A preview of my new serial, now in progress. I posted a teaser (call it that, rather than a prologue) earlier.
The first snow fell on the fourth day out from Suranaya, just before midday, though the calendar insisted that it was still early autumn. Three men on sturdy bay horses rode slowly up the zig-zag road towards the northern mountains. A wintry mantle had already settled on the jagged peaks. In full daylight they would have been dazzling white, but they looked like tarnished silver under this livid and sunless sky.
The riders went single file, but drew up three abreast when the leader halted at a bend in the road. He pointed at a deep, narrow rift in the mountain range on the northern horizon. ‘Sai Jilon,’ he said in his own Anayan tongue, his voice as dull and grey as the clouds. Then, for the benefit of his companions, he translated it into the speech of the Commonwealth: ‘Cleft of Bones.’
The other riders looked up at the cleft uneasily. ‘Charming name,’ said the younger of the two, a lean, dark youth with close-cropped hair. He wore a plain woollen riding cloak with brown boots and gloves, and a cynical expression that fell just short of being a smirk. He looked like the sort of person that is always being told to take that look off his face.
‘Take that look off your face, Revel,’ said the third rider, throwing back his hood. He was dressed like the younger man, except for a bright blue sash round his waist, but there the resemblance ended. He was taller than his companion, broad-shouldered, with a wide, honest face that seemed equally ready for anger or laughter. Though he was no more than thirty, his hair was marked by two white streaks, running straight back from the corners of his forehead.
‘You take it off, Badger-brock. I’m not going up there till our friend tells us whose bones it’s named after.’
‘Not bones of men,’ said the Anayan. ‘Come. Dangerous to stop here.’
The three riders urged their mounts into a tired and toilsome walk. The horses puffed clouds of steam as they laboured up the steepening slope. A sharp east wind blew wisps of falling snow about their hoofs. The snow turned the treeless landscape into a jumble of shapeless lumps. Some of them concealed juniper bushes, some dwarf willows; others were loose boulders or heaps of shattered stone. Except for the road, there was no sign of human life, but the riders were uncomfortably aware that most of those lumps were big enough to provide cover for a hostile archer or spearman.
The young rider cast a sour glance over the terrain. ‘Remind me, Badger. Why are we fighting for this iceberg?’
‘Don’t be a fool, Revel. Till now, we’ve shut the Taken up behind those mountains – kept them landlocked. If they take Suranaya, or any other seaport for that matter, they’ll be able to strike wherever they choose; and they’ll bring their winter with them. I suppose you’d rather fight demons in the Pearl Islands? Or your own back garden in six feet of snow?’
‘Since you ask,’ said Revel, ‘I’d rather not fight them at all.’
‘For a man who doesn’t like fighting, you picked a strange profession. We’re not exactly tea ladies. If you—’
The Anayan hissed loudly, and the Badger fell silent. ‘Something moving, Surin. Very close.’
‘Taken?’ Revel asked in an urgent whisper.
‘Could be ordinary bandits,’ said the Badger. ‘Either way, get ready to run. Where did you spot them, Jandi?’
Not fifty yards ahead, the road passed between two low mounds of wind-carved earth. The Anayan pointed to the one on the left. ‘Wonderful,’ said Revel. ‘I suppose there’s no way round?’
‘Only one road to Sai Jilon,’ said Jandi.
‘I was afraid of that.’ Revel sighed and reached for the stout oaken stave slung across his saddle-bow. Shod in iron on one end, capped with a milky jade ram’s head on the other, it was as good a weapon as a footman’s mace. The Badger was already brandishing his stave. Jandi drew a long dagger and tried to look dangerous. Three pairs of eyes scanned the road ahead, gauging their chances of galloping straight through the ambush. Revel reined in his skittish mount, murmured soothing words to try to calm it. The riders looked at one another and nodded. They would try a charge.
It was then that the Taken attacked them from behind.
Eight men in tattered furs sprang up out of a blind in the snow, flung themselves at the horses’ flanks, clawed at the riders’ legs to pull them out of the saddle. The Badger’s mount baulked and tried to kick, but Revel’s bay had other ideas. It flattened its ears against its skull, took the bit in its teeth, and bolted. For a moment that seemed impossibly long, Revel found himself sitting in empty air. Then he hit the road with a heavy thud, and the Taken were upon him.
One assailant was digging his fingernails into Revel’s left arm; another seemed determined to bite through his right boot. For the moment, his right arm was free. He swung his stave down hard on the biting man’s skull, provoking a muffled yelp. Then he was down, four men pinning his limbs while a fifth tried to sit on his head. He could hear the Badger shouting battle-cries and curses, and the heavy thud of his stave against his enemies’ bodies. Jandi seemed to have disappeared.
It was not much good struggling against the strength of five men, but Revel was still trying when the head of the Badger’s stave knocked one of the enemy sprawling. The return stroke caught another in the belly, winding him and making him let go of Revel’s arm. With a desperate squirm and a tearing of wool, the youth broke free and leapt to his feet. Before the Taken could overpower him again, he screamed an invocation in the ancient Sethic tongue. Pale flame blossomed from the jade ram’s head, setting the enemy’s furs ablaze as he rained blows down on the suddenly panicked men. They sprang away from him, howling in terror, and before he was quite aware of it, the Taken were gone.
‘Put that out, idiot!’ the Badger snapped. ‘Every demon for miles will see us.’
Revel opened his mouth to argue, but he restrained himself and let the flame die. ‘Well, there’s one consolation,’ the Badger went on. ‘That lot didn’t know who we were. They thought they were looking at three unarmed travellers.’
‘They won’t make that mistake again,’ Revel agreed with a grin.
‘You’ve got that right,’ said the Badger. ‘Next time they’ll bring an army.’
Revel’s grin vanished as suddenly as his fire. ‘So many? I thought on this side of the mountains—’
‘You thought. Revel, that isn’t good enough. In this country, you have to know.’
‘Surin, come quickly!’ Jandi’s voice came through the thickening snowfall. He was kneeling on the ground twenty yards from the road.
‘What is it, Jandi?’
‘You marked one, Revel Surin.’
Revel and the Badger shrugged and exchanged glances. ‘Don’t let him up!’ the Badger shouted back as they tramped through the snow to join the Anayan.
One of the Taken was lying on his back, eyes open, but evidently stunned. He had the high cheekbones and straight, glossy hair of an Anayan, but his complexion was like nothing human. His face was a deathly mottled grey, like lead sprinkled with ashes. The Badger tore his clothes open to bare his chest, revealing that the man’s body was the same unnatural colour.
‘He’s far gone,’ said Revel.
‘Not far enough.’ Jandi set his dagger to the grey man’s throat.
Before the guide could press the blade home, the Badger knocked it away. ‘Stop that! We came here to fight a war, not to kill. Hold him down, and watch.’
Next: A Battle of Souls