earlier days. But the task was difficult, for the approach to Alozay saw Guest ever slipping away into dreams of glory.

For Alozay, of course, was the home of Icaria Scaria Iva-Italis, a demon incarnate in a huge block of jade-green stone.

During Guest's earlier exile on Alozay, that demon had tempted the boy, promising that he would be granted the powers of a wizard if he would only consent to quest to the far-distant city of Obooloo, and in Obooloo to liberate the Great God Jocasta from the Temple of Blood.

Thus, while journeying to Safrak's ruling island, Guest Gulkan dreamt mightily of demons, and of Great Gods, and of wizardhood, and of future glory. Sken-Pitilkin, Zelafona and Guest Gulkan were received at Alozay by Banker Sod, the Governor of the Safrak Bank, who allowed them into the mainrock Pinnacle. The pale-skinned iceman chose to interrogate them in his office, which was adorned with the shields of the Toxteth-speaking mercenaries of the Guardians. Upon those shields were painted glowing scenes of bloody decapitations – and worse.

A very miracle of luxury was that office, warmed with braziers and furs, and in their reduced condition the Witchlord's ambassadors were at first hesitant even to seat themselves. But Sod commanded them into chairs; and set mulled wine before them; and had hot chestnuts served to them; and then, seeing the gnawing hunger which obsessed them, saw to it that they were served with hot bread, and soup thick with onions and garlic.

"Well," said Sod, when his visitors were done with their eating. "Are we pleasured? Are we sated?"

"My lord has been most hospitable," said Sken-Pitilkin.

"Yes," said Sod. "Particularly considering that you have given me cause for hostility rather than hospitality." Then the pale-skinned iceman endeavored to skewer Sken-Pitilkin with the bright-staring gaze of his yellow eyes, and bared his yellow teeth in something reminiscent of a dog's aggression, and said:

"Hostility, yes, for when you were last in the precincts of my Bank, you caused considerable distress. You precipitated a fight.

Or was it you?"

With that, Sod turned his skewering attention from Sken-Pitilkin to Guest Gulkan.

"That was no precipitation of mine," said Guest. "That was Jarl, Jarl did the fighting, on account of some precipitation between himself and yourself."

"Yes, well," said Sod. "What did he tell you of that?"Guest searched his memory, for it was long since he had discussed that subject with Jarl.

"Jarl says," said Guest, slowly, "that he saw you last in Chi'ash-lan. He presumes you to be hiding here with a mighty price upon your head, which would explain the violence of your reaction to his recognition of you."

"Has it occurred to you," said Sod, "that if I do truly wish to keep my presence here a secret, I might do well to encompass your death, and to send out agents to slaughter down Thodric Jarl as well."

"I think you not so stupid," said Guest. "Since last we left this place, why, Jarl and myself, we've been to Ema-urk and the Ibsen-Iktus, the mountains, we've been to Babaroth, to Locontareth, to half the places in between. Even as we sit here, the story of our travels echoes down the roadway. We in our courage have entered into epic, and the sagas will sing us famously a thousand years from hence."

"The boy speaks in truth," said the dralkosh Zelafona. "My sister Bao Gahai herself interrogated the warrior Jarl in depth, and heard from him all that is known of your history. It is a mighty great mystery, you being here, given the vastness of space which separates Chi'ash-lan from Safrak. Still, here you are, and all the world knows it, and if you had hoped to keep the matter a secret then you are far, far too late."

"If a wizard may agree with a witch," said Sken-Pitilkin,

"then let me speak in support of Zelafona. For I myself discussed this mystery with Ontario Nol."

"I know him not," said Banker Sod.

"Ontario Nol," said Sken-Pitilkin, slipping effortlessly into his lecturing mode, "is the abbot of the monastery of Qonsajara.

He dwells in the heights of those mountains known as Ibsen-Iktus, and Guest Gulkan's brother Eljuk dwells there likewise, living as apprentice to the master. The pair of them have had your story in detail, and will keep it fresh in memory for a generation or more.

Thus has your privacy been betrayed, and permanently."

Sod sighed.

"So," said Sod. "It has happened. We must hope that no harm comes of it. Very well. To return to our muttons | | "

Then Banker Sod, the Governor of the Safrak Bank, negotiated with the emissaries who had come to speak for the Witchlord Onosh.

The negotiations proved surprisingly easy.

The final agreement was that Safrak would allow Lord Onosh to hold in fief the minor island of Im-skim-patorta, providing he paid for the privilege. Lord Onosh was invited to bring his men to the hot springs at Spradley Rock, and there to prepare himself and his men for a banquet, and then to proceed to the island of Alozay for that self-same banquet and the formal signing of a treaty which would enshrine the terms of this agreement. Guest and the other ambassadors gladly took this agreement back to the Witchlord Onosh. A fleet of fishing boats accompanied them, for Sod had decided to be generous in providing transport; and he was generous also with the dispensing of bread, and onions, and garlic, and sacks of barley. So it was that, some days and several excellent meals later, the Witchlord and his men found themselves upon Spradley Rock.

Spradley Rock was the least of the Safrak Islands, excepting for a few nameless rocks, and it was a place of no great consequence, being as it was no more than a low-lying and industriously rockgardened outcrop of geology featuring much sand and many hot springs.

It was then deep winter, and on most days the cold and blighting winds were sweeping the Swelaway Sea with the bitterness of sleet, yet the winter weather was fine and blue when the Witchlord Onosh and his company came to the hotspring waters of Spradley Rock, and those hotspring waters were unstinting in their welcome. Green were the pools of tho