ZIHAEN, The Shadow of the Revenaunt, Book 2

CHAPTER 20 - YINNO (Part 1)

Ghyll felt he’d closed his eyes only minutes ago, when a bell in their room began to clamor. With a start, he sat up in bed and then, realizing what it was, he yawned.

‘Gods! Is there an alarm? Are the Dar’khamorth at the gate? Tell them to come back tomorrow.’ Olle swung his legs over the edge of his cot and covered his face with his hands. ‘Ah, what a cursed noise.’

‘Welcome to the life of a swordbrother,’ Ghyll said with a grin. ‘That’s the second call, for the service at six hours. Be glad they have spared us the first, which was at four. Guests are expected to attend at least one service and after that we can leave immediately.’

‘What! Without food?’

‘Of course not,’ Ghyll soothed. ‘After the service they’ll serve especially for us a morning meal. The Order brothers eat at eight. That’s about what I could pry out of our chatty guide yesterday. Well, come on.’

When they arrived in the castle’s chapel, they found the female members of their company present, all fresh and dressed.

Kerianna inspected Ghyll, her eyebrows raised. ‘Do you always look like this in the morning?’

Her husband sighed. ‘No, dear, only when I’ve been travelling through swamps.’

Keri sniffed. ‘You haven’t had a bath either.’

‘Shortly,’ Ghyll said and fell silent.

Among the brothers, a bald man stood up and opened his mouth. Ghyll listened, bewitched by the voice of the singer rising to the dim rafters of the chapel so powerful and jubilant, and the whole congregation following with a thunderous repetition.

When the last notes died away, a thin brother read them a lecture on the brave deeds of a swordbrother from the long forgotten Dead Centuries, a story full of heroic and miraculous works. Ghyll was convinced the subject hadn’t been randomly chosen. It acknowledged that they all were struggling against the same enemy and the young king felt supported by the knowledge that so many others had spent their lives for that fight.

After the brothers went back to work, Ghyll and his friends had a bath, and then went to the dining room for a sober morning meal.

Finally, they were ready to leave. With a great sound of rattling chains the drawbridge came down over the dark water of the moat. The sun still hid in the embrace of the horizon and the light of the setting moon lay pale over the world. The landscape stretching before them was flat, covered with grass as far as the eye reached, without a point by which they could orient themselves.

Look over there,’ Commander Darinken said. ‘On the horizon, about two inches to the right of the moon, you see a tiny speck.’

‘I see something,’ Damion said. ‘A fly poop on the horizon.’

Darinken laughed shortly. ‘As you say, DeAsharte. Made by a lot of flies over many years. That spot is the beginning of the Ayoo.’

When the companions looked at him questioningly, he added, ‘The Ayoo Mountains. The three highest peaks of the known world. The middle, the Yen-Zaroo, is nearly twenty-seven thousand feet high; the left peak, Tillayoo, almost twenty-three thousand. The temple lies in its shade.’

‘The temple?’ Ghyll asked quickly.

‘The Owan Abai. Isn’t that where you are going?’ The commander’s face was neutral, but his eyes looked sharply at the travelers.

‘Do you know that place?’ Ghyll asked slowly.

Darinken nodded briefly. ‘I’ve been there once, years ago. It is a huge complex, but to my knowledge completely empty – apart from a legion of scorpions, rattlesnakes and other creatures.’

‘How far is it from here?’

‘It is easily six hundred miles. Fortunately, you travel in the right season; there is plenty of water available. Along the way, you pass two major rivers, the Hait-Ran and the Ran. In between, the whole area is full of wetlands, rivers and creeks. That is the pastureland of the Yinno, the oldest of the five tribes of Zihaen.’

‘Will they object to our presence?’ Ghyll asked.

‘No, they are very hospitable. If you find their camp, you will see that right away. They are friendly, honest and great riders like all nomads. According to the old stories, they are the descendants of the original Abarranese, the few who have survived the Dead Centuries. The entire region from here to the west coast abounds in ancient ruins, tumbled-down cities and decayed temples. Can you imagine that fifteen hundred years ago, this was a prosperous and highly developed country? Now there is nothing left, only grass, sky and stone debris. Still, most of it is free of dark stains and that is quite something. Well, I wish you a safe journey. Go with Aranauviz’s blessing, and may you find what you seek.’

With these words, he bowed and marched back inside. Ghyll clucked his tongue and Ulanth rode forward, off the bridge onto the grass.

Ambiaunt Neferestan sat on the stone throne of the Marcher Lords of Wichit’hai and looked at the man who held his chains. His magic saw him, not his eyes, and enabled him to perceive more than when he had been alive. The undead archmage saw the poison pulsing through Vasthul’s emaciated body. He knew what it was, how it came there and what would eventually happen. He laughed inaudibly. Fool! he thought. A sorcerer’s apprentice in too large shoes. Neophyte Vasthul… a neophyte! Gods, a sparrow mimicking an eagle. He knew of the grimoire and although the other never lost sight of the book for even a moment, Neferestan knew what it was. It was a powerful book, far more powerful than anything he had ever read. Neferestan knew he had to get his hands on it, whatever might happen. A grimoire of the Revenaunt… By Wimaun, all the knowledge of the undead emperor!

‘Leave some daghuur behind in the ruins,’ Vasthul ordered in between coughing fits. ‘Should Hardingraud come here, he’ll surely want to see Wichit’hai up close. Fifty should be enough.’ With the second army called back from the rocky soil of Hai Wichit, their force had become considerably larger, six thousand at least.

Neferestan nodded. Fifty seemed an insufficient number; in Vasthul’s stead, he would have used a thousand. Hardingraud… He was curious as to what kind of man this was. From what he could glean from Vasthul’s chatter, the man was a giant, with the power of ten and the wisdom of the whole Convocation together. King of a great empire, mighty warrior, the darling of Tilia Goddess of Fate, who guarded him against every misfortune. Neferestan smiled invisibly; it could be an interesting encounter.

‘Look there!’ Damion said. ‘Ruins.’

Ghyll peered into the distance, shading his eyes with his hand against the bright afternoon sun. Then he saw it, the remains of walls and ramparts rising up from the grass as rocks from the sea.

As the companions came closer, they saw the ruins covered a far larger area than Ghyll had supposed. For miles around, the remains formed an endless maze of crumbling walls, some shoulder high, but usually broken off at ground level.

‘Dear Gods,’ Ghyll said. ‘That must have been some city!’

‘Larger than Rhidaun-Lorn,’ Damion said reverently. ‘And look at those foundations. Many of these buildings were almost as big as your palace.’

They dismounted and left their horses behind on the grass. With a sense of awe, they looked at the remains of graceful, arched windows, floors with inlaid mosaics and faded yet elegant frescoes on the remaining walls. A dead silence hung over it all, as though nothing dared to violate the beauty of the lost city. The birds, inhabiting the steppes in countless numbers, were absent here. No hare or lizard scuttled away and even the insects were missing. In the distance, there was only a faint rustling sound.

‘Oh,’ Kerianna said hoarsely. ‘How beautiful!’ She pointed to a small statue of a girl with a dog, leaning against a wall. ‘Look at that face, her pose, so natural, as if she could step off her pedestal any moment.’

Suddenly the dry rustle sounded close behind them.

‘Daghuur!’ Damion cried.

Ghyll turned with a start and Childegard almost jumped into his hands. Yet he was nearly too late. The skeletal warrior swung a two-handed ax and it was only thanks to Childegard’s initiative that the young king wasn’t beheaded on the spot. Instead, he hewed off the two arms of the dead fighter with a loud cracking noise. The daghuur’s battle-ax, with bony hands still clutching the handle, skidded across the floor to halt against the foot of the little statue.

‘Hallali!’ Ghyll shouted, cleaving an undead from shoulder to pelvis. Childegard’s swing had so much power that he sent a second daghuur tumbling backwards with the same move. A firm kick with his booted foot crushed dry ribs. Hot pain shot through his leg, but Ghyll had learned to ignore it as much as possible. He turned around, instinctively dodging an ax blow, stumbled and fell backwards to the ground. While the daghuur raised his ax for a second blow, Ghyll kicked out with his right foot. He aimed for the daghuur’s chest and his foot went through the rib case.

As he struggled to free his leg, another skeleton turned toward him. Ghyll hurriedly caught its sword stroke on the hilt of his weapon. The pain made him cry out and he hesitated. The daghuur doubled its efforts, but then a black and white shadow jumped and crushed the undead against the ground.

Panting heavily, Ghyll looked around. He saw Olle with his immense twohander cutting down the daghuur as if he were chopping firewood. Bo and Avelore stood side-by-side, throwing fireballs into the undead masses. Kerianna – his Kerianna danced like a whirlwind with a battle flail in her hand. The spiked ball swung lustily on its chain and floored one skeletal warrior after another. He saw Damion and Uwella, two large cats, tearing apart their opponents with their claws. Zino with his broken wrist, his curved sword in his good hand, stood with the horses. Torril… where was that cursed boy?

Then Ghyll heard his battle cries from far away. With Childegard as the flaming doom over his head, he ran toward Torril’s yells. Around the corner of a partly collapsed building, he saw his squire standing in front of a doorway, hacking away at a number of daghuur trying to get out of the building. The boy’s face was calm, in complete contrast to the cries he uttered, as he chopped the skeletal warriors into pieces with almost mathematical precision. One after the other, the undead fell to the ground, and suddenly it was over.

Surprised, Torril looked around. ‘Was that all?’

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Ghyll said, seething. ‘Trying to kill yourself?’

Torril turned to him. ‘If I must die, then I want to die as well as I can. I am the Nhael. I am brave and…’ His eyes rolled back in his head and he crashed to the ground.

With a curse, Ghyll lifted the boy. Panting under the weight, he limped back to the others. The battle had ended, and when they saw him with the young prince in his arms Uwella came running.

‘Torril! Is he…’

Ghyll shook his head and put the boy down in the grass outside of the ruins.

‘No, the fool boy passed out,’ he said angrily. ‘Our Nhaelish friend thought he should die like a hero. A fifteen year old berserker, that’s just what I needed.’

‘What was he doing there?’ Zino asked, surprised.

‘Hacking daghuur into pieces, that’s what he was doing. Gods! There were fourteen of them, at least. They were in a half-collapsed building and they wanted out. Our young friend here stood in the doorway and destroyed them one by one as they came. And when the last one gave up the ghost, he was disappointed there weren’t more.’

‘He thinks he’s going to die,’ Damion said with a grimace. ‘He is afraid he won’t die bravely and that nobody will sing of his heroic deeds.’

‘The fool,’ Ghyll said. He limped over to his wife and wrapped his arms around her. ‘You were great. I didn’t know you had a thing like that. Is that a darashain weapon?’

Kerianna laid her head against his shoulder. ‘No,’ she said. ‘It comes from our own armory. Now I feel that I’m really your queen. We Un-Balhamber women stand beside our men in battle.’

Ghyll laughed. ‘It was like a dadaune, a court dance on the battlefield.’ Kerianna made a few steps and bowed gracefully.

‘Don’t try this at home. All our nobles swinging those vicious battle flails in our ballroom. That would really be murder.’

‘What a pity,’ the queen said. ‘It would’ve been such a fine day for it.’

Ghyll looked at her. ‘Why?’

‘Today begins the new month; it is the 1st of Ogstall.’

‘Oh, gods, the harvest festivals. Well, I’m glad I can skip that. Three days of crown and mantle, no, thank you. Give me a horse and the endless fields.’

‘And the daghuur,’ Olle said with a grin.

‘Not them; they were not invited.’

‘Nevertheless,’ Bo said seriously, ‘Someone left them here on purpose. You weren’t supposing those skeletons were sitting around here in the open for centuries? There would’ve been precious little left of them. No, someone must have put them here, someone who knew we were coming.’

Ghyll stared at the mage. ‘But who could know? Only we and the swordbrothers knew we were coming this way.’

Bo shrugged. ‘A scryer, perhaps.’

‘You mean someone is watching us with a crystal ball?’ Kerianna asked, and her eyes shot fire.

‘Probably not,’ Ghyll said reassuringly. ‘That would be far too tiring. For all we know it was a gamble that happened to work out. Except we won, of course.’ He clenched his fists. ‘They’ve been trying for months to catch us? Well, so far they haven’t succeeded.’ From the corner of his eye, he saw Torril sitting up. ‘Ah, our hero is back with us.’

‘What… Where are they?’ The young Nhael looked around confused. ‘Have I dreamt it?’

‘Have you dreamt what?’ Zino asked.

‘Daghuur, a whole horde. I fought and… and that’s all I know.’

‘Well, it wasn’t a dream,’ Ghyll said harshly. ‘We all fought, but the others were wise enough to stay together. I had to go and pick your carcass up a lot further away.’

‘I thought I was brave,’ Torril said timidly.

‘Oh, you were. Awfully brave and awfully stupid. Had there been more daghuur, we would have had to bury you with them.’

‘But then I would have died as I should have,’ the boy said stubbornly.

‘No,’ Ghyll said, and his face was stern. ‘Dying bravely is one thing; to forsake your duty is quite something else.’

‘My duty?’

‘Of course. As my squire your place is with me, not far away on your own battlefield.’


‘Is it more important for a prince of the Nhael to die bravely than to do his duty? Which is more honorable, do you think?’

Torril hung his head. ‘My duty,’ he whispered.

‘Right. The next time we fight, you stay with me. If you want to remain my squire, that is. Is that clear?’

The boy nodded. ‘Yes, Ghyll.’

‘Good. If you want your ax back, you’ll have to go and get it yourself. I found you heavy enough without adding that thing.’

‘I’ll walk with you,’ Zino said. ‘You never know.’

‘Did he carry me himself?’ Torril whispered, when they were out of earshot.

Zino looked at him. ‘Yes, and he was furious about it. But he would never abandon you.’

Torril stared miserably into the distance. ‘I don’t know what it was. I fought and suddenly I wasn’t fighting any more, but how did that happen?’

‘Ghyll said you were berserk.’

Torril stopped in his stride. ‘I?’ he said astonished. ‘But how? Berserkers are all of them big, tall men, not boys of my age.’

‘It is wildness,’ Zino said. ‘Whether it comes from the gods, or from inside you, I don’t know. What is berserk, do you think?’

‘A berserker is not afraid. He can’t be afraid; he doesn’t think of dying, only of fighting.’ Torril thought, and his face contorted with the effort. Then it cleared. ‘I wasn’t afraid. I knew I was going to die and the only thing I wanted was to be brave.’ He hung his head. ‘I forgot that duty is more important. If I had done something like that at home, my father would’ve beaten me. That doesn’t hurt; Ghyll’s way does. I feel it here.’ He put his hand on his chest.

They rounded the corner and came to the decaying building where Torril had destroyed the daghuur. Zino whistled softly when he saw the piles of bones and skulls.

‘Well, you’ve worked at it,’ he said admiringly.

‘It wasn’t difficult,’ Torril said. ‘The daghuur were inside and I stood in the doorway. I had to fight only one at a time.’

Zino stepped over the bones inside. ‘You’re lucky daghuur aren’t very smart,’ he said. ‘There’s a back door into the building, and had they been able to think, half of them could have attacked you from the rear.’

Torril paled. ‘You’re right. What should I do if I get berserk again?’

‘What Ghyll said; stay with us. If necessary, we’ll tie you up until it passes.’

‘Good idea,’ Torril said gratefully.

‘Agreed, then.’ Zino grinned. ‘Well, pick up that murder weapon of yours and let’s go back. I don’t think Ghyll has much patience left. All these ambushes are beginning to irritate him.’

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