Somebody released the chain for him, and he began to
pull the light craft forward, working hand over hand
against the rough wall of the narrow subterranean
passage. He was propelling himself against the
current, and away from the
light. Darkness deepened to totality as the floor-
stone was lowered crunching back into place.
Denis pulled on. Presently a ghost of watery light
reached his eyes from somewhere ahead. He man-
aged to see a low stone lintel athwart his course,
and to bend his head and body almost completely
down under the gunwales to get himself beneath
His craft had now emerged into a larger cham-
ber, and one not quite as completely dark. There
was room enough for Denis to sit up straight. In a
moment he realized that there were timbers about
him, rising out of the water in a broad framework,
and supporting a flat wooden surface a meter of so
above his head. Denis realized that he was now
directly underneath a riverside dock.
There were gaps between pilings large enough for
the canoe to pass, and leading to the lesser darkness
of the open, foggy night. Emerging cautiously from
underneath the dock, using his paddle freely now,
Denis found himself afloat upon a familiar channel
of the river. Right there was the house he had just
left, all windows darkened as if everyone inside
were fast asleep. If there was other traffic on the
river tonight, he could not see or hear it in the fog.
At this hour, he doubted that there was.
Denis turned the prow of his canoe upstream, and
paddled steadily. The first gleams of daylight were
already becoming visible in the eastern sky, and he
wanted to reach the gate in the city walls at dawn,
when it routinely opened for the day. There would
probably be a little incoming traffic, produce
barges and such, waiting outside; the watch ought
to pass him out promptly, and most likely without
paying much attention to him.
This channel of the river took him past familiar
sights of the great city. Most people Denis had met
said that it was the greatest in the world, but who
knew the truth of that? Here on the right bank were
the cloth-dyers, as usual starting their work early,
already staining the water as they rinsed out the
long banners of their product. And on the other
bank, one of the fish-markets was opening.
Now through thinning fog there came into
Denis’s sight the city walls themselves, taller than
all but a very few of the buildings they protected,
and thick as houses for most of their height. They
were build of almost indestructible stone, hard-
ened, the stories had it, by the Old World magic
called technology. They were supported at close
intervals by formidable towers of the same mate-
rial. Tested over five hundred years by scores of
sieges (so it was said), threatened again and again
by ingenious engines of attack, and various
attempts at undermining, they still stood guard
over a city that since they were built had never
fallen to military attack. Kings and Queens and
mighty generals had raged impotently outside
those walls, and would-be conquerors had died
there at the hands of their own rebellious troops.
Siege, starvation, massacre, all had been threat-
ened against Tashigang, but all in vain. The Corgo
flowed year-round, and was always bountiful with
fish. The prudent burghers and Lords Mayor of the
city had a tradition of keeping good supplies of
other food on hand, and-perhaps most important
of all-of choosing their outside enemies and allies
with the greatest care.
Now the gate that closed the waterway was going
up, opening this channel of the river for passage.
The river-gate was a portcullis built on a titanic
scale, wrought by the same engineering genius as
the city walls. Its movement was assisted by great
counterweights that rode on iron chains, supported
by pulleys built into the guard-towers of the wall.
The raising made a familiar city-morning noise,
and took some little time.
There was another huge iron chain spanning the
channel underwater, as extra proof against the
passage of any sizeable hostile vessel. But Denis did
not have to wait for that to be lowered into the bot-
tom mud. With a wave of his hand that was casu-
ally answered by the watch, he headed out, plying
his paddle energetically.
He went on up the river, now and again looking
back. With the morning mist still mounting, the
very towers of Tashigang seemed to be melting into
it, like some fabric of enchantment.
In Mark’s ears was the endless sound of hard,
hooflike footpads beating the earth, of moving ani-
mals and men. Day after day in the sun and dust,
night after night by firelight, there was not much in
the way of human speech. He and the patrol of the
Dark King’s troops escorting him entered and trav-
ersed lands heavily scarred by war and occupation,
a region of burned-out villages and wasted fields.
With each succeeding day the devastation appeared
more recent, and Mark decided that the army that
had caused it could no longer be far away. The only
human inhabitants of this region clearly visible
were the dead, those who had been impaled or
hanged for acts of resistance perhaps, or perhaps
only on a whim, for a conqueror’s sport.
At first Mark had known faint doubts about
where he was being taken. These now disappeared.
It was his experience that all armies on the march
caused destruction, but only the Dark King’s forces
moved with this kind of relentless savagery. A few
of the human victims on display wore clothing that
had once been white; evidently not even Ardneh’s
people were being spared by Vilkata now.
Even animal life was scarce, except for the omni-
present scavenger birds and reptiles. As the patrol
passed, these sometimes rose, hooting or cawing,
from some hideous feast near roadside. Once a live
and healthy-looking goat inspected the men
through a gap in a hedge as they went cantering by.
Mark’s escort had never questioned his right to
give them orders, and they got on briskly with the
business of obeying the one real order he had so far
issued. Familiar as he was with armies and with
war, he considered these to be well-disciplined and
incredibly tough-looking troops. They spoke the
common language with an accent that Mark found
unfamiliar, and they wore Vilkata’s black and gold
only in the form of small tokens pinned to their hats
or vests of curly fur.
One more thing about these men was soon just as
apparent as their discipline and toughness: they
were for some reason mightily afraid of Mark. In
what form they perceived him he could only guess,
but whatever it was induced in them quiet terror
and scrupulous obedience.
In Mark’s immediate presence the men rarely
spoke at all, even to each other, but when they were
at some distance he saw them talking and gesturing
freely among themselves. Occasionally when they
thought he was not watching one of them would
make a sign in his direction, that Mark interpreted
as some kind of charm to ward off danger. Gradu-
ally he decided that they must see him as some
powerful and dangerous wizard they knew to be in
Upon recovering from their first surprise at his
approach, they had been quick to offer him food
and drink, and his pick of their riding beasts for his
own use-they had been traveling with a couple of
spare mounts. Each night when they halted, Mark
built his own small fire, a little apart from theirs,.
He had soon decided that they would feel some-
what easier that way, and in truth he felt easier
The country grew higher, and the nights, under a
Moon waxing toward full, grew chill. Using the
blanket that had been rolled up behind the saddle
of his borrowed mount, Mark slept in reasonable
comfort. He slept with one hand always on the hilt
of Sightblinder, though he felt confident that the
mere presence of the Sword in his possession would
be enough to maintain his magical disguise. He was
vaguely reassured to see that the patrol always
posted sentries at night, in a professional manner.
The journey proceeded swiftly. On the afternoon
of the fourth day after Mark had joined them, the
patrol rode into sight of Vilkata’s main encamp-
As the riders topped a small, barren rise of land,
the huge bivouac came into view a kilometer ahead,
on slightly lower ground. The sprawling camp was
constructed around what looked to Mark like a
large parade ground of scraped and flattened earth.
The camp appeared to be laid out in good order, but
it was not surrounded by a palisade or any other
defensive works. Rather it sprawled arrogantly
exposed, as if on the assumption that no power on