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THE KING BEYOND THE GATE

1

The barracks buildings stood shrouded in snow, the broken windows hanging open like old, unhealed wounds. The square once trodden flat by ten thousand men was now uneven, as the grass pushed against the snow above it.

The Dragon herself had been brutally treated: her stone wings smashed from her back, her fangs hammered to shards and her face daubed with red dye. It seemed to Tenaka as he stood before her in silent homage that she was crying tears of blood.

As Tenaka gazed at the square, memory flashed bright pictures to his mind: Ananais shouting commands to his men, contradictory orders that had them crashing into one another and tumbling to the ground.

‘You dung-rats!’ bellowed the blond giant. ‘Call yourselves soldiers?’

The pictures faded against the ghostly white emptiness of reality and Tenaka shivered. He moved to the well where an old bucket lay, its handle still tied to a rotting rope. He dropped the bucket into the well and heard the ice break, then hauled it up and carried it to the dragon.

The dye was hard to shift, but he worked at it for almost an hour, scraping the last traces of red from the stone with his dagger.

Then he jumped to the ground and looked at his handiwork.

Even without the dye she looked pitiful, her pride broken. Tenaka thought once more of Ananais.

‘Maybe it is better you died, rather than living to see this,’ he said.

It began to rain, icy needles that stung his face. Tenaka scooped his pack to his shoulder and ran for the deserted barracks. The door hung open and he stepped inside the old officers’ quarters. A rat scurried into the dark as he passed but Tenaka ignored it, pushing on to the wider rooms at the rear. He dumped his pack in his old room and then chuckled as he saw the fireplace: it was stacked with wood, the fire laid.

On the last day, knowing that they were leaving, someone had come into his room and laid the fire.

Decado, his aide?

No. There was no romantic element in his make-up. He was a vicious killer, held in check only by the iron discipline of the Dragon and his own rigid sense of loyalty to the regiment.

Who else?

After a while he stopped scanning the faces his memory threw at him. He would never know.

After fifteen years the wood should be dry enough to burn without smoke, he told himself, and placed fresh tinder below the logs. Soon the tongues of flame spread and the blaze took hold.

On a sudden impulse he moved to the panelled wall, seeking the hidden niche. Where once it had sprung open at the touch of a button, now it creaked on a rusted spring. Gently he prised open the panelling. Behind was a small recess, created by the removal of a stone slab many years before the disbanding. On the back wall, in Nadir script, was written:

Nadir we,

Youth born,

Blood letters,

Axe wielders,

Victors still.

Tenaka smiled for the first time in months and some of the burden he carried lifted from his soul. The years swept away and he saw himself once more as a young man, fresh from the Steppes, arriving to take up his commission with the Dragon; felt again the stares of his new brother ofM cers and their scarcely veiled hostility.

A Nadir prince in the Dragon? It was inconceivable – some even thought obscene. But his was a special case.

The Dragon had been formed by Magnus Woundweaver after the First Nadir War a century before, when the invincible warlord Ulric had led his hordes against the walls of Dros Delnoch, the most powerful fortress in the world, only to be turned back by the Earl of Bronze and his warriors.

The Dragon was to be the Drenai weapon against future Nadir invasions.

And then, like a nightmare come true – and while memories were still fresh of the Second Nadir War – a tribesman had been admitted to the regiment. Worse, he was a direct descendant of Ulric himself. And yet they had no choice but to allow him his sabre.

For he was Nadir only on his mother’s side.

Through the line of his father he was the great-grandson of Regnak the Wanderer: the Earl of Bronze.

It was a problem for those who yearned to hate him.

How could they visit their hatred upon the descendant of the Drenai’s greatest hero? It was not easy for them, but they managed it.

Goat’s blood was daubed on his pillow, scorpions hidden in his boots. Saddle-straps were severed and finally a viper was placed in his bed.

It almost killed him as he rolled upon it, its fangs sinking into his thigh. Snatching a dagger from his bedside table, he killed the snake and then slashed a cross-cut by the fang marks, hoping the rush of blood would carry the venom clear. Then he lay very still, knowing any movement would accelerate the poison in his system. He heard footsteps in the corridor and knew it was Ananais, the officer of the guard, returning to his room after completing his shift.

He did not want to call out, for he knew Ananais disliked him. But neither did he want to die! He called Ananais’ name, the door opened and the blond giant stood silhouetted in the doorway.

‘I have been bitten by a viper,’ said Tenaka.

Ananais ducked under the doorway and approached the bed, pushing at the dead snake with his boot. Then he looked at the wound in Tenaka’s leg.

‘How long ago?’ he asked.

‘Two, three minutes.’

Ananais nodded. ‘The cuts aren’t deep enough.’

Tenaka handed him the dagger.

‘No. If they were deep enough you would sever the main muscles.’

Leaning forward, Ananais put his mouth over the wound and sucked the poison clear. Then he applied a tourniquet and left to get the surgeon.

Even with most of the poison flushed out, the young Nadir prince almost died. He sank into a coma that lasted four days and when he awoke Ananais was at his bedside.

‘How are you feeling?’

‘Good.’

‘You don’t look it. Still, I am glad you’re alive.’

‘Thank you for saving me,’ said Tenaka, as the giant rose to leave.

‘It was a pleasure. But I still wouldn’t want you marrying my sister,’ he said, grinning as he moved to the door. ‘By the way, three young officers were dismissed from the service yesterday. I think you can sleep soundly from now on.’

‘I shall never do that,’ said Tenaka. ‘For the Nadir, that is the way of death.’

‘No wonder their eyes are slanted,’ said Ananais.

***

Renya helped the old man to his feet, then heaped snow upon the small fire to kill the flames. The temperature plummeted as the storm-clouds bunched above them, grim and threatening. The girl was frightened, for the old man had ceased shivering and now stood by the ruined tree staring vacantly at the ground by his feet.

‘Come, Aulin,’ she said, slipping her arm around his waist. ‘The old barracks are close by.’

‘No!’ he wailed, pulling back. ‘They will find me there. I know they will.’

‘The cold will kill you,’ she hissed. ‘Come on.’

Meekly he allowed her to lead him through the snow. She was a tall girl, and strong, but the going was tiring and she was breathing heavily as they pushed past the last screen of bushes before the Dragon Square.

‘Only a few more minutes,’ she said. ‘Then you can rest.’

The old man seemed to gain strength from the promise of shelter and he shambled forward with greater speed. Twice he almost fell, but she caught him.

She kicked open the door of the nearest building and helped him inside, removing her white woollen burnoose and running a hand through her sweat-streaked, close-cropped black hair.

Away from the biting wind, she felt her skin burning as her body adjusted to the new conditions. She unbelted her white sheepskin cloak, pushing it back over her broad shoulders. Beneath it she wore a light blue woollen tunic and black leggings, partially hidden by thigh-length boots, sheepskin-lined. At her side was a slender dagger.

The old man leaned against a wall, shaking uncontrollably.

‘They will find me. They will!’ he whimpered. Renya ignored him and moved down the hallway.

A man came into sight at the far end and Renya started, her dagger leaping to her hand. The man was tall and dark and dressed in black. By his side was a longsword. He moved forward slowly, yet with a confidence Renya found daunting. As he approached she steadied herself for the attack, watching his eyes.

They were, she noticed, the most beautiful violet colour, and slanted like those of the Nadir tribesmen of the north. Yet his face was square-cut and almost handsome, save for the grim line of his mouth.

She wanted to stop him with words, to tell him that if he came any closer she would kill him. But she could not. There was about him an aura of power – an authority which left her no choice but to respond.

And then he was past her and bending over Aulin.

‘Leave him alone!’ she shouted. Tenaka turned to her.

‘There is a fire in my room. Along there on the right,’ he said calmly. ‘I will take him there.’ Smoothly he lifted the old man and carried him to his quarters, laying him on the narrow bed. He removed the man’s cloak and boots, and began to rub gently at his calves where the skin was blue and mottled. Turning he threw a blanket to the girl. ‘Warm this by the fire,’ he said, returning to his work. After a while he checked the man’s breathing – it was deep and even.

‘He is asleep?’ she asked.

‘Yes.’

‘Will he live?’

‘Who can say?’ said Tenaka, rising and stretching his back.

‘Thank you for helping him.’

‘Thank you for not killing me,’ he answered.

‘What are you doing here?’

‘Sitting by my fire and waiting for the storm to pass. Would you like some food?’

They sat together by the blaze, sharing his dried meat and hardcake biscuits and saying little. Tenaka was not an inquisitive man and Renya intuitively knew he had no wish to talk. Yet the silence was far from uncomfortable. She felt calm and at peace for the first time in weeks, and even the threat of the assassins seemed less real, as if the barracks were a haven protected by magic – unseen but infinitely powerful.

Tenaka leaned back in his chair, watching the girl as she in turn gazed into the flames. Her face was striking, oval-shaped with high cheekbones and wide eyes so dark that the pupils merged with the iris. Overall the impression he gained was one of strength, undermined by vulnerability, as if she held a secret fear or was tormented by a hidden weakness. At another time he would have been attracted by her. But when he reached inside himself he could find no emotions, no desire . . . No life, he realised with surprise.

‘We are being hunted,’ she said at last.

‘I know.’

‘How would you know?’

He shrugged and added fuel to the fire. ‘You are on a road to nowhere, with no horses or provisions, yet your clothes are expensive and your manner cultured. Therefore you are running away from something or someone, and it follows that they are pursuing you.’

‘Does it bother you?’ she asked him.

‘Why should it?’

‘If you are caught with us, you will die too.’

‘Then I shall not be caught with you,’ he said.

‘Shall I tell you why we are hunted?’ she enquired.

‘No. That is of your life. Our paths have crossed here, but we will both go on to separate destinies. There is no need for us to learn of one another.’

‘Why? Do you fear it would make you care?’

He considered the question carefully, noting the anger in her eyes. ‘Perhaps. But mainly I fear the weakness that follows caring. I have a task to do and I do not need other problems in my mind. No, that is not true – I do not want other problems in my mind.’

‘Is that not selfish?’

‘Of course it is. But it aids survival.’

‘And is that so important?’ she snapped.

‘It must be, otherwise you would not be running.’

‘It is important to him,’ she said, pointing at the man in the bed. ‘Not to me.’

‘He cannot run from death,’ said Tenaka, softly. ‘Anyway there are mystics who maintain there is a paradise after death.’

‘He believes it,’ she said, smiling. ‘That is what he fears.’

Tenaka shook his head slowly, then rubbed his eyes.

‘That is a little too much for me,’ he said, forcing a smile. ‘I think I will sleep now.’ Taking his blanket, he spread it on the floor and stretched himself out, his head resting on his pack.

‘You are Dragon, aren’t you?’ said Renya.

‘How did you know?’ he asked, propping himself on one elbow.

‘It was the way you said “my room”.’

‘Very perceptive.’ He lay down and closed his eyes.

‘I am Renya.’

‘Goodnight, Renya.’

‘Will you tell me your name?’

He thought of refusing, considering all the reasons why he should not tell her.

‘Tenaka Khan,’ he said. And slept.

***

Life is a farce, thought Scaler, as he hung by his M ngertips forty feet above the stone courtyard. Below him a huge Joining sniffed the air, its shaggy head swinging ponderously from side to side, its taloned fingers curled around the hilt of the saw-edged sword. Snow swept in icy flurries, stinging Scaler’s eyes.

‘Thanks very much,’ he whispered, transferring his gaze to the dark, pregnant storm-clouds above. Scaler was a religious man, who saw the gods as a group of Seniles – eternals playing endless jokes on humanity with cosmic bad taste.

Below him the Joining sheathed its sword and ambled away into the darkness. Taking a deep breath, Scaler hauled himself over the window-sill and parted the heavy velvet curtains beyond. He was in a small study furnished with a desk, three chairs of oak, several chests and a row of bookshelves and manuscript holders. The study was tidy – obsessively so, thought Scaler, noting the three quill pens placed exactly parallel at the centre of the desk. He would have expected nothing less of Silius the Magister.

A long silvered mirror, framed in mahogany, was fixed to the far wall, opposite the desk. Scaler advanced towards it, drawing himself up to his full height and pulling back his shoulders. The black face-mask, dark tunic and leggings gave him a forbidding look. He drew his dagger and dropped into a warrior’s crouch. The effect was chilling.

Perfect, he told his reflection. I wouldn’t want to meet you in a dark alley! Replacing the dagger, he moved to the study door and carefully lifted the iron latch, easing the door open.

Beyond was a narrow stone corridor and four doors – two on the left and two on the right. Scaler padded across to the furthest room on the left and slowly lifted the latch. The door opened without a sound and he moved inside, hugging the wall. The room was warm, though the log fire in the grate was burning low, a dull red glow illuminating the curtains around the large bed. Scaler moved forward to the bed, pausing to look down on fat Silius and his equally fat mistress. He lay on his stomach, she on her back; both were snoring.

Why am I creeping about? he asked himself. I could have come in here beating a drum. He stifled a chuckle, found the jewel box in its hidden niche below the window, opened it and poured the contents into a black canvas pouch tied to his belt. At full value they would keep him in luxury for five years. Sold, as they must be, to a shady dealer in the southern quarter, they would keep him for barely three months, or six if he didn’t gamble. He thought of not gambling but it was inconceivable. Three months, he decided.

Re-tying his pouch, he backed out into the corridor and turned . . .

Only to come face to face with a servant, a tall, gaunt figure in a woollen nightshirt.

The man screamed and fled.

Scaler screamed and fled, hurtling down a circular stairway and cannoning into two sentries. Both men tumbled back, shouting as they fell. Scaler hit the floor in a tumbler’s roll, came to his feet and sprinted left, the sentries close behind. Another set of steps appeared on his right and he took them three at a time, his long legs carrying him at a terrifying speed.

Twice he nearly lost his footing before reaching the next level. Before him was an iron gate – locked, but the key hung from a wooden peg. The stench from beyond the gate brought him to his senses and fear cut through his panic.

The Joinings’ pit!

Behind him he could hear the sentries pounding down the stairs. He lifted the key, opened the gate and stepped inside, locking it behind him. Then he advanced into the darkness, praying to the Seniles to let him live for a few more of their jests.

As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness of the corridor he saw several openings on either side; within, sleeping on straw, were the Joinings of Silius.

He moved on towards the gate at the far end, pulling off his mask as he did so.

He was almost there when the pounding began behind him and the muffled shouts of the sentries pierced the silence. A Joining stumbled from its lair, blood-red eyes fastening on Scaler; it was close to seven feet tall, with huge shoulders and heavily muscled arms covered with black fur. Its face was elongated, sharp fangs lining its maw. The pounding grew louder and Scaler took a deep breath.

‘Go and see what the noise is about,’ he told the beast.

‘Who you?’ it hissed, the words mangled by the lolling tongue.

‘Don’t just stand there – go and see what they want,’ ordered Scaler sharply.

The beast brushed past him and other Joinings came into the corridor and followed it, ignoring Scaler. He ran to the gate and slipped the key in the lock. As it turned and the gate swung open, a sudden bellowing roar blasted in the confines of the corridor. Scaler twisted round to see the Joinings running towards him, howling ferociously. With shaking fingers he dragged free the key and leapt through the opening, pulling the gate shut behind him and swiftly locking it.

The night air was crisp as he ran up the short steps to the western courtyard and on to the ornate wall, scaling it swiftly and dropping into the cobbled street beyond.

It was well after curfew, so he hugged the shadows all the way to the inn, then climbed the outer trellis to his room, rapping on the shutters.

Belder opened the window and helped him inside.

‘Well?’ asked the old soldier.

‘I got the jewels,’ stated Scaler.

‘I despair of you,’ said Belder. ‘After all the years I spend on you, what do you become? A thief!’

‘It’s in the blood,’ said Scaler, grinning. ‘Remember the Earl of Bronze?’

‘That’s Legend,’ replied Belder. ‘And even if it’s true, not one of his descendants has ever lived a less than honourable life. Even that Nadir-spawn Tenaka!’

‘Don’t speak ill of him, Belder,’ said Scaler softly. ‘He was my friend.’