This is an excerpt from The Fire Sword. Disaster has struck, an assassin poisoned the food they were eating. Only Sandun and Basil avoided the poison because they were called away, suddenly. Now the two men must find an antidote.
Omot was not quite on the river, unlike Anessa, which was built on poles. Sandun thought it likely that the people of Omot feared floods. A quarter mile past the south gate brought them to the docks, where eight sturdy men stood. They were swinging oars over their heads and chanting numbers in a group exercise. Sandun gave Filpa two silver cats; he in turn passed them to the boat master, the oldest man of the crew. The boat master hefted them in his calloused hand and then gave back a small half cat, also of silver.
The fast boat was smaller than the racer they’d taken from Tokolas to Teketavaska, and the wood was unpainted except for the two wise eyes near the bow. “Four is the most we carry on the fast boat,” said the boat master in understandable Serice. “Anything you can do to lighten the load will help speed our way.”
Sandun considered what he was carrying in his pack: food, waterskins, rope, weapons, and armor. What could he possibly leave behind? “What dangers can we expect on the river?” Sandun asked the boat master.
“While there are a few river bandits who prey on the pilgrims, only Lame-Leg Virt and his gang would dare attack us with you four warriors on board.”
The boat master’s words did not reassure Sandun, so he left nothing behind, and neither did Basil. The four men boarded the fast boat, Filpa in front. Next came Basil, while Blue Frostel and Sandun sat in the rear. The crew deftly took their places with their oars. The boat master pushed them away from the dock; they headed upriver, past the small fishing boats who were out early.
The river curled about but generally flowed down from the northeast hills. In the distance, Sandun could see very tall peaks rising above the river banks. As they came closer, Sandun saw the hills were odd, disturbing in their strangeness. Unlike the mountains he had known in Kelten, which formed chains of pointed promontories connected by steep ridges, these hills stood apart from each other, erupting from the sides of the river in impossibly vertical sheer cliffs of naked stone. They were like castles sculpted by titans wielding stone-cutter blades the size of the giant redwood trees. For no reason Sandun could imagine, these bizarre stone towers had rounded tops, as though smoothed by a grinding wheel as vast as the sky itself.
At the top of one of these vast stone pillars, he saw what looked like a building. He pointed at it and said to Basil, who was sitting in front, “By the Spear of Sho’Ash! How could any man reach such a place?”
Blue Frostel turned and faced Sandun. “You have not been told enough about your destination. The Temple of the Great Sage is at the top of a hill fully twice as tall as these small karsts you see around us.”
Sandun’s heart sank. He could not climb even the small karsts he saw; they were far too steep. Seeing his dismay, Blue Frostel explained, “There is a narrow trail, carved out of the rock, and in many places steps have been cut. It is a hard trail but not beyond your strength.” He turned and looked east. “That said, rain makes the trail much more dangerous, and I see clouds building.”
This was no more than the truth. The day, which had started fair, was becoming overcast. Great thunderheads were forming before their eyes, billowing up and out into the sky ahead of them.
“Our Temple of Rulon Mors is built on a karst a few hundred feet lower than the Great Sage Temple. I have climbed its path once during an afternoon thunderstorm, but that was because I carried a burning message. Tell me, how urgent is your need to reach the Great Sage Temple this day?”
“It is worth my life,” Basil said in a tone of voice that admitted no debate.
“So this will be a true test for all of us. The gods Mairen and Temo Tio place obstacles in our path so that, in succeeding, we become stronger.” Blue Frostel fell silent and did not say anything for quite some time.
Sandun was increasingly filled with dread as the karsts grew taller and the clouds became thicker as the oarsmen drove them upriver. He could see no sign of any paths up any of the karsts. Looking back on the karsts they passed, he saw that most appeared to be sheer stone from all directions; only a few had trees growing up climbable slopes.
Their boat passed several groups of travelers—pilgrims walking or riding slowly along the north side of the river—and twice they passed small fishing villages nestled along the shore. The south side of the river seemed unpopulated.
As Sandun chewed some dried salted meat around noon, he asked Blue Frostel, “How many of these pilgrims will be going to the Great Sage Temple?”
“None,” the warrior replied. “The Great Sage Temple is closed to most visitors and has been ever since the fall of the Water Kingdom.”
“But you said you have been there, and one of the doctors in Tokolas said he had gone there.”
“I was allowed, yes. And some doctors and scholars of note are granted entry.”
“Who would climb such a massive karst at the risk of being denied entry?” Sandun felt baffled and perplexed. Nothing made sense; he felt like the last few days were all some terrible nightmare.
“I did. I climbed the path and requested entry. I told them who I was, and they gave me leave to study their books for two weeks.”
“Who are you?” said Sandun, now wondering if he could believe anything Blue Frostel was saying.
“As I said, my name is Arna Frostel, and I am the eighth-generation descendent of General Arna Frostel.”
At this, all the rowers stopped and turned their heads, looking at him.
After a short pause, the boat master said, “Keep rowing. Everyone knows the family of Frostel has been living in Rulon Mors since the general was executed.” Then he said, “It’s an honor to have you aboard, sir.”
Sandun asked, “Who was General Frostel?”
“I must now credit the notion that you are from Kelten,” Blue Frostel said with an indulgent smile, “as few people in Serica would admit not knowing his story.”
Over the next hour, as the rain began to fall, Sandun learned that the first Arna Frostel had been one of the best generals of the Water Kingdom. After more than a decade of victories against superior enemy armies, he had become frustrated by civilian control over the military. The final stick was broken when the chief minister secretly negotiated a peace treaty with the enemy that General Frostel’s army was fighting.
“I read the archives in the Great Sage Temple, and the documents clearly showed that General Frostel’s army was on the verge of recapturing the old capital of Kemeklos.” Blue Frostel explained, “It is well known that at the grand council, General Frostel accused the chief minister of seizing defeat instead of unmistakable victory. That very evening, the chief minister ordered General Frostel’s arrest and immediate execution. As everyone knows, the Water Kingdom never succeeded in retaking Kemeklos.”
“And so his family fled the court and hid on top of one of these karsts?” Sandun guessed these places made excellent places of refuge, much like the Mondrakora Mountains had been for Basil’s family fifteen years ago.
“The general had planned ahead. His wife and children were sent away south weeks before the chief minister made his treacherous move. My ancestors stayed there and built a school dedicated to the study of the military arts.”
Blue Frostel now spoke with less conviction. “Warriors from our school played only a small role at the end, when the Kitran conquered the Water Kingdom. Perhaps for that reason, the Kitran army left our temple unharmed when they seized control of this region. For many years, we have bided our time, doing other things for money, to keep the school going.”
He fell silent as the rain stopped. For a few minutes, there was a break in the clouds, and the tops of some tall karsts could be seen dimly in late-afternoon light. The boat captain pointed to a very tall peak several miles away. “The Great Sage Temple is at the top of that karst. It’s hard to make out any of the buildings with all the water in the air, but that is where we are heading.”
Sandun’s hopes that the larger karsts would have gentler slopes were dashed. The monumental karst looming ahead looked just as steep as the unclimbable smaller karsts they had passed.
“Eat and drink now,” warned Blue Frostel. “We will have to move fast if we are to reach the top before full night falls. The moon rises late tonight.”
Rain began to fall again, and when they finally reached the base of the karst that was their destination, the light was faint. The boat captain reckoned it was still an hour before sunset. A modest boathouse stood beside the river’s edge, but it was locked shut. Hanging off the boathouse was a faded canvas awning that protected a wooden deck with several benches and tables. Numerous waterfalls cascaded down the rocky wall of the karst. Blue Frostel stood under the awning and looked up at the cliff with concern. Thunder echoed faintly from up the valley.
“I can do this,” Frostel said, “but I wonder if anyone else should make the attempt this night. Let me carry your message to the Great Sage Temple for you.”
Sandun looked at the man in amazement. He was so surprised by Frostel’s suggestion of going up the trail alone that he could think of nothing to say for a few moments. It was absurd on the face of it. His own blood brothers and his woman were facing death, and yet here was this stranger offering to risk his life to make the climb in his stead? He just shook his head.
The boat captain came up and remarked, “There is no chance that the cranes will be operated in this weather, yet I’d not attempt the climb now, not unless a thousand Sogand warriors were on my trail, baying for blood.”
“There are cranes?” Sandun asked, with a small flicker of hope.
“For lifting food and other supplies to the top.” The boat captain spelled out, “There are three stages: each one is a thousand feet above the other. Takes the better part of a day to hoist a full boatload. Some brave men who live at the temple have been hoisted up all three stages, but only on windless days. With rain and thunder, the winds gust, and you’d be more likely smashed against the rock than survive even a single stage. What’s more, the men from the Great Sage Temple have to turn the gears, and there is no way to signal them now.
“My weather nose tells me the rain will stop before morning.” The captain bit off a piece of the apple he was eating and then continued. “I’d rest and wait till dawn.”
Basil shook his head. He had on his pack on and held a length of rope in his hand. “We have no time for delay. I’ve left my weapons and armor here. I’d be grateful if you would watch them till we return tomorrow.” He looked at Filpa and said, “You don’t need to risk your life tonight. Wait for us here. We should be back by noon tomorrow.”
Filpa shrugged and nodded.
“I will lead,” Blue Frostel said, clearly not expecting any disagreement.
“Let’s go, Sandun,” Basil said. “We have come nearly four hundred miles, and there is one more left—straight up!”
Sandun swiftly emptied his pack of the leather armor, weapons, and all but one waterskin and some dried meat. He was going to follow Basil and Blue Frostel. He was going to trust that what other men had done, he could do as well. Hadn’t he crossed the Tirala Mountains? Could this really be worse than climbing the lightless tunnel that had afforded them passage through the steepest of cliffs of their journey?
“Rope together,” said Blue Frostel. “There is strength in numbers.”
They set out, up and up. Into the rain and the water running down the path. Last in line, Sandun saw little but stone steps and the legs and shoes of the two men in front of him. He immediately regretted not having taken one of his remaining glowing orbs on this journey. Unthinkingly, he had left it behind in his room back at the embassy. Now, in the darkness, in the pouring rain, one of the glowing orbs—King Pandion’s gift to the king of Serica—would have been very useful. He shook his head in resignation. There was no use in wishing; as the saying went: if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. And so Sandun labored upwards. Physically, the climb was within his power as he was fit and rested, but the true difficulty lay in his mind.
He doubted himself; he doubted what he was doing. He thought there was no certainty that the people at the top of the mountain would even speak to them or that they even had the rare and otherwise useless white-nose wort. For all he knew, there was a ready supply in some doctor’s medicine chest in Hutinin or Sasuvi. Perhaps their friends had already been cured, or perhaps they were already dead. Even if he and Basil obtained some of the medicine, how fast could they return to Tokolas? In time to bury their friends? There was no guarantee that anything he did now would be of any use.
Yet here he was, climbing up an insane path through sheets of rain, and for what? Why? He had sworn an oath when he joined the Knights of Serica. What had he said? That he would hold his brother’s life as dear as his own? Yes. He owed them: Sir Ako, Kagne, Padan, Olef, Damar, Farrel, Wiyat. He owed them, and he would owe them as long as he lived.
And what about Ashala? What had he promised her father? To protect her, to keep her safe. To bring her back to Gipu. And she had more than held up her side of the bargain; she had given him her love, her body, her knowledge. Didn’t he love her?
He had reasons to be on this path, in the darkness, with thunder booming loud down the valley. And yet, to his shame, he wanted to turn back and wait till the rain cleared, wait for the light of day. And why?
He was afraid.
There was the truth of it. He was more afraid now than any time in his life. This path, this ascent into the unknown heights—for Sandun, this was fear made incarnate. He could not imagine anything more terrifying than this.
Battles were different: scary but exciting. To live through a battle, to see the enemy run away, to celebrate the victory with your comrades—that was glorious, one of the best feelings ever. Even during the fighting, that was a man trying to kill you, a man who could be outthought or defeated through training and skill.
Here, he was against Nature: cold, implacable, uncaring, and unfeeling. There was no one to outwit. There was, in the end, no victory to be won. You didn’t defeat Nature by climbing a rock at night in a storm. You didn’t defeat Nature at any time by doing anything.
He thought about Sho’Ash. Sho’Ash had defeated the Black Terror, yes, but the Black Terror was evil, a thoughtful, purposeful evil that worked its will through the hands and minds of men. It was an evil that could be defeated. Sandun was faced with nothing more than rain and rock. Not evil, nothing that was placed here to do him harm. Just incredibly dangerous at this moment in time.
Evil was found in the mind of the man who ordered the poisoning: obviously Nilin Ulim. And evil was to be found in the hands of the cook who had mixed the poison into the soup and those who had helped him.
Thus, there was a victory to be won, Sandun told himself.
By saving his friends, and by killing the man who gave the orders. The rain, the slick rocks, the thunder—this was just a stage set for justice to be enacted for all the world to see. By reaching the top of the hill, he was the hand of Sho’Ash made manifest.
Sandun felt his mind clear. The rain lessened. How high were they? He could not say, and he no longer cared. He would go on till he could go no farther. The light of Sho’Ash was on the path before him.
For Basil, it was dead simple: the mother of his infant son was dying. If she died, his son was likely to follow her. The fact that his companions were also poisoned was an additional motivation that he did not need.
Also, he’d had experiences like this before. He was a hunter. He’d spent years in the unsettled lands of Kelten where the wild animals lived. Rain was inevitable in every season. No rain meant no vegetation, and no plants meant no animals to hunt. He didn’t spend time in the parts of Kelten that had no rain.
It was rare when an animal he shot ran down a path; most often he chased animals where there were no paths. He had followed wounded animals through miles of untracked wilderness, following no trail but the spattered blood left behind, tracking the wounded beasts into dells and along stream beds that no human had visited for decades or longer.
Sometimes the animals, usually deer, went up slopes no man could follow. To be honest, he had occasionally followed an animal when he shouldn’t have. He had gone over ridges of crumbling rock and run down vast slopes of loose stone that easily could have led to his death.
As he climbed the steep path, following Blue Frostel at a safe distance, Basil thought back on that day—two, no, three years past—in the high Mondrakora. He had spotted a big buck drinking from a small, snow-fed lake, half a mile below the crest. A giant of an animal with a majestic set of antlers. Basil was alone that day, no dog—why? Because his dog had died a week before. He’d felt sad—yes, that was the right word—and so he went far up into the mountains, pushing himself.
When he saw the buck, he wanted it. More meat than he could possibly carry to his cabin, but he wanted that trophy. He strung his bow and considered his shot: Heart or neck? The buck heard something and raised its head. Neck it was. The arrow flew true, but the stalwart animal ran away, up the bare, rocky slope. The rain that had threatened all afternoon came down in a sudden shower while Basil gave chase. If he lost sight of the hart, the rain might wash away the blood trail.
Up he went, and though it was steep, the buck just kept going, bounding over boulders, scrabbling over loose scree. The big deer made it over the top of the ridge and disappeared. Chasing that animal over the knife-edge ridge was perhaps the stupidest thing he ever did in his life. One slip, and he would lie broken and bleeding at the bottom of the slope hundreds of feet below. But he hadn’t slipped, had he? He had kept going, in the rain, over the broken rocks. Pulling himself by his hands over the last few feet of weathered, slick stone. And there, not two hundred feet down the reverse slope, was the collapsed body of the hart, dead after its final desperate effort.
That was crazy, foolish, he told himself as he walked back down the mountains the next day. Everything he did since that afternoon was less dangerous. In Basil’s mind, it became his internal benchmark. He told himself many times in subsequent years: never more than that afternoon. Now, as Basil climbed up the karst, he told himself, this is a path, made by men for men. Climbed many times over hundreds of years. This is not more than that afternoon.
Several hours passed. They were now inside the cloud. It was no longer raining, but it was wet. Ahead of him, Frostel slowed and then halted.
“How close are we to the top?” Basil asked.
“We are close, but ahead lies the most difficult part of the journey.”
“Truly? More difficult than the waterfall that nearly pushed me over the edge?”
“See for yourself,” Frostel said, as he took deep breaths.
Basil edged around Frostel and looked ahead. Two narrow planks of wood stretched into the fog. The planks were supported by chains that went up into the darkness above them. The cliff was vertical. There was no path, only the wooden planks.
“No more stairs,” Basil said. Fear escaped from its confinement and twisted up around his heart.
“There are a few stairs after this, but this is the final defense of the Great Sage Temple. We have something very like this, midway up our own path that leads to the Rulon Mors, but not as long. This section of the trail is…excessive.”
Sandun looked around Basil and said, “Why delay? I’ll go ahead if you wish. I am not afraid.”
“Sandun,” Basil said, “why aren’t you afraid?”
Before Sandun could answer, Frostel said, “There should be a rope, about chest high, to hang on to. Yes, here it is.”
Basil would never have seen the rope in the night; it blended into the cliff like a shadow in a dark room.
“I think this is the end of roping together. From this point on, don’t fall. I’ll go first.” Frostel untied the rope that connected him to Basil and proceeded, cautiously, along the planks and into the dark mist, vanishing from their view.
“That is a brave man,” Basil said.
“So are we,” replied Sandun. “We should shorten the rope between us. We don’t want it to get caught in one of the joins of wood.”
So the two Keltens carefully and patiently walked out on to the cliff, with Basil leading. Basil still didn’t think this was quite as dangerous as that afternoon, but it was close. As they walked, the planks shifted and scraped against the rock wall. Their weight caused the wooden beams to flex and bend. The chains rattled above them. Still they went forward.
The plank trail seemed to go on and on. Gradually, Sandun became aware of a voice chanting in the distance ahead of him. Very faint at first, it seemed like wordless singing. Sandun decided it was Frostel’s voice. The plank trail finally ended at a wide and well-carved set of stairs, much more carefully shaped than any they had seen thus far on the climb.
Frostel, who had been sitting at the base of the stairs, stood up and greeted them. “I thought it best to stay here and pray for your safety. The gateway is just up these stairs. You can rest here as no further dangers await.”
Sandun looked at Basil in the faint misty starlight. No words seemed to fit. Basil said nothing, but he stared back at Sandun for a long moment.
Sandun turned back to Frostel. “You have been an immense help to us. We could not have made this climb without you. We are in your debt.”
Frostel nodded, but then he said, “I believe you would have made it without me. We have heard stories of the opmi of Kelten. You have lived up to them.” Then he gestured up the stairs. “Let’s see if there is anyone awake who will let us in. It would be a shame if we had to break their gate down but, after coming this far in the rain, I will not be denied entry.”
Together, the three men walked up another hundred stairs. As they ascended the broad steps, they moved out of the mists. Ahead of them, faintly shining in the moonlight, a white arch appeared, with a solid black door in the middle. Beyond the gate, the karst continued to rise, though not steeply. Houses of various shapes and sizes could be seen. Even at this late hour, a few distant houses had yellow light glowing from within.
Halfway up the stairs, a pool of water was set on a landing. A small stream came down from the right side, spilling into the basin with a pleasing sound.
Frostel bent down and found a small Serica-glass cup beside the rivulet. He filled the cup and drank it. He then filled it again and passed it on to Basil, who drank some and handed it to Sandun. Sandun drained it. It was water, but running over the white stone or sitting in some cistern higher up had changed its flavor: cold, calm.
“Quiet water,” Sandun said. The others looked at him, and then they continued to the gate.
“There is a time for quiet and a time for thunder,” Frostel said. “Allow me to handle this.” Facing the gate, he shouted in a booming voice, “I, Blue Frostel, have come again to your gate! With two companions, I have dared your stony path.” Louder now, he yelled out, “Storm and thunder have not stopped us. Wind and rain have not halted our advance! Open now! Open your gate and hear the message my companions bring from afar!”
Sandun was taken aback. This was not how he would have asked for entry at the Great Sage Temple, not in the middle of the night, not any time. But Frostel’s challenge produced immediate results. Within seconds, doors opened all up the slope. Figures bearing lights soon appeared heading down the path.
Despite the commotion, Frostel was not satisfied. He stepped close to the dark wood and slapped his hands on the gate, which somehow caused an astonishingly loud noise. “Open the gate!” Frostel commanded. “Urgent tidings await. The fate of Serica depends on you this hour!”
The door opened.
A group of figures stood in the shadow of the gate; they were robed, and some held swords in their hands. One man stepped forward into the moonlight.
“This one recognizes you, son of Frostel, master at Rulon Mors. Since you will brook no delay, we will escort you to our leader. Lay your weapons aside, if you brought any.”
“We brought none.”
“Then follow. Our master lies within the Hall of Sky this night. The rains have washed the air, and the stars are out in force.”
As they hurried up the steps, to the peak of the karst, they were escorted by some ten or twelve robed figures. Three carried oil lanterns. Looking back, Sandun could see more people following them.
The man they were following moved at a rapid pace, almost leaping up the stairs. Sandun found his own strength rapidly failing. The energy that had carried him up to the gateway was but a faded spark.
“I must rest,” he said, and sat down on the white stone step, breathing heavily. He felt light-headed. Basil sat down beside him and fished the waterskin out from Sandun’s pack. Sandun accepted it gratefully, and between the two of them, they emptied the container.
The commander who had opened the gate said to Frostel, “This one would learn the names of your companions. They are not from this land, I deem.”
“They are Sandun and Basil, both opmi of Kelten. I recognize you, Scribe Vellen.”
The robed man bowed slightly. “The same. That men of Kelten had arrived in Tokolas was known. To find two at our gate is…unexpected. The waterfalls must have made the path more difficult than normal.” To the two sitting Keltens he said, “We will continue when you are ready.”
Scribe Vellen whispered something to one of the people holding a lantern. That one hurried up the stairs and was soon gone from view. A crowd of about fifty was on the steps below. Sandun heard the words “opmi from Kelten” whispered several times.
Sandun thought about what he was going to say to the master. He felt he had to take the lead from this point. In Kelten, Blue Frostel’s bombastic demands at the gate would have met with some hard blows from the temple watchmen. The king’s guards in Seopolis would likely as not have killed all three of them before investigating any further.
After passing by several buildings, they stopped before a square-sided structure; it was taller than the others they had passed. It looked like a scaled-down version of the Tokolas lighthouse, the burning tower that was painted bravely on their shields back at the embassy.
The thought of the embassy brought the purpose of his journey to the center of his mind and heart. In a few minutes, he would learn if this had all been a waste of time or if there was reason to hope.
A figure came out of the tower and whispered to Scribe Vellen. Sandun stepped forward and said firmly, “I have a written message from Governor Jori Vaina of Kunhalvar to the master of the Great Sage Temple.” He set down his pack and found the ornate metal tube that contained the letter Scribe Renieth had written just before they left the embassy.
He handed it to Scribe Vellen, who looked at the tube closely using the light of one of the lamps and tapped the cylinder thoughtfully several times.
“It goes against long tradition, but I will allow one of you to speak with the master right now, in his private study.” This was met with hisses of surprise from some of the people around him. “Which one of you wishes to speak to the master? You, Frostel?”
“Nay, my companions’ true purpose is not known to me. Only its urgency.” Frostel said this with a hint of pride in his voice. Scribe Vellen bowed again to Frostel.
“You’re the man for this.” Basil put his hand briefly on Sandun’s shoulder and then sat down on a bench near the door.
Sandun was escorted up the stairs to a narrow hallway on the second floor. Scribe Vellen knocked on a door and then, at a word, went inside. Two men with swords drawn stood at either side of the door. They looked wide awake and unsmiling; Sandun did not doubt they were deadly if provoked.
Scribe Vellen then opened the door wide and said, “Please come in. Here is Master Parvo Donath, head of the Great Sage Temple.”
Sandun came into the room. Master Donath sat on a low chair beside the small fire. He was an older man, but not ancient, with a long head and a very carefully combed beard that reached down to his chest. Master Donath motioned to Sandun to take an unoccupied chair while he unscrewed Sandun’s tube and quickly read the letter. Scribe Vellen remained standing in the back of the room next to the bed.
(end of excerpt)