This is the first chapter of the novel.
Above the mountains shone a brilliant sun, casting its rays across an azure sky. Green-clad slopes lifted upward to snowy peaks; the cool mountain air was freshened with the scent of pine. Across the wilderness stretched a single road; and along that road, upward into the mountains, came a merchant caravan, consisting of a single wagon and outriders.
An observer -- a bandit, say, lurking in the woods atop one of the many rises cut through by the road -- would have seen nothing amiss in the scene. There is considerable trade up and down the road, for the Iscabalian Way is the most direct route from Urf Durfal to Ishkabibble, and the Biddleburg Pass, toward which it rises, the most convenient traverse across the Dzorzian Range. And the riders, diverse lot though they were, were clad as merchants might be clad. Oh, not the bare-chested barbarian, to be sure, but it was usual for merchants to hire guards of one kind or another, in these unhappy times. Legend has it that, in the days of Imperium, an undefended lass bearing armbands of gold, roped pearls, and showers of gems might have ridden from one end of the land to the other without molestation; alas, whatever the truth of such tales, the modern world is far less orderly. Merchants habitually travel with armed guardians.
It would have taken close inspection to shake the initial impression. A keen eye might have seen that one of the riders rode quite adequately without a mount; indeed, without corporeal existence whatsoever, as he consisted solely of a small point of green light, flitting through the air at sufficient speed to remain abreast the horses of the others. Another of the merchants was a wizard of at least minor power, as he proved by lighting his pipe with a spell -- enveloping his head in flames in the process, to no ill effect. And the sight of an ancient codger, snoring toothlessly at the rear of the wagon, might have raised questions also; what purpose would merchants have in hauling a senile old graybeard about?
It is well, therefore, that our observers, whatever their other characteristics, were neither as keen-eyed nor as questioning as they might have been.
Fleecy clouds floated lazily across an azure sky. Mighty firs rose from either side of the road, limbs stretching outward as if to catch the benison of the sun. The air was cool, the breeze a gentle one. It was the sort of day that lifts the soul, that seems to beckon one on to adventure. On such a day, it would take grim determination to feel anything less than contentment.
Sidney Stollitt glowered distrustfully at the trees. Behind every curve, she expected an ambuscade. She, who walked the roughest streets of the city without fear, felt utterly out of place in this bucolic wilderness. Her unease was merely sharpened by the lightheartedness of her companions: No one was keeping a proper watch.
Kraki Kronarsson rode behind, chanting the sagas of his barbarian youth to himself. Nick Pratchitt rode aboard the wagon, reins in his hand and idly speculating on the likelihood that the mountains were inhabited by dragons. Vic, as usual, was sound asleep, snoring into his scraggly white beard. And the mages, Timaeus and Jasper, rode ahead, talking good-naturedly of nothing much.
"Amazing engineering, those imperial chaps, what?" said Timaeus about the stem of his pipe. Smoke curled into the pine-scented air. "I mean to say, running a road into these mountains at a constant grade. Couldn't be done today, I should think."
Jasper floated alongside, matching the speed of Timaeus's mount. "Oh, I don't know," said the green spot of light. "Magical knowledge has increased, if anything, since Imperial times."
"Nonsense," said Timaeus. The doctrine of decline from the Golden Age was the fundament of all historical knowledge, or so he had been taught at university; he was surprised that as educated a man as Jasper could hold so ill-informed an opinion. "The works of the ancients vastly outshine anything accomplished in the modern age."
Sidney grimaced, studying the road ahead. The grade might be constant, but it was uphill; they were climbing into the mountains, whose white-capped peaks lifted high on the horizon ahead. The horses pulled onward, smoothly but under some strain; they would need to be rested soon. The road curved frequently, no doubt to maintain the grade; there was no telling what might lurk behind the next twist or turn.
Far up the road and high into the mountains, Sidney could just barely see the ramparts of Biddleburg Castle. With luck, they would reach it by nightfall. It was wedged between two mountains, athwart the Iscabalian Way, the seat of Baron Biddleburg, who ruled all the land for, say, half a day's ride from his castle. A petty domain, but not a poor one; the geography conspired to let him impose a stiff tariff on the trade that went up and down this road.
To either side of the Iscabalian Way was dense coniferous forest -- pines, firs, and hemlock. Sidney examined the woods mistrustfully. Bandits, familiar with the land, could appear from the greenwood at any moment -- and melt away once they had despoiled the caravan.
"I say," said Timaeus, "here's an example, up ahead. To keep the road level, they had to cut through that hill. To reduce the rock to magma and clear a path --"
"Bosh," said Jasper. "How typical for a fire mage to propose an incendiary solution. Rather than melting your way through the rock, wouldn't it be easier to cause the earth to subside?"
Yes, there was a road cut ahead. Cliffs, perhaps eight cubits in height, rose to either side of the road. Atop the cliffs were trees. A perfect spot for an ambush, Sidney thought unhappily. A foe would have the advantage of them, atop the cliff, protected by the wood.... She rode up toward the two magicians.
"Cause the earth to subside?" said Timaeus indignantly. "How the deuce does one cause the earth to subside? You seem to imagine that ordering solid rock from place to place is as easy as squishing pureed vegetables with the flat of a knife!"
"Perhaps it is," insisted Jasper, "if one is an earth mage --"
"Listen," interrupted Sidney, "we're riding along as if we don't have a care in the world. For all we know, these woods are filled with bandits. And that cliff up there is an ideal spot for an ambush. In fact, there are ideal spots for ambushes about every three yards on this damn road --"
"Don't be absurd, my dear," said Timaeus. "This is a civilized area. I'm sure the road is well patroll --"
Sssssh-THUNK. A clothyard shaft protruded from the headboard of the wagon, inches from Nick's ear. He had been cracking pecans, and froze in an attitude of surprise, a handful of nuts halfway to his mouth.
"Stand as I bid ye, fellows, lest subsequent shafts find deadlier mark," rang out a voice -- curiously, the voice of a woman. And there, on the cliff above crouched a good dozen ruffians, unkempt as one might expect brigands to be, wearing worn and patched clothing in green and brown. Each held a longbow, each with an arrow nocked, each string drawn full back.
Sidney drew a ragged breath. Her sword was of no use; there was no way to close with the highwaymen before they could shoot. "Timaeus!" she whispered urgently, trying not to move her lips. "A fireball...."
But he was ahead of her. He was chanting in a low voice, hands waving over his head in a ritual gesture. One hand held his meerschaum pipe, which --
-- went spinning off across the road to smash into the scree of shale at the base of the cliff. "I say!" protested Timaeus, peering woundedly toward it.
"No magic," quoth the female voice, "or the next shaft shall pierce thy throat."
"Dash it all!" said Timaeus. "That's my best pipe!"
There was a scurry of motion from Kraki's direction. He was crouching atop his horse, standing on the saddle; arrows shot toward him as he launched himself in a mighty leap toward the cliff top, sword already drawn. Shafts whizzed past him as he grabbed the cliff edge, scrambled over it, raised his sword --
A quarterstaff smashed into the side of his head. He was propelled groggily back over the cliff, bouncing off the shale and smashing into the road below.
A woman in forest green stood atop the cliff edge, quarterstaff in her hands. Close-cropped hair shone brilliantly red in the afternoon sun. "That will be all, I trust?" she inquired in an amused tone.
Sidney looked about. Kraki was sitting up, groaning and holding his head. Timaeus chewed his lower lip unhappily. Sidney herself saw no point in resisting.
Nick was surveying the woman with a definite leer. Sidney gave a silent snarl.
Where, she wondered, was Jasper? The green light had disappeared.
The woman dropped lightly to the roadbed, quarterstaff still in hand. The line of bowmen remained atop the cliff, bows drawn, unmoving. "Good morrow, gentles," the woman said cheerfully. "We'll take up donations, now if you will."
"Donations?" inquired Timaeus.
"Quite so, quite so," said she. "The poor groan out under the usurper's oppression. 'Tis our unhappy task to alleviate their plight by extracting revenues from travellers. Your purse, now, and yarely, if you please."
"So the money you steal goes to the poor?" asked Nick skeptically. "A coin or two doesn't stick to your fingers?"
"Certes," said the woman, giving him a smile. "How would we live elsewise? Come, sir; your purse."
"Can I ask your name, doll?" said Nick.
She tossed her head, as if she were used to having longer hair. "You are taxed," she said, "by Beatrice of the Band." With a dagger, she cut Nick's purse loose from his belt, and pocketed it.
"Taxed?" sputtered Timaeus. "This is nothing but common brigandage!"
"The hypocrisy of the aristocracy," Beatrice said sardonically, as she lifted Timaeus's purse. "It is taxation when Broderick's men dig up the meager grain a peasant stores against famine, or burn an entire village when coin is not forthcoming -- but brigandage when we take a little pelf for better cause. Come, our taxation is lighter, and more just."
"A fancy excuse for stealing," said Sidney. She had nothing much against theft, herself, but rather balked at such self-satisfied moralizing.
"Fancy or not," said Beatrice cheerfully, accepting Sidney's purse. "Without divine sanction, temporal power is mere oppression."
"Who is this Broderick?" asked Timaeus. "I had thought Baron Biddleburg's name was Barthold."
Beatrice looked at him more closely. "It is," she said. "He is senile. His brother has taken the reins of power, curse him."
"And what of Bertram, the heir?"
"That twit?" said Beatrice with contempt. She had finished collecting funds from the party. "We shall leave you with the contents of your wagon, as the baron's men would be upon us before we could finish searching. And now, adieu." With that, she ran to the cliff face, where one of the brigands had lowered a rope. She hurled her quarterstaff upward -- another bandit caught it -- and clambered up the rope with a monkey's agility.
And as quickly as they had come, the brigands were gone, fading away into the woods.
There was silence for a moment. Timaeus dismounted and went to get his pipe.
"Mighty adventurers we," said Sidney savagely, "unable to repel a passel of backwoods banditti."
Kraki pulled himself up the side of the wagon. "Vhere is vhisky?" he demanded. "My head hurts like devil."
Nick was still staring dreamily up at the cliff, a vague smile on his face. "You," said Sidney, giving him a poke. "If you'd had the guts to back Kraki up...."
"Oh, come, Sidney," said Timaeus, packing his pipe. "We're lucky we didn't suffer worse."
A point of green light spiralled down from above their heads. "Bracing, what?" said Jasper. "Nothing like a moment of mortal danger to put a little spring in your step, eh?"
"And where the hell were you?" demanded Sidney.
"Oh, I was about, never fear," said Jasper. "Please be so good as to check your purse, Miss Stollitt."
"My purse? Some hairy peasant is pawing through it at this very...."
Sidney realized that her right hand had touched the purse at her belt. Slowly, she opened the drawstring, emptied the coins into her hand, and counted them. It was all still there. "But I saw her take it," she said.
"Quite, quite," said Jasper in a self-satisfied tone. "She saw it, too. Or thought she did."
The others had realized that they, too, retained their wealth. "I say," said Timaeus admiringly, "how did you do that?"
"Oh, simple enough," said Jasper. "A mental suggestion or two... trivial, really. It seemed the easiest way to defuse the situation."
"Good work," said Sidney reluctantly. "But we'd better get organized before they realize they've been taken and come back. I want you flying overhead, Jasper, to warn us if anyone's waiting along the road. I want Nick to ride well behind, to sneak up and help if we're caught again; and I want Kraki --"
The barbarian groaned.
"Never mind," said Sidney.
Evening was nigh, the sun's rays slanting low from the west. Ahead, the pass was blocked by the walls of Biddleburg, which protected both the castle itself and the small town that clustered about it. The road led toward a gate house, a grim, stone structure with arrow slits, allowing enfilade fire across the road, and a portcullis, now raised but evidently ready to bar the way. The opening itself was large enough to admit two carts abreast. Two soldiers stood with axes, along with their serjeant, who looked quite bored.
"I say," complained Jasper. "Is this charade really necessary?"
"We've been over this before," said Sidney. "Rumors about the statue are running rampant. Travelling incognito, while keeping Stantius hidden is our best hope of getting unmolested to Ish --"
"Yes, yes, but see here," said Jasper. "If we approach the castle as the noblemen we are --"
"Some of us are," pointed out Nick, whose father had been a riverboat sailor and whose mother had eked out a meager living as a washerwoman.
"Yes, but the point is, they'd gladly greet us as guests. Instead, we shall be forced to flop in another louse-infested publick house --"
"Stop whining," said Sidney. "Don't lice have minds? You're supposed to be a wizard of the mental arts; tell them to leave you alone."
"Enough of this," said Nick. "They'll overhear us. Merchants all, remember, now."
And it was indeed so; they were within hailing distance of the guards. Jasper zipped into the wagon -- they wished to avoid explaining the wizard's peculiar appearance -- and Nick, who had the reins, brought the wagon to a halt upon the serjeant's signal.
"Name," said the serjeant in a bored tone.
"Nicholas Frauenstein," said Nick. "Of Frauenstein et Frères. Merchants and purveyors."
"Right," said the serjeant. "Commercial business?"
"Yes," said Nick.
"Carpets and housewares," said Nick. "Bound for Hamsterburg."
"Righto," said the serjeant. "Bring her in the gates, and we'll have a look. You'll have a bill of lading?"
"Yes, of course," said Nick, a little annoyed. He hadn't anticipated a search, but geed up the horses, and moved them at a slow walk within the gates. The rest of the party followed, with their mounts. "Can you give me an estimate of the toll?"
The serjeant looked up from a sheaf of papers, on which he was making a note. "Sixpence a person, extra penny per mount. Ten percent tariff on estimated cargo value."
Nick choked. "Ye gods," he protested, "that's awfully steep!"
The serjeant gave him a nasty smile. "Don't like it, take your wagon over the mountains, me lad."
As soldiers opened the flaps enclosing the wagon's cargo, Nick studied the sheer slopes flanking Biddleburg town. You'd have to be a mountain goat to climb them, he thought; they were bare rock, the slope approaching vertical in places. Scant chance that an irate merchant, incensed by the tariff, would find an alternate path.
"Who's the old duffer?" asked a soldier.
Vic was sitting up in the rear of the wagon, blinking sleepily at the searchers. "What'sh going on?" he demanded querulously. Sidney left her horse in Kraki's care and helped the old man out, guiding him to where the others stood. Soldiers began to haul rugs out and unroll them beside the road, to ease appraisal.
"Look here," said Nick to the serjeant. "Is this really necessary? I mean, this search." Jasper could probably take care of himself, but the gods forbid they should find the compartment where the statue of Stantius was stored.
"Standard procedure," said the serjeant, turning over the corner of a carpet to examine the degree of wear to the backing.
"Ah, perhaps an exception to standards might be in order?" said Nick. "One might be prepared to extend a gratuity...."
The serjeant chortled happily. "Attempted bribery," he said. "Another ten shillings to your toll, boyo."
Nick scowled and went to join the others. "I'm beginning to think I prefer bandits," said Sidney.
"Stiff-necked bastards," said Nick.
"Vhy not let me kill them?" said Kraki.
"Good plan," said Sidney sarcastically, giving his skull a sharp rap.
"Stop that!" said Kraki, wincing -- but he took her point. He was not in any shape for combat.
Vic was blinking a little sleepily in the daylight. "Kill?" he said. "Kill who?"
"We'll survive," said Timaeus resignedly. "It's only money, after all. And then, down into the valley --"
"Only money!" said Nick. "What do you mean, only --"
"Whatcher say, serjeant?" inquired a soldier, examining a gaily-pattered Nokhena. "Think it's worth a hunnerd quid?" He had unrolled the rug to examine it more closely.
"Call it two," said the serjeant, giving Nick a nasty glance and a grin.
"Two hundred pounds!" said Nick. "I bought that wholesale for --"
"Hallo, Serjeant Jenks," said a voice. "What's all this, what, what? Shaking down another greasy merchant?"
It was a young man, dressed in hose and a waistcoat of surprisingly stylish cut -- surprising, given how remote Biddleburg was from the centers of civilized life. He seemed fit, cheery, and obviously of the nobility, given his clear anticipation of deference from the soldiers; despite a prominent overbite, he struck Sidney as quite handsome.
"Yes, Sir Bertram," said Jenks.
The young man surveyed the company. "Further contributions to the exchequer are never amiss -- hallo." He started a bit, and peered closer. "I say, hallo, d'Asperge. What brings you to these parts?"
Timaeus, who had been doing his best to disappear behind Kraki, straightened up and sighed. "Hallo, Bertie," he said. "Pip of a day, what?"
"The sun doth shine and the birds do play, you mean? Yes, yes, quite. I say, Jenks, pack up all this trash, will you? And send it up to the castle. Why didn't you write to tell me you were coming, Timaeus, old man? We'd have broken out the old fatted calf."