Well-travelled and knowledgeable merchants did not travel the Pass of Taj-Rassan between Ishambria and Zamphia, not in the spring, not in the summer, not at all if they could help it. Though it meant braving the arduous trek through Sharikhafar Desert far to the south on the other end of the Keef Mountains, smart merchants chose to take the long road. Sandwiched between the Uchthula Gulf and the Keef Mountains by a river delta, the Pass was known as a place of peril. The Ishambrian merchant, Ohas Seth, however, was young and brave enough to decide the Pass was worth the risk this spring. His profits would be far higher if his travelling time was halved, he knew.
Now, though, with his goods bought and his wagon loaded and tucked away in the yard behind the tavern in which he sat, cupping an ale, he was beginning to get jitters.
Clearing his throat, he tried to put on a cheerful façade and said in an airy voice, “Well, we won’t have to put up with hovels like this much longer, Yug, my friend. Cockroaches and rats everywhere you look, cobwebs in the corners. No, no. It’ll be silk bedsheets and immaculately clean rooms in the finest establishments for us from here on out!”
“Silk bedsheets?” grunted Yug Chimoor the Dwarf, nut-brown face crinkled in a frown.
“Wouldn’t you slip off?”
“Satin, then!” Ohas cried, throwing his arms in the air and spilling ale over his scarlet turban and the sleeve of his crimson Zamphian-style kaftan, sashed at the waist. “Whatever you want, my friend! Just think of it – the fine life!”
Yug grunted, “I’ll believe it when I have the coins in my pocket and not a moment afore.”
“Where would you settle down if you could?” Ohas asked, leaning back in his chair and dashing his wavy black locks out of his handsome earth-toned face.
“Don’t want to go back to the Dwarves,” Yug grunted, “and I can’t stand the humans. Particularly the people in this city. They’re all so … Gods-damned amicable. Everywhere a smile, a wave and a how-do-you-do. Sick of it. I’d settle in a house on my own in the middle of nowhere, away from everybody, where I can get some peace and quiet.”
Ohas chuckled. “You are a strange sort. I’m not sure where I’d settle. Maybe here. A nice house overlooking the gulf. There are some nice places here in Pangra. I know what you mean about the people, though. I swear, if I was told one story today, I was told a dozen. Everything around here has a story behind it!”
“Tell me about it,” agreed Yug. “The ivory trader this morning told me I’d have to be crazy to be thinking about taking the Pass of Taj-Rassan. Then, he told me all about the creation of the pass, when the two primordial brothers, Taj-Rassan and Keef, bickered over a woman. Daft pricks.”
Ohas chuckled again. “I was actually told the same story. I guess it’s a local favourite. You know Taj-Rassan represents Ishambria and Keef represents Zamphia, don’t you? It’s a clever allegory. It’s obvious in the conversation the two brothers have when they meet again after long years’ separation. Keef tells his brother he has a hundred palaces, a thousand wives, ten thousand servants and an army of one hundred thousand warriors, and Taj-Rassan retorts that he has peace. That has always stuck with me as a poignant remark on our cultures. Ishambria may be small and it may not be as wealthy as Zamphia, but we have something here the Zamphish do not.”
“Did you hear the one about Keef’s Tears, too?” Yug asked, rolling his eyes.
Ohas smiled. “Of course. Keef absconded with the woman they both loved, Saya, and took her across the mountains to Zamphia on a magic carpet. Taj-Rassan, however, crafted a chariot of sun fire, harnessed to it his magical horses and rode them straight through the mountains, carving a path with the blades on his wheels. He snatched back Saya while Keef was distracted by the Ishambrian army in Sharikhafar and returned home safe and sound. Keef was so heartbroken and wounded when he got home to find his beloved missing that he exiled himself to the mountains, found the lotus of long life and wept everlasting tears of sorrow that formed the river we know today as Keef’s Tears. Here’s where it gets interesting, though. Have you heard the Zamphish version of the tale?”
Yug shook his head.
“Well, the Zamphish tell a similar story, only they say that Saya went with Keef willingly and that Taj-Rassan was the one who captured her against her will.”
“Hmph,” grunted Yug. “I wonder why Keef didn’t go after her.”
“Some say he found peace on the mountaintop,” said Ohas, waving a barmaid over and indicating their flagging flagons. “Others that the great God Yama commanded him to put aside their brotherly rivalry. Some say he was too wounded to go after her or that he never cared about Saya at all, just wanted to get one over on his brother. I guess we’ll never know for sure. I don’t think that’s the point of the story, anyway. I doubt he was even real.”
Yug shrugged and drained his flagon just as the barmaid brought two new ones, full to the brim. “True. Ta, darling.”
“D’you two know the one about the gulf?” asked the barmaid, a pretty young thing with freckles on a cocoa complexion and wild black hair loosely tied back. Her eyes were huge and dark, her apron ale-stained. Her voice, when they said they hadn’t, was hypnotic. “The Uchthula Gulf is named for a race of beings that existed millennia ago, long before the Time of Witches. The oldest race ever to walk Maradoum, some say. They’re said to be monsters hundreds of feet tall with tentacles powerful enough to sink ships, wings like those of Dragons, claws like panthers, eyes the colour of blood alight with evil and mouths that open wide enough to swallow towns whole. The Uchthula. Beings so powerful there is nothing we can do against them save to pray that we are small and insignificant enough to escape their notice.” Ohas gulped, feeling goosebumps spread over his skin. Even Yug looked shaken. The barmaid smiled. “Of course, it’s only a story to frighten the children. That’ll be four coppers, please.”
Ohas paid her and turned to Yug once she had left. “Gods,” he muttered, “have you ever heard that before?”
Yug shook his head. “No. I always wondered why it was called that, though.”
Ohas puffed out his cheeks. “Not sure I’ll be getting any sleep tonight. I’ll probably have nightmares for days now.”
“I know what you mean,” said Yug. “Still, we need to rise early to be on our way, so we should finish these flagons and get to bed.”
They eventually went upstairs to their room and passed out on their beds some four or five drinks later.
Ohas felt like tiny invisible pixies were hammering a horde of nails into his head when he awoke the following morning and groaned. They had forgotten to close the curtains, and the dawn sunlight pricked his gummy eyes like needles. He rolled out of bed and landed on the rickety wooden floor on hands and knees with a thud. He saw that he was still dressed from the day before, so he put on his leather boots and woke Yug, who also groaned loudly. The Dwarf rose groggily, fished his tunic and jerkin off the floor and put them back on. He had not removed his breeches or boots for sleep.
“We’d better get a move on,” said Ohas through a yawn. “We need to get through the Pass as quickly as possible.”
Breakfasting on bread and cheese, buying some food for the road and then exiting the tavern by its back door, Ohas found his piebald mare, Easy, in the stable and harnessed her to the wagon while Yug climbed into the seat at the front. Ohas jumped up beside him more agilely, took the reins and gave them a deft flick to let Easy know they were ready to go. She obligingly whickered and trotted out of the yard and into the street beyond, hooves clopping on the cobbles.
She tried to move too fast, jostling the wagon, and Ohas had to call, “Easy!” before she calmed down.
Once she was walking more sedately, the wagon rolled along smoothly behind her. Ohas waved and smiled to those early risers who waved to him as they passed through the port city of Pangra, and just as the sun fully rose from its own bed, they approached the postern gate in the west wall, a gate so little used that the guards posted there gave Ohas and Yug funny looks when they asked for the way to be opened.
“You’re not going to Taj-Rassan Pass, are you?” asked one of the guards in yellow livery, his dark-skinned face pockmarked, his bald head gleaming in the sunlight and his blue eyes piercing.
“Yes,” said Ohas, raising his chin defiantly. “We are. What’s it to you?”
The guard looked the two of them up and down and shook his head. “You don’t want to do that.”
“Yes, we do.”
“No. You don’t. Trust me. The Pass’ll get you killed.”
Getting shrill, Ohas said, “Unless there is a law preventing me from leaving the city and taking the Pass, I’d ask that you step aside, please!”
Still shaking his head, the guard opened the iron-reinforced gate for them and waved them through. “I’ll be seeing you soon!” he called after them knowingly.
“No, you won’t!” Ohas shouted over his shoulder.
“I don’t know why I ever signed up for this,” Yug muttered.
“Oh, quit whingeing!” Ohas snapped. “You did it because you want to be rich – just like me!”
Yug shook his head. “Damn my own stupidity.”
Grebes, pelicans and egrets accompanied them, cawing and diving, as they travelled west along the coast. A road had been laid leading to the Pass, though it was poorly maintained now and overgrown with tufts of grass and weeds in places. The builders had evidently been optimistic about the Pass, as was Ohas. The merchant and his bodyguard did not see another soul on the road. Nobody else travelled the path to the west.
“Last year, I was sick to the stomach of the sight of other traders trying to steal our profits in Sharikhafar,” observed Ohas after a while, puffing on a baui pipe and glancing south at the pristine beach and lapping waves and north across the empty undulating meadows, “but this lack of activity is just as disturbing in its own way. It’s downright … ominous.”
“There is a reason everyone else goes through Sharikhafar,” said Yug gruffly, “just as we did last year.”
“Yes, but our profits last year were pitiful! I barely broke even. There has to be a way to make more money, faster. And I’m convinced this is the way. People have passed through here unmolested in the past.”
Ohas blew out a plume of smoke. “We’ll be fine. More than fine. If we can pull this off just a few times, we’ll be rich.”
Soon, the meadows began to dip and crest more noticeably as they transformed into the foothills of the Keef mountains. The beach fell away on their left until it was fifty feet below them, then a hundred. Still, chrysanthemums and hibiscuses waved at the travellers, impelled by the salty sea breeze. Rock faces started to show through the hills then, and the flowers faded away like a dream to be replaced by scarce patches of grass, lilacs, junipers, wild baui and thorn bushes. The Keef Mountains loomed ahead of them, jagged and unwelcoming. The sky greyed and started to drizzle, but they did not let up and it soon passed. Easy had a long way to take them on her own – one horse was cheaper than two – and they could not push her too hard lest she go lame, so Ohas let her plod along at her own pace so long as she kept going, flicking the reins only now and again when she stopped to crop some grass.
They mouth of the Pass yawned open before them that afternoon during another brief downpour, the firmament sullen. Like the road that led to it, the Pass was ill-kempt, its maw mostly clogged with boulders that had toppled off the mountain and been left so long they had been overgrown by thorns. The wagon barely scraped through. Ohas wasn’t sure what he had been expecting – obviously there was no one to blow a fanfare for his brave attempt at travelling the Pass – but somehow he had expected someone to jump out of a bush with a trumpet, herald him with a few brassy notes and declare him a wonderfully intrepid adventurer whose courage ought be recognised by all. That was too much to hope for, he supposed, eyeing the bushes expectantly.
Life, he ruminated sourly after plodding past the fiftieth bush that had failed to conceal a trumpeter, never quite worked out the way he expected. When his father – a wealthy merchant himself – had given Ohas a stipend to spend setting up his own business, Ohas had been thrilled. He had spent money left, right and centre, buying a wagon and goods and setting forth on his first ever journey. He had been robbed, beaten and left for dead within days. Nevertheless, he had rallied, bought another wagon, more goods, hired a single bodyguard – Yug – and set off once more with riches in sight. He had braved the tribulations of the Sharikhafar Desert, voyaging for weeks on end to sell his wares in Zamphia where they were more highly prized.
When he had arrived, though, he had been but one of a hundred merchants and – though his wares were fine – he had nothing in particular to set him apart from the rest. So, he had barely broken even, which – considering his first ill-fated voyage – meant he was out of pocket overall. He was not sure he had the strength to rally again if this venture failed. It was all or nothing for him now. Either he would beat the rest of the merchants to Zamphia in spring by taking the Pass and thus monopolise the market, or he would fail and likely be unable to afford another venture of such a size. He’d have to resort to smaller scale trading to raise funds once more, which could take months, if not years. He could not wait that long. He had seen his father’s lifestyle, and he wanted it. He wanted to be rich now, not in months, or maybe even years. So, despite all the warnings, he had decided the Pass was worth the risk.
In the shadow of the sheer mountains to the north, with a fall of more than a hundred feet to the beach to the south, Yug glanced left and right and grunted, “I see why people don’t like this place. Maybe I’ll settle down here. It’s got good ocean views, at least.”
Ohas forced a bark of laughter, and regretted it when it echoed off the cliff face. “There’s nothing to worry about, old boy. Nothing to worry about.” He chewed on a fingernail, saw Yug watching him and stopped. “We should be at the fort within a few hours.”
When they reached it, the fort proved to be nothing of the sort. A makeshift wall of stone and timber some eight feet high had been shoddily erected across the Pass between the drop to the ocean and the cliff face. There was no fort, only a battalion of grumpy mercenaries of varying races hiding behind the wall and living in roofless ruins and tents made of sticks and animal skins. Ohas gulped as he recalled the rumours he had heard in Pangra. He had paid them no heed at the time.
“Yug,” he said, “did you hear anything about the Pass while we were in Pangra?”
“Aye,” grunted Yug. “I heard the wildlings attacked out of the blue and shattered the fortress here within a few days, blasting it apart with some kind of black magic. Can’t say I believed it until now, though.”
Taking in the bricks and rafters scattered around the base of the wall and the few remaining half-wrecked structures – clearly the remnants of the fort that had once stood here – Ohas felt goosebumps pop up. “Me either. I guess they were true. What do you know of the wildlings?”
“Well, they’re wild, aren’t they?” Yug said gruffly, bushy eyebrows coming together. “They’re not human. They’re a bunch of weird hairless Magicians with skin like obsidian and eyes like snakes. People say they’re tattooed from head to toe and that it is these tattoos that grant them their power. Some say they can activate them with a single word of power. Some say they can even use them to change their shape.” He spat on the ground. “They’re a nasty lot, uncivilised but powerful. The Zamphians couldn’t conquer them despite their grand army, so they decided to just leave them well enough alone since the wildlings seem content to live their half-naked lives on the edge of the Cryptid Forest, dressing in animal skins and dancing around fires in their barbaric, intoxicant-heavy rituals. Some say they’re cannibals, that they’ll happily eat each other or us. That’s what I heard anyway.”
“And they sometimes come down south to the Pass?”
“Not often. But yes. Sometimes, they take a notion.”
“Right,” said Ohas, drawing the word out, clearly unconvinced. “Why would they venture this far south, though? What is there for them here?”
Yug shrugged, tugging at his tunic to try to protect his neck from the wind and rain. “Why do salmon swim upstream? Who knows?”
Ohas frowned. “Salmon swim upstream to lay eggs in specific spots.”
“Well, lah-dee-dah!” retorted Yug. “Point is, I don’t know why the wildlings come south, do I?”
“Well, why doesn’t the Raja post soldiers here?” asked Ohas. “Surely they’d be more reliable than these mercenaries?”
Yug shrugged. “Who’s to say? Soldiers fight for gold, just the same as mercenaries.”
“Soldiers fight for their country.”
“Bah! They fight for gold in whatever country they happen to be born in, you mean. The Raja is simply utilising the mercenaries that already exist to solve a problem, probably to stop them from being hired against him. It’s a smart move, I’d say.”
“Hmm. I hadn’t considered that.”
They fell silent as they came within earshot of the mercenaries. Some were clearly dark-skinned Ishambrians in turbans and robes with khopesh swords belted at their waists, while others had skin ebon enough to be from Zamphia. A few pale but tanned foreigners could even be seen alongside golden-skinned Tzunese warriors wielding katanas. Every eye turned on the wagon as Easy pulled it slowly along the Pass, its wooden wheels creaking and clattering. Ohas nodded to a few fighters, but none nodded, smiled or waved back, so he soon gave up.
One of them approached the wagon once it was deep in their midst, a scarred old veteran with a trident beard in pantaloons, paduka, a turban and a plain bronze cuirass over a tunic. A khopesh sword was belted to his waist. “Tell me you two are unorthodox envoys from the Raja here to deliver us goods. Tell me you two aren’t merchants trying to travel the Pass to Zamphia.”
“And a good day to you as well,” Ohas said, drawing himself up after his initial stupefaction. “We are not envoys. We are indeed merchants on our way to Zamphia. We’ll spend the night here and be on our way in the morning, if you’d be so kind as to clear a path.”
The veteran sighed heavily and rubbed his eyes, grumbling, “We just finished the Gods-damned wall …”
“Don’t be stupid!” yelled a nearby bearded Tzunese fellow in peculiar plate armour that somewhat resembled a collection of dishes all over his body, one across his torso, one on each shoulder and one across his back. The armour had clearly been crafted to fit his ample frame, and he bore a battleaxe slung on his back. “We can’t open up a path now! The wildlings could return at any time, and we’ll be caught with our pants down if we have a section of wall missing! You two are just going to have to turn around and go back. Go the long way like everyone else. Through Sharikhafar.”
Ohas eyed the man icily. “We are not going the long way. We are taking the shortcut. Now, please, I believe this Pass is supposed to be open to all travellers from Ishambria? Why then do I find it blocked? Should I report your insubordination to the Raja perhaps, or will you simply clear a path – like you’re supposed to – and let me be on my merry way?”
The Tzunese fellow looked like a storm cloud descended over him. His face darkened more than was warranted by the dimming sky, and his hand reached up towards the haft of the battleaxe poking up over his shoulder. Yug surreptitiously touched the head of the hatchet tucked into his belt, while Ohas tried his hardest not to flinch. He didn’t quite manage it, but thought he put on a brave show nonetheless. He did not run screaming at least, which was what his gut told him to do. The moment was taut as a drawn bowstring, ready to snap.
Then, the veteran eased the tension by wearily waving a hand and saying, “Shush, Xivu. You know very well that the Raja decreed we were to protect the Pass against any coming from the Zamphish side and to allow any to pass through from Ishambria.”
“But, Radigar -” Xivu started.
The veteran cut him off, swiping a gnarly hand. “But nothing!” He regarded the merchant and his bodyguard for a long moment, while Xivu put his hand down sullenly. “On your heads be it,” he said in the end. “We’ll let you through in the morning. Far be it from me to deny you your choice of death. You know if the Zamphish soldiers and bandits don’t get you, the wildlings will, though, right?”
Ohas suppressed a shudder. “We’ll be perfectly fine, thank you. If you could just clear a path as requested, it would be greatly appreciated.”
The veteran nodded, resigned. “Welcome, then. Make yourselves at home. I’m Radigar, captain of this horrible lot. If you need anything, keep it to yourself. We’ve got enough troubles.” He grinned crookedly and sloped off.
Ohas turned to Yug. “I guess this is as good a spot as any for the night. I’ll be in the wagon, getting some shut-eye. Would you tend to Easy before you turn in?”
“Will do,” Yug grunted, “but first I’ll move the wagon into the lee of the cliff to be out of the wind and rain.”
He did so and then unharnessed Easy, tied her to a gnarly thorn bush, fed her some oats and pulled up a bucket from the nearby half-wrecked well to give her some water. Meanwhile, Ohas climbed into the back of the wagon and made himself as comfortable as possible amid his wares, curling up on the silk with a blanket and chewing on some dried fish bought in Pangra. By then, the night was pitch black, granted reprieve only by the few stars shining through the shroud of clouds. Yug hopped into the wagon, stretched out alongside Ohas fully dressed, ate some fish and was soon asleep.
Ohas awoke to the less than dulcet tones of Captain Radigar bellowing to his men. Ohas was sure Radigar had made sure to stand close enough to the wagon that he was sure to wake the merchant. He roused grumpily, rubbing crust from his eyes and adjusting his turban.
Outside, Radigar hollered, “Right, lads, we need to clear a path to let this clown through the Pass! Clear those timbers we stacked for this very contingency.”
Ohas bristled at being called a clown, but chose not to make an issue of it since he was already getting his way. He felt lucky just to be alive, having suffered Xivu’s glower the day before. He tried to return to sleep, but it was impossible with the banter and clatter going on outside the wagon.
“We should’ve moved it further away from the wall before sleep,” he muttered to Yug drowsily.
“Aye, perhaps,” Yug agreed, scratching his balls.
Accepting that they would find no more rest, Ohas and Yug jumped down from the wagon and walked around to harness Easy once more and climb into the front seat to watch the mercenaries begin to dismantle the wall they had so recently erected by the pale, misty light of dawn. Ohas could not help but feel a touch guilty. His presence had caused these men extra work and extra risk. Xivu had not been wrong. If the wildlings attacked now, with a hole gaping in the wall, men could lose their lives – because of Ohas.
Nevertheless, he remained silent as the men took down the heavy timbers blockading one section of the wall far to the left by the drop-off to the beach, slowly creating a gap large enough for a wagon to pass through. Ohas fidgeted while he waited, taking sips of water from his waterskin, nibbling his nails, constantly glancing up to judge the hour by the sun’s position and even pacing back and forth when his rear end grew numb. Yug, on the other hand, slumped down in the seat and was soon snoring with his chin on his chest. Ohas tutted when he noticed, jealous of the Dwarf’s lackadaisical manner.
Radigar approached a couple of hours later to say, “The Pass is open, gentlemen. My men are removing the last timbers as we speak. Go straight through and we will shore up the wall behind you.”
Yug snorted himself awake.
Ohas jumped. “You’re closing the Pass behind us?”
Radigar nodded, maintaining eye contact. “Yes. I can’t leave it open for a prolonged period. The risk to my men is too great. So, be sure this is what you want. There will be no turning back.”
Ohas gulped. “We shall have no need to turn back. Thank you for your cooperation, captain. We’ll be on our way now. Good day.”
Radigar waited until the wagon had rolled out of earshot before muttering, “Good riddance.”
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