Horn Gate


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1 - Across the plains


Having left the Cradle, the company spend 4 days with the newtling riverfolk to rest, recuperate & stock up a little before hand, and travel up to Five Eyes on their boats. During this time, Hrolf asks the river priest at Five Eyes, who is widely respected as knowledgable and wise, about Elmeh Saif.

They have heard that he has been found, and are greatly excited. the priest says that Zola Fel himself is pleased that the Herewardi are committed to freeing his cousin. Zola Fel says that in ages past he remembers the legion, and he remembers the deeds they did for the river people - he is pleased their descendents are as devoted to goodness, and he is sure that great things lie in the future of this friendship between river and sword.

Few stories or myths are known about Elmeh Saif. He was a great warrior of the rivers - his name means 'the Water Sword' but was lost in the Darkness.

The group will also have stocked up on various things, and possibly got some delayed tattoing done.

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Three days travel follow across the North Head Acres. Time for some navel-gazing and weapons drill.
Here's near the start of day 1

The days spent with the newtlings had been awkward: cramped into hiding in tunnels never designed for humans. Their group had been forced to split up, at just the time when Dori would have preferred to have kept them together.

But now Five Eyes is falling into the distance behind them and they are out on the plains. She estimates that they will have three days march before Horn Gate. Enough time to start to forge this disparate group into a team again. There have been so many new arrivals, barely known to each other.... she looks around, counting heads. This was scarely a "ten" any more except in the most literal sense: less than ten of them are actually Herewardi. So far. She has every intention of changing that once they reach Pavis and Illig, and that will mean making sure of her candidates well in advance.

It will be a long, hot, thirsty march today: a good chance to see which of the newcomers cope and which lag or complain. Who is best at keeping watch for any approaching movement, who can read any tracks they come across. At the moment, of course, Hrolf and the ducks are scouting ahead, and if a trail is discovered, Kristen will join them. She checks round: of course, Kristen is near Janeera. For once, she has a woman to protect, so that's what she's doing. Perhaps some of the new people can scout...? Vastyr's wolf friend....? and that's something else to find out about. She could have sworn she'd heard the beast speak at least once. And it looks far too intelligent.

She starts mentally planning for the evening. Their normal watch pattern will have to be altered. Use those trolls, at night. As long as they can cope with travelling by day, of course: that's something else to keep an eye on. And a training session, once it got cooler, would teach them all a lot about each other. With this many, organising it.... she works it out as they march on. It needs to be organised. When they get to know each other better, she will be able to rely on people automatically working together, but not yet.
And having seen what those Orlanthi called a shield wall... she grimaces at the thought. That, too, will take practice. And with so many in the line who are not in the Legion, it will be difficult. Trust takes time to build.

If they knew each other... yes, that would help. She'll get them talking, round the fire. Or even as they march. Somehow. Another job she does not relish: perhaps back in those carefree days in Nochet she might have enjoyed socialising, but since then she has prefered to stay apart. Too many subjects that were painful to speak of, at first, and then just habit. Well, that's another habit she'll have to break. Or she could get the other "old-timers" to help? She runs through names, looking round at the group. Light social chit-chat is never a Humakti strong point, and at the moment... Hrolf has always stayed as aloof as she has, Jamal might normally have been ready with the right word, but at present is too concerned with Abul, Aelf is... yes, well that's another problem, Malan barely speaks
more than once a week anyway.... no, she's probably going to have to do this herself. A shame Fynn is no longer with them.

And here's the end of Day 1

The cool night air, a gentle breeze tugging at Dori's shirt, is welcome after the heat of the day's travel, and infinitely better than the cramped tunnels of Five Eyes. Grateful though they had been for newtling hospitality, humans needed more space. And here, out in the Wastes, they have all the space they could ask for. The camp is secure, watches arranged, evening training over, and everyone fed. All more complex than it used to be, now that their Ten had grown into a small horde, but surprisingly easy. Maybe she's getting the hang of this job. She runs through the checklist in her mind - surely there must be something left to do? But no. At last, she has time to think and reflect. Whether she wants to or not.

There has been no recurrence of the memories that had assailed her on the Cradle, no more spasms of paralysing fear. Perhaps it had only been the effect of so much Life magic so close to hand that had made it so overwhelming. Cautiously she tests the memory again, as if probing a broken tooth, waiting for the pain to hit her. But perhaps the initial shock is over: she finds she can face it, even examine it.

It had been true then, the story Levru had told her. She had hoped not, but... ah well, wishful thinking and the Truth rarely went hand in hand. And she had been about fourteen. She examines her memory of the pain, now with far greater knowledge of injury to guide her. Yes, it had been exaggerated by the fear and inexperience of a child. But not by much. Blood loss, internal injuries: she undoubtedly owes Levru her life. And if that flashback hit her again...? She tests her reaction to it, now. She could handle it.

Unpleasant, but not overwhelming.

Now. What else does she need to deduce from this? It is still hard to think about it, not to push it away as she has done for so long, but it has to be done. Other, less friendly people than Levru might know something about this, about her, already. She does not want to be ambushed by her past. Who might be waiting to act against her?

Her former family. Well, that was a given. They had not parted on the best of terms: had never been on the best of terms.

And... there was something her mind kept shying away from, what was it? A baby. Being pregnant. It was all so alien. What followed? No, that was it: what preceded? A man. There had to have been.... she recoils. It's logical, it makes sense, but imagining it... she can't do it. But it must have happened. And when she was... thirteen? That seems wrong? She runs her mind over what she knows of "normal" society: that's far too young, surely?

So, at least one unknown: enemy, ally, she has no idea. Nor any idea what to do about this. And there must be more lost memories in there, waiting to trap her. If they turned out to be as bad.... she doesn't know when they might strike. And freeze her, in the middle of combat. When she was supposed to be defending her Ten. That couldn't be permitted, not when they were all relying on her. How likely is it...?

That's the trouble, this isn't just her, not any more. Any enemies in Pavis will strike at the whole Legion, not her alone. Because she isn't alone. She has to warn them... no! Oh, gods, no, she can't tell them about this! But she can't decieve them. Not her troops. Unless she can somehow deal with it herself, make the problem go away?

She can't just hand her personal problems over to the others, either, they've got enough of their own. She doesn't want to ask anyone for help, really. It feels all wrong, always has. Why would anyone want to help her? Something Brenna had said...? A faint memory, this one... oh, that was a long time ago! An alley, in Pavis. Brenna, sword in hand, standing over her, helping her up. Asking why she hadn't called for help, surely she must have kin nearby? Her brother lying on the ground, where Brenna's sword-pommel to the jaw had put him. And she'd laughed, and laughed...

That was it. Brenna would help. At least, she can tell her, and maybe together they can see it more clearly. Brenna will be at Horn Gate... yes, that will do. And after that, perhaps, she'll have to tell the others. Before they get to Pavis, anyway. No rush.

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Already perspiring under the morning heat Yrsga glances at Aelfwyrd out of the corner of her eye. She had know the Far Walker for many seasons now, and knew that she could read him well, one of the few bonuses of a life in the gutter. Arching an eyebrow Yrsga shakes her head, he was lost in his own thoughts again; no doubt the battle on the Cradle, or perhaps his recent affliction?

Taking a long swig of water from his canteen the Kargani regards the Kralorean weapon as it flashes brilliantly in the morning sun. It seems as if he had owned the Seven Dragon Blade for an eternity, yet it had been in his possession for but a season, two at most. Strangely he could not imagine wielding any other weapon now, but why should he, it was flawless.

To most the sinister looking weapon was perhaps some nightmare instrument of torture but to his mind it could not a faulted, a perfect union of sword, spear, staff and trident. Having the poking and snaring capabilities of the trident, the ripping, slicing, and thrusting ability of the bladed spear, the cutting of the sword, the block and strike hit of a staff, and pull slice of a hook sword.
Running a blistered hand down a blade edge he follows each twist and bifurcation, touching every razor sharp point in turn. Musing how such a weapon would be forged he tries, for perhaps the thousandth time, to discern the strange runes carved deep into the ebony and ivory that run the length of the haft.

None the wiser he snorts, concentration returning to the present for the moment he feels the pain return, the blisters were like needles and the puss stank like month old animal guts. Feeling the sun burning his pox marked skin Aelfwyrd thinks about today’s training with Yrsga and Korol; it should be started before the heat becomes unbearable. Going without food and sleep was one thing, missing a day training ritual was an affront to the Lord himself!

With an absent smile he remembers his own harsh training, when his was still Tresdarnii. Yet his mind drifts from Broddi Clapsaddle and settles instead on the words of the diminutive sensei, and his strange eastern teachings;

“Harmonising oneself in action” and to “wield the weapon: not to control the enemy, but to control myself” and of "posture, movement, grip, and swing" and to "cut away unneeded movement so combat becomes all out attack; simple and direct and granting immediate counter to surprise or ambush”

Tracing a finger over flat of the blade he touches the intricate etching of Korgatsu, The Mountain Dragon and with furrowed brow he recalls the lesson;

“Each blade a dragon, each dragon a name;
Tarn Gat Ha, The Heavenly Dragon,
Thrunhin Da, The Ancient Water Dragon,
Heen Maroun, The Storm Dragon,
Han Soo, The Blazing Sun Dragon,
Korgatsu, The Mountain Dragon,
Sekever, The Night Dragon,
Imin Long, The Oracle Dragon

Each blade part of the weapon, each dragon part of the whole;
Un Lo, The Cosmic Dragon”

The meaning of the lesson was still lost on him. Absently swatting a fly from his face he fastens his canteen, stands and shouts over to Yrsga.

“Where is Korol?” and throwing his shield over to her “Your shieldwall is weak, you know its grading is mandatory. Smithing Day and Pavis are weeks, not seasons away!”

Catching the shield and swiftly jabbing it hard into the Far Walkers gut Yrsga manages to wind him momentarily “I’ll be sure not to embarrass you!” and smiling she trots away then turns to face him, taking up a textbook shieldwall stance.

Severely lacking good humour Aelfwyrd manages to force a smile but then the pain get the better of him. Barking at the Yrsga and Korol he begins the daily training rituals.

For those not familiar with the Ten it would be an easy mistake to think that Aelfwyrd and Yrsga were brother and sister and Korol was some family retainer or bodyguard.

Dori stops and watches. Aelf was brooding too much, alone too much, and taking it out on his pupils too much. Both of them seemed able to cope with it, but...

"She's doing well", she comments. "Let's see how she manages in with the rest, now. She won't learn much more from a shield-wall of one, that's missing the entire point."

Yrsga looks doubtfully over at where the more experienced warriors are lining up for the morning practises Dori's been insisting on, then back at Aelfwyrd.

"You'll cope", Dori assures her. "Or at least, you'll learn. We're a team, remember: we fight as a team, we train as a team, and that includes all three of you." She ushers them firmly over to the centre of the main group.

Even by Far Point standards Aelfwyrd was barely a man when he initiated to the God yet now finds himself one of the youngest of the Legion's devotees. Like many from his cult this Kargani is fiercely independent and prone to arrogance. Only rarely did personal conflict arise and never in mixed company; this was a Humakti Battalion after all, if nothing else there was discipline.

Interrupted before starting his daily training ritual Aelfwyrd scowls under the heat of the ever-present sun, but nodding to his Ten he breaks off. Wiping the sweat from his face he is clearly annoyed but listens to what is said with good grace.

Dori notices his expression and ignores it. She still half-suspects Aelf is waiting for the rest of the group to push him out because of his illness, and whatever it takes to convince him he's still one of them, she'll do. Whether he likes it or not.

"We'll keep it simple to start with, a wall of three, you're in the middle. Korol on the right, and..." she looks around: who was steady and experienced enough to catch on to what she wanted without being told..? "Vastyr, on her left".

" Now remember, the whole point is you don't use that shield to defend yourself. You defend the man on your left. The man on your right defends you. That's why you're holding your shield so far out to the side instead of in front of you. Keep it at that for now: just defence, don't try to attack. It doesn't feel natural to start with, so concentrate on one thing at a time. Ready?"

The attacking line moves in, and Yrsga concentrates on the moves she's been taught, eyes slightly to the left of centre, wielding the heavy shield much more easily than a few days ago. Out of the corner of her eye, something bright flashes towards her face, and she instinctively parries it, her shield hitting Korol's as she does so. And something happens on her left...

"Stop there." Dori lowers her sword. "Vastyr seems to be dead, Yrsga. How did that happen?" As she'd hoped, he'd deliberately trusted his defence to the girl, even when he could easily have dodged or blocked the blow himself. Point made....

"It's harder than it looks, isn't it? When you're used to working alone, it's hard to trust someone else to defend you. But you've got to learn, got to make it instinct to trust the man on your sword side with your life, or you'll never be any use in a shield wall. You do trust Korol, don't you? You've known him for long enough, after all. Let's give you some more incentive... Vastyr, move up a bit, Aelf, come in between them. And don't bring a weapon."

With raised eyebrows it's clear he thinks this point is being laboured but takes up his position in the shieldwall all the same.
Dori smiles slightly to herself. Yes, a point is being laboured: that there are people here who need you, and would be devastated if you were hurt... let's make it as clear as we can, shall we? She wonders just how big a hammer it might take to drive the idea home.

"Now, Yrsga, you concentrate on defending Aelf. He hasn't got a shield or anything else, so he's relying on you. It could happen: he might be injured, he might have thrown his only weapon at the enemy or something daft like that. Either way, it's up to you to keep him alive."
And they move in again: this time Yrsga keeps her concentration where it belongs, ignoring the action to her right.
"Better." Dori stops them again. "Now let's make it a bit harder. Korol, Vastyr, swap places."
Yrsga looks sideways at her new defender: older, scarred, unfamiliar...

"At ease. I don't want you to do anything just yet, just think about it. Let's pretend this is a real battle, you've been initiated, you're in the Legion. And you're going to have to trust your life to Vastyr: you've known him barely five days. Why would you do that?"

Yrsga swallows, unbelieving: you didn't ask that sort of question, not unless you wanted death duels....

"Just answer it. I'm sure you've got an answer, so there won't be any insult to deal with. I trust him with my life, and I've known him no longer: tell me why?"

"Because he's Humakti?"

Dori nods. "That's a good start. You know he isn't going to run away, no matter how bad things get. What else?"

"Else?"

"He's in the Legion", Dori says gently. "And we're pretending you are as well, remember? So just because of that, you don't need to have met him before, or know anything more than that about him. He's in the Legion, so you can trust him absolutely, with your life, your honour, anything. That's what being in the Legion means. That's why it isn't open to just anyone. And it's why we can do shieldwalls better than anyone else, because we've got that absolute trust in each other. Sure, we can work with other Humakti, even non-Humakti, at times. But that's not the same. The Legion is special."

She stops, seeing the bemused incomprehension in the girl's expression. "It'll make more sense once you're initiated, once you can feel Humakt guiding you to the truth. Some things can't be explained, you just have to know them. And you will."

Putting a protective arm around Yrgsa's shoulder the Far Walker forces a smile "Yrsga is strong of mind as well as sword arm. She learns quickly and will serve the God well." and with a hint of irritation "The shieldwall is a fell weapon and is well taught yet it is but one style. I have much to teach before a path can be chosen in Pavis."

Dori considers the girl thoughtfully, then turns back to Aelf. "I think you underestimate your ability as a teacher. She has much to learn, yes, we all do. There's always more to learn. But she's already as good as many who've been in the Legion for years, as a solo fighter. Only her teamwork is weak." She smiles at them both. "One of the penalties of being too competent, perhaps: there's rarely a need to trust to others to help you when you're perfectly capable of managing by yourself."

Aelfwyrd looks at Dorinda and Vastyr thoughtfully and with nod his mind seems made up. "It is a point well made, Yrsga has much to learn and Aelfwyrd cannot teach it all. I would have Yrsga and Korol train shieldwall until Pavis, ask of me what you will in return."

"In return?" Dori raises an eyebrow at that. "I keep forgetting how short a time you've been with the Legion. You're one of us. There's no question of payment, or favours in return, between us, and never will be."

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1a - Herewardi propaganda and Elendala

This fits somewhere between leaving the Cradle and the main action in Horn Gate. Can be moved as neded if anyone else joins in. Dori has been ten-thane for about 2 weeks, the new followers acquired on the Cradle have been with the group a few days.

Yelm has descended into the Underworld again. The Humaktis' devotions are over for the day, Dori ending, as always now, with a prayer for Garrath, as she had promised.

"I don't get it", Elendala says. "You pray for him, you obviously respected him, you literally went to hell and back for him, or so I hear. But you wouldn't accept him as leader."

"We can't", Dori points out. "Hereward's Code: never give allegiance to anyone outside the cult. Not that I'd want to swear loyalty to someone I'd only just met in any case, but it wasn't even a possibility."

"That's an odd bit of Code, isn't it? I know you people put a lot of emphasis on honour, but why the distrust of others?"

"Because of the last time the Legion gave its allegiance to an outsider." Dori laughs mirthlessly. "Arkat. He let us down rather badly. As he did to everyone else he encountered, of course, but for us it was about as deep a betrayal of trust as it's possible to get. It took even Hereward a very long time to see through his lies, and we don't want anything like that to ever happen again. So no matter how trustworthy an outsider may seem, we don't give our allegiance to anyone."

"That must make it awkward, as mercenaries. You never obey anyone outside the Legion?"

"Well, not quite. In theory we could obey someone in the cult, but not in the Legion."

"They'd still have to be Humakti, though? And there's not many Humakti rulers, and even fewer of those who hire mercenaries."

"No, Herewardi don't have to be Humakti. He's the Truewind sub-cult, yes, but he's also a hero-cult. Look around you: Jamal isn't Humakti, Fynn isn't Humakti. Hereward's a lot of different things to different people. They each have their own facet of the Truth, I suppose. He's the answer for anyone who's been betrayed by a leader and doesn't want it to happen again, like we've been saying. He's the hero who will do anything to discover the Truth - not just knowledge, but the true understanding behind the bare facts. He commands the Truewind - I've even heard of Orlanthi joining to learn more about that. Anyone can join, just as long as they swear an oath to follow Hereward's Code. And that's usually the sticking point, because it's quite demanding." She shrugs. "Anyway, we hire out to all sorts of people, as long as what we're being asked to do is honourable. We just don't swear to obey them."

"It sounds good. But - don't take this wrong, but how do you know someone in the cult is any more reliable as a leader than an outsider?"

"Because of the Code. As I say, it's a bit restrictive." Dori sighs. "I've been thinking about that a lot since this mob," she waves her arm vaguely at the rest of the group, "voted me in as ten-thane. To a leader, it's very restrictive. Not quite as bad as I'd thought at first, since I realised that honest mistakes are allowed, but some of the things Garrath was trying on his troops, for instance, would be out of the question. No deception, of any sort: not just lies, but no evasion by omission, either. And "do not shirk responsibilities" covers a huge area, too. Then you add "behave honourably" and you've got something so general that there's just no loopholes at all, even if it wasn't dishonourable to look for them. No excuses. Get it perfect, or nothing." She shrugs. "Which is what I'd try to do anyway, of course. But you see what I mean. There's no way anyone sworn to do all that can betray their people."

"Do not shirk responsibilities," Elendala repeats, and nods. "That covers everything, really, doesn't it? And it would make a nice change."

"It would?" Dori glances across, concerned. "Something I've done?"

"No, no!" Her obvious horror at the unintentional implication makes apology redundant. "I was thinking of the past. Far past, at that."

There is a pause, as Dori concentrates on a link in the mail shirt she's repairing, and Elendala watches her expectantly.

"You never did ask, did you?" she says at last. "About my clan, I mean."

"Nope." Dori does not look up. "And I'm not going to. If you want to tell me, I'm listening, but I'm not going to pry. I know you still use your clan magics, so you can't have Separated from them, but you're not with them, defending them, either. And that's unusual. But it's your business, not mine, unless it affects the Legion, or unless you need help with it. After all, you're one of my responsibilities now, too."

"Help?" Elendala laughs, startled at the new idea and touched by the offer. "That's a first. But it's far too late for that, now. Which is the point, really." She pauses, thinking. "I don't see how it could affect the Legion, myself. Not here. If things change, if we went back to Sartar... well, we'll deal with that then. If I tell you, but leave the names out, that seems fair."

"Sure. Though if the names ever become relevant, you'll fill me in?"

She nods, accepting the implied trust. "My clan… I call myself a member of the White Quartz, I use the clan magic I got from my mother. But the clan was destroyed when the Lunars invaded, when I was a small child. I grew up elsewhere. So I never separated from my clan, because there's nothing left to separate from. It's already dead. Which is the problem…." She gazes into the fire, into the past. "There were a few survivors. Children, like me. And a very few adults, who'd been away from the clan at the time. One of them in particular… the clan could have been saved. Perhaps. If something had been done, right then. But…. this person… decided not to. Decided to go away, and do other things. Leaving my clan to die. By the time I was old enough to do anything, it was far too late. And I was supposed to look up, to respect…" She shakes her head. "It was a long time ago, and I don't know what other influences there were on the decision. But I can't forgive that betrayal. When you've had a childhood hero, and they've let you down, not with something childish but with something real, you can't just let it go."
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2 - 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 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.

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.
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3 - 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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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.

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4 - Your mission, should you choose to accept it...

The heroes make their way over the short distance to the healers' shrine, where they find Aelfwyrd and a human-looking Enfrew, apparently in excellent health, sitting outside and eating their morning meal watched by Korlmar and several white-robed initiates.
Finishing his morning meal the Far Walker rises and stretches out the past few days of slumber from his shoulders. Hearing the Herwardi speak he nods and smiles to his approaching companions. Yet there remains a distant almost haunted look in his eyes, the same expression since the final defence of the Cradle.

Korol throws a large cloth bound bundle over to the Kargani who begins to unravel length after length of material as Dorinda speaks with Korlmar. Pulling the Seven Dragon Blade free he smiles grimly to himself as its many blades flash and glitter under the morning sun.

Slapping Korol on the back and winking at Yrsga it seems to those not too familiar with the Far Walker that he is back to his old self. Yet as Aelfwyrd walks over to join the conversation a concerned expression grows on Yrgsa’s face.

As they arrive Korlmar stands and greets them formally. Two of the initiates take the injured farmer inside the shrine, and he is babbling with relief at being delivered from the clutches of the Death God.

"This is nothing unusual," comments Korlmar sourly. "The Bison people enforce first use of the day's waters, and this man was desperate enough to try and sneak his mules to a well at dawn. They slaughter his mules - he is lucky they don't slaughter him also." She sighs. "These are difficult times. The rains have not come, the plains are barren - animals need watering, crops need watering, people too need watering. There is not enough water. Now things have been made worse - the wells have started to dry. The folk of Horn Gate are on the edge of hope, for what water there is, the Bison folk take."

Dori thinks fleetingly of Elmeh Saif, whom they had promised to free in any case. But he is far from here.

"Your comrades, Enfrew and Aelfwyrd, have been well-tended and received the Goddess' blessing. In this way we honour the old friendship of Chalana Arroy and Humakt, which reflects the truth that as Life serves Death, Death serves Life."
This phrase that Korlmar utters is ritually used by healers to invite those Humakti they have helped to offer them service in return for their aid.

Dori nods with equal formality. "They have been well-tended indeed, and we are grateful to you for their return to health and their renewed ability to serve Death. Is there any particular way in which Death may serve Life on this occasion?"
She stays impassive, waiting for the answer, but can't help wondering. Korlmar must surely have something specific in mind. Driving off the Bison riders from Horn Gate would be a big job, perhaps too much for a group of this size, and there is no way of making the nomads stay away once they themselves have left. Bringing water back to the wells is hardly a Humakti task. So what would it be? Not simply gold, surely?

Jamal sits impassively as Dori and the other Humakti continue the negotiation. It is obvious that the healer requires some payment for the services provided, but the rituals involved in the negotiations are somewhat beyond his experience.

Korlmar hesitates before speaking. She has the right to ask what she will of those healed, but if the request is too much they also have the right to refuse and offer something else in its place. Korlmar - usually so confident - is obviously praying that the Herewardi will not turn down her request. Whatever she will ask, it is something that she fears.

"There is drought, you know this. And I have told you that the wells run dry. This is not normal. In fact, this has never happened before. Never, and people have lived in Horn Gate since the Dawning. Most of those that have not dried are fouled - not by the Pre-Dark, thank the gods, but are dank and undrinkable. At first the Oasis People thought this was caused by the extreme drought that is affecting all of Prax, or the result of a curse, but the priestesses at the Eiritha Temple performed a divination and found that there was another cause.

They received the message, 'Deep in my flesh the body of an Old King stirs.'

The Earth Women have concluded that the divination refers to the passage that begins not far from where we stand now. Legend has it that the tunnel leads for miles into the earth until it reaches far under Izkoz Mountain, and it is feared by all as cursed and haunted. The elders of the Bison tribe say they will send no heroes to their doom in a taboo place, and that when the last water is gone, they will move on. Their priestesses at the Eiritha temple agree with them.

"But the Oasis folk will have nowhere to go, and they are not the sort of people who produce heroes. We have lived and worshipped the goddess here amongst them, and tended them and others, and we would help them if we can. So I say this to you: Death may serve Life by venturing down this tunnel, finding the source of this trouble and, if possible, restoring the waters of Horn Gate."

Sensing that his dishonour is leading his companions down a road they should not venture Aelfwyrd turns to the Herewardi. "It was I that succumbed to the pre-dark and for my dishonour we journey here to recieve the Blessing of the Goddess. This is my debt and with what little is left of my honour I would pay Korlmar in full"

"Aelf", Dori sounds slightly exasperated, "remember what I was telling you about debts between the Legion and its members? You are not going down there on your own.

"I am glad you will not force us to choose between the duty and the legion," Enfrew addresses Dori. "These godi have saved us from fate worse than dishonorable death, and it is our duty to do their bidding as long as their request is reasonable."

"Exactly", Dori says, perhaps a little tiredly. "And don't you start: I thought you had more sense than Aelf. There's no choice to be made. You got injured fighting on behalf of the Legion, even if you aren't a member. So the Legion has a debt to pay. And we will."
Then she turns back to Korlmar. "My Lady, this sounds to me to be a worthy and honourable cause for Death to serve. But I would know more before we commit ourselves to promises we may not be able to keep. What more is told of this tunnel? By what is it haunted? What form does the curse take?"

Privately she wishes the task laid before them involved anything but tunnels and darkness. Clearly Humakt does not believe she passed the last test as well as she should have done, for it to be presented again so soon. Just as long as things don't go as badly wrong as they did under the Plateau...

Behind her, Kristen shivers even in the hot sun, and mutters something under her breath in Esrolian.

"The nomads and Oasis Folk believe the old city and the tunnel below is haunted or cursed, but we have seen nothing to justify such a belief. Of course, we have lived here only five years, and it is true that save for ourselves and the Eiritha temple the ruins of the old city lie empty, even though they are better buildings than the poor things occupied by the Oasis Folk. When I was talking to the priestesses about this they said, 'In the Godtime this was a great city, ruled over by a mighty king. He offended the Great Spirits and was destroyed in the Darkness.' But they did not know his name or anything other than that the tunnel is a taboo place. The Oasis Folk may know more. One of their elders, Old Shorj, will show you to the tunnel's entrance. He seems to be a man of importance to them, and he seems to know many of their stories."

Aelfwyrd listens intently as the tale unfolds for he was anxious to be away from this healing enclave, its calm was almost suffocating. As talk moves to dark tunnels and hidden cities the Kargani finds something to focus his concentration; weapons, tactics and fighting styles useful in confined underground spaces. Lost in his own thoughts for a moment the Far Walker recalls a fireside talk with Braggi Clapsaddle on the merits of Mostali warfare and their expertise in these matters.

Geran ignores the others as he sees Aelf well again and rushes up to him with a loud cry of pleasure.

"Brother!" he shouts for the world to hear, "You are better" This time he includes Enfrew with his pleased grin, a grin which quickly turns into an impressive yawn revealing the sharp and long incisors glinting ever so faintly of red. "I've been up all night, need some sleep. Tonight. Don't like the sun."

With a final yawn and wave he lumbers off to his own building to hide from old Yelmy up there.
Lost in his own Mostali thoughts Aelfwyrd is startled as the armoured mountain that is Geran appears nosily by his side. Looking up at the beaming Uz he smiles then slaps his huge lead breastplate by way of greeting.

"It is good to see my friend and yes The White Healers have purged the pre-dark from my body" then leaving the Herewardi to speak further he whispers jovially to the departing Elkozi "I see your feasting has gone well too, let us hope they do not count the healers until we depart my friend!"

Almost out of earshot, Geran catches that last comment and bursts out laughing like a maniac, doing so all the way back.
Hrolf reappears among the others while they are preparing for the tunnels, a wry grin on his face when he spots the mule carcass that has left a trail of blood droplets to their resting place. He greets his healed comrades and the others quickly brief him on what has passed.

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Geran burps happily and slaps Orkeg's hand away as his friend tries to grap the last piece of mule. "Hey, mine!"

Orkeg mutters a bit, but even he is sated for the moment, so with a final look out at the high sun, he rolls over and falls asleep. Soon the others join him and the place slowly fills with the sounds of heavy breathing and snoring of the trolls. Only their master remains awake, something is nagging at him and prevents sleep from coming. The floor is still wet and slick from the blood of the too mules and the air is full of hungry insects, desperate for moisture in the unrelenting sun. The smell is comforting. The ruin is a good place to be, cramped and dark as it is.

The huge uz turns and looks out through a gap in the heavy piece of cloth Domag had arranged across the doorway. The shadows are short, the sun high. He sighs, sits up and reaches for a large sack. He pulls out a big pile of lead bits, the bolgs used by uz for currency, and adds another pile to it. Rummaging some more he finds a smaller sack to put the coins in before he leaves his sleeping companions.

Walking quickly in the shadow of the houses he retraces his steps and slips into the place where they left the oasis man. He grabs the nearest healer apprentice or helper he can find and shoves the small but heavy sack into his hands.

"This is for man who hurt head, for mules." Then, just as silently he makes his way back again to finally get some rest.

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