In the Shadow of Mountains: The Return of the Sixpack by David George Richards by David George Richards - Read Online
In the Shadow of Mountains
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Summary

Slide-Rule had been their strategist. She had taken the beaten armies of Falonbeck to victory over the Sullenfeld Hordes and now even the Dragon Prince of Halafalon wouldn’t stand in her way. And if she could keep Sir John L’Crue on side, what she wanted she would get.

Bus-Pass was one of their best fighters. She was a thief who made an art out of her trade. But her frequent confrontations with the Sheriff of Jasanta had instilled an admiration that went way beyond mere professional competition.

Chalk-Dust was their scout. Thoughtful and methodical, she could find anything anywhere. But what she had stolen from the hidden tomb of Edred the Mighty would have to be returned before the Sullenfeld Hordes caught and skinned her to get it back.

Blue-Tack was their leader. Strong, intelligent, and a fierce fighter, she had only one true enemy, an enemy who had taken away the only thing she cherished. And she lived only for the day when she would finally get even.

Gym-Slip was the thorn in their side. Always full of the joys of life, she was a trickster, a comedienne who found fun in everything they did. And what she told Bus-Pass about the Sheriff was just low-down dirty rotten.

Buy-Row was their biographer. Quiet and shy, she was a romantic book worm. She read everything she could find about lost cities and hidden tombs. And what she learned she told Chalk-Dust to find.

They had spent a lifetime together on Ellerkan. It had been a lifetime of adventure, robbery, mayhem and sex whenever they could get it. Now, after twenty-eight years came their reunion. The flesh may have been weak, but the spirit was still willing, and what happened was what always happened when the Sixpack were around -all Hell let loose.

And into all of this came Johnson Fold. He was only interested in a little horse trading. Ellerkan was just the sort of backwards planet where his skills and artistry could be most fruitful. And as he often said to his partner, Sinita Khan, “What could possibly go wrong?”

Published: David George Richards on
ISBN: 9781465909244
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In the Shadow of Mountains - David George Richards

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chance.

Prologue

Birth and Death

It was raining fiercely. The night was cold and wet. They ran among the trees breathing hard, their breath coming in gasps from their mouths that hung like white clouds in their wake. Wet, sodden, and exhausted, they still ran. They had to run, they couldn’t stop.

Chen-Soo pulled Jai-Soo along with her, but she already knew they would be caught. Jai-Soo couldn’t run fast enough, she was too heavy with the burden of those she carried, and the sword wound had cut deep into her body.

Those who pursued them ran with more vigour. They had tasted victory in the shedding of blood. Now they chased those that had survived. They had split into two groups. Some had lingered too long at the site of their victory, looting and burning the small house. They had fallen behind. The others who were closer had been more eager for the chase; they were almost on the heels of their prey. Their hurry would be their downfall.

Chen-Soo paused by a large tree. She leaned Jai-Soo against the wet trunk and moved quickly away. Jai-Soo braced herself against the tree, her legs apart. She clutched her sword in one hand, and pressed her other hand over the wound in her swollen belly. The rain washed over her, pelting her and running down her face and neck in streams.

She didn’t have to wait long.

They could smell her blood, taste the difference in her. She was not right, and the seeds that grew so large in her belly reeked of mutation.

The two Outsiders who appeared from out of the shadows and the trees went straight for Jai-Soo. Such was their anger and hatred that they ran at her with their swords raised, without thinking of who else might be lurking nearby. It was their undoing.

Chen-Soo emerged from behind them and struck one of them across the back. She fell in a splash of mud and blood. Chen-Soo stabbed down, finishing her and turning instantly to the other. She turned to fight, and their swords clashed in the rain.

Jai-Soo pushed herself away from the tree and lunged with her sword, stabbing the Outsider in the back. She didn’t withdraw her sword, she just left it in as her victim fell to the ground and Chen-Soo stabbed at her twice more.

Chen-Soo wanted to run on. She hurried to Jai-Soo only to see her sink down onto the mud and grass.

Get up, Jai-Soo! The others come! she demanded.

Jai-Soo only sank down lower, her legs wide apart, and her voice came in breathless gasps. No…It is my seed that comes…

Not now! There is no time!

I have no strength, Jai-Soo gasped again, arching her back. They must come…forth...I feel them dying…inside me…

There was nothing Chen-Soo could do. Jai-Soo was at the end of her term, her wound only made it worse. She was going to give birth and there was now no stopping it. Chen-Soo pulled at her boots and leggings, the rain splashing down all around them.

It should have been an easy birth in the warmth of the house, but the Outsiders had found their den. There had been eight of them, with Vin-Ra at their head. Lai-Nan had seen Emilé on the forest trail and followed him to the house. Then she had gone for the others. Chen-Soo had been on her way there, visiting as she often did to share in the comforting atmosphere of the bonded relationship. She had arrived almost too late.

They had known Emilé was bonded, but Jai-Soo was an Insider while they were Outsiders. Emilé had tried to reason with them, tried to claim the protection of the bond even as they fought. And when Jai-Soo had fallen, he had thrown himself upon Lai-Nan, forcing her back. It was then that Chen-Soo had arrived and dragged Jai-Soo away from the house. Two of the Outsiders had fallen then, and now two more. But Emilé was dead and the bond was broken.

Jai-Soo writhed in pain. She tore at the wet grass but made no noise. Her seed came quickly one after the other, her body heaving as she pushed each one into the world. One by one they came, from the warmth of the womb to the cold and wet of the forest.

Emilé’s daughters.

The first one was lifeless. Chen-Soo moved it aside and waited for the next. And when it was all over, only one of the six held a spark of life. Chen-Soo held the tiny form in her hand, feeling its warmth and watching it wriggle and cry noiselessly.

It was wrong. She could taste it. It was a deviant, its DNA mismatched in some way. Her instincts cried out for its death.

It is disgusting! Mutated! Kill it! Kill it now! Snap its neck! Pull its head from its body! Now! Quickly!

But it is Jai-Soo’s offspring, Emilé’s daughter; the only survivor.

It is defective! Kill it!

Chen-Soo looked at the five lifeless bodies and she couldn’t do it.

I will not! It is Emilé and Jai-Soo’s daughter!

Then you are as defective as the abomination they have created! You do not deserve to live! Die as all the incorrect must die!

The familiar ache began in her head. It was as if something was shrinking her skull and squeezing her brain within. Once it had left her catatonic for a night and a day. But then she had awoken to the scent of fox pee and her own vomit. She had not died. But she had learned a lesson that she would not forget. As the ache grew more intense, Chen-Soo concentrated on a particular set of blood vessels in her brain, a set that surrounded a particular location. Slowly she squeezed them shut. There was a brief battle of wills as two halves of the same brain tried to squeeze out the resistance of the other. But while one had got used to the pain, the other could not get used to the lack of blood and oxygen. It was over suddenly as the ache began to fade.

Anger! Defeat! Outrage!

You dare to defy the Purpose so openly! Your integrity has mutated beyond salvation!

Chen-Soo squeezed harder.

And you cannot hurt me anymore. It is a pity that you cannot say the same. Shut up.

Desperation!

The others will see the truth! They will know your deceit and kill you!

Shut up!

Panic!

Release me!

Shut up!

Silence! Anger!

With the ache in her head completely gone, Chen-Soo let the blood flow freely once more. And with a sigh she placed the tiny baby on Jai-Soo’s chest.

Only one has survived, Jai-Soo. The second to be born.

Jai-Soo hardly had enough strength to reach up and touch her infant. Bey-Jai…Tell…me…she…is…perfect…

She is perfect, Chen-Soo lied.

Then…I…am…content…

Jai-Soo breathed out and her body relaxed.

The rain pelted down, but Jai-Soo’s eyes remained open and fixed as the water splashed and filled them. With the water spilling down her face she could have been crying.

Maybe she was.

Chen-Soo picked up the tiny infant, opening her jacket and body-plate and placing her inside. At least she would be warmer.

Incredulity!

You will keep it?

How can I keep it?

Then leave it! Let them kill it!

Shut up!

She pulled her jacket closed and hugged the infant carefully to her chest. She could hear the others coming. They would find the bodies of those who had fallen, but that was all. Chen-Soo got to her feet and ran through the forest, clutching the infant to her chest with one hand, her sword still held in the other.

There was only one place now that she could go.

Chapter One

The Usual

The mountain air was cool and fresh. It was spring, and the snows had long since melted and swelled the waters of the many streams that meandered down the hill-sides or fell as water falls into the valleys below. Travellers had begun to venture through the mountain passes. At first there were only one or two, but with each day their number increased. Some were merchant men from Jasanta travelling to Gullain in Falonbeck to trade in wheat and flour, while others made the journey in the opposite direction to trade in fish and seafood at the coastal ports of Sintal and Danek.

There was a time when the mountain pass to Falonbeck was almost deserted. Even at the height of summer, days would go by without a single traveller. They were dark days, when merchants would only venture through the pass in caravans with men-at-arms to escort them. But even heavily guarded caravans had been known to fall victim to the brigands that made the mountains their home.

Time moves on, and with the passing of the years the attacks on the caravans diminished and finally stopped. Now those days were long forgotten, and the deeds of the brigands who once terrorized the pass had become mere legend. Some said that the brigands had all been slain, but others who had seen the Sixpack in all their ferocious glory had a more simple answer. The attacks had stopped because the perpetrators had got older, wiser, and bored.

Time is cruel to the living. While the mountains remained unchanged by the passing years, those who lived in their shadows grew older and stiffer. But one benefit the passing of time gives to the living is the benefit of wisdom. The Sixpack were not slain, nor were they retired. Their boredom had simply taken them elsewhere.

Some had gone to Falonbeck, to its capital, Gullain. While others had gone back to Halafalon, to the coastal ports and across the vast oceans to other lands. Still more had returned to the forest and the villages on its fringes, like Jasanta. But while others travelled, some stayed.

The brisk and breezy cool air of the mountains echoed to the sound of swords clashing. Halfway up the mountain side, under the shelter of an outcrop of hard stone, there was a cave. Or at least it had once been a cave. Many years of excavation and attention had turned it into a luxurious home that many would covet. But this was not apparent from the outside. The entrance resembled a lean-to shed made from red wood, and scattered before it were the signs of a long established habitation. Bits of discarded furniture, old saddles, even the parts of an old wagon with three extra wheels lay discarded. Among this debris two figures fought.

Women.

One woman was clad in red, and her beauty was as striking as her physique was perfect. The second woman was clad in black. She was as exceptional as her adversary. But there the similarity between them stopped. Where the first woman was fair skinned and blonde haired, the second woman had skin that was the same dark hue as her jet-black hair. Both women struck at one another with strength and determination, darting back and forth with grace and vigour. Their breath came in loud gasps, and their exertions brought the sweat to their skin, causing it to shine in the morning sun.

They had fought for some time. From the beginning the fight had been even, both warriors perfectly matched with neither one nor the other getting the upper hand. But now age and tiredness overcame one of them. It was the merest slip, but the blonde woman took immediate advantage, and her dark skinned adversary felt the sword at her throat and the fight was over.

No! No! No! Mai-Zen shouted in annoyance. She drew her sword away and used it to knock Blue-Tack’s sword into the correct position. Here! Not here! How many times have I told you? Never lower your sword like that! Never! Are you a fool?

I’m tired! Blue-Tack snapped back.

And if I were Kai-Tai you would be dead! Plenty of time for you to rest then!

Blue-Tack stuck her sword in the ground and slumped down in a rickety looking three-legged chair at the edge of the clutter near the entrance to their home. I’m getting too old for all this! she muttered, still panting.

Mai-Zen rested on her sword and wiped her brow. I am older than you. Much older.

Yes, but you’re a Destroyer while I’m just a woman. A forty-four year old woman to boot.

Mai-Zen looked down at Blue-Tack as she sprawled in the old chair. Her expression held no sympathy, and neither did her words.

You are not without strength. You have kept your body strong and healthy. You are not like the females of the villages who have become bent from toiling in the fields, or who have lost their strength through many birthings. Only your words are tired. They reflect your tired will, not your tired muscles. Get up.

Blue-Tack looked up at Mai-Zen. In some ways Mai-Zen was like her mother or an older sister. She cared about her and advised her, but she would also scold her if she didn’t behave. In some ways she was also like a school teacher, or worst, an army sergeant-major. They had been together for a long time and they knew each other well, too well.

I’ve had enough this morning, she replied. Are you trying to kill me?

Mai-Zen’s answer was to the point. Then give up your quest. She held out her hand. Give me the power driver circuit.

Blue-Tack reached instinctively for the red tag that hung from a cord around her neck. It was a flat, plastic cylinder no longer than her finger. It was battered and old, but the gold connector at one end still shone. She shook her head.

Mai-Zen raised her sword. Then fight to keep it!

Blue-Tack climbed wearily to her feet. She pulled her sword from the ground and circled Mai-Zen. I hate Monday mornings, she sighed.

Mai-Zen pounced, and the air was filled with the ringing of metal against metal once more.

The tavern was in an uproar. Furniture and flagons of ale flew as men punched and kicked one another. The in-keeper beat at anyone near him with a brush, while another man behind him was felled by a chair. There were shouts and screams as women ran for shelter or threw plates and jugs at the men who fought. Strangely enough, not all of the men were wearing all their clothes.

All this turmoil over a wager. But what a wager.

A man flew out the window, hurled there by two others. He wore his trousers but no shirt. As soon as he had disappeared a woman popped into view in his place. She had shoulder length blonde hair and blue eyes. Although she was in her forties, she was slim and athletic looking. She shouted above the din as she looked around at the turmoil in the tavern.

Gym-Slip! Gym-Slip! I’ve got it! Come on!

At the centre of the fighting another woman emerged from under a table. Like the woman at the window she was in her forties with a lean and tanned body. She was also blonde and blue-eyed, but her hair was short and curly, and when she stood up she wasn’t wearing very much. In fact she was hardly wearing anything at all. She was also quite small. Small, but agile.

With a quick glance around, Gym-Slip elbowed the nearest man in the ribs and then jumped onto the back of another, putting her hands over his eyes so that he couldn’t see. The man staggered around, bumping and getting into everyone else’s way, with Gym-Slip on his back laughing her head off and kicking at anyone she could reach.

Bus-Pass shouted again from the window. Gym-Slip! Stop messing about and come on!

The man who had been hurled through the window now appeared on his feet behind Bus-Pass. With hardly a glance, Bus-Pass leaned on the window-sill and kicked back. The man groaned and doubled up, disappearing from view.

It was at this moment that a woman ran forward in the tavern holding a large pot over her head. She pushed her way through the fighting men and headed straight towards Gym-Slip and the man she rode upon.

Vixen! she shouted, and swung the pot.

At the last moment Gym-Slip leapt from the man onto the bar, ran along it to the window and jumped out. The first and last thing the man she had rode upon saw once his eyes were un-obscured was the pot before it hit him. It laid him out cold.

Gym-Slip landed almost in Bus-Pass’s arms. She was still laughing.

Suckers! Works every time!

In response another flagon flew through the window, followed by two jugs and half a chair.

Bus-Pass handed her a waist-coat and skirt. Come on! Let’s go!

You’ve got it? Gym-Slip asked her eagerly in a slurred voice as she slipped the skirt around her hips.

Does a rat have fleas? Of course I’ve got it! I said so didn’t I? Bus-Pass replied. Come on you idiot! Before they notice it’s gone!

With the noise of the fighting still ringing in their ears, Bus-Pass and Gym-Slip ran from the tavern.

Chalk-Dust crouched over the ground in the very centre of the mountain pass. She scooped up some of the soil and rubbed it between her fingers, sniffing at it thoughtfully. She bent closer to the ground, moving her long light brown hair out of the way as she sniffed and stared at the tracks in the soil. Even at forty-four her brown eyes remained sharp and missed nothing. She had become a well practised and efficient tracker and the signs were unmistakeable.

Behind her, sitting against the rock wall of the narrow pass, was another brown haired woman. Her hair was shorter and darker and her eyes were a soft blue. She sat with a large open book in her lap. She was busy writing on the rough pages with a stubby pencil. Beside her a shallow stream burbled its way down the pass in no particular hurry.

You have a strange fascination for dirt, she said without looking up from her scribbling.

Shit, Chalk-Dust replied, straightening up.

Buy-Row looked up. I beg your pardon?

Chalk-Dust came over to her, holding out her hand. Horse shit to be precise.

Buy-Row quickly turned up her nose at Chalk-Dust’s dirty fingers. You are disgusting!

Chalk-Dust laughed and cleaned her hand in the waters of the stream. And you are too soft! You wouldn’t know an important sign if it fell on you!

Buy-Row put down her pencil and closed her journal. Alright then, clever-clogs! What’s so important about horse thingy?

The fact that there was a lot of it and that it was well trodden in.

Which means?

A lot of horses and something heavy on a wagon. Maybe two wagons. They probably passed through here last night.

Buy-Row lost her humour. Her expression became more serious, even a little worried.

"It’s not her, is it?" she asked anxiously.

No. She’d come on her own. Anyway, she’d be behind us and not in front.

Buy-Row relaxed a little. Thank God for that. Could it be a caravan?

Chalk-Dust shook her head. There would have been more wagons and less horses.

Then it’s an army.

Give the girl a prize!

But what would an army be doing travelling the mountain pass at night?

Chalk-Dust smiled. Something sneaky. The sooner we get home and tell Blue-Tack, the better.

It’ll be nice to see Gustavo and Mai-Zen again, Buy-Row said as Chalk-Dust pulled her up. He won’t be happy about this, though.

That’s because he worries about Mai-Zen. But it doesn’t matter, because it isn’t him and Mai-Zen, or us that these people are interested in.

Then what are they interested in?

Chalk-Dust shrugged. The usual.

Chapter Two

The General

Slide-Rule polished her glasses while she sat at her desk in the large tent that would be her home for this campaign. She polished the glasses delicately and carefully. Time had tarnished the metal rims and both pads had long since broken away and been lost. Now as she replaced them, her glasses rested on the bridge of her nose upon a piece of leather bound to the metal. But even after cleaning them so carefully, the scratches never went away.

Slide-Rule sighed.

A Knight threw back the flap of her tent and came inside. Just visible before the flap dropped back were the two men-at-arms standing guard outside, and beyond them the army encamped. Both men-at-arms had saluted and stood to attention as the Knight passed them. Like the two men-at-arms, the crest emblazoned on the Knight’s breast-plate was a bronze eagle.

Slide-Rule looked up. You have news, Sir John?

Sir John L’Crue was in his forties. He was a seasoned campaigner in the border wars between Ellerkan and Falonbeck. His eyes were green and his hair fair. He kept his hair short as he did his beard. His features were pleasant but deceiving. Although he appeared kind, his tendency towards cruelty in war was well renowned. He had been Slide-Rule’s second in command of the Falonbeck army for over a dozen years. Both respected one another but didn’t trust each other one jot. Although Slide-Rule was in command, most of the men in the Falonbeck army belonged to L’Crue and carried his livery.

L’Crue nodded and sat down in the chair on the other side of the desk.

Aye! ‘Tis as we planned. We have passed the night unnoticed. The borders are quiet and no one suspects or prepares. We have merely to descend the mountain trail and overcome the garrison in the foothills, and the plains of Halafalon will be open to us!

And if words were deeds, we would already be sacking the palace in Ellerkan.

L’Crue fixed his piercing eyes on Slide-Rule. You tire of the task already?

No, but I won’t underestimate it either. For you, the green pastures of Halafalon are a rich picking ground, for me they are a trap for the unwary and the unprepared. Many times the armies of Falonbeck have been defeated on those plains. Even the mighty Destroyers were vanquished there. Observe.

Slide-Rule sorted through the maps on her desk, pulling one to the fore. It was a map of the coastal region of Halafalon. Both she and L’Crue hunched over the map.

See here the trap that awaits us, she went on, indicating the points on the map. "Here we lie now. To travel down the mountain and overcome the garrison will take us half a day. From there we travel down onto the plain. By another day and a half we will be here, in the jaws of the trap. Before us is the river delta, and the only crossing at Jasanta. On one side is the sea, on the other the forest and the Dragon’s Lair. And behind us lie the mountains.

Yes, the plains have many dwellings and villages, but none are of strategic value other than the crossing at Jasanta. But before we reach it word of our advance will have reached Ellerkan, and King Carl L’Hage will have despatched his Royal Army. They will reach Jasanta before us.

L’Crue looked up. You fear the Royal Army?

No, I fear the evidence of history. Do you ever wonder why the green fields of Halafalon are so prosperous and fruitful?

L’Crue’s answer was contemptuous. I am not a farmer.

Slide-Rule smiled. But when she continued it was as if she had forgotten her own question.

By the time we reach Jasanta, the Royal Army will block our path at the river crossing, and the garrison from the Dragon’s Lair will be on our right flank. To the left is the sea, and so our only chance for retreat is back through this narrow pass to Falonbeck.

You contemplate retreat even before a sword is raised! L’Crue said with derision. Ten years ago you would have led us across those pastures this very night!

Slide-Rule sat back. There will be no retreat. We will not be allowed that luxury. Instead we will be crushed between our enemy’s two forces. Think, Sir John. If we stand at the river crossing the Dragon Prince will kill us. We cannot defeat his force because they can be reinforced by way of the forest roads. They will harry us, and snipe at us. It may take time, but encamped by the river, isolated with a long supply route back through this narrow pass, the outcome is unavoidable.

But what if we attack him in force? Destroy the Dragon Prince and the castle garrison before they can destroy us?

Slide-Rule held up her finger. Good idea, but your timing is wrong. She pointed at the map again. If we should leave the river crossing to attack the castle garrison, or to attempt to retreat, then the Royal Army will cross the river and pursue us. And like many armies from the past we will be annihilated on those green pastures you covet so greatly. And that is the answer to the question I asked you. It isn’t just the mud of the rains and the floods that feeds the soil; it is the blood of those who fell because they were ill advised.

L’Crue grunted and sat back. He said nothing for a moment, just staring at Slide-Rule.

When he had first heard of this woman, he had scoffed at the stories of her prowess. But many years and battles had convinced him of her genius at war. From being a mere advisor, she was now in command of the whole army. After the defeat of the Sullenfeld at the battle of Erring Bridge, it was even said that King Thyra of Falonbeck had sought her as his wife. The story said she had turned him down. Whether it was true or not, L’Crue could not say. But one thing he knew was true. When it came to the planning and preparation for war, Slide-Rule had no equal.

You said my timing was wrong.

Slide-Rule nodded. Yes. It is the garrison at the Dragon’s Lair that will literally be the thorn in our side. If we are to win this campaign we must destroy it first.

So what do you propose?

We unleash King Thyra on the garrison in the foothills as planned, but then we turn from the plains and head instead into the forest. We ride hard and fast, ignoring all in our path. We go straight to the castle. We destroy the Dragon Prince and take his Lair. This is our goal. This is the heart of our victory.

The Dragon’s Lair? L’Crue exclaimed in disbelief. What value is this? To take the castle will cost us many men. And while we fight and die in the forest the Royal Army will be marching upon us. We will be trapped as surely as we would have been on the plain. Your plan is flawed.

Slide-Rule slapped the desk in her anger. It is not flawed! It is the only way!

L’Crue stood up. I will not sanction it and I will listen no more!

Do you want to win, or do you want to help the wheat harvest next year?

L’Crue paused. For a moment he thought about leaving. But then he spoke.

Why is it better to die in the forest rather than on the plain?

Because the Royal Army cannot manoeuvre as easily in the forest as it can on the open plain, because we will have a fortified position we can hold if we need to, because we can ford the river unseen on one of the many trails that criss-cross the forest, and because it is the only place of strategic value we can reach before our presence is discovered.

L’Crue stared at her thoughtfully. What was she planning? What was she thinking? King Thyra had agreed on the raid believing that Slide-Rule could lead his army to the very gates of Ellerkan. After the victory at Erring Bridge, who could have doubted her success? But now it was clear that Slide-Rule was following her own agenda, an agenda that she had well planned.

Why did you refuse King Thyra’s offer of more men?

So that we could move more swiftly. Those we have are easily enough for the task in hand.

L’Crue was now openly suspicious. You never intended to attack Ellerkan, did you? You have deceived the King and me. What is it you seek on this raid?

I know what lies in the lower chambers of the Dragon’s Lair.

You speak of the lost treasures of the Destroyers, L’Crue scoffed. These are the tales of drunkards and simpletons.

L’Crue turned to leave, but Slide-Rule’s words stopped him in his tracks.

I speak not of treasure, but of a weapon. A weapon I have seen with my own eyes. A weapon that can pierce rock and bring down walls.

L’Crue looked over his shoulder. Can it bring down the walls of Ellerkan?

I intend to bring down more than just the walls.

L’Crue turned to face her once more. He pulled the chair towards him and sat down.

‘Tis time that you told me your plan. And this time hide nothing from me. If I believe it will succeed, then you know you will have my full support. But will it succeed?

Slide-Rule smiled. Does a rat have fleas?

Chapter Three

The Sheriff

Sweyn L’Neil had been the Sheriff of Jasanta for twenty years. At one time he had a fearsome reputation for quelling fights with his fists. Nowadays he left that to his Constables. At forty-eight his black hair was beginning to turn grey, and his blue eyes had lost that sparkle of youth. But at six-foot-two, his large frame still commanded respect and attention from all who had the unfortunate fate to face him.

The tavern was a complete shambles. Men lay littered about among the debris, groaning and moaning. Most of them seemed to have lost items of their clothing. The inn-keeper’s wife stood among them with a large pot in her hand, waving it about and shouting angrily.

A vixen from Hell she was! Vixen! Brazen and evil!

Sweyn shook his head sadly. This was all too familiar. Familiar, but almost forgotten.

Over by the bar a Constable was arguing with two very battered looking men, one of whom was quite clearly the inn-keeper. From his style of dress, the other man looked like a merchant. All of their voices were raised, and it was difficult to tell what they were saying.

Sweyn knew the Constable well, far better than anyone would ever know. He was a good man, but he was making heavy going of the situation. Stepping over the men on the floor, Sweyn headed for the bar.

Constable L’Karn, tell me this isn’t happening.

L’Karn turned, but before he could say anything the merchant and the inn-keeper started shouting.

I’ve been robbed! the merchant cried in distress. I’m in your town for less than a day and I’m robbed! What are you going to do about it? Hey?

Never mind that, my tavern is ruined! the inn-keeper complained. Who’ll pay for the damage?

Sweyn held up his hands. One at a time! He pointed at the merchant. You! What did you lose?

A pearl! The biggest pearl you ever saw! I brought it with me from the Isle of Drass. I only arrived last night, and now it’s gone! The man who sold it to me said it was cursed.

Who knew you had it?

No one apart from the nun I showed it to on the boat.

Sweyn almost winced.

Vixen! the inn-keeper’s wife shouted again. Harlot, she was! A witch!

Sweyn turned to L’Karn. The fight was started by a wager?

L’Karn looked surprised. Yes. A woman dressed like a warrior caused it. She came into the tavern late last night. One or two of the men argued with her about their prowess at drinking and fighting. They argued that a woman was too weak, and she that she was their equal.

Sweyn then added, So they had a wager that those that couldn’t drink and win their turn at arm wrestling had to remove an item of clothing?

L’Karn nodded. She took them all on. The wager went on through the whole of the night. She was quite little by her description, but she held her own until the morning.

The inn-keeper then butted in angrily. Aye! She could drink like a fish! But who’ll pay for the ale? That’s what I want to know!

Sweyn ignored him. And the fight started when she wagered her body to those among them who was still strong enough to defeat the others?

L’Karn looked so amazed that Sweyn knew he was right. But then he hadn’t doubted it for a second.

The merchant quickly said, But what about my pearl?

Sweyn turned to him again. You were upstairs while this was all going on?

The merchant nodded.

The pearl was in your possession all this time, but you left it in your room before you came down in the night to see what all the shouting and commotion was about?

Again the nod. I thought it best to leave it there rather than lose it to a pick-pocket in the crowd.

And it was gone when you went back upstairs?

The merchant now had the same look of amazement as L’Karn. His voice was more subdued when he replied.

Yes. It was the only time I had let it out of my sight since I bought it on Drass.

L’Karn was so intrigued at his superior’s obvious understanding of what had happened that he could contain himself no longer.

You know this woman, Sheriff L’Neil? he almost demanded.

Sweyn nodded and smiled ruefully. Aye, and the nun that was on the boat from Drass.

L’Karn instantly understood. They worked together! One caused the distraction while the other stole into the room and took the pearl!

Sweyn nodded again and then sighed heavily. They’re back.

Chapter Four

The Child

Soo-Kai couldn’t feel angry. She knew what had happened had hurt Rolf so much, but she knew also that they both shared the blame. She wished that she could talk with Rolf about it, that they could discuss it and argue it out. But the few times she had ventured to try had brought on an evil anger in Rolf and a lengthy depression. She didn’t speak of it any more, mainly because Rolf had forbidden her to talk of it ever again.

But she still couldn’t be angry.

Soo-Kai watched Lai-Chen and Mai-Chen as they laughed and played with Ann-Di and Tai-Zen by the stream. As usual, Ann-Di ended up being dunked in the water, her long blonde hair all wet and draped over her face. As the youngest she often came off worse in such encounters, but there was no ill will, and all four of them laughed.

As siblings, Lai-Chen and Mai-Chen were both very similar in appearance. Long jet black hair and brown eyes completed their perfect features and athletic physique. They were almost mirror images of one another, and each would often seek out the company of the other. Both had their hair tied into a single long plat.

Tai-Zen had long light brown hair and blue eyes. Apart from this her appearance was very similar to the others. An oval shaped face with perfectly proportioned features. It was as if someone had designed them all from the same source.

Like Soo-Kai, Bey-Jai also watched those playing by the stream. She was a little closer, closer but not too close. Soo-Kai now turned her attention to Bey-Jai.

Bey-Jai was the oldest. Her eyes were brown and she also had light brown hair like Tai-Zen. But unlike all the others, she kept her hair short. It hardly reached her shoulders. It seemed to be a sign of her independence and her individuality. Tall, elegant and confident, it was a long time since she had played and laughed in the stream with the others. Her confidence came from her well established position in the group. For decisions the others all looked to her, even ahead of Soo-Kai herself.

It was because Soo-Kai was bonded of course. It made her an outsider, not one of them. When they were younger it didn’t matter, but as the years passed and they all grew, it did matter. Bey-Jai was now their leader, and her acceptance of this meant that she no longer splashed and laughed with the others in the waters of the stream.

But despite her perfect appearance, Bey-Jai possessed the same tiny imperfection in her DNA that the others all shared. That was what bound them together as a group. It was also what kept them apart from Soo-Kai, and what isolated them from all their sisters.

For a while, Bey-Jai had smiled as she watched the others play, but now the smile left her lips and she turned and came towards Soo-Kai.

She approaches again, she said in a husky voice to Soo-Kai when she reached her position nearer to the small cottage.

Soo-Kai nodded as she continued to watch the others by the stream as they splashed and played. They laughed, but her expression remained neutral as always. She neither smiled nor frowned. But she had also caught the same scent on the wind as Bey-Jai had. It was a scent she knew well, and it brought with it a flood of mixed emotions.

Chen-Soo will watch and then she will leave as she always does, she said with disinterest.

You will not venture out to question her?

No.

By now Mai-Chen had also caught the scent of Chen-Soo in the air. She stopped laughing and turned to stare towards the trees. Soon Lai-Chen and Tai-Zen were doing the same, and even Ann-Di had stood up in the stream and was staring.

At last Soo-Kai turned and stared in the same direction. There was nothing to be seen, and yet she said, You see, she leaves already.

The door to the small cottage burst open and Rolf came out. His fair hair had turned to grey, and he looked older and bent. He walked using a long crooked stick that he leaned on heavily. He looked worried and annoyed. With him was Soo-El. Her hair was blonde and also tied into a long plat. She had also obviously picked up the scent and warned Rolf. Now she stood by the door while Rolf limped forward on his stick.

Inside! he shouted to the Androktones by the stream, waving at them furiously. Inside, all of you! Quickly!

Without hesitation they all did as he asked. Even Bey-Jai obeyed. It was an often repeated ritual that had started when they were quite small. It was as if Rolf hadn’t noticed that they had all grown up.

Soo-Kai waited until they had all dutifully filed through the door into the cottage, then she followed after them. Rolf waited for her at the door, and for the first time in a long time his eyes held that look.

Go and talk to her, he said curtly. Tell her not to come anymore.

She does no harm, my husband.

I won’t have it! Rolf insisted. You know her visits are dangerous! And I tire of finding the washing line half empty, and of worrying that she may be close by! Go and tell her!

Soo-Kai nodded. As you wish.

Soo-Kai didn’t have to travel far into the forest to find the object of Rolf’s anger. She found Chen-Soo leaning with her back against a tree. It was as if she had sensed Soo-Kai was following her and had waited for her. She wore the usual black leggings and jacket that all the Androktones wore. They were faded to a battered grey with age, but also dirty. The extent of their dirtiness was more apparent on the white vest that Chen-Soo wore under her open jacket. It was stained brown and green. Chen-Soo kept her head down as she waited, her face completely obscured by her long and unruly blonde hair. In one hand she held her rolled up body-plate, her other hand clutched at her hidden face.

Soo-Kai paused a moment before slowly walking up to her. Then she brushed away Chen-Soo’s hair and raised her head. What she revealed was a rather dirty face with blue eyes reddened by tears. That and Chen-Soo’s sorrowful expression did much to ruin an otherwise rather beautiful face.

Chen-Soo didn’t wait for Soo-Kai to speak first, she quickly wiped at her wet face, smearing more dirt onto her cheek, and demanded the answer that always haunted her.

Why will he not forgive me? Why does he still punish me like this? Why, my mother?

Soo-Kai stepped even closer, trapping her daughter against the tree and brushing back her untidy hair. Because to see you is to remember what happened, Chen-Soo, and because you will always ask for his forgiveness, forcing him to face that which his mind wishes to deny.

More tears came to Chen-Soo’s eyes. I wish I were dead! I wish I had died as they did!

"It was not your fault. It was mine and Rolf’s. We were selfish in our needs, and the consequences of what we did, what I did, were never going to be avoided."

A determined look came into Chen-Soo’s tear-filled eyes. "You didn’t kill them."

Soo-Kai pulled her close, hugging her daughter as she cried openly. It was a strange experience. Part of her felt uncomfortable and uneasy, while another part of her took an immense pleasure in the feel and smell of her offspring.

She is defective! But even she speaks the truth! She should have died with the others!

I am glad that she still lives. She is my seed, my only seed. It is many years since I have last seen her. How I have missed her so.

She is an insult to the Purpose! Kill her! Kill her as your bond requested!

He said no such thing, and I will do no such thing. He told me to send her away, not kill her.

She is disgusting! A mutation! Kill her! Put an end to this abomination!

Many years ago Rolf once told me to protect all his children. I failed him. My bond comes first, and this one was created at his request. She is the only survivor, and I cannot harm her while he lives. You know all this. Now be silent.

Like Bey-Jai, Chen-Soo was tall and elegant. They were even of a similar age. But there the similarities ended. The efforts Soo-Kai had made in order to achieve conception with Rolf were all too clear in Chen-Soo’s appearance. Gone was the red hair and green eyes of her mother or of Kai-Tai, her grandmother. The blonde hair and blue eyes Chen-Soo had inherited from Rolf, and these and the genetic changes to her features gave her a much more individual look. The effect was rather pleasing.

Soo-Kai stroked Chen-Soo’s hair and waited for her sobs to subside. Only when Chen-Soo grew quiet did she speak.

Are you in such despair at the disadvantages of your own life that you would prefer the same fate as your sisters? Is this why you let your hair become so entangled and matted? Do you intend your life to end so soon that you have already given up washing? Even the youngest of those you brought could sense your approach. You stink.

Chen-Soo almost chuckled but quickly curbed the sound. It wasn’t humorous in any case, but more despairing. In contrast, her reply was full of determination.

I have stayed away from Kai-Tai and the others these past few days. I have lived and slept in the forest on my own, under the trees and in the open. I have given the humans every opportunity to find and hunt me, but none have come.

Soo-Kai understood. So it is not your sister’s fate, but my own that you seek?

The end is the same: To be killed by humans, to let their hatred claim another of their enemies.

But the King kept his promise to me. The Hunts have been outlawed for many years now. You know this.

Chen-Soo was dismissive. Some humans break the law. Their need for us is still great.

Soo-Kai stepped back and held Chen-Soo at arms length. She stared intently at her daughter’s stubborn expression. Chen-Soo had developed an all too familiar pout that Soo-Kai could only assume must have belonged to Rolf’s mother or aunt. It was very unnerving in an Androktone.

If you are to be killed by humans, you will at least die clean. It is time you washed.

Without a further word, Soo-Kai grabbed Chen-Soo’s wrist and yanked her forward. Chen-Soo tried to resist, but her mother was in no mood to give in, or give way. Chen-Soo was dragged forward at a brisk pace.

They walked quickly through the forest, winding in and out of the trees. On and on, with Soo-Kai keeping silent while Chen-Soo moaned and protested all the way.

Stop it! Leave me alone! I don’t want to wash! I don’t want to be clean! I want to die! I want to be dead like my sisters! How can you clean their blood from my hands? You can wash my skin but not my mind! Stop this! Mother!?

Still Soo-Kai kept silent. Chen-Soo tried to dig her heels in, but Soo-Kai merely turned and grabbed her with both hands and pulled even harder.

Chen-Soo stared at her mother in dismay. Why do you always treat me like this?

At last Soo-Kai spoke. Because a child must be treated like a child.

Chen-Soo immediately gave up her resistance. She allowed Soo-Kai to pull her forward more easily, and they made better progress.

Where do you take me? Chen-Soo asked.

There is a place I know. One where we can sit and talk and where you can wash unobserved. It is not far.

Soo-Kai’s judgement of the distance was good, and it wasn’t long before the sound of a water-fall reached their ears. The sound grew, and it quickly became a roar. Soon after and they came to the bank of a stream that flowed in a gorge. Soo-Kai led Chen-Soo up-stream towards the water that fell into the gorge. The ground here was rising steeply, and the water fell down several levels, one of which had created a shallow pool in the rock. Walking quickly up the hill, Soo-Kai brought Chen-Soo to the level of this pool. Here at last she stopped.

Chen-Soo looked around. She had travelled the forest all her life, even followed the streams and the river that flowed through it, but she had never been here before. All around her the trees grew densely, their trunks encrusted with a green mould that glistened in the spray from the water-fall. It was as if the cool damp air had caused the trees to gather together like people around a fire. On the level above her, she could see several smaller streams meandering their way through the trees towards the pool. Here they all gathered together at the edge and the water fell into the pool in a wide curtain, filling the pool until it in turn spilled over the edge into the gorge below.

Chen-Soo turned to Soo-Kai and said, How did you know this place? I must have passed here many times and never found it.

I am over two thousand years older than you, how can you hope to know what I have known? Soo-Kai replied, and pushed her in the pool.

Chen-Soo went into the pool with a squeak and a large splash, causing a wave of water to spill over the edge into the gorge below. Fortunately, the pool was not too deep, and Chen-Soo ended up sitting on the bottom with the water reaching up to her chest. Her hair was draped over her face, and she pulled it away and spat out some of the water, coughing. She looked up in surprise at her mother.

Soo-Kai stared down at Chen-Soo from the edge of the pool and folded her arms. Wash! she said sternly.

Chapter Five

The Merchant’s Wife

Amy brushed her long silver blonde hair. She brushed it like this every morning. It was a ritual, a ritual that was more about the passing of time than it was about vanity. Every morning Amy would stand naked in front of her bedroom mirror and comb out her fine hair, examining each strand for signs of grey. There never were, and even if there had been, she could hardly have been able to tell the difference.

She told herself that she did it to check whether she was really getting older. The thing was, she didn’t feel older. And staring at her reflection in the mirror, she saw that she didn’t look older, either. The years had tumbled by. Three children who were now all older than she was when she first arrived in Ellerkan had done nothing to affect her body. Instinctively, she ran her hand over her abdomen, just checking what her eyes already told her.

Still slim and athletic, Amy felt as fit and as young as she was when she had first ran in terror through the forest. And in her mind she also felt young. Yes, she had benefitted from Craig’s success. Without him her life here could have been far harsher than it had been. Wealth brought health. That was the same in any society. But wealth alone wasn’t enough.

Amy had spent years in the careful tutelage of Anne Jenkins, her P.E. teacher at school. It was Anne who had taught her what to eat and how to look after her body. She had built the foundations of a regime that Amy had stuck to all her life. The reward was health, vigour and vitality. Amy’s reflection glowed back at her from the mirror. It gave her a very satisfying feeling. Satisfying, but slightly sad.

Maybe it was about vanity after all.

From beyond the door to her bedroom, a man’s voice called out.

Are you dressed yet, or are you still posing in front of the mirror?

Amy smiled and went over to a large ornate wardrobe. I’ll be ready in a minute, she said as she opened the wardrobe and began to search through the many gowns inside.

You know the boy from across the courtyard has a spy-glass?

Amy chuckled as she dressed. The curtains are drawn; no one can see me, Craig.

The wind blows, the curtains flap, and the boy gets an eyeful, Craig replied.

Amy went over to the door and opened it. How do you know he has a spy-glass?

Craig pretended to hold a cigar to his mouth and said in Groucho Marx’s voice, Who do you think gave it to him!

Amy laughed and wrapped her arms around him. They kissed and hugged.

The years had also been kind to Craig. He had put on a little weight, his hair had receded, and grey already marked his temples. But his eyes still held that mystifying intensity that had first attracted and won Amy. She couldn’t imagine what her life would have been like without him.

When they finally moved apart, Craig said, Maybe we should go back to bed?

What about the boy with the spy-glass? Amy pointed out.

He can go blind.

Didn’t you have enough of me last night?

I never have enough of you.

And what about your appointments today?

I’ll break them.

And throw us into destitution? What will our children think? Where will we live? What will the boy do with his spy-glass?

Craig sighed. I suppose I’d better go to work, then.

Yes. But not before we have breakfast. Then you can go to work and think about me all day and come back to me tonight, overflowing with anticipation.

Craig held up his finger. Now, that’s a good idea! But don’t be surprised if I’m back at lunch time!

Amy laughed again as Craig kissed her quickly and then pulled her out the door and downstairs.

Breakfast at the Price household was always a family affair. But what was once a crowded table had been diminished slightly by Annabelle’s marriage earlier in the year. She came to visit often, and Amy expected her to turn up by mid-morning. She was already over eight months into her pregnancy and would frequently seek out the company of her mother. She also liked to nap in her old room in her old bed.

Amy’s two sons were different. Neither Ray nor Alan showed any inclination to marry. Both pursued an active social life, and both had established liaisons with the daughters of merchantmen and traders, but neither had sort permanent relationships. They were both very much Craig’s sons. They had taken to a life of commerce in Ellerkan almost as eagerly and quickly as Craig had done.

Alan in particular was very successful. He could have moved out and bought his own house by now, but instead he chose to stay. He was the older of the two. He looked very much like his father. He had the same brown hair and that same look in his light blue eyes. His sense of humour was also his father’s, as was his art of mimicry, which he would use to great effect. There wasn’t a trader in Ellerkan whose mannerisms and voice he couldn’t master, and the list of women who would have thankfully shared his bed far outstripped that of his brother.

Ray was the youngest of Amy’s three children. Like Annabelle, he had inherited his mother’s green eyes and fair hair. He was the quietest of the three, but none-the-less shrewd in business and life. Amy always thought that Ray was missing something; that he yearned for the life that his mother left behind. All of them knew and understood their heritage, but only Ray seemed to dwell on what had been lost.

The conversation at breakfast swung from business to humour, as Craig and Alan would imitate the merchantmen they were each to meet that day. Even Ray would suffer at his brother and father’s artistry. As usual he would smile and nod at the gentle digs at his business acumen, or at his prowess with women. How Amy missed Annabelle’s feminine support at these times.

The house emptied when breakfast was over. For a while, Amy was left to her own devices. But by ten o’clock, Annabelle arrived and manoeuvred herself into a chair in the drawing room. Amy fussed over her, and Annabelle moaned about being fat and not being able to fit into any of her favourite gowns anymore.

I feel like a pumped up cow! she complained.

You are no such thing! Amy told her.

I am!

Don’t be silly! It’ll pass.

I wish! Annabelle replied. How you managed to do it three times I’ll never know!

Amy smiled. It’s easy after the first one.

Easy? Ha! I’m not having anymore. William can buy the next one!

You won’t say that in a year’s time, Amy said knowingly. She saw the look of disbelief on her daughter’s face and laughed. You wait and see! Once you’ve held your own child and watched him or her growing and smiling, you’ll understand. You will!

Annabelle still wasn’t convinced. Tell me that when it’s throwing up and screaming in the night! What do you think I am, stupid? Yes, everyone loves babies when they’re smiling, happy and clean. But as soon as they barf, everybody has something else to do, or somewhere else to go! Me, I’ll be stuck with it!

But it’s all worth it in the end! I’ve got you haven’t I?

Annabelle looked into her mother’s happy face and gave in at last. I know what you mean; it’s just that I don’t feel like that at the moment. Maybe I will after. She shrugged and then smiled. You’ll be a granny.

Amy sat back in her chair and sighed. Oh, dear, I hadn’t thought of that.

Her mother’s obvious dismay made Annabelle laugh.

They talked for a while longer, not just about babies, but about people, events and any other tantalizing gossip. But as they talked, Amy found herself thinking of her teacher as she had done as she brushed her hair that morning. She mentioned it to her daughter.

I was thinking about Anne Jenkins this morning, she said. It made me feel sort of sad.

You were lucky to know the Queen so well. I remember her smiling most of the time. She was always nice to me, but I know you meant a lot to her.

She always had a great faith in me, an expectation that I would do well. She knew I could win, but in the end we never really got to find out.

You still miss her, don’t you?

Amy nodded. I owe her a lot. She was as close to me as my own mother. I miss her too.

Her eyes grew wet, and Annabelle was quick to avert the inevitable. Oh, stop it mother! Or we’ll both end up in the river tied to large rocks!

Amy laughed through her tears. I’m sorry! I can’t help it!

I know. We were all sad. The whole of Ellerkan grieved with the King. But it was three years ago. Even the King had to go on. Annabelle now leaned forward conspiratorially. William says that the word around court is that Queen Margaret is pregnant!

Amy looked at her in surprise. You are joking?

Annabelle shook her head. The gossip among the Queen’s Ladies-in-Waiting is that she is sick each morning and her eating habits are strange.

Oh, well then, it must be true! Amy scoffed.

I’m serious, mum. She’s pregnant. King Carl will have an heir by the new year.

Amy still wanted it to be untrue. It’s not fair! she exclaimed. Why couldn’t Carl have children with Anne? He loved her, not this Margaret. He only married her for duty. It’s not fair!

Well if he did, it’s worked.

I’m sure everyone in court is ecstatic! Amy said bitterly. I still think it’s a shame. Anne wanted so much to have children with Carl.

There was a slight pause, and then Annabelle said, It must have been her after all.

Their conversation ebbed after that. When Annabelle finally went upstairs for her nap, Amy was left to her own thoughts, and they turned once again to her teacher. She remembered again what Anne Jenkins had taught her, and what she had given her. It still made her sad. Then another thought occurred to her. This year was the year of their reunion. It was a sudden realisation. Twenty-eight years had passed, and this was the year when they had all promised to meet up once again. Anne had so much looked forward to it. And now she wouldn’t be there.

Chapter Six

A Friendly Ambush

Mai-Zen and Blue-Tack had at last finished their morning workout, and had washed away the sweat from their exertions. Mai-Zen had been the last to wash and change, but now she stood in the entrance to the cave drying her blonde hair. The large wooden and studded door was wide open, and while she rubbed at her hair, she sniffed repeatedly at the cool air of the mountains. There was an unmistakable scent in the air, a