Breathing deeply, the four upright defenders collected themselves, and set about the most urgent tasks. Morath crossed the roof to the stairs down to the tavern wing and gathered flagons of strong wine; Vorel gathered spent arrows; Bardic clambered down and set his back to the wagon and began heaving it back into place; and Celo tended Rollo.
A rising hubbub from the caravaneers accompanied their activities. Several loud voices clamored for a swift departure. Ginnoc soothed them as best he could, pointing out that only a full week would bring the kind of profits they had all counted on.
Morath swiftly returned to the Queen’s chamber. His own dwindling torch was the only light, which surprised him. Tunu was still unconscious; Hobrieca seemed more alert but obviously could still not move. Gently, Morath helped her sip the wine.
“Queen… taken!” – Hobrieca
Celo was in the room nearly before the alarm had been raised: he’d been heading downstairs as soon as he assured himself that Rollo’s condition was stable. He helped administer the wine while Morath spread the news and the search began. All Hobrieca could tell them was that from her limited point of view, the Queen’s kidnapper was “some foreign johnny.”
Fending off the entreaties of caravaneers who were now even more determined to get out, Bardic seized a torch from the courtyard and vaulted over the wagon, followed by Vorel, likewise armed with a torch. Joined by Celo and Morath they fanned out from the front of the caravanserai. A wind was rising, dust picking up and obscuring the already-dark street. Adding to the dust were drag-ropes trailing behind at least half a dozen Hyrkanian riders, each with a woman bound over the saddlebow! Even as the four searchers realized what was happening, the riders burst apart and fled in different directions!
Celo’s sharp eyes had caught a slight difference about the profile of one rider.
“The seventh rider – go after him!” – Celo
Trusting to Celo’s judgment Bardic, Morath and Celo raced after him while Vorel turned back and clambered back over the barricade to fetch his warhorse.
Breath hissing painfully out of his tired lungs, Bardic gave up. Defeat was bitter as last night’s dregs in his mouth. The decoy riders were now scattered all over the eastern half of the city and he had lost track of the seventh rider. He flung down the spent torch, sat down on the parapet of the roof he had just run across, and called down to the others as they caught him:
“It’s near dawn – I’m tired and hungry. We need to take stock. Let’s knock up a tavern and do it over wine and broth, by Crom!” – Bardic
They picked the nearest tavern, and hammering on the door, assured the taverner that they were no cannibal slaves, by Crom, and if he didn’t let him in they’d kick the door in and eat him. Even while these negotiations proceeded, Morath’s attention was drawn to a shabby Zuagir.
“I have word from a fortunate among us, who needs to speak to you” – Zuagir thief, sounding a lot like Peter Lorre
Morath followed the man to Ya Nashor, who explained that he had been elected intermediary by none other than Shah Goanix, who had captured the Queen.
“Who’d have thought he was a Turanian agent all along! And here I was, believing him to be an Iranistani agent! What duplicity!” – Ya Nashor
“You’re not alone. So what does he want?” – Morath
“Oh, right. He wants me to offer the Prince a deal on behalf of the Turanians. He says, they’ll hand the Queen over to the Prince, on condition that the Prince leaves Zamboula. So I’m asking you to help. Can you contact the palace?” – Ya Nashor
“It could be arranged” – Morath
Agreeing to meet Ya Nashor on the steps of Hanuman’s shrine, Morath returned to the tavern, stomach growling. As he wolfed down anything the others had not eaten already, he passed on the deal.
Retiring to the privacy of the roof, and ejecting the few late sleepers, the four ducked their heads against the rising wind and dust and refined the plan as much as they could.
“I think you should speak to Iapet alone, Bardic, you did so well last time” – Morath
“Are you being sarcastic, Morath? I can’t tell any more” – Celo
“…” – Morath, realizing how crap Bardic had been last time
“So Celo should do the talking then” – Vorel
“Let’s just agree what we want to say, first. That way there won’t be any blurting” – Bardic, looking hard at Vorel
This time, with diplomacy
The four had fully equipped and mounted before heading towards the palace, and the police response was to surround them with six squads, all with bow at the ready.
“What you want, goat-face?” – Pelishti
“We have an important message for Iapet and want to speak to him” – Celo
Blear-eyed with tiredness and heads shawled against the swirling dust, they waited for an hour. Then the main palace gate opened and Iapet, flanked by his two tough bodyguards and with the giant Pelishti at his back, approached.
Celo, Vorel and Morath, senses tuned to a fine pitch, noticed that the dust seemed to shift color a little as it blew into near proximity of Iapet and his guards. The Setite scholar stopped and gazed at them under hooded lids.
“So, are we all sitting on horses this time?” – Iapet
Celo dismounted and strode across the few yards to conversational distance, feeling highly vulnerable. Iapet motioned him to halt about ten feet distant.
“I didn’t see you when I called over recently” – Iapet
“Er, no, you wouldn’t have” – Celo
“Well, it’s a pleasure to see you once again. I have followed your career as best I can and for the dangers we shared together and the regard I have for my brother scholar Edric I will do what I can for you. And what is it you want to speak to me about?” – Iapet
“The Turanians have Queen Hotep and offer her to Prince Houmekri on condition he leaves Zamboula” – Celo, kind of blurting but sticking to message
“It’s a pity events have moved swiftly to this point. I had hoped we could have provided some advantage to one another. But it seems you have thrown in with Turan…” – Iapet
“Oh no! We are just emissaries. In fact the Queen was kidnapped from us” – Celo
Iapet motioned Celo back and thought for a while, while Celo and the other three glanced nervously at the waiting Pelishtim. Then the Setite beckoned Celo forward and offered a further meeting – this time, outside the city to the north, at the old chariot race track.
The deal is done
Two hours later the four, now complete with all spare horses and plenty of strong wine and provisions, arrived at the track. Built in the heyday of Stygia’s control of Zamboula, little remained save the long oval impression and two styli to mark the ends. They saw the chariot, cheetahs and palace guards of the Prince, and off to one side of the royal group, Iapet and his three guards. There was no sign of Ma’ay Kheru.
Obeying Iapet’s hint to tether their horses, the four dismounted and listened to Prince Houmekri’s diatribe. As it was all in Stygian, its meaning was lost on them, but his tone made a poor impression. They gazed closely at the gold and gemstones that decorated his powerful frame: gold crown, gold breast-adornments, gold armbands, rings on his fingers, and a golden phallus symbol pendant from his gold-decorated girdle. What was it that Tunu had been trying to tell them? Her sign-language had seemed to suggest something about those ornaments.
“The Prince accepts the deal” – Iapet
“That’s not what it sounded like” – Morath
“He is displeased that his royal sister has been placed in such danger, naturally. Ah, it’s a pity that we are unable to muster the lances that the Turanians can. All we can hire are Shemites, who though cheap are worthless. The Queen offers such advantage he cannot afford to neglect it” – Iapet
“Speaking of advantage. We’d like to get something out of this. Would you like to suggest something… like removing Ma’ay Kheru?” – Bardic
“Ha, yes, Ma’ay Kheru. She miscalculated Morath there. He proved loyal to his paymistress” – Iapet
“Pay? I didn’t get paid” – Bardic
“If you do wish to brave the dangers, let us think where you might gain best advantage in the exchange. She will strike there, where the Queen is exposed, surely…” – Iapet
The Turanian Intruders
The wind had risen, during the day, but slacked off as the sun rose to its zenith. Dust settled gradually, and through it, mail glimmered, and banners, and flapping cavalry cloaks. The squadrons of Turan’s cavalry advanced rank upon rank through Zamboula from the east, and halted about twenty yards shy of Hanuman’s temple. At the head of his men, the ambitious young Shah Amurath cast a sardonic eye at his agents.
“Either of you care to hand the wench over? I spy the full strength of the Pelishtim lined up to greet us” – Shah Amurath
“No, my lord, I see my role as the mental one, not the menial” – Jagpa
“I have achieved my goals here, any more would be braggadocio” – Shah Goanix
The end of the rope securing the queen’s bonds was passed to a burly trooper, who dismounted and pushed the Queen forward, as though to use her as a shield against possible archery.
Up on a convenient roof, Celo, well hidden under bed-linen, took all this in. He could not see them but knew that Bardic was concealed somewhere opposite the temple steps and Morath was disguised as a beggar against the side of the temple. Vorel had chosen to remain mounted and was concealed somewhere off on the Stygian end of things.
And at that end, the Prince’s powerful hands spasmodically grasped the cantle of his chariot. His dark eyes gleamed with hidden fires. With Queen Hotep at his side, and his own gold, he could raise hundreds of armored Kothic lances to seize the power that should ever have been his! And then my will shall be worked upon the world.
Not far off, guarded by his own trio of guards, Iapet checked the skies, then the Prince’s guard. There was still plenty of daylight left. He had already given strict instructions for each contingency, he thought.
The Queen was midway along the path between the two sides, the temple of Hanuman to her left, when a cry from her right brought her up short. Through the wooden bars of a tavern, she glimpsed Tunu waving to her and Hobrieca, jaw clenched, staring at her! Involuntarily, she started towards them.
It was not clear whether a Pelishti or a Turanian – or even a Hyrkanian – fired first. There was a cry – “Treachery” – and the sky was suddenly dark as hundreds of arrows sheeted between the two armies.
Something large, with brazen skin, red-bronze wings and eyes of flame descended, smashed down the luckless trooper – and seized the Queen.
Celo rose from his hiding place and loosed his longbow – the arrow glanced off. Bardic charged out of the tavern, the crimson mists of fury driving away his fatigue, bumped past a smashing wing, and slammed his mighty blade two-handed into the creature’s flank. Morath rolled past the other wing, taking another heavy buffet, and slammed his sword deep into its lower torso. It had the body of a luscious woman, though brass was its skin: and as it snarled at Morath through gleaming brass fangs, his skin chilled: its face was Ma’ay Kheru’s face!
Deep-wounded by their blades though it was, the demon rose into the air, the Queen firmly in its grasp. Bardic was driven, stunned, to the ground, even as Vorel’s warhorse charged towards the contest. Morath, attempting to cling on and drive his sword further, was thrown down easily.
Then Celo landed on its left wing! A run, a tremendous jump, and by dint of dropping his sword the Tauranian managed to cling on. The demon involuntarily performed a tight spiral. Celo drew his dagger.
Vorel’s lance slammed along the demon’s flank, and he was away. Arrows slammed into his mail corselet, but he reined the warhorse around and set his lance for another run!
Celo realized the dagger was useless: the demon seemed immensely strong and without Morath to weigh it down, the Queen was about to be taken. Dropping the dagger, he acrobatically swung on the mighty leathern pinion, grappled the Queen and wrested her out of its grasp! They fell!
Below, Morath caught Queen Hotep as she fell to the ground. Bardic virtually picked both of them up, and Celo scrambled after them towards the shelter of the tavern, where Hobrieca was frantically beckoning!
Ignoring the arrows slamming into him, Vorel thundered back: as the demon was about to make its next attack on the fleeing men, his lance took it in the spine! As the lance shattered, the demon gave a dreadful scream and fell to the earth. As it died, its shape returned to the lovely shattered beauty of Ma’ay Kheru!
“Bring down those fools!” – Shah Amurath
Ducking another flight of arrows Vorel swung his horse into the alley near the tavern. But the arrows had not been directed at him.
Dozens of Turanian shafts smashed into the tavern entrance and the group protecting the Queen, and had it not been for Celo pushing him aside, Morath would have died. As it was, both took several arrows! With Turanians and Pelishtim now closing on one another, the rooftops seemed the best choice. Bardic scrambled up easily, and dragged Hobrieca up, who in turn carried Tunu with her. Celo and Morath followed, pulling arrow-shafts out as best they could. They rushed to the rear of the tavern, bearing the Queen to safety.
“Down here! I’ll get her away!” – Vorel
Bardic handed the Queen down to Vorel, who had expertly navigated his way around to intercept them.
“Ride as though the devil was after you! Because he may well be!”
“I’ll ride north! Celo – you remember?” – Vorel
Catch and release
Bardic’s strength gave out only a few rooftops. His limbs shook with exhaustion in the aftermath of his fury. The others help him down and inside another tavern.
“You’d best be on your way. Whoever wins won’t be pleased” – Bardic
“We’ll find you! Expect us!” – Morath
That left four fugitives. Thinking of what he knew of the city, Morath guided them south. Looking back along the way towards the temple, he could see that the Pelishtim had been out-flanked by Hyrkanians, who were now behind them. There was no sign of the Prince’s chariot, nor could he see Iapet’s giant guard.
Through darkening streets the four crept, to shelter at last in a dry water-course where the poorest of the poor lived in dugouts and shanties.
Vorel carried the Queen before him. She seemed stunned by the hurly-burly of events and he found himself draping her over the saddle-bow as her kidnapper had done. He made for the north. He had a reasonable feel for the city’s geography, but in avoiding the main ways, found himself lost. At length, striking out west, he realized that he had struck the same street the Looting Soldier Caravanserai lay on. From there, it was an easy run north. He thought, at first, he might catch the caravan stragglers, but soon realized that they must be hours ahead to the west. Uncertain as to whether to circle, or ride swift, Vorel swung in a gentle curve north-east, towards the far-distant dead forest. Then something struck him a mighty blow from above, and he blacked out.
Palace guards came for Bardic not long after the others had left. Shrugging, he handed over his weapons, submitted to bonds, and trudged along with the guards.
Within a short time he was seated opposite Iapet. The usual pair of bodyguards flanked him.
Iapet seemed neither to bear ill-will nor think a reward owing. He explained that the Prince was in pursuit of the Queen but that he himself was organizing the departure of the entire household. And the bustle in the background did suggest mass departure. Bardic asked as to Iapet’s plans.
“I have met success in my humble studies of the western and northern lands. With the defeat of Ma’ay Kheru, this chapter of my life appears to have also met with some success. I believe I shall return to Stygia and find a place in my temple’s hierarchy. We may meet again, and if so, I hope that once again we may find some mutual benefit. Now, we shall depart, and you shall wait for at least ten minutes. If you follow us, I will kill you” – Iapet
Bardic reflected, sipping the tea his host had provided. Broodingly, his gaze swung around the richly-furnished room. He waited.
Celo had rounded up a horse each, and the four fugitives trotted quickly up to the palace. It was unguarded. Leaving Hobrieca and Tunu outside with the mounts, the two killers stole inside. They could hear the noise of looting, and Hyrkanians could now and then be glimpsed, mostly still riding ponies, gathering furnishings or overlooked ornaments.
They wandered for a little, but were hailed by a familiar voice.
“Lads! Just in time – hope you’ve got horses, these carpets and stuff are heavy” – Bardic
By the time they cleared the city, it was evening. Dust could be glimpsed to the north-west. Much too much dust to be a single rider or even a few riders.
“We’ll head north-east. I’m pretty sure Vorel would take the Queen to hide in the forest” – Celo
It was the next morning by the time they found Vorel.
“Something hit me hard. I must have blacked out for a few seconds. When I opened my eyes, a huge winged creature was carrying the Queen off, north-west” – Vorel
“Aaah! My Queen! I have failed you!” – Hobrieca
“North-west? What’s there?” – Bardic
“Koth” – Vorel
“Where the sorcerous fire came from” – Morath
“And where the devil-dogs came from” – Celo
“All roads lead back to Koth, then” – Morath
It had been a wrench but it was for the best, Bardic reflected. Hobrieca seemed fond of the girl and it would be silly to be burdened with a slip of a Stygian who fainted at the drop of a hat. They now each had just one horse, but to make up for that, there was a pile of rich fabrics and carpets to sell in the next town to the north-west.
“And here, lads, let’s agree that we never ever go anyplace beginning with Z” – Bardic