Frej Wasastjerna



     The wall loomed dark against the red western sky. The small lake in front of it replicated the scene upside down.

     This oasis looked like a good place to spend the night, Radeyann thought. The lake would provide water and there were various kinds of fruit hanging from the trees, though he didn't know which were edible. None of them had found their way to the markets of Miann‑Shadalni, more than two thousand miles distant. There was the problem that the oasis would probably be visited frequently by nomads, some of which might be hostile. Curiously enough, there didn't seem to be anybody here right now. Anyway, that wall looked as if it might provide good protection from hostile nomads.

     He led the expedition around the lake, through groves of trees he didn't recognize. The air was cooling as the sun set and was now almost comfortable.

     Birds trilled, whistled and chattered, many of them dazzlingly colorful. Occasionally he caught a glimpse of some mammal in the trees, sometimes a squirrel looking almost like those back home, sometimes a big‑eyed ape.

     Well, it was up to  him to decide where to spend the night. He hadn't asked for that responsibility, and the leadership of this expedition was a rather heavy burden for a twenty‑three‑year‑old journeyman wizard. Not only did it depend on his decisions whether the White Order's attempt to learn something about the western lands would succeed, but so did his own life and that of two apprentice wizards and twenty soldiers.

     Darkness fell with the swiftness of a tropical sunset. By the time they had reached the wall, it was night. He could just barely see that there was an opening.

     Turning to Medor, the veteran who was in command of the soldiers, he asked him to detail two soldiers to light torches. When that was done, the first priority was to fill the canteens. Asking Beredan to hold his horse Whitejaw, he dismounted and walked to the lake shore. He knelt down, cupped his hands and lifted some water to his mouth.

     It tasted good. And he couldn't sense any magic in it. He could only hope that there was no subtle poison he couldn't taste.

     He stood up. "All right, fill one canteen each with this water," he said. That way there would still be the water in the other canteen if there was something wrong with this water, a routine precaution. "And let the horses drink."

     When that was taken care of, he explored the wall, on both the outside and the inside, together with one of the torchbearers.

     It was a plain stone wall, some twenty feet high, made of closely fitted, unmortared large blocks. It surrounded an empty, sandy enclosure, two hundred feet on a side. There was a single gate, in the middle of the side facing the lake.

     There was one curious thing about the gate. There were brackets for a bar only on the outside. There was also a wooden bar, fitting nicely into the brackets, leaning against the wall beside the gate.

     That worried him. Besides, who had built this enclosure and why?

     He tried to close the gate. Neither half of it budged. Even the combined efforts of the three strongest soldiers in the expedition couldn't make them move.

     He asked Medor to have the bar carried into the enclosure and to have one man guard the gate all night, while another would guard the interior of the enclosure.

     Certainly sleeping inside the enclosure would have advantages. Nobody would be able to see them at night except by entering the enclosure. A fire would be visible, at least through the open gate, but there was no real need for a fire. Even the nights here were too warm to make a fire necessary, and they could eat a cold supper. Also, the walls made it hard to sneak up on the expedition.

     In addition, the dry sand inside the wall was a much better surface to sleep on than the soggy shore.

     Although he had to make the final decisions, he could still ask the others for advice. Standing in front of the gate, where the rest of the expedition had gathered, he asked, "Does anyone object to sleeping in there?"

     Nobody answered. He ordered the expedition to set up its camp inside. They were all tired, so all except the guards soon went to sleep.


     Wizards were spared guard duty, so Radeyann could sleep undisturbed. The next morning, he was already half awake when a guard shouted "Who goes there?" That woke him up fully, and next he heard a clang as of something hard striking a helmet.

     He had slept fully dressed, so he only had to crawl out of his sleeping bag and his tent. While he was doing that, somebody shouted "Alarm! Wake up, everybody!"

     It was dark. In the east, the sky was faintly grayish, elsewhere it was deep black, scattered with stars that shone brilliantly through the dry desert air. Seeing what was happening on the ground was next to impossible. Hearing was another matter. There was a harsh, high‑pitched grinding noise from the direction of the gate, elsewhere there were sounds of confusion, of men stumbling over tent ropes and over each other, of cursing, of weapons, canteens, tools hitting the ground or banging against each other in the chaos.

     They needed light. A light spell would have taken too long. "Light some torches!" he shouted. Then he tried to feel his way towards the gate to find out what was happening there.

     Somewhat before he reached it, somebody did manage to light a torch. A hundred feet away, it lit the wall and the gate only faintly, but that was enough for him to see that the gate was closed.

     He pushed against it. It didn't move.

     Two soldiers had also reached the gate by now. The three of them rushed the gate together. It yielded ‑‑ half a foot or so, then, as soon as they let up, it pushed back, as if held shut by something springy.

     As additional expedition members reached the gate, different combinations of them tried to get the gate open. None succeeded.

     Even with the gate closed, there was a small gap between the halves. Radeyann tried to peer through it. There seemed to be something on the other side where the bar would have been. Partly by looking at its silhouette against the gradually lightening eastern sky, partly by using a torch to shine on it, Radeyann managed to make out enough of it to suspect that it was a branch.

     How could they get it out of the way? And who had closed the gate and barred it?

     The gap was too narrow to admit even a finger. Might it admit a sword blade?

     Medor tried. It did. Then he tried to push upward, to dislodge the branch or whatever. No luck. It was either jammed hard into position or held down by something.

     Others tried too, with no more success.

     The walls were too high to be climbed. They were also too solid to be knocked down.

     It was time to try a piece of magic. Radeyann decided to cast a Firelance spell. Telling the others to stand back, he began the preparations. He drew a couple of deep breaths, clearing his mind of everything except the idea of fire ‑‑ bolts of actinic, all‑consuming, raging fire. He stood on tiptoe, stretching his arms up, then gradually sideways and down, to draw in as much uruop as he could, preparatory to channeling it through his mind and hands as a ravening bolt of flame.

     Nothing. No uruop as far as he could detect. Well, there was some faint trace, but what he could have cast with that would have been put to shame by a glowworm.

     His shoulders slumped. He turned to face Beredan and Garak, the two junior wizards. "This is a dead zone," he said. A zone with no uruop.

     Now what?

     Time to take stock of the situation. To check what shape the expedition was in.

     It turned out that, apart from a few bruises sustained as they blundered around in the night, all expedition members were in good shape ‑‑ with one exception. Karovin was missing.

     "He was on guard together with me," Astshek said. "He was at the gate and I was standing guard in the interior of the enclosure. I heard noises from the direction of the gate. First Karovin challenged somebody, then it sounded as if somebody might have hit him, and then there was that squealing from the hinges of the gate. I woke you up, and the rest you know."

     So. Karovin was missing, but the others were alive and healthy, with supplies of both water and food that under normal circumstances should have lasted for several days.

     The circumstances weren't quite normal, though. At noon, with the sun almost directly overhead, it would get very hot in this enclosure with no shelter apart from their tents. They might be able to survive for a few days, but they would use up water at a much greater rate than normally. Anyway, sooner or later they would run out of supplies. What then?

     Certainly there was no reason to expect help from the Order. Miann‑Shadalni was far away, and in a dead zone there was no way of sending a message to ask for help. Even if the Order concluded from the absence of progress reports that something was wrong and sent a relief expedition, this expedition would be desiccated corpses by the time the other one arrived.

     They tried to burn the gate with their torches, but the massive, iron‑studded wood wouldn't even smolder. Neither did axes have any effect, they only blunted themselves when they hit the studs.

     He asked Medor to organize new attempts to climb the wall and also to put some men to work trying to dig under it. Those who weren't busy doing that should gather in the niggardly shade of the north wall. With the sun passing a few degrees north of zenith, there would be a narrow strip out of direct sunlight.

     Radeyann himself went to sit there and think. What a mess he had led the expedition into! It was a pity that Kelevrin, the original commander of the expedition, had died in an encounter with hostile nomads three days ago.

      Of course it was a pity in more ways than one. Kelevrin had not just been Radeyann's mentor, it was his support that had made life endurable when the other children in the Order's school had ganged up against him. Though not all of them were Tshezz, even those who belonged to other ethnic groups still despised the Kahha. Though Kelevrin was a Tshezz himself, he was free of such prejudices.

     Radeyann had to fight back tears. This was not the time and place to start blubbering. He hadn't managed to keep his sobbing completely quiet the evening before last, in his tent, but if anybody had noticed they had had enough sense to keep quiet. Now he had to control himself, though, if he was to keep the expedition from breaking up into a desperate mob.

     He might not have succeeded if it weren't for the way he, as a wizard, had been taught to control himself. He breathed deeply and slowly, shutting his mind to his own distress and opening it to his surroundings instead. Even so, a couple of tears trickled down from his eyes. Surreptitiously he wiped them away.

     Unfortunately, with his senses sharpened by this turning outward, he couldn't avoid overhearing what a soldier was muttering some way down the wall to his right. "That stupid son of a Kahha peasant," Horekt said, not quite quietly enough. "Now we're going to die and it's his fault for leading us into this trap."

     "Shut up!" Medor snarled, equally quietly. "I won't have any talk like that here! Keep your mouth shut if you can't take this like a man!"

     A good officer, that Medor. He would try to maintain discipline to the end. Unfortunately Horekt was right.

     To distract himself, Radeyann stood up to see how the attempts to climb the walls or dig under them were going. Just then some of the soldiers, Horekt included, were trying to reach the top of the wall by standing on each other's shoulders. There were four of them in the bottom row and three in the next. Lakedor was already standing on top of these, but as Astshek climbed up to join him, the whole structure collapsed. Lakedor and Astshek both managed to jump free and land upright, but Lakedor then stumbled backward and fell. Kenavik, from the second row, hit his head against Astshek's right knee.

     It turned out that no one had injured himself seriously, but Radeyann decided not to allow any further experiments of this kind. Maybe, if nothing else helped, they would have to try that method again, but the risk of injury was too high and the probability of success too low to make it worth trying now.

     The diggers had found a lot of human skeletons just beneath the surface. Maybe others had been caught in the same trap and failed to escape. The thought did his own morale no good, and it wouldn't boost that of the others either. Radeyann half regretted that he had given orders to dig. Still, it had to be tried.

     He sat down again and gazed at his saddlebags, which he had taken with him to the wall. In the right one was, among other stuff, the equipment for communicating with the Order's headquarters at Miann‑Shadalni. About now he would be calling, if everything were in order. Unfortunately the communications spell he would have used worked no better than any other in a dead zone.

     Even so, he pulled out the scrying bowl and the bottle of oil. Maybe the whole enclosure wasn't a dead zone. He would have to be fairly close to the gate to use a Firelance spell effectively, but he could be anywhere when trying to communicate with whoever was waiting for messages back at Miann‑Shadalni ‑‑ would that be old, fat Tuzuk, one of the few people who hadn't held his Kahha ancestry against him? Or would it be Marek the Nasty, as Radeyann called the senior communications wizard in his own thoughts?

     He stood up and strolled along the walls, pausing every now and then to try to draw some uruop. Failing all along the walls, he next went to the center of the enclosure and tried there. Again there was nothing.

     Dejectedly he returned to his saddlebags. He picked up the oil bottle and put it back, then he picked up the bowl.

     A beautiful object, in all its simplicity. It completely lacked ornamentation, but the burnished bronze of its spherically curved inner surface had a stark beauty of its own that made all decoration superfluous.

     Beautiful, but useless in the present circumstances.

     Or, maybe not...

     Radeyann glanced skyward. It wasn't quite time to try this idea yet. The best time would be shortly before noon.

     He didn't really have much trouble limiting his excitement. There was no guarantee that the idea would work. Still, he had to try.

     Finally the sun stood high enough in the sky to shine onto the ground just in front of the gate. Radeyann stood up once more, then walked to the gate, carrying the bowl in his right hand. He tried to walk casually so as not to raise any hopes that might then be dashed, but he was aware that almost everybody was watching him.

     He stood facing the gate, with the bowl facing diagonally upward in front of him. The sun's rays were collected by the polished, reflecting surface and focused into a small spot ‑‑ small enough for the beam to pass through the gap between the halves of the gate.

     He trained the spot on the bar holding the gate shut.

     For maybe twenty seconds nothing happened. Well, it wasn't much of an idea, he thought.

     Then smoke began to rise from the bar. At first it was only a thin tendril, then small flames began to sprout from the spot where the beam hit. The bar didn't really catch fire, but it smoldered quietly where the sunlight hit it.

     It took time to cut through the bar this way. The other members of the expedition had gathered around him to watch. He ordered them to pack, so that they would be ready to leave at once if the attempt to break out succeeded. He also wanted everyone ready to fight if necessary.

     When they were ready, he had burned most of the way through the bar. Then he ordered four of the men to rush the gate once more.

     It flew open.

     The whole expedition was out of the enclosure in less than a minute. Nobody attacked. The only human in sight was the half‑eaten corpse of Karovin. A big dent in his helmet gave a hint of what might have happened to him. Some apes in the trees were jabbering angrily.

     Radeyann ordered the soldiers to bury the corpse. When they started digging, the apes quieted down and watched curiously.

     Then four of the soldiers lowered Karovin into the grave. The apes went mad. One of them jumped to the ground, picked up a stone and flung it at the expedition. It bounced off the backplate of Kedarin. Some of the soldiers grabbed their bows, and one of them looked questioningly at Radeyann.

     "Yes. Shoot," he said.

     Five arrows flew toward the ape, which was jumping up and down, shouting imprecations. Four of them hit.

     The other apes fled, brachiating from branch to branch until they were out of sight. The one that had been hit staggered a few steps toward the expedition, then it collapsed.

     The expedition finished burying Karovin, with Radeyann commending his soul to the care of the gods.Then he investigated the piece of wood that had been used to bar the gate. It was just a branch, broken off at both ends. Toothmarks showed that the ends had been partly gnawed, partly crushed by powerful molars.

     Carrying one half of the branch, Radeyann walked over to the dead ape. He peeled back its lips and investigated its teeth. They were big and well‑developed, both incisors, canines and molars. The body was very muscular, the braincase smaller than in a human being but still fairly large.

     He would dissect it later, but now he wanted to get away from this oasis. The water of the lake had turned out to be quite good, so they filled all their canteens with it and collected some fruits from the trees. They would test later which were edible.

     After two soldiers had loaded the ape cadaver onto Karovin's horse, the expedition rode away westward.

     This hadn't really ended well, Radeyann thought as he rode. After all, Karovin was dead. But the probable killers had paid for that with the life of one of their own. And dissecting the cadaver would yield some information. The outcome wasn't an unmitigated disaster.

     He glanced at Horekt, who refused to meet his eye.

     In any case, he thought, let's not forget that Karovin was one of those snooty Tshezz.