She was nothing. A tiny slip of a girl who barely reached his shoulder, and if politeness had not been ingrained from an early age, he would have laughed aloud at her audacity. Instead he stood his ground, blocking the entrance to the prisoner’s cell, and adopted a serious expression.
‘We requested one of the Lord’s protectors,’ he said.
The girl walked away. He thought she was leaving. She stopped at the foot of the steps and called up. The Warder came in a hurry and made a formal salute to her, she returned it casually.
‘I haven’t got time to argue with your man here,’ she said.
‘I’m sorry my Lady, he’s new,’ he said, still standing to attention with his right fist clenched over his heart. ‘Do as she asks.’
She came to stand beside him, indicating with a nod that he should open the door. He turned the key slowly, ‘I’m coming in with you,’ he said.
‘What’s your name?’
It was a rude question, implying she outranked him. He studied her expressionless face as she peered through the bars of the door. She was just a girl, albeit one dressed in boy’s clothing and she was young. His face stretched into a smile, partly from amusement, more from incredulity, surely she did not think she could go in and face one, alone and unarmed?
The lock clicked its last and the heavy door swung inward. Before he had the chance to stop her she had stepped inside and so he followed, bringing a torch from the wall and loosening his sword. The cell seemed empty until he looked up and saw it, crouching in the rafters, like a man, almost. It watched them, the vertical slit pupils of its eyes made him uneasy and he held the flame higher so it turned away from the light. Even from this distance it was huge, menacing even as it was injured, and he felt unsafe in its presence.
‘Come on, you’ve seen it now. Time to go,’ he said, reaching out to help her through the door before it decided to jump down and kill them both.
She slipped out of reach to the back of the cell and, running four strides, leapt onto the rafter, lithe as a cat. He drew his broadsword on a reflex as the Sturgar stood to face her.
They had thrashed it half to death, stripped and left it bound, or so they thought. Yet here it stood, free and none the worse for the beating, its smooth grey body rippling with muscle. The girl addressed it in a whispered breath.
‘How many of you came?’
The Sturgar glanced at the open door and the soldier, then turned his attention back to the girl. She held something, two tiny blades that caught the light. He would have laughed if she had drawn such weapons on him. The Sturgar stepped back, watching her. She turned her hands over, the blades lay flat on her palms.
‘I can make your death swift or slow, the choice is yours. Either way you will tell me what I need to know,’ she breathed.
The Sturgar said nothing and was still, only the slight rhythmic twitch of its long tail showed it was agitated. The blades floated up and hung in the air of their own volition. It was captivating.
Then the blades moved. A sudden dart, one to its throat where it hovered, pricking the skin lightly. The Sturgar tried to bat it away with his hands, every time the metal touched him he was cut, and soon he was bleeding freely. The other blade had gone unnoticed, floating just below its navel and when this cut into him the Sturgar clutched his stomach and fell heavily, a massive writhing heap to the floor.
The girl jumped down, another blade in her hand now. Impassively she regarded the creature’s agony then calmly sliced off its tail and kicked him onto his back with her foot. She held it up for him to see. It was grey, smooth and much longer than she was tall.
The Sturgar looked up at her, and where it had made no noise even when the soldiers had beaten it, now it cried, a shrieking high pitched whine, disconcerting and awful.
The girl knelt down, then coiled the tail like a rope and laid it on his chest. She must have stopped the carving of the blade that was inside him as the Sturgar ceased clawing at its stomach.
‘Tell me,’ she said, in her quiet, soft voice, ‘do the Sturgar still believe their god will think lesser of them if they arrive at death without a tail, like a little shoken?’
The Sturgar looked at her and hissed.
‘I think I shall keep yours. Hang it on my wall.’
Again the blades cut and the Sturgar writhed and cried until at last it let go of its stomach and placed both hands over the severed tail.
Silence. Then it spoke.
‘Seven runners were sent.’ Its voice was barely audible.
‘Where are the others?’
‘Not here, we went across the Land. Many places.’
‘To be the eyes of the Master. So he can learn about the softlings.’
The girl nodded, reached over and slit the Sturgar’s throat, first one way and then the other, cutting both jugular veins. Then the blade that was within him pierced the skin below the rib cage and came to her waiting hand.
‘I asked for your name, soldier,’ she said, and there was menace in her tone as she stepped over the pooling blood and came toward him.
‘Krebre,’ he said, realising he was still brandishing the broadsword and re-
‘You will not speak of anything you have seen or heard,’ she said, moving toward the door and calling for the Warder.
The Warder came at a run; she ignored his salute.
‘Where was the Sturgar?’
‘Near the wall, shot by a young archer.’
Taking the torch from Krebre she knelt down and examined the body in detail. There was a wound to the shoulder from an arrow, for a full-
‘Why wasn’t he bound?’
‘He was my Lady, well bound,’ said the Warder.
‘Yes. We had no manacles big enough,’ the Warder looked about for the straps wanting to show her how strong they were.
‘He would have eaten them,’ she said and pulled back the Sturgar’s gums, revealing a double row of teeth. The gums were red and bleeding she put her hand on his face, ‘He was sick,’ she said, ‘feel how hot his skin is.’
Neither reached down to touch the Sturgar.
‘No one would have been able to catch him otherwise,’ she said and knew it was the reason the Sturgar had not made any effort to fight.
‘The body needs to be burnt else the infection it carries might spread. Do it here in secret and if rumours begin, say it was only one of the Strick that was arrested for stealing. Bring Patmore the Smith, he can be trusted. Have him take a look at the body and make some manacles that would fit.’
‘Will there be others?’ the Warder asked as he walked cautiously around the body as if not quite trusting that the Sturgar was dead.
‘Yes,’ she said, going to the door. ‘Sooner, or later they will come, and if you survive, you will think back, and know the shoken wars began here.’
Krebre took the torch she held out. ‘Do you want the tail?’ he asked.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Why give him another reason to hunt me down in the after life?’
Her smile lacked mirth and made him shiver.
Mag’Sood paced slowly over the vast map painted on the floor. He was careful not to knock over the little groups of wooden shoken that stood here and there upon the painted Land, a small carved figure for every one hundred of the approximated population of an area. Some significant buildings were also present, in the frozen north, the black fortress, Tarestone, where this map room comprised most of the underground space. In the middle of the landmass, the Palace of Valkarah and the city of the same name, the surrounding area heavily populated, and Mag’Sood knew, protected by a loyal army and an impenetrable wall.
He stood astride Valkarah. Often he kicked this model, scattering the little figures across the smooth floor, he resisted the urge and walked over to a mountain range so skilfully depicted, it felt high up to stand there.
Mag’Sood considered the temple Lak-
He turned when he heard footfall. The candles in the room flickered as the stone door opened, and Mag’Sood waited for the news. A warrior entered on his knees, careful not to put any part of himself on the ancient map. Mag’Sood hissed, a signal that the warrior could stand and speak.
‘Master, the news is good,’ his voice was only a whisper, ‘we have slaughtered the shoken of another River village. No Sturgar were injured. We left a marked survivor as you wished.’ He placed a small leather pouch on the floor, vigilant not to let even this tiny item touch the map and crouching, waited, not daring to look up.
Mag’Sood let the good news sink in. He could smell the shoken blood that stained the clothes of the warrior, and remembered how hungry he was for real meat.
‘Bring me food,’ he whispered. The warrior backed quickly out.
Mag’Sood made his way over to the great River that dissected the Land in half, and finding the settlement gathered up sixty of the little figures in his two hands, considered them for a moment, his long tail swishing back and forth as he thought, then put five into a nearby village to account for escapees, and carried the remainder over to the fire.
He burned them one by one, waiting until each had disintegrated into white ash before adding another with relish. It amused him to think that a handful of Sturgar had killed so many. Yet he knew that this was a war that would have to be won by stealth and cunning. Even though one male Sturgar could easily kill a hundred shoken, still they were outnumbered.
Mag’Sood picked up the pouch the warrior had left, listened at the door, then walked to the other side of the vast room. Holding the pouch in his teeth he pulled on his boots, then hauled himself arm over arm up a chain that hung from an open hatch in the ceiling.
The chamber above was as large as the room beneath, it appeared smaller as it was crowded with a labyrinth of narrow tables, on each many round disks were propped into grooves on the surface. The disks flickered faintly giving the room a silver glow, and together gave off tiny wisps of sound, so that the room was full of half heard voices.
Mag’Sood straddled the hatch, the vertical black pupils of his eyes expanding to accommodate the dimness.
The Watcher knelt before a table, her concentration so absolute on the reflecting disk in front of her, she did not notice the Master’s approach.
He placed the leather pouch on the table beside her. Startled, she cowed low, head bowed.
‘Speak,’ he whispered.
‘There is one here that may be of interest to you, Master,’ said the Watcher. She felt her way amongst the tables, checking several reflecting disks for the one she wanted then knelt before it, waiting for the Master.
He leaned over her, resting his massive hands either side of the disk, his arms were corded with muscle and the veins stood out in the smooth, grey skin. The Master was powerful and terrifying and her desire for him almost overwhelmed her.
She took the little disk in her slim fingers and tilted it expertly, first one way and then the other, until she found the place in time she wanted. Then set it down as the tiny scene revealed itself.
The image was clear but discovering what each said to another was demanding work; being a combination of guessing, lip watching and careful repeated listening; even as the Sturgar possessed superior hearing to any shoken, it was rarely attempted.
‘Who is marked with the seeing metal?’ he asked.
‘One of the runners you sent was able to get near Valkarah. These images are no more than a few turns old,’ she whispered.
They watched scenes of the Median army at practice; they were some distance away, yet it was enough to show numbers and skills. Mag’Sood, always fascinated to see the softlings fight, made the Watcher show the events many times, until he had learnt all he could.
‘The manner of his death might interest you Master. The runner was killed by one of the Median King’s protectors,’ she breathed, and with an adroit tilt sped the image on and stopped it. He leaned closer the better to see and she could feel his hot breath on the bare skin of her head. He observed how the small, dark eyed girl tortured the Sturgar brave. When she cut off his tail and held it up Mag’Sood let out a long wail of sorrow, the pitch so high and powerful it penetrated the walls of Tarestone. Those in the vicinity took up the cry and echoed it.
Mag’Sood waited until all was silent. ‘Show me again her knife play,’ he whispered.
The Watcher lifted the reflecting disk between the finger and thumb of each hand and tilted it to the left so that the images they had already seen raced across the surface. She stopped in just the right place, and by making tiny constant adjustments both left and right, could hold the image still. Mag’Sood watched how the female could float the little blades without touching them.
‘Have you seen the like before?’ he asked, for who knew the shoken better than her?
The Watcher shook her head.
‘It’s Linegold, very rare, not so rare as the ability to use it. Do we know anything else about her?’
‘She is a favourite of the softling King. They call her ‘Sho’’.
‘Have the Curver look at these images so he can have the runner exonerated,’ he whispered as he got up. She remained on her knees, head bowed, hands in her lap.
Mag’Sood could smell her desire for him and ignored it. They must always remain virgins. With her predecessor, an ancient hag, this had been easy. Now, when he came to the reflecting room he often asked himself if this was just superstition. Because of her prowess he dared not take a risk, for now, more than ever, he needed an adept Watcher.
A warrior entered with a metal platter of meat. Mag’Sood hissed for him to approach. He did so slowly so as not to knock any of the tables and held the platter out, careful not to look directly at the Master.
Mag’Sood regarded the meat. It had been lightly warmed, not cooked, to resemble a freshly killed shoken. The smell of the warm flesh filled the air. The warrior could not help sneak a look as Mag’Sood lifted the thigh and ripped off a mouthful with his powerful teeth. The Watcher listened to him eating; two thin trails of saliva dripping from the corners of her mouth.
When he had eaten his fill, Mag’Sood turned to the warrior. ‘Give her the rest,’ he breathed, and the warrior placed the platter on the floor and then backed away and out of the door, casting her a look of pure hatred as he did so, having believed the scraps would have been his.
The Master left the way he came and the Watcher crawled over to the platter on which still rested part of an arm, and some small hands. She sat on the floor with it on her lap and closed her eyes breathing in the smell, her bared teeth chattering in ecstasy. She had never eaten softling before. Here in the frozen north the Sturgar had been reduced to eating whale or seal. She ate unhurriedly, relishing the tender sweetness and basking in pride that the Master had given her real flesh to eat.
When she had finished and licked each bone and the platter clean, she rose and stretched, feeling more sated than after any other meal she had consumed.
Carefully the Watcher felt her way amongst the tables, and retrieved the leather pouch that the Master had left, and took it to where some tables lay bare. Kneeling, she gently tipped out the reflecting disk into the palm of her hand and tilted it back and forth, searching for an image, none came. This was the way when a shoken was newly scored. Often nothing emerged, as many times the softlings were so traumatised at being marked they died of shock, or took their own lives.
The Watcher scraped a groove in the wood with her fingernail and propped the reflecting disk in place. Then she turned the pouch inside out and read the words that had been burnt there, and wrote this information on the table top using a sharpened fingernail. Her writing was neat and small: softling, River, male. When she was satisfied she blew away the wood dust, and added the date.