This story is copyright D.K. Latta and may not be reproduced, or redistributed, for commercial purposes without his permission.
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Then the gate rattled aside on rusty chains and bald, black robed figures, very much alive, poured out from the entrance, long bows in hand. A volley of arrows sailed over their heads and Kainar glanced back to see the Fairn retreating into the concealing bush, fleeing from the superior weaponry.
Without bothering to beg permission, he and the girl road through the open archway into a great hall, horses' hooves clattering on hard flooring, and only reining in their mounts once they were safely through. He turned the mare about and watched as the black robed monks followed him inside, and the gate was swung back into place. The high ceilinged hall was cast in a dark purple glow and he realized it was caused by sunlight actually filtering through the walls, that the blocks were carved from purple amber. This disconcerting illumination was resisted a little by torches set along the wall, lending the area a more natural, yellow light in places.
Panting with effort, he watched as one of the robed figures put aside his bow and approached. "I am Kainar, Guardsmaster of Hannah town. And this is Mina, daughter of Ashwok."
The monk grinned childlishly. "No need to speak," he said, looking at her. "We have been expecting the All Father's progeny for some days now and curse ourselves that we did not come to your rescue sooner. If anything had happened to her, even the god's would have been enraged." Turning to Kainar, he added, "And as her noble champion, you are our most honoured guest."
Kainar grunted, noting the windows set near the ceiling, sentries on platforms stationed at each. They must have been spotted the moment they emerged from the bush, but the monks did not come to their aid until the last possible moment. Perhaps only when they realized who it was who accompanied him. Grimly, he brushed his axe.
Be wary, brother
"Aye," he muttered.
"What was that?" asked the monk, leading man and horse off to one side.
"Nothing," said Kainar. "Nothing at all."
A table was laid out in another hall with foods and wine that were frugal but nutritious. And after their long, hot ride, neither was in any mood to complain about hospitality, of whatever kind. Kainar had removed his mail and helm and gauntlets, leaving on his heavy leather vest despite the humidity. And Hawk's Wood he carried still, dangling from his belt. Mina had retained her riding garb and Kainar found, now that he was no longer charged with her safety, that he appreciated the way it covered and simultaneously exposed her supple form. He shook his head ruefully at an old man's daydreams.
The hall was like the outside of the temple, well built, sturdy, but old and uncared for, as if the task was beyond the small troupe of devotees that made up the order. Beyond their abilities, or simply their interest. In places there were actually puddles, the swamp encroaching even here, seeping into the inner sanctum of the temple.
A score of bald monks joined them about the long table, and her father, Ashwok, sat at the head. He was a tall man, bald like his brethren, and of about Kainar's age. His features were lean and his skin had a firm, leathery texture to it. He looked a man who kept himself in excellent shape, and he grinned and moved with a cynical worldliness that seemed unlike his more pious underlings.
"I did not realize you were head of your order," Kainar said, cutting some cheese from a larger chunk. "And what is your religion?"
"We are followers of Heu-tal, a northern calling little known in these parts. Actually we hope some day to spread his influence, bringing his teachings to others, perhaps as missionaries."
Kainar smiled stiffly. He was more travelled than anyone in Hannah and the surrounding lands, obviously more travelled even than Ashwok. The true followers of Heu-tal, he knew, forbid the maintaining of livestock -- and all by-products of such a habit. He chewed the cheese slowly.
"Why did the Fairns attack us?" Mina asked, seated at her father's side.
Ashwok reached out and stroked her hair affectionately, smiling sadly. "I'm afraid we have been having trouble with them for some time, but I never dreamed they would dare threaten you, my dear. Never. They are barbarians, and fallen back into worshipping Uutrolt, the stone god."
Kainar glanced down, wide-eyed. He felt a vibration run through Hawk's Wood...as though a shudder. A monk, unaware of this, casually refilled his goblet with spicy wine.
"Who is Uutrolt?" asked Mina.
Ashwok frowned and sat back. "There are somethings it is best not to discuss."
"Uutrolt," began Kainar, unheeding as he caressed his axe, "is an ancient god of stone, who the Fairns' ancestors used to make sacrifices to. A hard, violent religion, it anticipated his coming and the bringing of eternal order and peace to the living world. The Fairns put to death the last of the worshippers almost a hundred years ago."
After the three hundredth and ninety-eighth
"Yes," he muttered, throwing back his wine. Louder, he added, "In the religion, Uutrolt needs three hundred and ninety-nine sacrifices to take form in this plane. Supposedly the followers were destroyed just prior to making the final offering."
"Offering?" asked Mina nervously.
"Human sacrifices of females," her father confirmed, staring at Kainar with pursed lips.
Kainar wondered if Mina too had noticed the way the Fairns had seemed to look at her during the battle in the swamp. As if she was their true interest. And surely men did not throw themselves so unheedingly into strife unless driven by a mad, unquenchable desire. As like that of the fanatic.
"Uutrolt promised universal order, but demanded blood in payment," said Ashwok, shrugging. "Some felt the price too high."
"What he promised and demanded was no different than a hundred human tyrants and dictators," Kainar said darkly. "But the followers of Uutrolt were crushed by Chief Gagica's own grandfather. I cannot believe he would now embrace that religion."
"Chief Gagica has been...deposed," Ashwok said. "The new followers of Uutrolt rule the Fairns now." With a lean hand, he gestured to take in the great chamber. "And I fear they will soon overrun us as well. This temple is old, built long before our coming, and it keeps out both men and swamp -- as do we with vigilance and our bows. But someday, I fear, they will breach even these ancient walls."
"And this is what you had your daughter come to?" Kainar demanded.
Ashwok shook his head. "You do not understand, I need my daughter with me. Desperately. Especially with the mounting boldness of the Fairns."
Kainar shook his head and squeezed shut his eyes, then opened them again. The room was shifting about him subtlely, as though viewed through water.
"Kainar?" asked Mina. "Are you all right?"
He leaped to his feet, knocking over his chair. "Beware," he echoed, his voice slurred. "We are...under...attack." He hefted Hawk's Wood awkwardly in numb fingers, the axe feeling like a led weight. He spun around, barely keeping his feet, and tried to anticipate from where the Fairns were coming. But the barbarians were nowhere to be seen. About the table, the bald monks stared at him impassively. Only Mina's face was drawn in concern.
"Kainar?!" she called, as if from a great distance.
Brother, we are betra...
He was unconscious before he hit the floor.
Kainar woke with a spasm, a snarl on his lips and thunder rolling in his skull. His mouth had the taste of swamp guck in it. He tried to organize his thoughts, his sensations, to set them in a line before him. He succeeded only vaguely. He was still in the dining hall, but he was the only one. Nor did it take him any effort to conclude he had been drugged, in the wine most likely, by his holy hosts. He shook himself and realized his hands and feet were bound, and that he lay slumped against one wall.
"Hawk's Wood?" he croaked, his throat damnably dry.
I am here
He spied the axe across the room, leaning by the doorway. Well out of reach.
Ashwok and his brethren are poor hosts, yes? Particularly to a "most honoured guest"
"Where have they gone?" he growled, straining futilely at his bonds.
I do not know, but they took the girl with them. Not willingly, of course, but they outnumbered her considerably
"As they do us."
I had noted that as well
With the savage Fairns on the outside and Ashwok and the false followers of Heu-tal on the inside, Kainar knew the odds were poor at best. His only advantage was that they obviously believed him helpless. He held out his bound wrists. "Don't just sit there, damn you!"
As you wish
So saying, the axe abruptly shot across the room, flipping end over end over end as though thrown by an invisible hand, but with an accuracy no man could hope to mimic. With a downward arc it sliced effortlessly through his bindings, and, as it continued its spin, dropped into his open, and waiting, palm. Kainar closed his fist about the handle, his knuckles burning white from the strain. With a roar of fury, he brought the keen edge down between his legs, severing the ropes and biting even into the amber floor.
He rose, his muscles cramped from his awkward slumber. Not bothering to retrieve his armour, he ran stiffly from the room.
Outside, in the dim, dank hall, he stopped. Webs of moss dangled from the arched ceiling, and the smell of the outside swamp lightly touched his nostrils. Even here there were no sentries. Bound as he was, surely a guard should still have been posted, he thought. Then he reconsidered. In a house of holy men, one thing would demand the presence of all. A shudder ran up his spine as he realized he could hear faint chanting echo through the purple halls. And where there were voices...
Feet splashing through stagnant puddles and Hawk's Wood clenched firmly in hand, Kainar ran down the dark corridor, moving ever deeper into the compound. He came to a wide, moss-slicked staircase leading up and took the steps three at a time, but cautiously. On the second floor, with only the ceiling between him and the heavens, the purple glow was slightly paler, but no less disconcerting for all of that.
And here, at last, were sentries.
Two monks, stationed obviously as no more than a token precaution, gawked in surprise as he came thundering down the corridor, mouth a twisted line behind his red beard. With the flat of Hawk's Wood, he sent one flying against the wall to crumple in a heap.
The other, a few paces beyond the first, had more time to prepare. As Kainar came at him in grim silence, the monk drew a rounded vial from inside the sleeve of his black robe. In a cascade of glass shards, it shattered at Kainar's feet and green, musky mist billowed up around him, momentarily obscuring his sights. With a snarl, he swung Hawk's Wood before him like a great fan, the mist twisting and billowing in the wooden axe's slipstream, slowly dissipating.
And then he had more than a monk to concern him.
Through the thinning mist Kainar stared, eyes wide, as a beast like as a crocodile mated with a man glared at him. Its long, fanged mouth spread wide and it screamed at him with the shriek of a thousand jungle cats.
Next: Prophecy Fulfilled (the Conclusion)
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