Authors: Lee Duigon
“And me!” Ryons said. Helki knew he meant it; but kings cannot go out on adventures like private persons, everybody said.
“Someday, Majesty,” Helki said, “when the country’s at peace again, I’ll take you hunting—just you and me and Cavall in Lintum Forest. It’s a promise.”
At Gilmy he visited the house where Jack and Ellayne had stayed and did his best to give Cavall their scent. He visited the stable where Martis’ horse, Dulayl, had been kept. To hope that Cavall could follow such a cold trail was to hope for much; but when Helki spoke, animals listened. He had no doubt Cavall would understand what was being asked of him.
Helki was most at home in the forest, but this was open country with only scattered isles of woodland. Much of it was farms, from which the farmers had all fled. A day’s hike to the south lay the Imperial River. Due north, all the way up to the River Winter, lay mostly empty country, wild and waste. It beckoned to Helki, but he doubted Jack and Ellayne would have gone north.
He was sure they must have gone either east or west from Gilmy. There was no reason for them to try to cross the Imperial. If they’d been seeking to rejoin King Ryons’ army, they would have traveled west. Their hometown, he knew, lay to the east; but it was very far away.
Under the grey sky, Helki and Cavall hunted for the children’s trail. Two days’ journey west of Gilmy, Helki spotted a buzzard in the sky. It led him to a dead man left unburied.
Birds and other scavengers had been at the body, but Helki made a close examination of it. “Let’s see what he can tell us,” he said to the hound. “There’s a hole in his chest—knife or sword, stabbed right to the heart. I think—yes, I’m sure—he’s a Griff. Hard to be sure, with his face all eaten away. But what does the ground tell us? Too bad it’s been rained on.”
Cavall went back and forth, sniffing, keenly interested. Helki studied the ground. A horse’s hooves, in spots, had gouged it. And there were other signs that only Helki would have seen.
“This man had two others with him—all three were Griffs, I reckon,” he said. “They were attacked by one man on a horse. This one was killed, and his two friends ran away. It was only one man on horseback, one against three.” He stood up straight. “That sounds like Martis.”
Cavall barked. He had the scent.
“Yes—it all adds up,” Helki said. “Let’s go.” The hound trotted forward, nose to the ground, eastward. Helki followed.
He was sure he knew what had happened. Jack and Ellayne wanted to be back with the army, so they ran away from Gilmy. Martis followed. Three Griffs met the children, but Martis arrived in time to kill one and drive off the others. Then he would have brought the children back to Gilmy—but they never arrived. Why not?
Here and there, Helki saw the horse’s prints. Where there were three Griffs, he thought, there were probably more. A scouting party, maybe.
Griffs wandered into Obann sometimes. Often they took service with the army. A few of them used to hunt in Lintum Forest. They’d be valuable to the Thunder King as scouts.
The trail was two weeks old, at least, and likely more. Helki wondered why the Griffs hadn’t taken their prisoners back west to Obann. He wondered why they hadn’t buried their friend. There must have been a good reason for it.
“Faster, Cavall!” he said. “Don’t be slow on my account. I’ll catch up to you by nightfall.” Even if he couldn’t follow the old trail, he could easily follow Cavall’s new one.
The hound barked and trotted faster. Helki trotted, too. The gap between the two widened until eventually the dog was out of sight. But Helki followed the trail of grass pressed down by his paws.
Many miles to the east, at the camp deserted by the Griffs, Martis prevailed on Chillith to tell everything he knew about the Thunder King. “I’d like to know,” he said, “how a man convinces other men to worship him as a god.”
Chillith sat in his blindness, warmed by a campfire that he couldn’t see. Jack had always thought blind people kept their eyes closed, but Chillith’s were wide open. They peered intently into first one direction, then another, striving desperately to see something, or anything. You would think them the same as anyone else’s eyes, until you noticed that they couldn’t seem to fasten on to anything. They were always searching, never finding. It must be bad, Jack thought. Bad even for an enemy.
“The Thunder King is not a man,” Chillith said, after a long pause. “You are right—it would be foolish to worship a man. But he’s not a man. He’s not like you or me, or anyone. We call him the Great Man sometimes, but he’s not a man.
“I myself have never seen him. But I would have, one day, when I was judged worthy. The great mardars, his trusted ones, he binds to himself. For them it is as if they were in his presence all the time. What they see, he sees. What they hear, he hears—so that he can be anywhere, everywhere, and yet never leave his castle. He causes his trusted ones to think his thoughts, so that they always know his wishes. He causes his power to flow through them. Through them he can stop the rain, turn drinking water bad, make cattle barren and sour their milk, and strike a whole tribe with pestilence. Can any mortal man do that?”
“If he really can do that!” Ellayne muttered under her breath. It all sounded like witches or wizards in the stories of Abombalbap, which Obst always said were fairy tales.
But Chillith heard her. “Yes, he can do those things,” he said. “Once they’re bonded to him, his great mardars are like gods themselves. That’s how they silenced the Griffs’ gods and imprisoned them in wood and stone, so that we shamans had no more communion with them. He has done the same to many people’s gods.
“I’ve seen all these things for myself. His mardars make sacrifices to him, of animals and humans. That’s how his power is renewed in them. I’ve seen them make good grazing land go bad. I’ve seen men who spoke against the mardars sicken and die for no reason at all. There’s hardly a man or a woman living east of the mountains who hasn’t seen these things with his own eyes. Someday you will see them in the West, too.”
No man knew where the Thunder King was born, nor when, nor of what people. He came out of some country yet farther to the east, making miracles and spreading terror. If he had a name other than the Thunder King, no man knew it. Some believed him to be a thousand years old, although he looked like a man in the prime of his life.
His castle at Kara Karram, on a hilltop overlooking the easternmost of the Great Lakes, once belonged to mighty kings. The Thunder King killed the last of those kings and enslaved his people. In dungeons in that castle he kept all the gods of all the nations prisoner. The wealth of all the East flowed in to him. Those who served him at his castle, even the least of them, lived as luxuriously as emperors.
All this, said Chillith, everybody knew. He had never yet been to Kara Karram himself, but he’d spoken to many men who’d been there.
“But do you yourself believe he is a god?” asked Martis.
“What else can he be?” Chillith said, spreading his palms helplessly.
“A very wicked man,” said Martis, “who plays on fear and superstition. I’ve known a few like that, and served them.”
“No man can do the things he does!”
“Or appears to do,” Martis said. And he said to himself, “I wonder.”
It was his former master, Lord Reesh, whom Martis was thinking of; and just as Martis thought of him, Reesh was traveling eastward in a cushioned coach.
Mardar Kyo’s plan was to cross the mountains in the winter by means of a pass above the source of the Chariot River. If they made good time, he said, they could get there before the snows began in earnest.
“In any case, First Prester, you need only stay alive. My men will see to it that you’re kept warm and comfortable and well fed,” he told Lord Reesh. “You won’t lack for hot drinks, either, when it grows cold. My master’s servants will attend your every need. And I’m sure this is a comfortable coach.”
“It is,” said Reesh. “I couldn’t have provided a better one myself.”
Prester Orth didn’t join the conversation. He could not get it out of his mind that Obann, despite his treason, still stood and that the army to which he had betrayed the city was no more.
“They’ll find out what we did,” he thought. “We let the Heathen into the city. Everyone in Obann might have been killed because of us.” Some enemy prisoner would reveal it all, and Lord Reesh and Prester Orth would go down in history as the vilest traitors ever known. What would happen to them if they ever fell into the hands of the city’s rulers, Orth tried not to imagine.
But he couldn’t stop thinking about it. Since the news of the city’s rescue first reached them, half a dozen of their servants had deserted in the night. What if one of those men should let their secret slip out? What tale might he tell? “Never mind them,” Gallgoid said. “If we’re traitors, then so are they. Why should they give themselves away?”
“To purchase their own lives by selling ours!” Orth thought.
The First Prester showed no sign of being troubled by it. He had committed himself to the new Temple, and that was that. Reesh would never look back. Orth envied him.
Why, why had he ever gone along with Reesh’s plan? Because he was sure the city would fall, and it was the only way to save his worthless skin! What was the use in succeeding Reesh as First Prester in a Temple at the end of the earth, built by Heathen hands and subject to an evil man who called himself a god? Why had he agreed to it? All he would get for it would be a dishonorable grave in a faraway country.
“I must have been insane,” he thought. “And as for this miserable journey, who knows where it will end—or how?”
The miles rolled along under the wheels of the coach. To the right, a mile or two distant, flowed the Chariot River down from the northeast. The country through which they traveled was dotted with reedy fens and little streams that wandered east until they found the river. There was no road to speak of: most of the traveling in this country was done by boat or raft. There should have been boatmen, fishermen, and loggers with their rafts, all going about their business here, but the war had driven them to cover. Above the dreary country stretched a dreary grey sky.
Suddenly, the horses neighed, and the coach lurched to a stop. Men cried out in astonishment.
“Look at that!” Reesh said.
Orth looked past him, out the window. He saw a pool with reeds and cattails. And he heard a hoarse, rolling bellow.
Orth’s blood nearly froze. Climbing out of the pool on the far side was a creature that might have crawled out from a nightmare. At first he thought it was some kind of gigantic hog, hairless, slate-grey, and black where it was wet. But then it turned to bellow at the men and horses and to shake its head at them.
It was a great oblong box of a head, monstrous, hideous, with big knobbly horns all over it and long, sharp yellow tusks in its jaws. It was like nothing any man had ever imagined. The men with difficulty controlled their frightened horses.
That was all the time it took for Lord Reesh’s last eleven servants to throw down whatever they were carrying and race off in eleven different directions, screaming. Kyo’s warriors had all they could do just to control their horses. There was no pursuit. And then the creature clumped off into a stand of high reeds, smashing them down. The reeds sprang up again after it and closed their ranks, and the monster vanished. It roared once, and then was heard no more.
“Did you see that, Orth!” said Reesh.
“What was it?” Orth cried. His teeth were chattering. “What in God’s name was it?”
Kyo, with his horse still fidgety under him, spurred up to the window.
“Quite a sight, First Prester—eh?” he said. “What do people in Obann call that animal?”
“A hallucination,” Reesh said. “I can only say, Mardar, that we have no name for it. I have never seen or heard of such an animal. But I have heard many reports of strange beasts seen in many parts of the country. I never quite believed them until now.”
“Whatever it was,” Kyo said, “it was wise enough not to attack a band of armed men. I don’t think we’ll see it again.”
Gallgoid hopped down from the roof of the coach. “You saw it, Excellency?” he said.
Reesh nodded. “A most remarkable sight.”
“Whatever it was, the horses didn’t like it,” Gallgoid said. “Another minute, and they would’ve all bolted. Prester Orth, are you all right? Your face has gone all pale.”
“I’m fine—just startled,” Orth lied.
“My lord,” said Gallgoid, “the rest of our people have run away.”
Reesh glared at him. He’d picked those men himself. Now all he had left were Orth and Gallgoid.
“Mardar Kyo, I need those men,” he said.
“For what?” Kyo scowled. “No point chasing such cowards. At Kara Karram you will be given better men.” His horse fidgeted under him, and he paused to bring it back under control.
“Well, we need not stay here any longer,” Kyo said. “We can cover another twenty miles before we make camp for the night.”
Their journey resumed. Reesh sat still, thinking. Orth was glad Reesh didn’t want to talk: not just now.