There were voices on the winds, whispers and rumours which could barely be heard unless the air was clear. They spoke of the passing of the years and the fading of the warriors. The great kings were nothing more than dust in their tombs, and the knights were forgotten. Honour and valour had died with the men. The stories now spoke of the treachery within the noble courts, and the games played by the politicians which won poverty for the people.
One legend had survived the murder of the heroes. The Iron Band was still murmured in the corners of courtyards, still spoken with a reverence that believed in truth. To some who still remembered the ancient heroes, the Iron Band was the last chance for the salvation of all that had been good in the world. The last heroes.
The wind changed, and the voices spoke again with fear on their tongues. Even the strength of the Iron Band was fading. The villages in the east had seen the Band, but their leader was not with them. Talin Karaethos had vanished. The wind cried for him.
There were stories that he was dead. Some said that he had flown away on dragon's wings. Some said that he had never returned from the Devil King's realm. There was a breath of an idea that he had fallen from honour and was on his knees in the underworld where the ghosts haunted his waking and sleeping. The truth was not believed.
The wagons rolled into Assim Har, pushing through the people until they reached the shade of a squat, square building on the eastern edge of the city. The doors to the building were studded with bolts, beaten from bronze and etched with scenes of warriors. The doors swung open with a guttural groan, and the wagons were led into the building's courtyard. A small crowd of people was entering the building by a separate entrance, all dressed in rich silks and dyed muslin, their fingers dripped with rings and jewels.
The courtyard was lined with benches, shaded with canopies. In the centre was a pit, the walls stained with dark blood, and scattered with fragments of clothing and bone. The benches were crammed with people – most men, but a few women with feathered fans held against their faces. The wagons had disappeared down a passage, swallowed by the building's labyrinthian structure.
One of the women, with her hair braided around a silver coronet, fanned her neck gently and glanced at the man beside her. He held the leash of a dog in one hand. The animal lay at his feet, panting in the heat.
"I had not expected to see you here, Rousseux," she said with a smile. "I heard tell you had no money left. I'm surprised you have the funds to even attend the sale."
"I have a new patron," Rousseux said. "He has asked that I invest his donations in this sale. He believes great fortune will be won here." He rubbed the dog's head with his fingertips. "I doubt even you can compete with my current funds."
"We shall see," the woman said, drawing a veil over her face. "We shall see." She sat back, arranging her shawl across her shoulders, and watched the gate scrape back in the pit.
"Welcome, my lords and ladies!" The man was standing on a raised block at one end of the pit. "I bid you welcome to our sale, and warn you that the standard of this season is far higher than previous years. Our prices are a little higher to allow all the widows of men who died to become fat and rich." There was a murmur of laughter around the courtyard, but as the first two figures were pushed through the gate into the pit, a hush fell. "I present to you Conrad, a blacksmith from the coast, and Arrias, a farmer from the south." He waved a hand. Two blunted short swords were thrown into the pit. The two men looked at each other for a moment, unsure what was expected of them.
Another gate opened, and two great spotted cats came slinking into the pit, snarling. Conrad moved first, running to where the short swords lay and picking them up. Arrias backed away from one of the cats, only to scream as the other jumped onto his back and locked its jaws around the back of his neck. Conrad sliced at the cat with one of the swords, but the blade barely broke the skin. The cat leapt off with a roar, and Conrad threw the other sword to Arrias.
"Fight!" he urged. "Fight, or die!"
Rousseux watched closely as the men hacked and slashed at the cats with little effect, trying to defend themselves. The cats were worked into a greater frenzy by the teasing of the blunt swords, and for a while it seemed as if the men would die in the pit.
Another figure entered the pit with a whip coiled in one hand. He whistled, sharp and loud, and the cats dropped back, crouching and growling. They crept to the edge of the pit and lay still, submissive yet defiant. Arrias and Conrad stared at them, still holding the swords and shifting their weight nervously.
"My lords, my ladies," the man on the platform said, "your bids please."
Ki'ol untied his horse from the rail outside the inn and took a deep breath. The stocky black creature rolled an eye at him. He looked right back at it.
"I know you hate my guts," he said, reaching for the stirrup. "If it's any consolation, I fucking hate yours." He levered himself into the saddle as the horse switched its tail and tossed its head, fidgeting as he struggled to find the other stirrup. Salahim rode up beside him, his reins held in one hand, his legs loose around the animal's body, and his torso rippled a little with each step the horse took. Ki'ol watched him jealously.
"We're nearly ready," Salahim said. "We should arrive at Assim Har before sunset."
"Do you think he's there?" Ki'ol said. "We haven't heard back from Na'elia yet. She hasn't been gone very long."
"I believe he is there," Salahim said. "Na'elia tracked the wagons this far. They would only come this route if they wanted to enter the city without being noticed. There's nowhere else to go from here."
"The wilderness," Ki'ol pointed out. His horse began to paw the ground and he slapped its shoulder, making his hand sting. It turned its head and bit deliberately on his toe. He kicked it in the teeth. "You little fucker."
The rest of the Band appeared, and Ki'ol counted them, almost hoping to find the big man's silence among them. Elohm, on a quick bay horse, Neru on a black mare, Pulan on her dark bay and Kelisa sitting reluctantly on a neat grey. Na'elia was out somewhere in animal form, searching for any sign of Talin. Without Talin's massive figure among them and his silent leadership, the Band was uncomfortably small.
Ki'ol dug his horse in the ribs with his heels and followed Salahim and Neru as they rode out of the village. Elohm and Kelisa hung back a little to ride behind him, and Pulan rode to his side, melding with her horse with an effortlessly liquid grace. For a while, they rode in silence, the heat rising with the sun. Ki'ol could feel the sweat rolling, teasing, down his back.
He looked over at Pulan, and was a little surprised to see her looking sweaty and less than at ease. "You alright?" he asked. She glared at him.
"I am a dark elf," she said. "I am used to living in the darkness underground, where it is cool. This light and heat is unnatural." He grinned at her, finally finding a weakness with her. She scowled. "If you so much as think of mentioning this, I will rip your tongue out and feed it to you." He smirked, but didn't push his luck. His tongue had proved useful in the past.
Elohm pressed his horse up beside Salahim, and Neru fell back at a glance from the half-elf. His pale face was almost white in the stark sunlight, and his long black hair hardly stirred around his face. One of his slender hands held the reins loosely, and the other plaited the horse's mane through his fingers deftly.
"What is your intention when we reach the city?" he asked quietly. Salahim didn't answer for a moment.
"We will go to my family's home. From there we will see if anybody has any news of Talin." He shrugged. "I do not know what else to do." He looked at the druid for guidance. "What do you feel we should do?"
Elohm ran one hand down the horse's neck and sighed. "Kelisa does not wish to be with us. We should let her leave."
"We may need her."
"Then we must do without her. Forcing her to stay with the Band when she decided to leave is stifling her. I cannot see her suffer like this."
"I am sorry," Salahim said, shaking his head. "Twice we have needed her in the past. In my experience things always happen in threes."
"Salahim, when we reach Assim Har, she will go of her own volition."
"And if she goes? Will you go with her?"
Elohm's face became pained. "Do not ask such questions of me. I have no answers for you."
Salahim gathered his reins. "We must reach the city before the day is over. Tell the others to step up the pace."
Rousseux watched the two men in the pit as they screamed and writhed beneath the claws of the spotted cats. He had not yet placed a single bid, whereas the woman beside him had bought three men already. He leaned back against the rail behind him and the dog yawned at his feet.
"These two won't even sell," the woman said. "Look at them, pathetic creatures. Those cats are exhausted, and the men are still overwhelmed." She smiled. "Their price might even be low enough for you to afford, Rousseux."
"I'm just saving my money for a worthy investment," he said. "Patience, Lilyana, is what buys decent meat."
"You've missed all the good ones," Lilyana said with a flick of her feathered fan. "You'll be scraping the barrel with cocks and dogs again this year."
"You'll be the one with no spectators, my dear," Rousseux said, stretching as the two men were dragged from the pit, leaving a slick of blood behind them. "I intend to buy something which the world will want to see. A man of iron."
"Men are not created from iron," Lilyana said. "Good luck with your fantasy." She got to her feet. "My work is done here, I believe." She started to descend the steps, but another figure appeared in the pit. The sheer size of him made her stop and watch.
Rousseux leaned forwards and saw the gate clang shut. This man was being sold alone. He saw Lilyana sit down again. The man with the whip whistled, and the cats got to their feet, snarling and circling the edge of the pit. One of them jumped onto the massive figure standing in the centre, only to be met with a fist down its throat and another arm around its neck. With one sharp jerk, the beast crumpled and fell, its head lolling onto the ground.
Before the other cat could leap, a swift whistle made it crouch back and away. There was a moment of silence.
"Ladies and gentlemen, your bids please."
The city was tight and overfull. The horses struggled to make their way through the people, and it was slow progress as the day melted into dusk and the warmth remained in the air, cloying and airless. The noise of people trading, swearing, shouting and singing filled the air with a foaming sound like the roar of the sea.
After so long in the cold quiet of the mountains, the hot and loud atmosphere felt like another world to the Iron Band. There was little of familiarity in Assim Har – from the eastern gates it was a rough district of tradesmen and beggars, where motley theatre companies struggled for a living and acrobats enticed people into circuses and freak shows. Travellers who came on the great caravans from the south stayed in the square, stone houses which comprised of the local inns. A dozen languages touched the lips of the crowds, and all manner of exotic and strange creatures were kept in cages to be sold as food or novelty.
Ki'ol let his horse follow Pulan's, guarding his pockets carefully. He knew how easy it was to pickpocket a man on horseback. He'd done it often enough himself. He played a knife through his fingers idly, wondering where they were going. Cities didn't daunt him, but at the same time he liked to have a rough idea of the lay of the place. He made a mental note to explore that night.
As they pushed through the crowds and the light faded slowly, the streets became wider and cleaner, and the buildings became steadily larger. The beggars were replaced by guardsmen in smart uniforms, and the street hawkers became respectable-looking stalls with heavy canopies to keep off the heat.
The city opened out into a great square, with an alabaster statue of a gargantuan man astride a monstrous horse, with one arm aloft and holding the broken shaft of what had once been a torch. The horse's face was lined with dirt and dust, and the rider's gilded shield had been chipped and cracked. The pool of water around its base was thick with dirt and slime.
"Who was that supposed to be?" Pulan murmured, her black eyes lingering on the faded engraving on the plinth.
"Aneurin," Salahim said quietly. He touched his forehead and then his chest. "The man of gold. They say he is the founder of civilisation. He lit up the cities and purged the robbers from the countryside. He made our land safe. He made us prosper." He gestured to the diseased pool of water in disgust. "Our greatest hero is no longer honoured. People used to pour jewels in the pool in the hope that his spirit would bless their households." He looked up at the tattered statue, at all that remained of an age of valour. "I cannot help but feel that our time is coming to an end."
They passed through the square, and Ki'ol glanced back at the statue. The light was glimmering through the translucent stone, but it was a sobering sight. It made him wonder if Talin's heroic stature was similarly broken and forgotten. He shuddered.
The streets were wide and paved with dusty slabs of sandstone. Channels of water ran along each side of the road, and the horses paused to drink from time to time. Even with the sun's ferocious glare tucked over the horizon, the heat remained. The buildings were set back from the street and held behind big gates and thick, high walls. Palazzos and villas with elegant, arched structures and fluted columns stood behind the walls, sprawling away into the dusky warmth. Ki'ol eyed it all suspiciously. The Iron Band was not accustomed to comfort and riches, and yet Salahim was leading them ever deeper into the noble territory of the city and the estates were becoming larger the further they went.
When Salahim finally drew rein, it was outside an imposing set of wrought iron gates set deep in walls of a pale, smooth stone. A clipped garden was laid out at the front of the palazzo, and the gravel was raked smooth. Ki'ol watched as Salahim dismounted smoothly, opened the gates and led his horse straight up the gravel path, churning it and stirring up the dust, to the bottom of the steps of the house. Neru, Elohm and Kelisa followed without hesitation. Pulan paused for a moment with one eyebrow arched in surprise.
"Well, this explains a lot," Ki'ol said, kicking his horse in the ribs and riding up the path. "I always had a feeling he was a rich bastard."
There was a scuffling sound from one corner of the house and four men in livery came running up to the steps.
"Please my lords, my ladies," one of them said, "we are not expecting visitors." They stood across the steps as if to bar the way. Salahim pressed the reins of his horse into the hands of one of them and brushed straight past him. "My lord, please!"
"Tell Jerontius that Salahim is here," the paladin said, putting his shoulder to the big bronze doors and pushing them open. "He will give you further orders. For now, take the horses of my companions and show them to the gallery."
"Jerontius is not here at this time," one of the liverymen said nervously. "Please, Lord Salahim, we cannot allow you to enter the house of our master." He caught Salahim's arm and tried to lead him out of the house.
"So, my brother has neglected to inform his servants of my name," Salahim said softly. "Let go of me." The liveryman released him obediently and stood back with his head bowed. Salahim swept into the house, his boots ringing on the marble floor.
He went straight through the house to the main bedchamber, and he threw open the door with a bang. A man's muffled curse and the shocked squeal of a woman greeted him as he went to the window and drew back the curtains sharply, letting the light of the moon pool on the floor. He turned, glowing with his god's power.
"I find it less than amusing that my existence is unknown to your servants," he said. "I feel you have some explaining to do, brother."
"What the hell are you doing here?"
The woman clutched a sheet to her body and ran from the chamber. Salahim did not move, outlined against the moonlight. He held his brother in his steady gaze.
"When I return to my family's estate, I expect to be welcomed and my companions to be treated with hospitality. I do not expect to be turned from my own door!"
"What are you doing here?"
"I came to see you, Hirolaen," Salahim said, going to the bed and ripping the sheets away. "I did not come to see your whores."
"Then you should have knocked." Hirolaen got up and slung a dressing gown around his shoulders. "When did you arrive?"
"It doesn't matter." Salahim paused for a moment. "Is this how you spend your time? Wasting our money on women? Is there anything left?"
"The vaults are still full," Hirolaen said carelessly. "Why do you want to know? I thought you were a man of the Order, now."
"I remain a paladin of C'arraa," Salahim said gratingly. "My path leads me back here because I require your knowledge of Assim Har's underworld, a place for my companions and I to stay, and the money which I passed on to you when I left."
Hirolaen snorted. "You can have a place to stay," he said. "The house is empty apart from a few girls. As for money or information, you can forget it. You don't have a claim to anything any longer."
Salahim gave him a long, hard stare, his eyes flaming with divine power. "Think on it," he said. "Perhaps in the morning you will feel more inclined to help your kin." He lifted a hand and motioned Hirolaen out into the hall. "Please, come and meet my friends – and inform your servants of their duties."
"So courteous," Hirolaen said. "Even when you speak with someone you hate, you are polite. You amaze me." He sauntered out into the hall and down the stairs to the lobby where the Iron Band were waiting.
Rousseux checked the bolts himself, the dog sniffing at the wheels of the cart. The gates were firmly closed. It was quiet inside. A slight rocking motion of the cart betrayed the pacing of the man inside. Rousseux jumped up beside the driver.
"Let's go," he said. "We need to get back before he gets bored in there." The driver whipped the mules up and sent them cantering through the streets. Rousseux twisted around and peered through the small hole in the boards. He was met with a murderous glare of icy blue, and he drew back sharply.
"You think he's really worth eight hundred thousand?" the driver said, spitting off the side of the cart as the mules loped through the city.
"You didn't see him, Crombie. He killed one of the test cats. He didn't even have to try. Lilyana wanted him."
"Lucky you got a backer."
"Luck indeed." Rousseux rubbed the dog's head absently as it lay quivering at his feet. "We launch him tomorrow. We give him a week in the city and then we move him on. There are big leagues to enter. Demon traders, beast sales, there's even an arcane market now."
Crombie sniffed. "And you think this one's good enough to compete?"
"He seems to think he is," Rousseux said quietly.
They drew up outside a solid looking building, and the gates opened to allow the cart inside. A team of men appeared, unhitching the cart and pushing it down into the passages below ground. Rousseux followed them at a safe distance, watching as they manoeuvred the cart carefully up against a cell and drew back the bolts. They braced the cart in place, waiting.
There was a silence. The cart rocked a little, and the gate of the cell was rammed home. Rousseux waited for the cart to be removed before going a little closer. He met the iced glare again and smiled a little.
"Welcome to the underworld, Kerikan Lord," he said. The dog tipped back its head and howled.