When the small mercenary company Malcolm led--skilled warriors of one of the Border clans--had first arrived in the Kashmir, they had been joined by Al-Mussrani's troops at the quayside, and from there had struck out for the desert. Their long patrol had been re-provisioned in towns that, although they seemed marvellous to Malcolm, Al-Mussrani considered no more than peasant villages. In the four years that had followed they had quartered the great desert, exterminating the nomadic people that lived upon it. One by one Malcolm's company had fallen, until only he remained, and never once had Al-Mussrani mentioned his home or left for any period of time.
Each season new troops had joined them, to be trained by Malcolm and his mercenaries, replacing men who were slain or sent home, but always Al-Mussrani stayed. Now it seemed that their mission was over, and all the Kashmiri lord could talk of was home.
As the desert gave way to green pastures and rolling hills, they passed through fertile valleys where armies of field workers toiled in irrigated fields. Great pyramids of white faced stone dotted the landscape, tombs of ancient Kings. Towns gave way to cities, each greater than the last, and in every one Al-Mussrani was treated with deference, commandeering quarters and supplies without question.
They joined the Emperor's road, a paved highway that led to the city. It thronged with traders and pilgrims, for as home to the Emperor, Sohraba was a holy city, but on sighting the banners of Al-Mussrani all before them hurried to one side or the other to allow them swift passage. Still two days' ride from the city, he saw it for the first time. Sohraba was built on a mountain, twelve great tiers of houses, palaces and temples, all connected by a spiralling road leading to its summit. The buildings at its base were of stone, but in the higher tiers that gave way to marble and chalcedony. At its top was a statue, hundreds of feet high, of a man with arms outstretched, reaching up to the heavens.
Al-Mussrani laughed as Malcolm gazed upon it, open-mouthed in wonder. "Is it not beautiful? Did I not tell you so?"
It is a wonder indeed, my Lord," agreed Malcolm. "Whose likeness is the statue? Some great hero or god of the Kashmir?"
"It is of the Emperor, whom god gave to show us the way. The Emperor is also," he hesitated, searching for the correct word in the common speech of the Borderman, "Al-Hadra." He shook his head in exasperation. "You have no word for it. He is like a priest, but greater than the greatest of priests, not a god but a vessel through which the gods will speak and command living men. The statue represents not only the Emperor, but all his descendants."
"In all the time I have been here I have never heard his name spoken."
"The name of the Emperor is a holy word and cannot be uttered by common men. He has more titles than even I could remember, and they are recited only at his coronation. From then he is addressed as the Exalted One by his servants."
Malcolm doubted that he would require to know how to address the Emperor. "Where is your home?" he asked.
"On the other side of the city, on the tenth tier. It is another day's journey within the city itself to the halls of my house. We will ride ahead of the men to be there the quicker."
"I envy you your homecoming," Malcolm told him.
"Al-Mussrani gazed at him, a broad smile on his dark face. "I wish you to feel that this is your home too, while you are here," he added.
"I thank you for your courtesy," replied Malcolm, "but my clan chief sold my services to you for only five Summers and the fifth is nearly ended. I will not stay long."
"We shall see," said Al-Mussrani, putting spurs to his horse before Malcolm could reply.
Malcolm looked up from his retreating back to the city. Al-Mussrani had been honourable in all his dealings with him, did he intend to keep him here against his will at the last? The thought troubled him, but there was little he could do at the moment. Of one thing he was sure, on the last day of summer he would leave, for even if Sohraba were the greatest city in the world it was not his.
The Kashmiri Lord selected a dozen riders, and with that escort he and Malcolm rode ahead of their troops. Along the way were small forts where they exchanged their mounts for fresh animals. These were manned by Kashmiri soldiers and Malcolm eyed them carefully, occasionally recognizing the face of someone who had served with him in the last four years.
They no longer bore the swords and spears that he had taught them to use, but instead carried long wooden blades, studded along their cutting edge with triangles of sharp glass. At their sides hung short wooden clubs, ornately carved with the faces of demons and monsters. Such weapons were designed to disable, not to kill.
On their journey to Sohraba he had seen many such weapons; only Al-Mussrani's troops and the nomads that they had fought wielding the weapons that were familiar to him. He had asked the Kashmiri Lord why these weapons were carried instead of the more effective iron blades, but Al Mussrani had reminded him that the Kashmiri were a peaceful people, their weapons of war placed in store long ago.
Malcolm had not pressed him, but he wondered how it was that the tribes they had fought in the desert had such weapons but the Kashmiri populace, even the guards along the royal road, did not. Neither did he point out that it was not the type of weapon carried that made people either peaceful or warlike, it was the willingness with which they were wielded.
As they neared the city another thing made him consider again the Kashmiri Lord's description of his peaceful people. From the entrance to the city at the base of the mountain, the statue at its summit was even more impressive. The method of its construction atop the mountain was a mystery to Malcolm. In its outstretched hands it held two objects; in the closed fist of one, a knife; in the open fingers of the other, what was unmistakably a human heart.
At the base of the mountain they entered the city itself. There was a wall all around it, but it was barely the height of a tall man, intended only to keep foraging animals out, thought Malcolm, no more than that. Sohraba did not fear invasion from any quarter. The city gates were a grand affair, studded with bronze and with statuary on either side. The guards at the gate saluted as they entered, obviously warned of their coming. As they moved along the winding road that snaked up the mountainside people bowed to Al-Mussrani, and hurried to clear the way as they passed. He seemed not to notice though Malcolm noted that he held himself more erect in the saddle. Even on these lower levels, where he expected to find the poorest of the city's inhabitants, the streets were clean, the houses though small were neat and tidy, all painted a uniform white. That the man he followed was a person of importance he had realized long ago, and now he wondered just exactly what position he held.
They stopped twice to refresh themselves and the horses. Malcolm had acquired a liking for the hotly spiced food of the Kashmir, and ate with gusto. No payment of any kind was asked for or offered on either occasion, though the party ate their fill in what he thought of as inns.
When they arrived at the fourth level Al-Mussrani led them off the main road, and they followed him to the gate of a grand house, little less than a palace surrounded by ornate terraced gardens. A party awaited them at its gate, and a man rushed forward to embrace Al-Mussrani as he dismounted.
Speaking briefly to the man he introduced him to Malcolm. "This is my cousin, Al-Manil."
Malcolm bowed, and the man spoke some words of welcome, eyeing him with curiosity.
"We will stay with my cousin tonight and travel on to my home in the morning," Al-Mussrani told him. He gave instructions to his men, and Malcolm made to join them as they followed a servant through the courtyard while others took charge of their horses. "No, you stay by my side, Malcolm," ordered Al-Mussrani. "I have a surprise for you. A countryman of yours is guesting with my cousin. Come."
Malcolm followed the cousins into the main building, wondering who the countryman could be, and what he was doing here, so far from home. Inside, servants took their outer robes, and they were escorted to guest quarters.
Alone in his room Malcolm took in the opulence of it. Woven mats carpeted the floor, colourful mosaics depicting hunting and battle scenes decorated the walls, feathered cushions covered in silk were strewn about a luxuriously upholstered couch that he assumed doubled as bed. He did not recognize the leather, so smooth was it. On a finely polished table was a golden ewer and a bowl filled with cold water. Cool air blew gently through the room, though outside the heat had been stifling. Fresh robes were folded neatly at the foot of the couch. He stripped off his travel stained garments and washed, donning the fresh robes. At a loss as to what to do next he sat and waited. After an hour a servant knocked at his door, and signalled that Malcolm should follow him.
He was taken to join the two cousins and another man in a dining hall. The three lay on cushions before a low table that was covered with fruits and sweetmeats. Each had a cup of wine in front of him, and an attendant behind him ready to answer any call to refill their cups. It was the attendants who caught Malcolm's eye. Each was a beautiful woman, their skin as dark as polished ebony, the thin garments they wore only serving to accentuate their figures. Seeing where his eyes fell Al-Mussrani laughed and turned to his cousin, saying something in their own tongue. Al-Manil joined in his laughter, and signalled to Malcolm to be seated.
"My cousin is grateful you appreciate his servants. These," said Al-Mussrani, "are Elohim, slaves of the household. If you wish he will send one to warm your bed after we have dined."
Malcolm blushed, as he took his seat. "Thank your cousin for me, my Lord, but I think my bed will be warm enough without company."
"You are a strange man, Malcolm. We have been long at war, you should be happy to take your ease."
"My ease, yes, but I would have a woman come to me willing, not because she is a slave ordered to do so."
"But you take slaves in the Borderlands, do you not?" asked the third guest, raising his head so that Malcolm could see him clearly for the first time.
Malcolm returned his stare, surprised to be addressed in the common tongue, then realized that despite his robes the man was not Kashmiri. Though his skin was darkened by the sun it was far lighter than a Kashmiri's, and bright blue eyes sparkled above a white toothed grin. This was the countryman that Al-Mussrani had spoken of.
Seeing the confusion on his face the man spoke again. "I am Ambrose Finn of Artis. Welcome to Sohraba."
Malcolm had heard of Artis, a city on the West coast of Zantia. He reached for a piece of fruit. "You are a long way from home, Ambrose Finn."
Al-Mussrani laughed delightedly. "Did I not tell you there was a countryman of yours here?"
Malcolm smiled at him. "I doubt that Master Finn would consider me a countryman, my Lord."
"You are the first white man I have seen in three years," said Ambrose, "so you'll suffice for me. But as I was saying the Border people take slaves, don't they, in raids and such?"
"Our clan chiefs do, occasionally," agreed Malcolm, "but very seldom. A slave must be kept fed and clothed, an expensive business, and usually more trouble than it is worth."
Al-Mussrani translated this for his cousin who nodded enthusiastically, firing back a reply. "My cousin says you are very wise; he wished his slaves realized this also, then they would be more grateful for what he gives them and work harder."
"What brought you here, Ambrose?" asked Malcolm.
Ambrose looked meaningfully about the hall. "Riches," he replied. "And you?"
Malcolm turned his head to look at Al-Mussrani. "For the moment I am a slave. But only until the last day of summer."
"You are a guest, Malcolm," Al-Mussrani corrected him. "An honoured guest."
Malcolm smiled thinly. "As you say, my Lord."
Ambrose seemed to have mastered the Kashmir language well, and Malcolm was left out of the conversation that followed as they ate. At last he stood.
"With your permission, my Lord, I will retire."
"Sleep well, Malcolm," said Al-Mussrani.
"Wait," said Ambrose, rising. "I will escort you to your rooms."
Bowing to the Kashmiris they left the dining table.
"What do you do here, Ambrose?" asked Malcolm.
"I am a swordsmith," Ambrose told him. "The best metalworker in this or any other land. I build forges for them and teach their people how to work the iron."
"I've seen few swords since we came to the city."
"Aye, well," said Ambrose, rubbing his chin, "they have funny ideas about fighting, they don't fight to kill, you see, hence those wood and glass weapons they carry about."
"I have seen plenty who fought with steel," Malcolm told him.
"Only those who were sent to you or to the others."
"Others?" asked Malcolm. They had reached the door of his room and now stood outside it.
Ambrose looked furtively up and down the empty corridor before replying, his voice a whisper. "Men of other clans, bought to train their men."
"I met no others."
"No, you wouldn't. From what I hear they're all dead now bar you. Look, this is no place to talk, but there is much you should know. I'll ask Al-Mussrani if I can fetch you from his house, take you on a tour of the city. He seems to have taken a shine to you, and they trust me. Then I'll tell you what I can. In the meantime just do as you have been doing, cause no trouble, keep quiet and respectful. Mussrani's an important man; while you have his favour you'll be safe from harm."
"What could harm me in a city where the people don't kill?"
Ambrose looked at him queerly. "I said they don't fight to kill, Borderman, not that they didn't kill." He gripped Malcolm's arm, squeezing it tightly. "They kill, oh, how they kill... I must go now or they'll be wondering where I am. I'll come to you at Al-Mussrani's as soon as I can."
With that he left, Malcolm staring wonderingly at his retreating back.
He had little time to ponder Ambrose's enigmatic words. In his room, lying upon the silken sheets of his bedspread was one of the Elohim. Sleek and black, she looked up at him with eyes full of promise. His first thought was to send her away, then he thought of Ambrose. Cause no trouble he'd said. His eyes lingered on the full curves of the woman who waited expectantly on him. He pulled off his robe and dropped it to the floor. He had, after all, been a long time in the desert.
Though she did not speak his language, nor he hers, they found an older, more pleasurable way to communicate.
####When he awoke in the morning the girl was gone. In her place two manservants stood patiently at the bottom of his bed, one holding a large ewer dish, the other scented towels. It disturbed him that he had neither heard the girl leave or they enter. He had never been a heavy sleeper, even when exhausted in the field. To sleep so was to risk waking up with a sword in your ribs. Chagrined, he let the servants help him perform his toilet. It irked him to allow other men to wash his body, but that was obviously their duty, and it seemed simplest to let them proceed and be done with it.
As they finished dressing him a third servant appeared, and led him back to the dining room where Al-Mussrani and his cousin were already breaking their fast. Ambrose was nowhere to be seen. Al-Manil grinned broadly at him and spoke rapidly to his cousin.
"My cousin asks if you enjoyed the hospitality of his house, Malcolm," Al-Mussrani told him, smiling.
Malcolm nodded to Al-Manil. "Very much. Please thank him for me, and ask him to pass on my thanks to the girl; she was gone when I awoke."
Al-Mussrani relayed his words to his cousin whose grin became even broader. "I have told him you thank him, but I said nothing of the girl." He shook his head. "To thank a slave for doing as commanded...you are a strange people."
Malcolm ate a hurried breakfast of bread and fruit before they took their leave. Their horses were saddled and waiting, and the soldiers already mounted and ready to go. Looking at their faces Malcolm wondered if they too had enjoyed the hospitality of the house.
Al-Manil embraced his cousin, and they set off back to the winding road that snaked its way up the mountain city.
Even at this early hour it was obvious the city had been awake for some time, as its citizens already thronged the streets. Market stalls were erected, and traders enthusiastically called out the virtues of their goods. At some points it seemed the streets and houses disappeared into the body of the mountain itself. As they rose higher Malcolm saw ornate gardens with beautifully tended gardens and pools.
At regular intervals were flat boulders, their tops polished smooth, half the height of a tall man, each of them old and discoloured in patches. At first he thought they were markers of some kind, but passing close to one he saw that two chains of bronze were attached to the flat face of the rock, rings at their end. He asked Al-Mussrani what their purpose was.
"They are used in religious ceremonies," the Kashmiri told him, his features taut.
They were like no altars that Malcolm had ever seen, but he did not press the question, sensing the other man's discomfort.
Although the city was a wonder there came a point when even wonder grew wearisome, and it took another half a days riding to reach Al-Mussrani's home. The buildings became ever more elaborate as they climbed, and it was little surprise to Malcolm when they arrived that their destination was a palace.
The word of their coming had preceded them, and an army of slaves and servants waited at the gates to greet their master. They passed through into a large courtyard where a line of women waited, their faces veiled and heads bowed. Despite the veils Malcolm could see that they were even more beautiful than the female slaves of Al-Manil. He commented on the fact to Al-Mussrani as they dismounted.
The Kashmir Lord smiled at him. "I thank you for the compliment, but these are not my slaves, these are my wives."
Malcolm blushed. "It's a wonder that you stayed in the desert."
"It was my Emperor's order," replied Al-Mussrani, not looking at him as he raised his arms in welcome, and his wives ran forward to cluster about him.
The horses were led away, and the soldiers made their way to an outbuilding that Malcolm took to be a barracks. He was conscious of the suspicious eyes of the servants on him as he stood and waited while Al-Mussrani embraced each of his wives in turn.
Remembering the Borderman, the Kasmiri lord issued orders, and spoke to Malcolm over the heads of his women. "This is Turil, my steward," he said, nodding towards an impossibly fat figure in a blue robe. "He will show you to your quarters." He spoke briefly to the man who bowed and then beckoned to Malcolm, leading him into the palace proper.
Malcolm followed slowly, the man's huge girth slowing the pace.
Given a room as well appointed as the last he had enjoyed, Malcolm had barely entered when two servants appeared bearing water and towels. These people certainly believe in being clean, he thought. Shrugging his shoulders he allowed them to begin to wash him.
That evening they sat at the dinner table while a musician played an instrument not unlike a lute as they ate.
"What do you think of my home, Malcolm?" asked Al-Mussrani.
"I have seen nothing grander," Malcolm granted. "However, I would ask a favour of you."
"Ask away, anything you desire, if it is in my power," said Al-Mussrani grandly. "Please tell your servants that I have been washing my own body for some years now, and would like to continue to do so. Just the provision of soap, water and towels is enough."
Al-Mussrani smiled and turned to the ever present Turil.
The steward grunted a short reply.
"Turil wonders if you will wash at all if left to your own devices," he told him.
Malcolm eyed the steward sourly. "Better a dirty body than a mean spirit," he said.
"Peace, Borderman," said Al-Mussrani warningly. "It shall be as you wish."
Malcolm ate little, admiring the colourful mosaics that decorated the hall. He put a goblet of wine to his lips, taking a sip of the sweet fluid within it. Carefully he replaced it on the table. It was solid gold. "Spending all that time in the desert must have been hard on you when you had all this waiting for you," he said.
"As I told you, it was my Emperor's order that I led the war there."
"Might I ask why you need the lands that are fought over in the desert country? I have seen your cities, and it is obvious that your land is rich, yet we fought those tribesman over nothing more than endless mounds of sand."
"It was the Emperor's order," repeated Al-Mussrani, his mouth full of dates.
"You said they were invaders."
"They attack the oasis towns from time to time."
"That is hardly an invasion, or a threat to the Empire. Until we left the desert country I had no idea what the word really meant. Empire. Your cities are many. Many more than I have seen, you have armies to command; the tribesmen were nothing to you, even massed together they posed no threat. I have spent nearly five years in your service and still I do not know what cause I serve. I would like to be able to tell the families of the men I left in the desert what it was they died for there."
Al-Mussrani looked at him, considering his words carefully. Taking a napkin he slowly wiped his lips. "I have brought you here to tell you, Malcolm, and I will when the time is right, but first I wish you to enjoy the comfort of my house, sample the pleasures my city has to offer. As you recently reminded me your service is nearly up, but I would have you serve longer, by your choice."
"I serve at the command of my clan chief, and his command was five summers, no more."
Al-Mussrani's face darkened. "His command was that you serve me as your lord."
"Aye," agreed Malcolm, "for five summers." Reaching beneath his robes he untied a cord that was wound about his body. In it were a long series of knots. "At each full Moon I have knotted this rope. There are fifty-nine knots, and when I make the sixtieth it will be time to go. Part of your bargain with my chief was that you would give me passage home. You would not renege now, would you, my Lord?"
"No," answered the Kashmiri, quietly, "I will keep my bargain, if I am able."
"If?" queried Malcolm, swallowing the fear that rose in him.
"Ambrose, your countryman, has asked if he can take you into the city tomorrow. He thinks to tell you secrets, but he has no secrets, Malcolm, none. Listen well to him though. Afterwards, we will talk."
Malcolm nodded slowly, and rose. "With your permission."
Al-Mussrani nodded absently, and returned to eating his dates.
Ignoring the steward Malcolm walked from the room.
####Ambrose did not call the next day, nor the one after that. Indeed it was to be two long weeks before he came to the gate of Al-Mussrani. The lord was away much of that time, busy on some unnamed business of the Emperor, and seemed to have little time for the Borderman when he was home. Malcolm spent his days keeping himself fit by running through the gardens and practising with blade and bow, waiting for the coming of the full moon. The women no longer had the freedom of the house, and the Lord's wives were hidden from him. Instead, each day as he ran and practised he was watched by guards of the lord's household.
The warriors that had accompanied them from the desert had left and these men were strangers to him. They had the fearless look of all Kashmiri warriors, lean, heavily muscled bodies topped by proud faces and short, neatly trimmed beards. At their sides they wore the glass studded wooden blades that he had noted on the journey to Sohraba.
They watched him, curiously at first as he wheeled and span, his long blade slashing at invisible enemies, then with bored faces as he repeated the same manoeuvres time after time, day after day. Then, on one especially hot day, as he wiped the sweat from his brow with a towel, one of the guards approached him holding two of the wooden swords. He held one out to Malcolm. The edge was blunted and there were no glass shards affixed to it. Practice sword. He thrust it toward Malcolm and tapped his own chest with the other.
"You wish to practice with me?" asked Malcolm.
The man replied in a stream of words that Malcolm could not follow. Though since coming to the palace he had tried to listen more carefully to the words he heard about him their meaning usually defeated him. He had a poor ear for foreign tongues. But he did recognize the words 'you' and 'me'. Smiling he nodded and set down his own long sword and took the practice sword from the man.
The guard was tall for a Kashmiri, only a few inches shorter than Malcolm himself, and the confidence in his eyes marked him as a veteran. He took two steps back and raised his sword.
Malcolm held the wooden sword before him, standing his ground, tempting the other to attack. The guard did not wait long, for the eyes of his fellows were upon him, and he wanted to do well. He lunged, feinting high then slashing downward, but Malcolm had read the change in direction in his arm and parried the blow. The impact jarred his arm.
Despite the rest and exercise he was not yet fully recovered from his ordeal in the desert. This was what he required, not the empty rituals of practising alone, but to stretch himself against an opponent. Smiling, he moved to attack, engaging the other man's blade in a drumming tune as the two weapons beat at each other. The Kashmiri tended to attack low, a thing he had noticed amongst many of their warriors that he had trained, and he played to that, dropping his own blade lower.
As the man responded to the familiar pattern Malcolm swept his own blade high and right, pushing the others outward. Like lightning he reversed the swing, rapping the blade against the side of the man's head. From there the sword described a half circle, and struck the man's arm, deadening the nerves.
Gamely the Kashmiri stepped back, and with numb fingers transferred the weapon from his right hand to his left. Stepping forward again he lunged out with the blade, presenting its point to the Borderman.
Stepping inside the blow Malcolm parried it, but kept moving, spinning on his heel so that his own blade came to rest gently on the Kashmiri guard's neck, a death blow in battle. He smiled at him and the man bowed, speaking a few words and tapping his chest again. He transferred the sword back to his right hand as the feeling returned to it, and Malcolm stood before him executing the move once again, though this time as though he moved in a sea of honey. Then the Kashmiri copied it. After a few tries he managed it so that his blade came to rest on Malcolm's neck, and his mouth opened in a wide grin. His watching comrades clapped him on the back when he returned to them.
Each day after that a different guard joined him as he exercised and practised. The sessions gave a focus to his days, and he was grateful for them. One or two of them taught him a few tricks too.
At last Ambrose came, brought to him by Turil. The steward looked as though he had eaten a sour fruit as he led Ambrose in, the humiliation of attending on barbarians a bitter taste in his mouth.
"How are you, Borderman?" called Ambrose brightly. "Enjoying living in the lap of luxury?"
"I was growing tired of waiting for you, Ambrose Finn, the lord said you would be here the day after we arrived."
"Well, a rich ore site has been found some days travel to the West. I was sent to test the richness of it."
"Pshaw. Gold indeed. Iron, Malcolm, iron. In the Kashmir that is more valuable than gold. Come, your Lord has said that I am to show you the city."
At the gates of the palace they were joined by two guards who followed behind at a discreet distance, close enough to be seen as part of their company, but far enough to allow them privacy in their conversation. Malcolm recognized the men from the daily practice sessions, and they were both capable warriors.
"Does the lord fear for our safety?" he asked, nodding back towards their escort.
"We are going down a tier or two, and foreigners are novel enough to attract attention, but with these two behind no one will accost us," Ambrose told him. "Below us are the markets, warehouses and craft shops. Here on the tenth tier are the houses of the greatest of the nobles, relatives and favourites of the Emperor. The whole of the level above is given over to the Emperor's household and the administrators of the Empire, while the twelfth and top...." He looked up toward the statue that dominated the city. "That is just one great temple to their god."
"Who is their god?" asked Malcolm, "I have never seen any Kashmiri pray."
"They have no need to pray, they are a fortunate people, their god walks amongst them. He is the Emperor."
"A god, eh?"
"Don't mock, Malcolm," said Ambrose seriously. "This man was Emperor when your chief's Father was a child. Whether or not he is a god or a magician I don't know, but I'd be careful about expressing any doubts while I'm here. To speak against the Emperor is to die."
Malcolm looked back at the guards who ambled behind them. "They don't speak our tongue."
"Not these ones, no, but there are some who do, and more are learning.
"Now, what would you like to see first, the fine houses, the great libraries..." He paused, studying the Borderman, "or perhaps you'd like to visit the finest inn in Sohraba."
"If it sells ale rather than wine," remarked Malcolm wryly.
"I know just the place," beamed Ambrose.
They moved down the levels for almost an hour before they halted at the inn that Ambrose had chosen, a place on the eastern side of the mountain. He was obviously well known here, and they were ushered to a table in the corner, a Kashmiri woman quickly bringing a jug of ale to their table. The guards sat apart from them, refusing Ambrose's offer of a drink.
"These aren't really inns as we know them," explained Ambrose, "more like way stations for travellers to eat and drink on the way to the Temples. No one ever, ever, drinks to excess," he cautioned.
Malcolm sipped at the ale cautiously. It foamed slightly, and left a bittersweet taste in his mouth. His lips pulled back in disgust. "That doesn't surprise me," he said. He looked curiously at Ambrose. "How did you come to be here, Ambrose?"
"My city of Artis is near the coast as you know; one day a Kashmiri vessel landed, and the lord entered the city hiring men. I told you I am a metal worker and the craft is nearly unknown here. They work gold and bronze well enough, but almost no iron. The few forges they had were built on high hills."
Seeing Malcolm's puzzled expression he explained. "Iron ore melts at a much higher temperature than gold or copper; it needs a forced draught to feed the fire in the furnace, and windy hilltops were their answer. I built bellows for them, taught them how to hot-hammer the metal and quench it in water to preserve the edge of the weapons. Now they have many forges that work to make the weapons that were given to the men sent to your lord."
"The tribesmen we faced had iron weapons too," pointed out Malcolm.
"I know," replied Ambrose quietly, "made on the same forges."
"The Empire gave the tribesmen weapons?" asked Malcolm, incredulously "But why? I saw hundreds of their own warriors cut down with those weapons."
Ambrose stared intently at him. "Come," he said, standing. "I picked this inn for another reason than the quality of its ale."
Rising, Malcolm followed him out onto a long veranda that looked down the mountain and out over the plains beyond. As far as the eye could see were fields, all connected by long roads with clusters of buildings at their side.
Ambrose pointed to one large square where a great body of men had gathered, perhaps a mile from the city. "You see those men?"
Malcolm nodded. "An army?"
"Once perhaps," said Ambrose. "Two months ago a province far to the East rebelled against the rule of the Emperor. It happens from time to time. The Emperor sent his army, and a battle was fought, a bloody battle by their standards. Those men are the captives that were taken."
"How many were killed?" asked Malcolm.
"Two, perhaps three hundred," answered Ambrose.
Malcolm's brow wrinkled in puzzlement. There must have been five thousand men in that body below, perhaps more.
"You see," said Ambrose earnestly, "they don't fight to kill, they fight to take captives." His voice grew cold. "On a day decreed by the Emperor they will be brought into the city and driven up the great road to the twelfth tier. On the steps of the temples they will be sacrificed; their hearts torn from their bodies, and placed by his priests at the feet of the Emperor."
Malcolm thought of the strange weapons the Kashmiri carried, understanding now their tendency to attack low, trying to hamstring an opponent. He shook his head. "They killed when we fought the tribesman."
"That is what they were there for. To learn how to kill in battle, how to use the iron weapons that I and others like me have given them. And how to combat enemies armed with those same weapons. Rebellions happen, but they are rare; to gain the sacrifices needed the Emperor simply commands the men of two cities to war against each other. They arrange a time and a place and meet to do battle. The captives each side takes are brought to Sohraba for sacrifice. For generations they have fought only to wound or cripple. Their 'wars' are only to bring sacrificial victims to their god.
"There are no wars of conquest, as the Emperor owns everything. Everything in this land. Before he armed them the tribesmen you fought were beneath consideration, not even considered worthy of sacrifice."
"But now things are changing," said Malcolm.
Ambrose nodded. "There were soldiers on the ship that carried me here; elsewhere they fulfilled the same role as you and your clansmen, teaching Kashmiri their ways of war. I have heard of others who came too. Like your company they were made to fight until they fell. You are the only survivor I have heard of."
"He owns everything in this land..." mused Malcolm.
"Aye," agreed Ambrose, "but not in ours."
"And there he will be met by warriors with iron weapons."
"On the ship there were scholars to teach them our tongue, men who have been dispersed throughout the Empire. They also brought back many books, and more than that, a chest full of maps."
"They plan invasion then," Malcolm stated.
"Aye," agreed Ambrose. "I know they are building a great many ships, but like us they are not a sea-going people."
Malcolm nodded, remembering the nightmare journey in an open galley from his home to the Kashmir. "So the work goes slowly."
"Aye, but what is time to an Emperor who seems immortal? One day they will come, and I think one day soon. And, God help me, I have aided them."
"Why do you tell me all this?"
"Because when I came I made no bargain to leave. I thought to earn my riches and hire a ship to take me home. They will never allow me to do that, and when my usefulness to them is at an end I will be marched to the twelfth tier and my heart torn from my body. I know that Al-Mussrani promised to return you to your country. To escape that promise they let the others die, but for some reason you have survived. There is a chance he will keep his word, as he is one of the children of the Emperor; there are many, and I mean hundreds. But he is a favourite, he may be allowed to keep his word. In their own way they set great store by their honour. "If you do return you must carry a warning. Until then speak nothing of what I have told you," he warned.
Malcolm laughed mirthlessly. "Al-Mussrani told me that you would tell me what you thought were secrets, but he also said there were no secrets, none."
Ambrose's face fell. Despite his words he had harboured the faint hope that, if he served them well, the Kashmiri might one day release him. Now he knew that would never be.
"In the desert I was wounded," said Malcolm. "Al-Mussrani himself saved me. Why do you think that was?"
Ambrose shrugged his shoulders. "Who can say? But these people admire bravery, and many of the men you trained returned telling stories of your valour. You saw the standing stones by the great road?"
"Yes, I asked what their purpose was."
"The bravest of the captives taken, those who distinguished themselves in the fighting are chained to the top of the stones and given a weapon. Then they are assaulted by the people of the city. They have the advantage of height, so sometimes survive for a little while. Once slain their bodies are dragged from the stone, and their hearts taken to the Emperor. It is counted a great honour to die upon the standing stones."
"You think then he saved me to honour my bravery?" asked Malcolm.
"Or to place you on a standing stone," answered Ambrose bleakly. "Come, I think you've seen enough of the city, and the ale here really is foul. Time we returned."
They spoke little on the road back to Al-Mussrani's. Malcolm felt little sympathy for Ambrose, for he could see the man had gained what he had desired. The gems that sparkled on his fingers spoke of the generosity of his employers. That he had betrayed his country was not his fault, his life here was obviously better than the one he had left behind in Artis. All he had to do was to continue to make himself valuable to his employers. No, he was far more concerned with his own fate. He looked long at one of the standing stones as they passed it, now recognizing the discoloured patches on it for the dried bloodstains that they were. Was that all the Kashmiri Lord had saved him for? He doubted it, but wondered if his continuing refusal to stay and serve would see him upon one of those stones.
Night was falling when Ambrose took his leave of him at the gates of Al-Mussrani's palace. "I do not think we will meet again," he told him. "Tread carefully, my friend, and if you should return to Zantia say a prayer for Ambrose Finn in his homeland."
"We do not follow the same gods, Ambrose," said Malcolm, "to whom should I pray?"
"Any god but him," Ambrose replied, looking up at the huge idol that overshadowed the city. Embracing Malcolm he turned, and left without another word.
In the palace Al-Mussrani was waiting for him. "You have spoken with the Ironmaster?"
"Aye," said Malcolm.
"I wished him to speak to you so that you would know everything you heard to be true, so that you will understand the choice you make. I will give you riches, and you will be a lord of the Kashmir with your own palace and an army to command. But you will serve the Emperor in all things, and you must know what that means, even to returning to your homeland at the head of a conquering army."
Malcolm walked to a far wall where a round window looked out into the night. He looked up into the night sky, its ink black darkness lightened by the full Moon.
Al-Mussrani joined him and his eyes followed his gaze. He looked at the Borderman. "Your answer, Malcolm?"
Malcolm contemplated the earnest face of the Kashmiri. "Our contract is done, you are no longer my Lord. Send me home."
"I will try," answered Al-Mussrani, resignedly. "But that decision rests with my father, the Exalted One, Emperor of Kashmir." Lowering his head in disappointment he walked quietly away, leaving Malcolm staring up at the moon.
####Although Malcolm chafed to be gone he could do nothing without the aid promised by Al-Mussrani. Even if he left the palace where could he go?
He sat cross-legged on the floor of his room and waited, rising only to stretch his muscles and take a little water. He had decided that if the Kashmiri would not honour the bargain with his lord, and return him home, he would take his own life. He would not serve them, and he would not be chained to their standing stones as a sacrifice to their god.
Turil brought him food and laid it before him in the morning, returning to retrieve it uneaten in the evening.
Once, Malcolm looked up to see Al-Mussrani in the doorway, but he said nothing.
For two days he remained so, and then on the third morning he could hear activity in the palace corridors, the sounds of people hurrying to and for, and he could sense excitement in the air.
At mid-day Al-Mussrani returned. He looked down at the Borderman. "Come," he ordered.
Malcolm stood, his hand on the hilt of his sword. "You no longer command me," he told him.
"It is not my command. The Emperor wishes to see you."
Malcolm nodded and followed, though he kept his hand upon his sword, ready to sell his life dearly if he was deceived.
At the palace gate the whole of the house guard were waiting, lined up in a column of two. Al-Mussrani and Malcolm took their place in the center of the column as the gates were opened. Outside he could hear the sound of raised voices, shouting and jeering. They quickly moved down the short road from the palace to join the main highway. It was lined with crowds of people, and the leading guards occasionally had to use their wooden swords to clear the way of people too excited to notice their coming.
As they neared the first standing stone he could see a man stood upon it, naked, his legs drenched in blood. A mob surrounded it, and four men jabbed up with long spears at the naked man. He had one of the wooden swords and was desperately trying to parry their blows, but they were too many, and he was obviously tiring. It seemed to Malcolm that they were toying with him, laughing as their sharp goads reached past his defence and pierced his skin. They aimed no blow above the waist, and when the man fell, weak from exhaustion and loss of blood, he had no doubt what his fate would be.
Close to, he could see that the sword the man wielded did not have shards of glass adhered to the edge, instead a line of feathers was pasted on it. He swallowed his anger. He looked at Al-Mussrani as the man finally stumbled, only his chains holding him to the rock, and the mob pounced on him with shouts of glee. "This is how you honour the brave?" he shouted, his voice thick with scorn.
The Kashmiri glowered at him. "Do not criticize what you do not understand," he said. As they reached the eleventh tier, passing other stones where the same scene was being played out, the pace of the column picked up. They continued upward, and Malcolm realized that they were going on up, up to the summit and the temples that sat atop the mountain.
At the foot of a great ziggurat Al-Mussrani beckoned to him to follow as he stepped away from the troop and entered a doorway in its base. Guards in plumed helmets stood by the doors, and for the first time Malcolm saw iron weapons other than his own in the city. They held iron tipped spears in their hands, and short stabbing swords were sheathed at their sides. They bowed as the Kashmiri Lord passed, and fell into step behind them as they entered the interior.
Inside, grey robed priests awaited them, and turned to lead them on through black marbled corridors, dully illuminated by a light that seemed to emanate from the walls themselves. Each was the same as the last, and Malcolm lost count of the turns they made. He had a feeling that they were moving upward but the incline was so gentle, the corridors so cunningly constructed, that he could not say for sure. So narrow were the corridors that they could only move two abreast. Concertinad between the guards and the priests Malcolm felt suffocated, dust motes in the dry air of the Temple catching in his throat. At last he could see sunlight over the shoulders of the priests, and they were led out into the open upon the roof of the temple. The flat roof was crowded with guards and priests.
They had emerged directly underneath the huge statue of the Emperor. On either side of him were the sandaled feet of the enormous idol. A throne was at the edge of the roof, and he followed Al-Mussrani to it. Upon it sat the Exalted One, Emperor of the Kashmir.
Al-Mussrani knelt, bowing his head, but Malcolm stood, until a spear point was prodded into his back. Then he knelt, keeping his eyes on the figure upon the throne.
That the Emperor would be old he had expected, though he had discarded the talk he had heard of the man living for three generations or more, but now that he saw him he could believe it. Simply dressed in robes of blue, the man upon was the throne was thin to the point of emaciation, loose folds of skin wrinkled like ancient parchment wrapped about his bones. Long wisps of thin hair hung lank and lifeless on his head, his cheekbones were high and hollow. He looked like nothing more than a living skeleton, but for his eyes, which were black as night, sunk deeply back into his face. Those eyes stared down at the city below, and Malcolm tore his own away from the horrid figure to follow their gaze.
From the eighth tier up the road was packed with prisoners in chains being herded by soldiers and citizenry up toward the temples. Some marched proudly with their heads held high; others were dragged screaming, the skin being torn from their bodies by the hard earth of the road. The first were already arriving at the temples and being brought up its outer steps. Spaced along every second level of those steps were a number of low altars, and by each stood one of the grey robed priests and a guard. As a prisoner arrived at one of the altars the guard would strike at his legs, and push the helpless man down onto its surface, then the priest would move forward, his arm rising and falling in blur of motion. In a moment he had done his bloody work, and held his arms up high, outstretched to the sky in perfect emulation of the idol above him. In one hand a bloody knife, in the other a still bleeding heart.
Malcolm watched in horror as the altars of the lower levels were filled, and new victims were brought higher up, the screams of terror and triumph rolling up towards him like a wave of death.
"It is quite a sight is it not? Very few not from the Kashmir have been privileged to watch the ceremony of renewal."
Malcolm turned with a start. The voice that cut through the screams was quiet and level, with a cold quality that chilled Malcolm even more than the scene below him. The words were in the common tongue and the speaker was the Emperor.
"You are the Barbarian, the one my son wishes to live," stated the Emperor.
Malcolm fought to reply, but no sound would issue from his throat. He thought to stand straighter but his limbs were like lead. He could only look up at the Emperor, whose black eyes regarded him with a malignance he could feel in the depths of his soul. He felt as though his life was being stripped away and laid bare before him. As he looked the image of the Emperor seemed to blur before his eyes, the skin tightening, wrinkles flattening out, cheeks filling...when he spoke again it was from a face that was younger than his own.
"You are fortunate that I have promised Al-Mussrani a favour, for he has pleased me greatly." The Emperor turned to the Kashmiri lord. "Do with him as you wish, he is of no importance." He looked back at Malcolm, a malicious smile on his face. "No matter that he carries a warning, who will listen to such as he?" The Emperor turned his gaze away, looking back down to the slaughter below, pleasure in every line of his now youthful face.
Al-Mussrani stood, placing a hand on Malcolm's shoulder.
Malcolm found that the power had returned to his limbs and jerkily he stood. The wall of priests behind them parted to allow them passage and he stumbled behind the Kashmiri.
"Wait," called the Emperor.
Unwilling he looked back.
The Emperor gestured to one of the priests and the man brought him a small covered basket. He looked down into it for a moment, then, satisfied with its contents indicated that it be given to Malcolm. "This was another barbarian who expressed a wish to return home; he served me well too, so I will allow him his wish also, in part at least." He smiled and spoke quietly to the priest who brought the basket to Malcolm and placed it in the Borderman's hands.
Malcolm knew what it contained without looking, but still he pulled aside the bloodstained cloth that covered it. Inside it was the heart of Ambrose Finn.
The journey back through the corridors of the temple was a thing of nightmare. It seemed to Malcolm that he was lost within moments. His greatest fear was that it was all a jest, and that they would turn a corner and once more be on the roof with the Emperor and his blood priests. They did not exit at the base, but continued down the levels through hidden ways until they emerged on the tenth tier not far from the palace of Al-Mussrani. It was all Malcolm could do not to fall to his knees and kiss the ground at his feet. Never again, he swore, would he enter such a place. Swiftly they made their way to the palace, the mob and their victims now all above them.
In the dining hall Turil awaited them. Al-Mussrani spoke sharply to him, and he left, returning moments later with ink and parchment.
Al-Mussrani sat and wrote quickly upon the paper, setting his great seal at its bottom.
At last Malcolm found his tongue. "That, that was your father?"
Al-Mussrani nodded briskly. "That was my father." He stood, handing the letter to Turil. "You must leave quickly. I had made arrangements were things to go well."
Malcolm looked at the basket that was still in his hands, disbelief in his voice. "Things went well then..."
"You are alive, Malcolm, and he has given permission for you to leave; things could have gone no better. But he can be fickle, so you must leave at once. Fast horses and an escort wait to take you to the coast; there you will take ship for home. Turil here will accompany you and return with word of your safe passage to me. I know you don't like him, but he is the most trusted of my servants; trust him to guide you."
"The slaughter that I saw..."
"Sacrifices, to renew the strength of the Exalted One. They occur at the end of each month. I told you once before, do not criticize what you do not understand."
"He will do this to my people?"
Al-Mussrani nodded. "When he has made them his."
Malcolm stared at him. "When will you come?"
Al-Mussrani shook his head. "Not soon; to build enough ships to transport an army takes years, the forges work day and night making the iron weapons we will need, but we need more ore and the Empire is being scoured for it." He paused. "Not soon," he repeated, "but before the first grey hairs of age fall on your brow."
"I will tell them of your coming."
"He knows that and did not care. So your clan will be ready for us; do you think that will make a difference?" Silence fell between them like a falling sword. Turil broke it, speaking urgently to the Lord.
"Come," said Al-Mussrani, "you must hurry." In the courtyard six mounted warriors waited for them, each with a spare mount. One held horses for Turil and Malcolm.
The Borderman turned to the Kashmiri Lord. "I know this has not been easy for you," he told him. "I'm sorry I doubted you; you have been true to me after all."
Al-Mussrani embraced him. "Walk with your gods, my friend, and when you come to your home go high into the hills, and you may live your life without seeing another from the Kashmir."
"I will do as my chief commands."
"As will I, so let us hope we do not meet again."
Malcolm handed him the basket with Ambrose's remains. "Bury this for me, I promised to pray for him in his homeland, that will be enough."
Al-Mussrani nodded, taking the basket.
Malcolm mounted, raising a hand in farewell, and the small troop galloped through the gate and on out, down through the deserted levels of the city.
Al-Mussrani watched them for a long time, the heart of Ambrose Finn in his hands. Though he was glad that the Borderman had escaped he could not shake the feeling, the conviction, that one day they would meet again.
####The journey to the coast took the better part of a month, Turil arranging lodgings for them and their escort wherever they stopped. Arriving at a town by the sea, the guards left them when they reached the quayside. In the harbour were five long galleys, and they were rowed out to one of them. Malcolm had expected Turil to row back after he had given the letter of instruction from Al-Mussrani to the ship's captain, but he stayed on board as they pulled away from the shore.
They were another two months upon the open sea, stopping at small islands to re-supply the ship's stores, but the weather was kind to them, and the journey home was easier than the outward one had been all those years ago. Or perhaps, thought Malcolm, the Kashmiri have become better sailors.
Off the coast of Zantia the small boat was lowered once more, and he was rowed to the shore. As he stepped off the galley Turil pressed a small bag into his hands, saying his master's name. They were the only words he had spoken to him on the journey.
Malcolm accepted it without comment.
As soon as he stepped onto the shore the Kashmiri sailors turned the little boat about. Without a backward glance he walked from the beach, his feet a little unsteady beneath him after so long on the rolling deck of the galley.
They had landed him far from his Border country, and for the first time he gave thought to how he would make his way back without coin or horse. Remembering the pouch Turil had given him he opened it, and spilled its contents into his palm. A dozen gems sparkled in the sunlight.
It was long before he finally came to the hills of his own country.
Having had word of his coming his chief was waiting for him by the gate of the clan keep. He could hardly recognize Malcolm in the tanned, lean warrior who approached him. As Malcolm halted before him he looked at him and said: "You're late. But never mind, I have a task for you."
"Aye, Lord," replied Malcolm, "first though, I must tell you something important." Together they walked into the hall of the keep, Malcolm's voice low but urgent.
It was after that his chief began to fortify the walls of the keep.