The Boulders and the Buffalo
Ikriff Jal Vuum stared out over Saddle Lake, bored.
The huge, crystal blue lake was fringed on all sides by grey mountains marbled with snow, like white veins were running through the landscape. It was sat in the saddle between several peaks, high up in the northern mountains of Al Kutz. The lake was still frozen at the edges; winter was reluctant to let go, like an overbearing matron. Shards of ice, some as large as him and some only foot-sized, floated around in the water; a glassy empire shattered into tiny pieces. The clear, still waters were a mirror, replicating the blue sky and the few scudding white clouds.
“D’you wanna play dice again, Ikriff?”
Ikriff turned slowly to behold the man beside him, Matthias Strongspine. “I think I’d rather pluck out my eyeballs and feed them to the fishes. We must have played a thousand games of dice.”
“I know.” Matthias was unhurt by the reply; he well understood the tedium. “It’s just there’s nothing else to do around here.”
The two were sat in a lookout tower – if you could call it a lookout tower, Ikriff thought sourly. It was the smallest watchtower in history, he was sure. High amid the peaks here, it needed no extra elevation for vantage and so it had been built small. It craftily nestled and hid among the peaks, in the shadow of one particularly tall one, almost invisible to anyone approaching. The tower was more a formality, a precaution, than anything else, Ikriff had always thought; nobody ever came through here. The two men stared out over the lake in silence for a while, sat on wooden chairs, peering through narrow windows in the stone walls. The dice sat on the table between them, unused.
Eventually, growing bored of the silence, Ikriff said, “You know your name?”
“I do,” agreed Matthias, who had made a baui roll-up while they sat in silence and was now puffing on it contentedly, leaning back in his chair.
“Strongspine. Did you give yourself that name, or was it given to you? D’you have to earn it? How does it work in Shimyahein?”
Matthias grunted in amusement, blowing smoke. “I gave it to myself.”
“Oh. Bit … arrogant, no?”
Matthias chuckled. “Yes, you could say that. My people have a saying; a name must be formidable, but not ridiculous.”
“Sounds ridiculous to me.”
“Well, you are only a Kutzian. How could you understand? In the Empire of Shimyahein, men are reared as warriors and when we are ready, we choose our own name. We choose a name we can take pride in. What is so strange about this?”
Ikriff shook his head. “Nothing, I suppose. It makes a lot of sense doing it that way around when you think about it. It’s stupid letting your parents name you. I mean – Ikriff. What kind of a name is that?” He gave a bark of laughter. “It’s equally stupid to name yourself after where you are born. I am Ikriff Jal Vuum – always will be – but I haven’t lived in Vuum since I was a pup. So anyway, how did you pick the name Strongspine?”
“Well, when a warrior picks a name, he must pick a name that is well-suited to him, or else he will look foolish. It is no good for an ugly man to call himself Darren Prettyface. No, he must be Darren Boarface or Darren of the Grease. In this way, warriors are limited. Also, when they pick a name, they must announce it before the community. The community then has the right to reject the name if they think it foolish or ill-suited. This brings great shame on a warrior, so it is important to get the name right. I was at a loss for what to call myself for a long time, but then I was given a mission to escort a wagon of supplies to my people from southern traders. My group and I were attacked as we brought the wagon back. We managed to kill the raiders, for there were only a few of them – outcasts, I judged. But all of my men were wounded and died soon after. Even the horses were all wounded and had to be put down.” He shook his head and looked at the roll-up, which had gone out while he spoke. “A sad deed for any warrior of the grasslands. So, I was left alone with the wagon. I pulled the wagon back to my clan myself, in place of the horses. When I got there, dead on my feet and drenched in sweat, a friend of mine said to me, ‘By the Gods, you must have a spine of steel!’ That was when I knew what my name would be.”
Ikriff nodded, mildly impressed but sure the tale had been hyperbolised. He could not resist a barb at his companion’s swollen ego.
“What kind of an Empire has clans, anyway?”
Matthias bristled, as he always did when Ikriff mocked the legitimacy of the Empire where he was born. Both men were Winter Wolverines, mercenaries working for the Warlord, Sciarv Jal Shambot, but they had differing heritages. The warriors of the grasslands – Matthias’ people, horsemen by nature – maintained Shimyahein was an Empire, but all those outside its borders laughed at the small country with the grandiose name. It was a place of infighting, never at rest, never at peace with itself. Hundreds of clans made up its populace, and each had its own laws and believed itself above the rest.
Like many of his people, Matthias was big, broad and bronze with umber hair. He was wrapped in brown stoat fur to combat the cold. Ikriff, on the other hand, was small and wiry and had the olive complexion of a Kutzian. He was swaddled in black bear fur; he still had the scars on his ribs from slaying the beast. His hair, too, was black and curly, so it was difficult to tell where the high collar of the coat ended and his mane began. Unlike the clean-shaven Matthias, Ikriff had let a scraggly black beard grow out from his thin chin. Also unlike the young romantic, Matthias, Ikriff was old enough to be cynical.
“It’s no different to all the Warlords in Al Kutz,” Matthias pointed out. “This is hardly a unified nation, either. Every Warlord is at war with all the rest.”
“I never said it was.”
Ikriff was about to tease his friend further, for watching him squirm and seeing his hackles raise was the only fun he could find in the remote watchtower anymore. Something caught his eye, however, and he froze. He stared out over Saddle Lake, the waters so vast that its far shores were lost to the mists of distance.
“Matthias, look! D’you see anything out there?”
One second, there was nothing; the next, a fleet of longships loomed out of the blue, sailing fast over the crystalline waters.
“Ah!” Matthias exclaimed, grabbing Ikriff unnecessarily. “Ikriff, look!”
“I see, I see!”
As the boats came closer, Ikriff saw that they were long and narrow with both oars and a sail. The prows were carved with Dragon-head figureheads. The canvas was taut and those aboard were rowing, too. They were making quick headway over the lake and would be washing ashore by the watchtower in under an hour. He squinted to make out the emblem on the sail, and when he did, he muttered, “Galush-Kagen, you’re in for a treat today.”
It seemed there would be blood aplenty for the God of Gore.
“How did they even get boats up here?” Matthias asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Who are they?”
“I recognise the symbol they fly,” Ikriff said grimly. “It’s the sigil of the Golden Buffalos, the men who work for Imr Abdul Burai’abul Shamash, the Ishambrian Warlord who rules in Jerekleia.”
“How in the Gods’ name do you remember all that foreign nonsense?”
Ikriff shrugged absently. “I dunno. Just do.”
“Well, what are they doing here?”
Ikriff gave his companion a withering glance. “Come for a picnic, of course. Why d’you think, numbskull? They’re attacking us!”
“By the Gods, we have to do something! We have to warn them!”
“Yes, we do,” Ikriff agreed thoughtfully. “Let’s get to the fire.”
The warning fire was high among the peaks, set in the lee of a curving granite ridge that blocked the majority of the wind coming from the north. The city they were protecting to the south, Shambot, would easily be able to see the flames if they could get the wood lit.
Ikriff and Matthias hurried out of the watchtower and rushed up the mountainside, climbing around the ridge to get to the warning fire. The clouds thickened above them, warning of worse to come. The wind flayed their faces, cold enough to numb, and stung them with little flecks of rain and hail, or perhaps just whipped-up snow. They had both donned fur gloves for the short journey, but they still felt like their fingers were getting frostbitten. So high in the mountains, they were also short of breath remarkably quickly as they tried to move at speed.
When they reached the small plateau where wood for the fire was stacked as high as they were tall, the wind howled around them, around the ridge, but no longer buffeted them directly. A stash of oil and some strange green powder Ikriff was unfamiliar with was secreted in a nook in the rock nearby; they doused the wood as they had been ordered. Then, with flint and knife, they struck a spark. It took a few tries, but soon a spark caught on the oil and the wood went up in a blaze. Thanks to the oil and the green powder, the flames roared to life quickly, growing high and turning a vivid and easily recognisable green colour. They stunk and threw up a huge black smoke signal, too, which Ikriff had not been prepared for.
He had never had to light a warning fire before, though he had been in many battles. It was hard to live in Al Kutz and not get into battles, and he had lived there all his life. It sometimes seemed like the whole country was just one big battle.
Ikriff knew the invaders would likely see the flames, and if not would definitely see the smoke. “Alright,” he said, “the city is warned. Now, let’s get out of here before those bastards in the boats come looking to see what’s going on.”
“Where are we going?” Matthias asked. “Back to the city?”
Ikriff gave his companion a disparaging look. “You know what we have to do.”
Matthias’ broad shoulders sank. “I thought you were going to say that. I hoped not, but I thought so.”
Climbing back out of the lee of the ridge, they made their way to a new position, high in the crags, looking south. The sky was white with cloud cover now. The lake was lost to sight and Ikriff found he missed its placidness now, missed the boredom. Climbing frozen, slick rock faces in the biting winds was no way to pass a day. His nose was sore after a while, then numb by the time they reached their next destination. He could not feel his fingers and toes, either, but kept using them regardless to drag himself onward.
When they reached their new vantage point, Ikriff and Matthias slumped to the ground, trying to shelter behind small crags that provided little in the way of windbreak.
“What do we do now?” Matthias asked.
They shivered and clung together and waited. It began to snow, and still they sat motionless, under a thickening white veil.
“There they are!”
After what seemed an age, when both were hidden under a layer of snow, saturated and shaking, the Golden Buffalos finally came into sight once again. It was a large raiding force, as such forces went in Al Kutz. A thousand men, Ikriff reckoned, swarmed the leveller rock floor a hundred feet below the two lookouts, looking like miniatures in the distance, like toys. Most of them had dark skin and wore colourful turbans, yellow and scarlet and white, likely signifying them as Ishambrian natives who had followed Imr Abdul when he had migrated to Al Kutz. Some did not; mercenary groups in Al Kutz were always diverse. Regardless of ethnicity, any man could achieve greatness in Al Kutz with a strong enough sword arm.
As well as the turbans, a lot of the warriors wore Ishambrian-style robes beneath mismatched armour. There was little chainmail, but a lot of rusty cuirasses, greaves and gauntlets. The thousand warriors converged on the clifftop on foot at speed, little knowing they were being observed. Once arrayed along the clifftop, they began anchoring lines by tying them around crags and then letting the spools spill out over the cliff edge.
They had come prepared, Ikriff acknowledged. They had known they would need long ropes to abseil down the cliff face to get to Shambot, which lay a league distant to the south, in the lee of the great escarpments. This was a well-planned raid, and any attack from this direction was likely to take the city relatively by surprise. Normally, no one came over Saddle Lake.
There were, however, precautions for just such an emergency, and the two Wolverines had been well drilled on how to put them into place.
“When do we do it?” Matthias asked, teeth chattering.
“Wait until they are on the ropes,” Ikriff replied, rubbing his arms. “Then, we move.”
They did not have to wait long. Soon, the ropes were ready and Buffalos were swinging out over the cliff edge, dangling over a drop of at least a hundred feet.
“Let’s go,” said Ikriff, levering himself up with a creak and a groan. Middle age was doing him no good, he decided.
“If we have to,” Matthias muttered glumly.
The two of them moved swiftly down the mountainside, hidden by crags and ridges from those below for the most part and well-camouflaged besides in their snow-choked gear. When they reached another plateau, less than fifty feet above the raiders, they stopped and stared at the long row of boulders laid out on the edge of the platform, above a slope leading down toward the cliff edge where the invaders were abseiling. The score of boulders were perched precariously, with only manmade wooden supports holding them in place, stopping them from rolling down the slope. In fact, the whole arrangement was manmade. Teams of big, strong men had pushed and hauled those boulders to the top of the slope, or else brought them down from above, and had placed them carefully in their positions before building the supports to hold them in place.
“Are we really going to do this?” Matthias asked. “As soon as we do, they’ll know we’re up here. We’ll never get off this mountain alive.”
“They’re already taking the easiest route down,” Ikriff pointed out. “There’s no way out for us as it is, unless we risk a sheer face. We have to do this. It’s what we signed up for. It’s our duty. And I, for one, have a wife and kid back home to protect.”
Matthias sighed. “You’re right. I just wish I could have lived long enough to find a woman, too … maybe have a kid of my own … Ah well, at least Galush-Kagen will welcome me with open arms in the Bloody Pagodas when I die, eh?”
“That he will, my friend, that he will,” said Ikriff, patting the man from Shimyahein on the shoulder. “He will receive you with highest honour when he hears of what you have done, how you met your end.”
Matthias clasped Ikriff’s shoulder in return, looking down at the littler man. “He will welcome us both like brothers, my friend, and I, for one, am glad to meet my fate by your side, Ikriff Jal Vuum.”
Ikriff nodded. “I am glad, too, Matthias Strongspine. I would have it no other way. Ahem. Alright, let’s do this. Time to put those big muscles of yours to use. Grab the rope.”
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