The ferry turned out to be a fifty foot log raft with a knee high rope barrier around it that was pulled across by a dozen muscular, dark skinned men pulling on a worryingly thin rope. The Helberians had no choice though, unless they preferred a two hundred mile trek through thick, entangling forest, and so they crowded on alongside a herd of twenty oxen and their owner, a skeletally thin woman with a gold collar around her neck. She muttered to herself in her own language for the entire three hours of the crossing while staring at them with her piercing, bright eyes, and the rangers gathered in a small clump on the other side of the ferry, feeling uncomfortable as some instinct warned them that this woman posed a threat they couldn't understand.
Reaching the other side, they climbed back into their horses with considerable relief and continued their journey west. Almost no-one here spoke the language of the northern lands, but fortunately Crane spoke Pennygab, a crude trade dialect used by merchants and travellers over much of the world, and he was usually able to find someone who could understand him. Even so, though, they were in totally unfamiliar territory now. They had to stop to ask directions everywhere they went, a conversation that could take some time as Crane and the local found that even Pennygab came in several dialects and that the same word in different dialects could have completely different meanings.
The Brigadier decided that they needed a local guide, therefore. Someone who knew the area and with whom they could communicate without difficulty. When they stopped for the night, therefore, at a small village consisting of a small cluster of log cabins at a spot where the small forest track they had been following crossed another, he had Crane ask around to see if there was anyone willing to take the job.
Fortunately, they had brought plenty of gold, expecting, correctly as it turned out, that Helberion money wouldn't be exchangeable this far from home, and the soft, yellow metal worked its magic on the villagers, bringing forth a fellow called Sherren Harle who claimed to know the country for five hundred miles around like the back of his hand. He wouldn’t have been the Brigadier’s first choice, as he later confided to Malone when the local man was out of earshot. He had a crafty, shifty look about him, as if he was constantly trying to think of ways to screw his new employers, but then most of the locals had the same look, so that might just have been the way they were down here.
More worrying, though, was his physical appearance. He had a faintly reptilian look to him, with a greenish tinge to his skin that still bore a hint of scales. Adopting reptiles as children was hardly ever done in the northern lands they were familiar with, as they were considered to be more than one rung below humans and therefore incapable of becoming fully human, at least unless a higher animal served as an intermediary. Sherren Harle, Crane told them, insisted that his appearance was the result of his having been orphaned before reaching full humanity, although he was adamant that he had a fully human mind.
The rangers were sceptical about that. The man seemed easily distracted, and to have trouble understanding basic concepts like hygiene and civilised behaviour. He was in the habit of squatting to pass waste in the presence of other people, even people who were eating, and then prodding the waste with his finger before bringing it up to his nose to smell it. The villagers seemed to brighten at the prospect of being rid of him, and the rangers contemplated the necessity of enduring his company for who knew how many weeks with dismay.
Unfortunately, though, they had no choice but to hire him, since nobody else in the village was currently unemployed. If they'd been in a big city they might have had more choice, but the first challenge they faced was to find a big city. They had yet to come across anything like a large road, despite the fact that common sense told them that all they had to do was keep going in a straight line long enough. There were countries, located in deserts, arctic regions and small island archipelagos, that had almost no permanent roads since their landscapes were constantly shifting and being resurfaced, but Mekrol was mainly covered in forest. They had expected that merchants and traders would stick to the same routes, creating recognisable paths that they could find and follow.
“It turns out that the local religion forbids the creation of roads,” said Crane after he'd spoken to their new guide for a while. “Everything outside cities is sacred land, and they'll anger the Gods if they leave permanent marks on it.”
“So what about farms and cities?” asked Harper.
“They don’t have farms. Their whole economy is based on hunter gathering. They go out into the wilderness and take what they need to live on. They get their wood by coppicing, leaving the base of the tree alive to put up new growth, and their livestock is allowed to roam free, only being rounded up when it's time for them to be slaughtered.”
“What about their cities?” asked Quill. “Do they have cities, or is it all like this?” He gestured around with his hand to indicate the village.
“They make sacrifices to their Gods for permission to build cities,” replied Crane. He spoke a few words to Sherren Harle. “And mines,” he continued. “Whenever they absolutely have to leave a mark on the land they appease the Gods with sacrifices.”
“But they must have roads!” protested Cotton. “If you've got two cities and there's a lot of traffic between them, it's going to leave a trail between the two cities! What do you call that if not a road?”
Crane spoke to their guide again. “He says that if a track starts to form, they take a different route until the ground heals. I suppose a road of sorts would form despite all their best efforts, but it would be miles wide and consist only of a strip of compacted ground on which a different variety of plants grew. Now that I think about it, we've passed several places like that over the past few days. I didn't think anything of it. I'm sorry, Brigadier...” The Brigadier just waved his apology away, though.
“There is one other thing,” Crane continued. “Because they get all their food from the wilderness, they claim all the wild animals and wild plants in the country as their country's property. If we go hunting for ourselves, they'll call it poaching and they'll be out for our blood. We have to buy all our food so long as we're in their country.”
“Understood,” replied the Brigadier. “That won't be a problem.”
They were rather amused to learn from their new guide that they'd been travelling in completely the wrong direction to find Barag Tull. Sherren Harle pointed them in the right direction, though, and told them that it was three days journey from their current location. Crane thanked him, and when morning came they set off towards it.
“He’s never heard of Parcellius,” the tracker told them as they were riding. “He thinks that the King does have a court ontomancer, but he doesn't know anything about him. Whether he’s a foreigner, whether he has unique knowledge of ontological matters...”
“Then we'll just have to find out for ourselves,” replied the Brigadier. “Hopefully our letters of introduction will get us an audience with the King, and his Majesty will be able to answer our questions.”
“I wonder what kind of reptile he was raised from,” mused Harper, nodding a head towards their guide, who was riding a strange, local breed of horse at the head of their column. It was rather smaller than the horses the rangers were rising, but stockier, stronger looking, and had stripes along its flanks and down its hind legs.
“A crocodile,” said Spencer confidently. “Have you seen his teeth? Looks like he could tear an antelope apart with those teeth!”
“A crocodile would eat its parents before they could form a parent bond with it,” pointed out Cotton. “I would think it was something a little smaller. A monitor lizard, perhaps. I've heard they live in places like this.”
“His arms are completely human,” said Quill. “I saw him with his shirt off last night. His body's rough and scaly, but his arms are completely smooth and pink, with hair, as if they’ve never been reptilian. I think he was some kind of snake.”
“Why would someone adopt a snake?” asked Spencer.
“Why would someone adopt any kind of reptile?”
“What do you think, Spoon?” asked Harper. “Got any theories?”
“No,” replied Spooner without looking around.
“Okay,” said Harper with a raised eyebrow towards the others.
“Spoon! Stop talking!” cried Spencer in mock exasperation. “You never shut up! Rabbit rabbit rabbit! I've never heard anyone go on like you do!” The others chuckled to themselves.
“If you've got nothing to say, then best to say nothing,” replied Spooner unflappably. “Empty vessels make the most noise.”
“He's a full vessel, all right!” agreed Harper. “I'm not going to say what he's full of.” Spencer laughed out loud, and the other rangers all smiled. Spooner’s face revealed nothing of what he was thinking.
“All right, cut it out,” warned the Brigadier. “Remember that we're representing Helberion. These people will judge our country by our example, so let's set a good example.”
The banter ceased, except for the occasional snigger, but Malone wondered who they were supposed to be impressing. They were alone in the forest except for Sherren Harle, who didn't seem particularly concerned with what his employers were saying to each other. He was currently holding his nose in the air and sniffing, as if he could smell the way to Barag Tull. He reached into a pocket of his jacket, pulled out a dead mouse, stared at it for a few moments, then popped it into his mouth and swallowed it whole. Malone stared in astonishment and shared a glance with Cotton, who'd also seen it. They shrugged at each other, then stared at their guide in case he did something else interesting.
Sherren Harle led them through the forest by a winding circuitous route, and Malone wondered whether he was deliberately taking them the long way round to maximise the duration of his employment and, consequently, his pay. It turned out that he was merely obeying the dictates of his religion though, as they found out when they came across a beaten down path through the woods that led the way they wanted to go. The rangers went to follow it, but Sherren Harle spoke loudly in Pennygab and gestured for them to go further north. “What's the problem, Crane?” asked the Brigadier.
The tracker spoke to their guide in the merchant's tongue for a few moments, then turned back to the others. “It's what I told you yesterday,” he explained. “They don’t make roads. When a road starts to form, like it is here, they stay away from it and take another path until the ground heals. He says we’ll anger the God’s if we follow the path.”
“Well, we certainly don’t want to anger the Gods” replied the Brigadier. “Tell him to lead on.”
It took them about twice as long to reach Barag Tull than if they'd taken the direct route, therefore, but reach It they eventually did and three days later the trees thinned ahead of them and they saw the city sitting amongst the foothills of the Uttermost Range. Behind it, the mountains reared tall and terrible, their peaks jutting upward like jagged arrowheads, the boundaries between faces looking sharp enough to shave with. Above the snowline, the contrast between black stone and blindingly white ice hurt the eyes to look at.
The city was built of massive blocks of stone which, their guide explained, came from a number of mines deep under the mountains. The original founders of the city had found a seam of black granite and had followed it down into the ground to where there was now a vast cave where the rock had been removed. This avoided having a quarry on the surface, and thereby minimised the number of sacrifices needed to appease the Gods.
As they watched, they saw a number of large carts approaching the gates of the city, each coming from a slightly different direction to avoid wearing a path through the forest. There was no avoiding wear and tear in the mile long space right in front of the gates, though, and crushed rock had been pounded down into the soil here, to a depth of several yards, Sherren Harle told them. They noticed flecks of white in among the black gravel as they grew near, and none of them could avoid a shiver of fear when they saw that they were human bones. The sacrifices put to practical use, they guessed.
Then Cotton have a hiss of shock and the others look around, their hands going to their weapons. They followed his gaze to the nearest cart, and Quill cursed under his breath when he saw what they’d missed until then. Each cart carried a single huge block of stone and was being pulled by six big naked men, while a small child sat on the cart, guiding them with flicks of a long, leather whip. Or at least they'd thought it was a child while the carts were still distant. Now that they were closer, though, they could see that the carts were much larger than they'd thought at first, and so were the people. The driver wasn't a child, they saw. It was a fully grown man, nearly six feet tall, wearing only a loincloth and with intricate, swirling tattoos covering almost every square inch of exposed skin.
With him to give a sense of perspective, the six men pulling the wagon were giants. At least eight feet tall and as wide across the shoulders as a full grown normal man was tall. Massive, powerful muscles rippled and bulged under their wrinkled, grey skin, and their legs were as wide and solid as treetrunks, with round feet and stubby toes. There was almost no intelligence in their eyes, though, and none of the civilised inhibitions that governed the actions of normal men, as they saw when one of them let a stream of urine run from his pubic slit in a golden arc to splash on the ground.
“Abominations!” swore Quill, and the others tensed up with their own shock and horror. All six of the giants were the same size and had the same proportions to their bodies, which meant they weren't accidental orphans, the way Malone was and that Sherren Harle claimed to be. These creatures were adopted elephants who had been deliberately separated from their parents before they could become fully human. That way, they still had most of their elephant strength and had enough intelligence to follow basic instructions, while lacking the full, human intelligence that might have made them rebellious and dangerous. The people of Barag Tull wanted obedient slaves, not people who would have demanded payment and days off.
Quill pulled on the reins of his horse to bring it alongside Sherren Harle. “This is an abomination!” he shouted into his face furiously. “What you have done here is outlawed in every civilised country in the world...”
“He doesn't understand you!” said Crane, bringing his horse between Crane and their guide. “He doesn’t speak northern!”
“Then you tell him! Tell him that this is an outrage, that this...”
“Quill!” warned the Brigadier, his soft voice somehow cutting through the wizard’s wrath. “Quill! We didn't come here to judge these people!”
“Surely you can't condone this, this abomination! Back home, anyone who did this would be...”
“I know, and I agree with you, but we have a mission to complete. We can't allow ourselves to be distracted. Abolishing this obscene practice is a task for governments. If Helberion should have a trading relationship with this country one day, then the ministers and ambassadors can explain civilised practices to them. Until then, there’s nothing we can do except complete our mission. Curb your anger. When we get home, you can tell everyone what barbarians these people are. Until then, hold your fire. That’s an order.”
“Yes, sir,” said Quill reluctantly. He gave Sherren Harle one last sharp look, which brought nothing but an expression of bewilderment from their guide. Then he took his horse back to his place on the column, still grumbling under his breath.
Reaching the gates of the city, the Brigadier had Crane translate as he introduced himself to the guards on duty and asked permission to bring armed men into the city. “They want to know what business we have in the city,” Crane told the Brigadier.
The Brigadier nodded. “Tell them we have an urgent need to speak to Parcellius, the King’s wizard. We have a crisis in our country that we hope he can help us with.”
Crane translated and listened to their reply. “They say that the King’s wizard is called Alamber. The only Parcellius he knows is a reclusive old sage who spends most of his time out in the wilderness. He was last in the city more than six months ago.”
The Brigadier frowned. “A sage? Maybe he is the person we're looking for, or maybe we need the King’s wizard, and the people I heard of him from got his name wrong. The two people may have become merged in popular folklore. Which is the one we want? Do they know where this parcellius is now?”
Crane asked the guards. “He’s digging up some ruins near a town off to the west. Not too far away, apparently. Some place called Tollawen. He’s not expected back any time soon.”
“Does our guide know this place? Tollawen?”
Crane asked Sherren Harle, who looked unhappy and shook his head, but rather unconvincingly, they all thought. The tracker repeated the question, with more emphasis this time, and a brief conversation took place in which the guide kept shaking his head until Crane said something that made him suddenly smile and nod his head vigorously. “He says he knows the place,” Crane told the Brigadier. “He says it's full of evil spirits, and he wouldn't agree to take us until I agreed to double his pay. I hope I did the right thing.”
“If Parcellius is there, it's worth it,” said the Brigadier. “If he’s just stringing us along we'll wring his scaly neck and take the money back again.”
“He says it's two days travel away. If he was stringing us along I think he’d say it was further away than that.”
The Brigadier nodded. “Let's go then. And along the way, I want you to teach me this pennygab language. I don’t like being dependent on a translator, no matter how reliable and trustworthy.”
“It's quite an easy language to learn, sir. You should have gathered the basics by the time we get there.”
“Let's go, then.” They mounted their horses again, and Sherren Harle led the way further west.
The opera company was showing a production of ‘The Two Sparrowhawks', a light hearted comedy, the next time Matron Darniss met her handler, Mandeville. On the stage, the leading man was singing a song to the leading lady to convince her to accompany him to the Prince's declaration ceremony, while to the left of the stage, hiding behind a garishly painted fake bush, his love rival listened while scowling and sharpening a knife. The whole thing was performed in Aldic, an almost extinct language now known only to scholars and stage performers, and Darniss had to keep referring to the translated lyrics in the printed program to know what was going on.
“The Princess’s condition continues to deteriorate,” she said. “It's not just glowing skin any more. Her body has begun to visibly change. She's starting to look less human. It's fascinating to watch. I may write a book about it one day, to document the process. Might be of interest to scholars one day.”
Mandeville nodded, causing some of the thick, pink powder that covered his face and neck to rub against his collar which, she’s saw, had become stained with it. “The Princess is irrelevant now. We succeeded in preventing the royal wedding, which was the main objective. Leothan can’t prove it was us who did it, but he knows nonetheless, so there’s no way he’ll agree to a wedding now even if she were to be cured. Her condition is important now only in so far as the King may be distracted by his concern for her.”
“So there’s no need to sabotage the Brigadier’s mission any more.”
“No, but there’s no easy way to cancel the plans we made. It doesn't matter. Killing one of Leothan's most trusted men is a worthwhile objective in its own right, so we'll let things proceed as they are.” He glanced across as the woman sitting beside him, then peered back at the stage through a pair of theatre binoculars. “There's a more important matter that has come up,” he said. “Lon-Fidell has asked me to pass on a request. Something he says will help spark off the war. My primary concern is for your safety, though. Only do it if you can do so with minimum risk to yourself. Understood?”
“What does he want me to do?”
Mandeville reached into a pocket and produced a crumpled scrap of paper. “You've told us that the King likes to keep notes during meetings with his top people. You've passed some of them on to us. The information on those notes was of little interest to us, but the notes themselves were. The type of paper used, the style the King uses when scribbling something in a hurry. We were able to make a forgery, something we'd like you to drop somethere that Arwin Tsocco will find it. Him and only him. If he finds it, it will lead him to believe that Helberion is scheming against the Empire. If a member of the palace staff finds it, though, it could lead to your being uncovered. So only do this if you can do it with reasonable safety.”
Darniss looked at the paper. There were a number of barely legible notes written on it in an excellent imitation of the King’s handwriting. Most of them were completely mundane. More copper for SandyCo. 4th Light Foot to Towin Gap. Lower beef prices. Near the bottom, though, with a ring drawn around it, were the words ‘Kelvon still believes us. Tsocco is a fool.’ Underneath it was a doodle of a laughing face. Darniss chuckled. “Nice,” she said. “Good and vague, Tsocco's imagination will flesh it out with his worst suspicions, fuelled by the personal insult.”
“That's what we hope,” agreed Mandeville. “We think Tsocco will be visiting the King early next week for another of their buddy evenings. That would be the perfect time to use it.”
“Tsocco always sits in the same place. I could put it under the table, where it will be seen by him but not the King. He'll think it fell onto the floor during a staff meeting, earlier that day. There is a chance he might just ignore it, though, rather then risk being seen picking it up and caught spying on a secret meeting.” She thought for a moment. “The meeting usually ends at around midnight. I could leave it until past eleven, to maximise the chances that he sees it, then arrange for something to distract the King for a moment or two, long enough for Tsocco to pick it up. He may be a friend of the King, but his first loyalty is to the Empire. He won’t pass up the chance to learn something useful about Helberion.”
“And if Tsocco doesn't spot it, or doesn't take it, you must retrieve it as soon as the meeting is over, to protect yourself. Maybe you'll get another chance to use it, the next time Tsocco visits.”
“How much time have we got? Helberion knows war is coming. If they have too long to prepare, we'll lose the advantage.”
“Don't worry about that. They can't match us without conscription, and even then it takes years to train soldiers. No, the Kelvon Empire is the only thing that can stop us. Once we've neutralized that threat, we can take Helberion any time we like.”
“May it be soon.” She tucked the paper into her purse, and the two of them returned their attention to the opera.