Welcome to Horn Gate

The sound of the cicidas
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Arrival at Horn Gate

For the last three days Yiskoz Mountain has been the landmark the heroes have travelled by, over the dusty steppe of North Head Acres. Three days march over the steppe, out of sight of running water since Five Eyes. The company moves slowly, circumspectly, alert for strangers and ready to conceal Aelfwyrd and Enfrew behind the white cloths that mark those in need of Chalana Arroy's protection. Not that these would deter the most ardent Chaos-fighters, the devotees of the Storm Bull, should they be possessed of a divine headache.

The steppe is an open place, seemingly deserted. The sky is large, the winds fierce, the ground barren, and even in Sea Season water is scarce. After three days even the bedraggled oasis of Horn Gate beckons like a metropolis.

Horn Gate from the hills
Horn Gate from the hills. Not that we saw it from this angle.

Horn Gate reveals itself in layers. First seen are the camps of the Bison Tribe, the current lords of the oasis' vital wells. Surprisingly for Sea Season there are many folk still in camp, when they might be expected to be grazing their herds in outlying pastures. The Bison folk watch the arriving warriors impassively, ready for any trouble.

Beyond the Bison encampments are the first wells, and the plantations of the oasis: dates, grain and grapes are grown here. Farmers toil in the sun; in the shade of trees thin mules and donkeys chew listlessly on scraps of straw. It is quiet here, save for the chirping of cicadas and the heroes' footfall on the dusty path between the plantations. Both the farmers and the livestock ignore the outlanders: they have seen too many come and too many go, and they know their own lot regardless.

Walking between two plantations

The houses of the oasis folk begin scattered around the plantations,and then there is a wall of white stone which herds the main cluster of buildings towards the hills that drop into the western side of the town. The poorest are little but dried mud thatched with palm fronds, and the best crumbling mudbrick with small open courtyards. Stick-thin children with over-large bellies play in the dirt and carefully avoid the grim strangers that march past their door. There are no streets, sometimes no clear way to pass, but all ways lead to the centre of Horn Gate: the ancient ruins.

These stone buildings are shunned by the oasis folk. Only the cults that have made Horn Gate a centre for worship dare dwell in them. Here is a small temple to the Earth Goddesses, and a shrine of Chalana Arroy. It is to this place that the heroes have made their journey, and to this place they have arrived.

Their arrival has been foreseen, and they are bid welcome to the shrine's forecourt with water, sherbet and dates. The White Healer Korlmar herself receives them, a woman renowned for her shrewd, some (from a safe distance) say arrogant, nature, but a woman also possessed of an aura of compassion that subtly disturbs the Humakti.

"Gods praised you have found your way to us once more," Korlmar the White says. "If you desire sanctuary, the Goddess grant it. If you desire healing, the Goddess grant it. If you desire succour, the Goddess grant it, for you brought our sister Brenna to us, whom we treasure like Life itself."

Jamal is first to reply. "Greetings white lady, honour to you and your work, we have some who may have need of your services. But I for one am anxious to become re-aquainted with our former ten thane. How fairs Brenna with you ?"

"She fares well, yet time is needed to soothe all her hurts," replies Korlmar. "At the moment she is drawing well-water, but she will be here soon."

Enfrew approaches Korlmar with respect. "My friend Aelfwyrd and I have been infected with Chaos by a vile Lunar sorcerer. Is there anything you can do for us, or has our time to meet Humakt come?"

Korlmar turns her attention to Enfrew and, glimpsing the mishappen head under its hooded cover, quickly controls a look of revulsion that crosses her face in a spasm. "This is a difficult task, but not an impossible one." After inspecting Aelfwyrd's sores she mutters some holy words and gazes into the third distance for a short time, chewing thoughtfully on a sprig of Hla-oad leaf.

"This is an unusual thing, but not unheard of - I have seen it before. The empty magic has transformed you, yet not left you tainted by the pre-dark. You are stung by the pre-dark, yet its poison has not been injected into your flesh - do you understand? We can heal these wounds, but it will not be easy and it will hurt you a great deal. The rituals will take some time - for two days we will annoint your bodies with oils made of soothing herbs and chant words of power. On the third day we will invoke the Grace of Chalana Arroy and she will remove this blight from you.

"There are faster ways of effecting a cure, but they are more dangerous. Unless you have an urgent need to press on, I suggest you forget about them and entrust your comrades to us for three days. The rest of you may find residence in one of the ruins here, perhaps. Hospitality would bid me welcome you under our roof, but the presence of so much Death at a time when we look to Life would displease the gods."

Aelfwyrd had been unusually quiet and rather distant during the trip to Horn Gate, his only exertion the daily training rituals.

Yet as the White Healer speaks of Death the Far Walker blinks as if awakening from some deep trance, once again strange words form in his throat

"For the Lord is coming with fire, and his war-carriages will be like the storm-wind; to give punishment in the heat of his wrath, and his rage is like purifying fire"

And holding out an arm of his filth soaked robes the Kargani's eyes widen with fear "He is clothed in a robe washed with blood: and his name is The Word of God"

Breathing hard Aelfwyrd falls silent once more and returning to his stupour barely acknowledges the talk of ritual healing.

Then, inviting the heroes to stay and finish their refreshments, Korlmar leads the other healers inside to begin preparations for treating Enfrew and Aelfwyrd.

Waiting for the healers

For three days Enfrew and Aelfwyrd are tended by Korlmar and her assistants. The Herewardi and their hangers on stay encamped nearby in one of the better ruins, spending most of their time drilling and repairing their kit. Each day Brenna visits them to bring food and water, and passes on news about their comrades.

They ask about the unusual presence of the Bison tribe, and are told: "The oasis folk of Horn Gate have always been enslaved by the nomadic tribes who war for control of the oasis waters. Three years ago the Bison tribe drove off the Impala people, and they have ruled here since. They take first use of the oasis waters, and graze their herds nearby during the lean summer, and sometimes take refuge during bad Storm seasons. This year has been a drought, so even in Sea season they stay close to the water."

As the Legion arrives in Horn Gate, the senior Humakti have noted its layout and points of tactical interest. When the others set up camp near the healers, Hrolf has a quick discussion with Dori, then sets off with Hughie and Angus for a quick survey of the area.

Everywhere is a choke point in Horn Gate - the paths through the oasis are narrow and surrounded by dense foliage, the houses within and without the walls are strewn in random confusion, and the ruins are are a broken mess. The walls of Horn Gate are not in the best condition, but might be a useful light defensive line if the inhabitants could be motivated to defend themselves.

Brenna dresses simply in a white linen shift, and carries herself modestly and humbly. Her duties for the healers appear to amount to no more than carrying water from the wells, preparing food and cleaning. Evidently her previous association with Death has not been 'washed away' in the sight of the healers, for she has no part in tending the sick, or even preparing herbs or bandages. She appears pleased to see the company of her old comrades (although obviously disquieted to see the Uz). However, her placidity makes it difficult to initiate any conversation, and she frequently seems distant or slightly confused.

Hrolf is aghast to see Brenna in her current state, despite his conviction that Chalana Arroy's path is as pure and true as Humakt's. Clearly Brenna has been marked by both gods; the burden of such a fate must be terrible. He maintains a respectful distance from his former Ten Thane.

Dori's heart sinks as she realises that her old friend is nowhere near recovered from her injuries: physically, perhaps, but not mentally. Clearly, her hopes of going to Brenna for advice and support will have to be abandoned. Still, she can put that problem aside for now, and deal with the more immediate one. If Brenna needs her help, in any way, she's going to get it. It seems likely that what she most needs is healing and time, and there will be little or nothing that Dori can add there. But it could be worth checking...

For now, she talks to Brenna when she can, carefully avoiding the subject of her injury and subsequent conversion. As she knows all too well, reliving painful subjects can be traumatic, and Brenna does not seem to have the strength for that yet.

And then, when she has the time to spare from training the new additions into something resembling a team, she plans to go back to the main temple to see Korlmar, or whoever else can tell her about Brenna's recovery. After all, while it must be obvious to anyone that "vague" and "placid" are not normally characteristics of a Humakti Ten-Thane, they never knew her before, and may not realise just a great a change of personality this is. If there is anything she can do to help Brenna regain her old edge: merely steering conversation towards or away from certain topics, or something more difficult, then she intends to try.

During the conversation Brenna seems distant and not altogether there. Perhaps she is bored and missing life with the Temple, but she doesn't ask about it or any of her old comrades. After some time and gentle questioning Brenna finally opens up a little, and confesses to feeling "confused" and in the "wrong place", but doesn't know what to do about it. She says that Korlmar has said that this feeling will pass.

Brenna's memory appears to be more or less ok - she remembers who people are, where they fought together etc - she's just not very interested in that line of conversation and it is hard to keep her on it...

Dori approaches Korlmar to enquire about Brenna's condition. As she speaks she is aware that the words she has chosen imply a criticism of the White Healers that she did not intend. No matter, the words are said now, and before she can explain herself Korlmar, looking displeased, says with conversation-ending finality that there is nothing wrong with Brenna that time will not heal. She then takes her leave with a certain degree of haughtiness.

Lying in the shaded ruin during the day and upon his byre at night Aelf is feverish, drifting in and out of consciousness. Yet without fail his eyes snap open when any venture close, healer or not. Worse still when Korlmar arrives to monitor his progress Aelfwyrd becomes agitated, murmuring prayers of warding under his breath; prayers to his Lord, to Death.

Deep in the night, as the heat drains from the sand Yrsga is belly down on the roof of a nearby ruin carrying out a watch of her own. Trying and failing to find a comfortable position amongst the rubble she eyes the restless figure of Aelfwyrd lying atop a byre.

Finding no succour from the Little Death he slips out of his bedding and walks away from the ruin and into the night. Prostrate under the black sky the Far Walker kneels on the sand and prays to his Lord. Speaking aloud the same questions over and over he seeks rhyme and reason for his fate.

No answers are forthcoming and after an hour the Far Walker is silent. Hanging his head he plods painfully back to his byre and tries the Little Death once more but to no avail.

Atop the ruin Yrsga watches the scene unfold but remains quiet. Her face full of sadness she glances back where the Herewardi are camped before settling down for the remainder of her night watch.

She returns to the rest in time for the Dawn Muster, and Dori stops her as she goes to rejoin the others. "How is he?" The Ten-thane's expression clouds as she hears Yrsga's report. "That's going to be a problem. I trust the White Ladies to heal his body, but his soul?" She shakes her head. "If Kargan can't answer Aelf's questions, what chance have I got? Well, no doubt we'll cope with it between us."

During the the hot and painfully bright days, Geran hides in the shade of an old building. He must get back to Pavis soon, to rejoin his sister, her bodyguard and his enlo band. Not that he misses anyone particularly, but he is unsure what they'll do left on their own too long. He did give instructions to Kogad to seek out the Mazar clan if she needed help, but who knows what she thinks.

During the nights, he keeps an eye on Aelf, sometimes sitting beside him, sometimes sneaking after him in the heavy shadows when he leaves his bed. The large uz worries for his friend but senses that he needs to be alone and so refrains from his usual exuberant hugs and other physical expressions of his feelings. It is a frustrating few days for him, worry for his friend, worry what Kogad may be up to and the new situation of what to do with all this wealth.

When he is not stalking Aelf he keeps to himself and his followers, uncounsiously avoiding Dorinda and the other humans from the Cradle. His sleep is often disturbed by the sharp sound of their weapons as they practice their skills and he is constantly hungry. One night, he takes his band out into the welcoming shadows outside the town to hunt. To be one with the dark again, only the sounds of the sighing winds and the occasional screams of frightened prey. He does not return the next day.

Geran doesn't see much of interest whilst he's out hunting, but on the return journey he sees some behaviour that makes him scratch his head. A large group of 'oomans stand around one of the large holes in the ground with a muddy bottom that serves as a well. There are some animals too, many bison and two mules. One of the 'oomans is cowering in front of the others, who beat him and shout at him in a strange language. He is dressed different to the others - he must be an Oasis man, the others Bison people. They appear very angry.

The well, in happier (wetter) days
The well, in happier (wetter) days

One of the Bison men steps towards the mules and mutters something, then with a quick slashing movement cuts their throats. The beasts' blood spurts into the dust, and their breath mingles with the wind. The cowering man begins sobbing and yelling, but the Bison people simply club him into unconciousness and begin watering their animals at the well.

Geran waits in the shadows for the Bison riders to leave then walks over to the unconcious man and picks him up gently. His friends take as many of the mules as they can mamange before they all set off for their building in Horn Gate. The sun is getting high by this time so the uz make themselves comfortable while Geran makes sure the man looks comfortable. As the feasting starts he leaves to find Dorinda.

"Dorinda", he bows slightly and seems more relaxed and confident than in a long time. "I found man, hurt by Bison people. Killed his mules."

"They're starting fights? With traders? Odd.... what've you done with him, taken him to the healers?"

Then she sees the battered figure nearer the entrance.

"Oh. Right. Well, at least you didn't eat him, I suppose that's something. Let's take a look."

To human eyes the trader is obviously not an Issaries merchant, but an oasis farmer. He is not badly hurt, but bruised and concussed from the beating. When he sees the fearsome death-marked warriors tending him, the farmer starts babbling in fear in his own language.

Dori ignores the fear-stricken babbling for long enough to assure herself that the farmer isn't badly hurt, then turns back to Geran. "Just a local farmer, no-one important, and he's more scared than hurt. No wonder they beat him, he's certainly no warrior." Used to treating Humakti, she can't quite hide her contempt for the pathetic bleating he's making over a few bruises.

"We may as well take him up to the Healers, since we're going there anyway. You just got back in time, didn't you? Aelf and Enfrew should be healed by now. We can go and get them."
She looks round the rest of the group. "Who's coming? Yrgsa, Korol, Janeera... anyone else?"

Vastyr lifts his head and enquires, "Is there something else to do in this heap of bricks?" He gets up and wipes his brow. "At least it is not mud..."

She shrugs. "I'd like to leave a few people to guard the camp. But it won't take many."

Oddus starts to pack up their gear and she stops him. "Leave the camp set up for now. They may be cured, but we don't know if they'll be fit to travel today. Janeera, take charge of this wimp, would you? There's no point in us scaring him to death on the way there, and I'm not sure he can walk."

Geran follows docilely, raw mule haunch in hand.


Xenophon: "From the beginning the gods did not reveal all things to us, yet through searching we may learn and know things better. But as for certain Truth, no man has known it, nor shall he know it, neither of the Gods nor yet of all the things of which I speak. For even if by chance he were to utter the Final Truth he himself would not know it, for all is but a woven web of guesses."

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