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CHAPTER TWENTY

"Where's the city?" the sergeant major asked. All she could see from the top of the flar-ta was walls and hills.


"Beyond the hills," Rastar said. "This is just the outer wall."


The city was on a peninsula between the ocean and a broad bay, and the peninsula narrowed to a low, very narrow neck where the wall closed it off before spreading out once more beyond it. If it hadn't been for a breakwater and some low dunes, the half-hearted waves on their left would have been washing over the road.


A fresh, onshore wind blew in from the sea, carrying away the scent of rot from the bay to their right. The shoreline on that side edged almost imperceptibly into a salt marsh, over which four-winged avians croaked and hissed. The salt marsh blended in turn into a small delta from the Selke River—more of a creek, really—which the road had paralleled all the way from the Nashtor Hills.


The wall itself was immense, the largest Kosutic had seen since Voitan. It stood at least ten meters tall and was nearly that broad. The gateway was a massive, double-turreted affair, with a dogleg and clearly evident murder holes, and massive bombards loomed from the walls at regular intervals. Either K'Vaern's Cove had common everyday enemies in plenty, or else it had entirely too much money and had needed something expensive to use it up on.


The ends of the wall were anchored by bastions, studded with more bombards, where it met the sea and the marsh, respectively. The seaward bastions apparently served double duty as lighthouses, and the wall continued back along both coasts until the land rose and became rocky enough to make a landing difficult or impossible.


"Bloody serious defenses," Kosutic muttered.


"K'Vaern's Cove has participated in numerous wars in the region, at one time or another," the Northerner prince told her. "Sometimes in alliance with the League, at other times in opposition. It's never been interested in conquest, though. Most of its wars have had to do with maintaining freedom of trade . . . or pressing for it."


"Was Sindi one of the ones it fought?" the sergeant major asked. "And what is the story there? You keep referring to it, but you've never explained."


"I assume that your Ms. O'Casey is familiar with the story by now, but, in short, Tor Cant, the Despot of Sindi, was a bloated feck-beast. He was also a fool whose desires far outweighed his vision or ability, and the foremost of those desires was to be the ruler of all the land around the Tam and Chasten.


"He began his efforts by moving against the League of the North. Since we were the greatest military threat to his plans, he attempted to cause trouble between our cities in the hope that we would turn on one another and destroy ourselves for him. Then, when that plot was revealed and even he realized it was a complete failure, he sent embassies to the Boman. After much placation, some of their senior chiefs agreed to come meet with him, and he also gathered representatives from many of the Southern states who chafed at our trade taxes. The official reason for the meeting was to negotiate a treaty with the Boman, because if the Boman were no longer a threat, then the League would no longer be required. And if that happened, he reasoned, all the lands of the South would unite to rise up against our taxes.


"It became clear, however, that he had no intention of negotiating in good faith with the Boman. I said that his desires outweighed his vision, and that was probably overgenerous of me. The Boman are barbarians, but Tor Cant treated them like barbarians . . . and not very important ones, either. Instead of offering concessions, he put forward demands which anyone, not just the Boman, would have considered insulting. And when the Boman chiefs rejected them, he completed his idiocy by throwing a fit and ordering them killed in his very throne room, in front of the Southern ambassadors.


"It was, I've heard, quite a scene. His guards were Southern weaklings, so the Boman chiefs and their guards nearly cut their way to the throne, despite having been taken completely by surprise. Unfortunately, they didn't quite reach it, and when word of what had happened reached the northern clans, they swore blood feud against all the 'shit-sitters' in the cities.


"They came upon the League first, and all of us had been sabotaged, one way or another, undoubtedly by agents of Sindi. In Therdan it was poison in the grain stores. Sheffan had its water supply fouled. Others had mysterious fires in their granaries, or found the fodder for their civan poisoned.


"The intent, probably, was for the League and the Boman to destroy each other. Then Sindi would move against both, coming as a savior to what remained of the League and destroying the Boman. Then the League would have been absorbed, and the warriors who were left would have been used against the other cities."


"But that's not what happened," Kosutic said.


"No," the native prince responded very quietly, gazing at the approaching walls. "Tor Cant was a fool, and he underestimated the Boman. He obviously expected them to attack us as they always had before, clan by clan and tribe by tribe, and he reasoned that, even crippled by his treachery, our cities would be able to hold long enough to bleed the barbarians and weaken them fatally before they could move further south. But the Boman were united, and their strategy was far better than it had ever been before. They came upon Therdan in a wave, for we were the chief city of the North, and their new leaders realized that if we fell, it would not only open the way south but dishearten the rest of the League, as well. They besieged us for barely a month and a half, and we took good measure of them. So long as we were able to man our defenses, we killed many of them for every warrior we lost. But in the end, we were starving, and before we lost the flower of our civan, my father had me fight my way out, with as many of the women and children as we felt we could take.


"My uncle, whom Dergal Starg spoke of . . . He and his household opened the way, and we went forth over the carpet of their bodies. The youngest of the cavalry, on the best civan, with the women and children clinging to us as we ran."


"We didn't bother going to Sindi; it would have been pointless. Instead, we struck for Bastar, thinking that we might find aid there. But the Boman were before us, and behind us. We could only flee before them.


"And so, in the end, you found us. A starving band of ragged fugitives, washed up as flotsam in the mountains."


"And Therdan?" the sergeant major asked softly.


"It fell shortly afterward. And Sheffan, and Tarhal, and Crin. And D'Sley and Torth. And Sindi."


"But not, apparently, K'Vaern's Cove."


"No," the Mardukan agreed. "The Cove is impregnable."


* * *


Bistem Kar peered through the telescope at the approaching column. There had been more than sufficient time to make his way from the Citadel to the wall, for the column had been sighted before First Bell by the sentinels, but he still didn't have a clue as to who this was. It clearly wasn't the Boman horde, as he'd first assumed. In fact, the lead units appeared to be Northern League cavalry, but just what the rest of the ragtag and bobtail might be was another question. And the matter of what its purpose here might be was yet another. Assuming that those glittering points were on the ends of extremely long spears, this force was far too large and well armed to be a mere supply caravan, and, by the same token, probably wasn't another column of refugees.


He slid the device shut and made a gesture of frustration.


"It makes no sense."


"More refugees?" Tor Flain asked. The second in command of the K'Vaern Company of the Guard glanced sidelong at his commander. Kar was called "The Kren," not just for his immense size, but for his speed and cunning, as well. The kren was a water beast, but the commander had proved that its tactics worked just as well on land.


Kar had turned out in his habitual wear—the armored jerkin and harness of a Guardsman private, without the glittering emblems of rank to which he was entitled. It was a uniform he'd worn for many seasons, and one he was comfortable in. He would wear it to all but the most formal meetings, and in all but the most pitched battles, for it was a badge to him, and one that the Guard appreciated. Many was the time that he'd proved himself a guardsman to the very heart, fighting for the resources to keep the Company in top form, whatever it took. And everyone knew that it was only his regular, unceasing battles for a decent budget which had permitted the Guard to repulse the first assault of the Boman.


But the Boman had sworn that no city of the south would remain standing after that stupid bastard in Sindi's actions, and the fact that none of the other cities had had anything to do with Tor Cant's massacre didn't seem to matter. So now it was up to the Guard, and the rest of the capable citizenry, to make that barbarian oath fail, and the odds against that were heavy.


Kar opened the telescope back up and looked through it once more, and Tor Flain took a moment to admire the device. Dell Mir was a wizard with contraptions, but the war against the Boman had seemed to bring out the genius in him. From the device that squirted burning coal oil to changes in the smelters that had steel coming out of their ears (when they could lay their hands on raw materials, at least), the quirky inventor had proved a priceless resource to the defenses. Another example of the sort of genius the Cove seemed to produce almost spontaneously.


Tor Flain loved his city, although he, like many others, had not been born here. His parents had moved from D'Sley when he was young and started a small fish-processing business. He'd grown up with the K'Vaernian bells in his ears and worked long hours as a child and teen, gutting the daily catches and running the results from Great House to Great House. His father was a good salesman, but it was his mother who'd really run things. She'd had an eye for the best fish, and the best way to do things—what some were now calling "efficiency"—and it was the efficiency of the House of Flain which had permitted them to rise from a tiny processor, one among hundreds, to a noted provider of luxury goods. They weren't a major house, by any means, but they were no longer living in a shack on the docks, either.


And as a result of that, their daughters had married well and their sons had spread into many major positions throughout the city and its varied businesses. Positions such as that of second in command of the Company. That hadn't seemed such a good move once; now, Tor Flain's position was arguably among the ten most important ones in the entire city. And while he wasn't about to use his influence to give business to the family, it wasn't really necessary for him to. Anyone who wanted to deal with the Guard assumed that while dealing with the House of Flain wasn't a requirement, it couldn't hurt, either.


Genius inventor from apprentice smith, commander of the Guard from simple guardsman, second in command from a family of fish-gutters. That was K'Vaern's Cove . . . and it was why he would willingly lay down his life for it.


Kar slid the telescope closed again and tapped it on one true-hand, his lower arms crossed in thought.


"It's a relief column," he said.


"Damned small one, then," Flain responded. "Barely three thousand."


"But what three thousand?" Kar mused. "The Northerners' lead banner is that of Therdan."


"Impossible," Flain scoffed. "It was overrun in the first wave!"


"True. But there were rumors that some of them had escaped. And the banner next to it is Sheffan's. They're all supposed to be dead, too, you know. But the really interesting thing is the banner at the head of those spearmen." Tor looked a question at him, and Kar grunted a chuckle. "It's the River."


"Diaspra?" Flain said in astonishment. "But . . . they would never. They don't involve themselves in wars at all."


"This war is different," Kar pointed out. "But what I don't understand are all the turom and pagee. There seem to be an awful lot of them for a relief column that size. It's almost more like a giant caravan, and there are some figures out there—strange ones that look a bit like women but are obviously something else. Many of them are on the pagee, too."


He opened the telescope yet again, peered through it for long, thoughtful minutes. Then, suddenly, he gave a whoop of delight.


"That's what they're packing!"


"What?" Flain asked.


"Iron, by Krin! Those beasts are loaded with iron bars!"


"They must've come by way of Nashtor," the second in command mused. "Somebody was using his head for something besides holding up his horns."


"Send out a rider," Kar said. "Let's find out what we have here. I think we're going to like it."


* * *


The Mardukan who greeted them was the biggest damned scummy—with the possible exception of Erkum Pol—Roger had ever seen. Which, given the size of normal Mardukan males, was saying something. Not only was this one damned near four meters tall, he was disproportionately broad even for that towering height and looked as if he could bench press a flar-ta.


"Bistem Kar," Rastar said with obvious relief. "You live."


"Yes, Prince Rastar," the monster responded in a deep, rumbling grunt of laughter. "And as amazed as you are to see me, I'm ten times as amazed to see the heir of Therdan at the door."


"We tried to win through to you when first we fled, but there were too many Boman," Rastar admitted. "And, as the gods would have it, perhaps that was for the best." He turned from the K'Vaernian commander and gestured to Roger. "Bistem Kar, Captain of K'Vaern's Cove, may I introduce His Royal Highness, Prince Roger MacClintock of the Terran Empire."


"I greet you, Prince MacClintock, in the name of the Council of K'Vaern's Cove," the Mardukan responded, admirably restraining his obvious curiosity about just what in hell a "Terran Empire" might be. "And I greet your loads with even greater happiness," he added.


"That's why we stopped by Nashtor," Roger said. "And may I introduce my senior commander, Captain Armand Pahner, who was the one who insisted on retrieving the metal."


"I greet you as well, Captain Pahner," the Guard commander said, casting a close eye over the human. He looked from the chameleon-clad CO to the similarly clad Marines spreading out to either side of the caravan and suppressed an audible grunt of pleased laughter. "Welcome to K'Vaern's Cove."


* * *


"K'Vaern's Cove," Rus From said with more enthusiasm than he'd shown since leaving Diaspra. "We're here."


"Wonderful," Bogess responded in a much grumpier tone. "Another city, another battle. Just wonderful."


The area between the inner and outer defenses was given over to agriculture. There were crops of barleyrice and apsimon fruit, mostly clustered on the bay side of the narrow neck of land. On the seaward side there were fruit vines, the famous sea-plums of the coastal region that produced sea-plum wine.


"But this is K'Vaern's Cove!" the priest said. "K'Vaern of the Bells! All the world meets in K'Vaern's Cove! This is where over half the devices in the entire Chasten Valley come from. This is where the impeller pump system was invented. There's no other city like it!"


"Uh-huh," the general scoffed. "And all the streets are paved with gold. It's still just another city and just another battle."


"Well, we'll see," the cleric replied, refusing to be suppressed by the pessimistic soldier.


"And another new way of doing battle," Bogess continued. "It's not as if we can just teach them pikes and be done with it. No, we have to create these 'muskets' and 'mobile cannon.' Then we have to learn how to use them ourselves."


"Not quite," From corrected as the two representatives from Diaspra were called forward. "In fact, you'll have to, somehow, learn how to use them while they're still being created. And without the help of the humans."


* * *


"Podder mocker," Poertena muttered as the column rounded the first hill.


The basis of the city's name was immediately clear. Far below them lay a perfect natural harbor—a cove cut off from the worst effects of weather by hills on either side. All of the hills were extremely steep, with sheer-sided inlets or fjords between several of them, and the bay and the inlets had been linked to create a sheltered, multipart port. Clearly, some of the smaller side harbors could support only small craft, but there were hundreds of those circulating around the city.


The deep-water portions of the port were packed with ships. The most common was a single-masted, square-rigged, round-hulled design very similar in most respects to a medieval Terran cog. There were differences—the beam to length ratio was a bit better—but generally, the resemblance was remarkable. Most of them were about twenty meters from stem to stern, but a few larger ones ran to a bit over thirty, and one of the larger ones was being towed out by a galley, assisted by the slight puffs of the land wind coming over the hills.


One of the side-harbors seemed to be given over to military vessels, of which there appeared to be two basic types. At least two-thirds of them were sleek, low, needle-slim galleys armed with rams, but with no apparent sign of seagoing artillery. The remaining warships were larger, heavier, and clumsier looking. Like the galleys (and unlike most of the merchantmen in the harbor), they carried both oars and masts, but their main armament was obviously the batteries of heavy guns bristling from their heavily built forecastles above their long-beaked rams. Their banks of oars precluded any sort of broadside-mounted artillery, but they were clearly designed to lay down a heavy forward fire as they closed in on their enemies, and there was something very peculiar about those guns. Poertena dialed up the magnification on his helmet and grunted in sudden understanding and surprise, for the guns he could see weren't the built-up, welded-together bombards they'd seen on Diaspra's walls. These guns were cast, by God!


The four major hills around the port were part of a series of hills that ran for kilometers to the north, and all of them were covered by interlocked buildings. Houses were built on warehouses were built on shops, until virtually all the open spaces were filled with places of work or living, and often both simultaneously in the same structure.


And everywhere the eye looked, there were bell towers.


Sergeant Julian stood beside the little Pinopan and shook his head in bemusement. It surprised him a bit to realize that nowhere else in all their weary trek had he seen a single Mardukan bell. Not one. But now there were dozens—scores—of bell towers in sight from his single vantage point. God only knew how many there were in the city as a whole . . . or what it must sound like if they all tolled at once. He could see little bells, like carillons, in some of the towers, but there were also medium bells, big bells, and one great big giant bell which must have weighed as much as eight or nine tons in a massive tower near the center of the city, and he wondered why there were so many of them.


Roads twisted through the architectural crazy-quilt, packed with Mardukans. Everywhere Julian and Poertena looked in the city, there were Mardukans selling and buying and going about their business. From the edge of the sheltering hills, the city looked like a kicked anthill.


But anyone who actually wanted to kick this anthill had his work cut out for him. The city was encircled by another immense wall, much larger and stronger than the outer defense work and crowned with artillery which probably threw nine- to twelve-kilo roundshot, with bastions every sixty meters or so. The harbor mouth itself was protected by immense citadels, each liberally supplied with its own cannon, and those guns were massive. In fact, they looked big enough to throw seventy-five- to eighty-kilo shot, although Julian hated to think about the appetite for gunpowder those monsters must have. The only open space in the entire city was a large formation area on the inner side of the wall, which extended the full length of the fortifications' circuit. The area outside the wall had also been cleared, although there were some temporary buildings in that space now, especially near the water and around the main gate, where a virtual shanty town had sprung up.


The wall extended upward on the highest hill, bisecting the city, and connected to another massive citadel, a many-tiered fortress, obviously carved out of the mountain it sat upon. The stones of its exterior portions blended into the background rock so cleverly that it was difficult to tell where the fortress started and the mountain ended, and it, too, boasted a soaring bell tower, this one crowned with an elaborate gilded weathervane in the shape of a ship with all sail set.


"I can see why everybody thinks this place is impossible to take," Julian said.


"Yeah," Poertena said, then thought about it. "But, you know, you gotta wonder. Where's tee supplies?"


"Huh?" Gronningen asked. The stolid Asgardian seemed unaffected by the immensity of the city.


"Well, as long as you can be supplied by sea . . ." the intel NCO said.


"Sure, but where tee supplies gonna come from?" the Pinopan asked. "T'ere's no place to grow food for all t'ese people on t'is peninsula, even wit' all the fish they prob'ly catch. My guess is t'ey used to get most of t'eir food from t'is Sindi place or some such. Where's it comin' from now?"


"Ah," Julian said. "I see your point. And it's not coming from the next city downriver from Sindi, because that one's been overrun, too."


"So t'ey shipping t'eir supplies from where? A hundred kilometers? Two hundred? A t'ousand?"


"Yeah."


"Instead of just barging it downriver an' across tee bay. And t'at goes for all tee other stuff t'at isn't luxury stuff, stuff you usually get from nearby. Wood, leather, metal, stuff like t'at. And what you gonna bet most of t'eir trade used to be with t'ose cities tee Boman took?"


"But you can depend on distant supply sources and get away with it," Julian argued. "San Francisco did back in the old, old, old days on Earth. And everything it needed mostly came in on ships, not overland."


"Sure," the Pinopan agreed. "New Manila's not'ing but a seaport and a starport, an' it's as big as it gets on Pinopa. T'ey gets ever't'ing but fish from tee ass-end of nowhere. But two t'ings. You see t'ose ships?" He pointed at the oversized cog making its cumbersome way out of port.


"Yes," Julian said. "So?"


"T'at's tee worst pocking ship I ever see. Any kinda deep-water blow, an' it's gonna roll right over an' sink like a flooded rock. An' it's gonna be slow as shit, an' if it slow, it cost more money to run, an' t'at means tee grain gonna be expensive. And t'at means in tee end t'ey starve unless t'ey gots some big source o' pocking income. Which is what leads to tee other t'ing, which is t'ey not'ing but a market. Sure, t'ey might make some stuff here. T'ey might be a reg'lar New Dresden, but it's gonna be not'ing compared to tee stuff t'at's just waiting to ship to somwheres else. An' if not'ing coming down tee Chasten or tee Tam, t'en t'ey gots not'ing to sell. An' if t'ey gots not'ing to sell, t'en t'ey gonna starve."


* * *


"How are you supplied?" Pahner asked. "If you don't mind my asking."


The relief column had attracted remarkably little attention as it passed through the large shanty town around the gate and the outer wall. If a war threatening their very survival was going on, the people of K'Vaern's Cove seemed not to have noticed.


The main thoroughfare on which they were traveling was packed. Only the force of guardsmen calling for way and physically pushing blockages aside permitted the caravan to keep moving, and the side streets were just as crowded, with carts or kiosks set up every few meters selling a mixture of products from food to weapons.


The city was packed onto the slopes surrounding the cove, and the surrounding hills virtually stopped the sea winds, which turned the city into a sweltering, breathless sauna even hotter than the Mardukan norm. The still air also trapped the scent of the streets, and it closed in on the column as it passed through the gate. The effluvia was a combination of the cooking and spices of the side streets and the normal dung smell of all Mardukan cities, subtly flavored with a hint of clear salt air and the rot smell which was common to every harbor in the known universe.


Most of the buildings, aside from the soaring bell towers, were low and made from stone or packed mud, with plaster walls which ranged from blinding white to a glaring clash of painted colors. It was the first place the humans had seen where extensive use had been made of pastels, and the combination of riotous colors, furnace heat, and heady smells dazed some of the Marines.


Single doorways fronted directly onto the street, and children darted out into traffic without heed. One particularly reckless youngster was almost turned into paste by Patty, but the flar-ta made a weird five-legged hop and somehow avoided treading on the scrambling waif.


The corners of the buildings all sported elaborate downspouts that led to large rainwater containers. Some of those had markings on them, and Pahner watched as a person dipped from one of them and dropped a metal coin into it. Clearly, someone had just made a sale, and he wondered for a moment why, of all the cities they'd visited, only K'Vaern's Cove seemed to have some sort of water rationing.


The same emphasis on providing water was apparent in the occasional larger pools they passed. The pools, slightly raised above the level of the street and about two meters across and a meter deep, ranged from five to ten meters in length and collected water from the larger buildings' downspouts. They were covered with half-lids and clearly were kept scrupulously clean, for the water in them was as clear as any spring, and they, too, had copper and silver coins on their bottoms.


"Supplied?" Kar turned to look at the human, then gave the handclap of a Mardukan shrug. "Poorly, in all fairness. And, no, I don't mind your asking. Gods know we've crossed swords with the League before, but I don't think they're less than allies now."


"Indeed," Rastar said. The Northern cavalryman grunted in harsh laughter. "Many's the war which we waged against the Cove, or the Cove against us, over its control of the Tam Mouth, or our control of the Northern trade. But that's all past, now. The League is no more, nor will it arise once again in any strength in our lifetime. We're all in this together.


"But tell me," he continued, "why are you short? Don't you have nearly unlimited storage under the Citadel?"


"Yes," the K'Vaernian general agreed. "But we don't keep the granaries filled to capacity in peacetime, because stock—"


A sudden, deep, rumbling sound, like the tolling of bronze-throated thunder, interrupted the Guard commander. All of the bells, in all of the towers, sang simultaneously, in an overwhelming outpouring of deep, pounding sound that swept over the city—and the astounded column—like an earthquake of music. But it was no wild, exuberant cacophony, for the bells rang with a measured, rolling grandeur, every one of them giving voice in the same instant. Four times they tolled, and then, as suddenly as they had begun to speak, they were silent.


The humans looked at one another, stunned as much by the abrupt cessation as by the sheer volume of the sound, and their companions from Diaspra seemed only a little less affected. Rastar and his Northern fellows had taken it in stride, however, and the native K'Vaernians seemed scarcely even to have noticed, but then Bistem Kar grunted a chuckling laugh.


"Forgive me, Prince Roger, Captain Pahner. It didn't occur to me to warn you."


"What was that?" Roger asked, digging an index finger into his right ear, where the echo of the bells seemed to linger.


"It's Fourth Bell, Your Highness," Kar told him.


"Fourth Bell?" Roger repeated.


"Yes. Our day is divided into thirty bells, or segments of time, and Fourth Bell has just passed."


"You mean you get that—" Roger waved a hand at the bell towers "—thirty times a day?!"


"No," Kar said in a tone the humans had learned by now to recognize as tongue-in-cheek, "only eighteen times. The bells don't chime at night. Why?"


Roger stared at him, and it was Rastar's turn to laugh.


"Bistem Kar is— What is that phrase of yours? Ah, yes! He's 'pulling your leg,' Roger. Yes, the bells sound to mark each day segment, but usually only the ones in the buildings actually owned by the city, not all of them!"


"True," Kar admitted, with the handclap which served Mardukans for an amused shrug, but then the titanic guardsman sobered. "We are at war, Prince Roger, and until that war is over, all of Krin's Bells will sound in His name over His city at the passing of each bell."


Roger and Pahner looked at one another expressionlessly, and Kar chuckled once more.


"Don't worry, my friends. You may not believe it, but you'll become accustomed more quickly than you can imagine. And at least—" he gave Rus From a sly look "—we won't be constantly pouring water over you!"


The cleric-artificer chuckled along with the others, and Kar returned his attention to the humans.


"But before the bells interrupted us, I believe, I was about to explain to you that we don't keep the granaries fully filled during peacetime because stockpiling like that hurts the grain trade, and we normally have sufficient warning of a war to purchase ample supplies in time. But this time the Boman came too quickly, and we were having the same problems with Sindi everyone else was. That bastard Tor Cant actually started stockpiling last season, which makes me wonder if his murder of the Boman chiefs was really as spontaneous as he wanted us to think. But he wasn't interested in sharing any of his surpluses, and he went as far as putting a hold on all grain shipments out of Sindi 'for the duration of the emergency.' We got in some additional stores from other sources before Chasten's Mouth was overrun, but not much. There's no real shortage, yet, but it will come. Many of the merchants are rubbing their hands in anticipation."


"What of Bastar?" Rastar asked, gesturing to the north. "I've heard nothing of their people."


"Almost all of them escaped to us when it was clear they couldn't hold against the Boman." Bistem Kar made a gesture of resignation and frustration. "Another drain on our supplies, both of grain and of water, but not one that we could in good conscience reject. And we'd had our problems with D'Sley, as well as all the other cities, but again . . ."


"One for all, and all for one," Pahner said.


"Indeed," the general agreed, and turned his attention back to the human. "But what is your place in all of this? I'm told that these long spears are your innovation, and the large shields. I can see their usefulness against the Boman axes. But why are you here? And involving yourselves in our plight?"


"It's not out of the goodness of our hearts," Roger said. "The full story is long and complicated, but the short answer is that we have to cross that—" he pointed to the sea beyond the harbor "—to reach the ocean, and then cross that to get back to our home."


"That's a problem," Kar said forebodingly. "Oh, you can get passage from here to the Straits of Tharazh if you must. It will be expensive, but it can be arranged. But no one will take you beyond the Straits to cross the Western Ocean. The winds would be against you, and no one who's ever tried to cross the ocean has returned. Some people—" the K'Vaernian glanced sideways at Rus From "—believe that the demons which fill the ocean to guard the shores of the world island are to blame, but whatever the cause, no ship has ever succeeded in crossing it and returning to us. There's an ancient tale of one ship having arrived from the other side—a wreck, rather, for it had been torn to pieces by something. According to the tale, there was a lone, crazed survivor who babbled in an unknown tongue, but he didn't live long, and no one was ever able to determine what had destroyed the ship."


"Storm?" Pahner asked.


"No, not according to the tale," the general said. "Of course, it might be a fable, but there's an ancient log in one of the museums here. It's in a tongue no one I know of can read, but it's accompanied by what purports to be a partial translation—almost as old as the log itself—and you might find it interesting. The translation seems to describe monsters of some sort, and the tales of the ship's arrival here are very specific in saying that it had been bitten and torn by something."


"Goodness," From murmured provocatively. "You don't suppose it might have been one of those mythological demons, do you?"


"I don't know what it might have been," Kar admitted cheerfully. "Except that whatever it was, it must have been large. And unfriendly. Either of which would be enough to convince me to stay well clear of it, by Krin!"


"You know that there's something on the other side, though?" Roger asked.


"Oh, yes," the K'Vaernian replied. "Of course. The world is round, after all; the mathematicians have demonstrated that clearly enough, though not without argument from some of our, ah, more conservative religions. That means that eventually you must come back here, but the distance is immense. And in all honesty, there's never been much incentive for anyone to go mucking about in the open ocean. Quite aside from wind, wave, and possible sea monsters," he grinned at From, who chuckled back at him, "there's the problem of navigation. How does a seaman know where he is unless he can close the shore every so often and compare local landmarks to his charts? And what merchant would go voyaging beyond Tharazh? We know of no cities or peoples to trade with there, and we have—had, at least—all the trade we can service right here in the K'Vaernian Sea. As to what's happened to the one or two lunatics who have tried to cross it, no one truly knows, so it's a fertile subject for, um . . . imaginative speculation."


"Well, we'd heard that you're unable to sail across it," Pahner said, "but we've done quite a few things on this world that no one has ever done before."


"They crossed the Tarsten Mountains," Rastar interjected.


"No! Really?" Kar laughed. "And is the land beyond really filled with giant cannibals?"


"I think not," Cord said. The old shaman had a strong gift for languages, but without a toot of his own, he lacked the translator support the humans enjoyed, and the K'Vaernian general looked at him sharply at the sound of his pronounced and highly unusual accent.


"D'nal Cord is my asi," Roger said, "my, um, sworn companion and shield mate. He's from the People, who live in the Hurtan Valley. It's not only beyond the Tarsten Mountains, it's actually farther from the Tarstens than they are from here."


"Pretty close to a fourth of the way around the world from the Tarstens," Pahner agreed. "And the people on the far side of the Tarstens didn't look much different from you. No civan or turom, though."


"Truly, we live in a time of wonders," Kar said. "And I meant no offense to your people, D'nal Cord."


"And I took none," the asi said haltingly. "Far we have come, and much have I seen. Much is the same from one side to the other." He glanced around for a moment. "Although this is by far the largest city I've ever seen. Voitan was just as . . . alive before its fall, but it wasn't this large."


"Voitan?" Kar asked.


"A long tale," Roger said. "And a cautionary one."


"Aye," Cord agreed with a handclap of emphasis, and looked at the K'Vaernian levelly. "Voitan, as everyone knew, was invincible. Until the Kranolta."


 


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