In the darkness of a cave lit only by the rays of the setting sun the high priest Zaladris sliced the flesh of his arm on the teeth of the god Gow. His blood spilled into the god’s throat. He sang of the glory of Gow, and called for his divine protection, for although Gow was the Beinison god of lovers, honorable warriors, and war, he was best known as the protector. Zaladris stepped back from the black stone idol that was the sacred image of his deity. The idol’s fanged mouth opened wide, allowing the high priest to insert his offering into the statue’s gullet: a freshly dead rat, wrapped in fustian leaves. He stepped back and ended his song.
The statue closed its mouth, resuming its normal aspect. The figure was of darkest black obsidian, mined from the heart of Mount Voldronnai. It had eyes of ruby, and a polished silver sword, which it held in its lap as it sat tailor style. The most striking feature of the idol was its face. Unlike its handsome body, the face was turned up to the sky, screaming in rage, its mouth rimmed with razor sharp ivory teeth. Zaladris was at eye level to the statue, although it was only half a man’s height. It rested upon a polished gray stone dais, which in turn rested upon a rough-hewn pedestal.
His ceremony completed, the priest wrapped a bandage around the small cuts in his left forearm. He sighed. His joints were hurting, as they often did in recent years. Usually it was a sign that the weather was changing. So fierce was the ache in his knees that he had barely been able to make the short climb to the shrine. “My lord,” he said to the statue, “the years are hard upon your humble servant now. The pain grows; my eyes fail. Forgive me, lord protector; I pray thee give me strength that I may carry out the sacrifice, that thy service may be continued.”
The high priest made his way out of the cave, looking into the remaining bit of the setting sun. Pausing, he turned to the north. He considered for a few moments what he recalled of the world away from his shrine. There was a small village that might be of use, he mused. Gorod, it was called. With a plan forming in his mind, he clutched his red-hooded robe about himself to ward off the cool mountain breeze. His long, gray beard flapped in the wind as he made his way down the worn path, taking much support from his walking stick.
Elton groaned as he tossed the light blanket aside. He rubbed his eyes and glanced out the window, noting the predawn light. When Master Oramond had made him journeyrank stonemason, Elton had been very proud of the honor. However, the task of being first to rise, in order to rouse the apprentices, was less pleasing. He pulled on his tunic and breeches, and splashed water on his face. Then he picked up his betrothal pendant, an artfully shaped piece of polished copper on a leather strap, which he tied about his neck.
It had only been the previous sennight that Sala had paraded the matched set of necklaces through Gorod, signifying her desire to take a husband. Elton had been finishing his work for the day when she had arrived, followed by cheering villagers. He’d been delighted to drop to his knees, so that she might present him with the token of betrothal. To further mark the occasion, Master Oramond had chosen that evening to raise Elton to journeyrank stonemason. Oramond had later admitted that Sala had forewarned him of her intentions, and so he had decided to time Elton’s promotion for the same day.
Awake now, Elton pulled aside the rough cloth curtain that separated his alcove from the apprentices, and strode out into the main room. The apprentices lay on their mats arranged against each wall, leaving an aisle for Elton to walk down the middle. All were still asleep, ranging from Adnar, who was the youngest of the group, to Quella, the eldest. At sixteen summers she was the most senior apprentice, only three summers junior to Elton. He went to the end of the room, where there was a large gray block of granite with an iron-headed hammer atop it.
“Wake up! Wake up masons; it’s time to greet the sun,” Elton called as he hammered the granite block. He had always hated it when Yanek, his predecessor, had used the same method to shatter his every morning. He had to admit, however, that it was the most efficient way to get a half score youngsters moving.
After seeing that the apprentices were each given a small loaf of brown bread and a draught of water, Elton marched them outside to begin the labors of the day. He smiled, pleased at the clatter of hammers and chisels tinkling as the young masons worked at carving their rock. The masons’ work area was less a building than a shelter to keep the beating sun off the sweating apprentices. Rough poles at the four corners and halfway along the sides supported a sloppy thatched roof. Arranged within were the young apprentice masons, each carefully carving raw stone into square blocks suitable for building. Elton checked their work, correcting deficiencies where he saw them. Then he set up his own tools, preparing for the finer work merited by his status.
Elton inspected the image of the pockmarked moon, Nochturon, which he had carefully chiseled into the limestone rock. It was to be a facing on the temple to Cahleyna that was being repaired. Just as he set tool to stone, a voice crying out drew his attention. He stepped out of the mason’s enclosure and looked east down the street where, silhouetted by the rising sun, he could just make out the source of the voice. With a quick word he put Quella in charge, and trotted down the dirt avenue to where a small crowd had begun to gather. He craned his neck to see over them.
“My daughter! My daughter, my daughter has been taken!” lamented Xakim, the baker, a fat, bald man wearing a white smock. The spirit in Elton’s breast froze. Xakim was the father of Sala, his beloved and betrothed. He forced his way through the crowd to confront the baker.
“What is it, Xakim?” Elton shouted, grabbing him by the shoulders. “What do you mean ‘taken’?”
“I don’t know. Sometime in the night,” he said, tears rolling down his cheeks. “Something broke its way into the house and took her. It — it tore down the wall, and we heard nothing.”
“Tore down the wall?” Elton repeated, aghast.
Xakim shuddered, “Yes, a hole so large that Yetta’s cart would fit within it.”
Shocked, Elton turned from Xakim and rushed through Gorod to the baker’s home, his heart pounding with anxiety. Elton’s breath was coming in ragged gasps as his sprint ended. Located at the edge of the village, Xakim’s bakery was a large mud-brick building with the wood-fired ovens in front, adjoining the dirt street, and with his home in the back rooms. Elton dashed through the bakery to the family’s living area.
“Sala! Sala, where are you?” he called despite knowing there could be no answer.
In the back of the building he found the family sleeping room. It was dominated by the immense hole rent in the rear wall. The only sign of Sala was her empty sleeping mat, the light autumn blanket lying cast aside. The mud bricks had been torn from their courses and were scattered outside. Elton looked amazedly at the hole, which rose from the floor to the roof and was wider than the span of the mason’s arms. It faced out on the fields where farmers labored over their crops. Far in the distance he could make out the edge of the forest, and beyond that were the rising mountains of the Darst Range.
The dirt floor near Sala’s bed had some odd marks near it, where something had disturbed the hard-packed earth. Elton followed the mess to the breach, and saw well-defined footprints in the soft ground outside. He crouched down for a closer look, and noted that each track was longer than his forearm, and nearly half a hand deep. It looked like a man’s bare footprint, but one that was much larger and heavier than the largest man he had ever seen. A small crowd of villagers gathered around while Elton studied the scene.
“Look at the size of them,” Quoll, the thatcher, muttered.
“What could it be?” asked Yetta, who had just arrived to deliver flour from the mill.
“Kushago,” breathed Fardis, the hunter, aghast. “The man-beast of the northern woods. Covered in hair, as large as a bear. I see their tracks sometimes.”
“I’ve heard stories of them,” Elton said with a shudder. “What could one want with Sala, though?”
“Something vile, I imagine,” said Fardis. He looked up at Xakim, his face grave, “I’m sorry for your loss, Xakim.”
“Hold,” said Elton. “We don’t know that she’s dead. I see no blood here. We have to go after her. She needs us!”
Fardis shook his head sadly. “No Elton, it’s too late for her, and too hazardous for us. Kushago are smarter than bears. I dare not hunt one.”
Elton looked at him, shocked. “I’m going after her then,” Elton snarled. “Who is with me?” He looked at the faces of his fellow villagers. None would meet his gaze, not even Xakim, her father. “Xakim, you’ll help me won’t you?” he pleaded.
Xakim’s eyes were downcast. Slowly he brought his head up, and looked at the young mason. “I cannot, Elton. Sala is lost. You know no one has seen a Kushago and lived to tell of it. I must look after the family I still do have. I must guard them against suffering.” He gestured toward the breach, “What could I do against such a beast? And winter comes as well. How can I leave my wife now, with a bakery to run and a home to repair? I’m sorry Elton, we must accept what is, not what we wish it to be.”
“Fark! Old man,” Elton cried. He stormed away from the bakery and made his way back to the masons’ hall. Though angry, he was also worried about what he was going to do. Xakim was right about one thing at least: a monster that could tear down walls would be more than a match for one man. What else could he do, though? He had known Sala ever since they had been children playing in the mud. He fingered his betrothal pendant as he walked. Elton’s resolve stiffened. He didn’t want to know life without her now. He just had to hope fortune and Cahleyna would smile upon him.
Quickly he gathered some of his belongings, and wrapped them in a blanket in the manner of a traveler. He settled the pack on his shoulders and took a look around his quarters one final time before departing.
“Elton,” a voice called, “hold a moment.” Oramond, the master stonemason, was a wide, squat man, much like the marble blocks he carved. He was shorter than Elton, but much more massive. The light streaming through the window lit the highlights on his bald head, and his black beard flowed down his chest. The master grasped Elton by the shoulder and steered him to his workroom. There he sat across from Elton and said, “I heard about Sala. It’s a terrible thing, but don’t spill your tools over it.”
“She’s my betrothed, Oramond. I have to go after her. I’ll go alone if I must,” Elton said. “Don’t consider stopping me; this is something I must do.”
“Calm down boy, I understand. All I’m saying is to keep your wits about you.” Oramond gestured to a white stone block, which sat upon a worktable. “What is that, Elton?”
Wrinkling his brow in puzzlement, Elton answered, “It’s white marble, from our southern quarry?”
“Is it?” Oramond asked, “Perhaps it is a rearing stallion, a simple cornice, or maybe even part of Cahleyna’s altar.”
“Well, yes, it could be all those things. Is there a point to this, master? I need to depart.”
“Elton,” Oramond sighed, “you need to look beyond your nose.” Oramond shook his head and walked over to his workbench. “My heart is with you in this, Elton. I cannot accompany you, but I offer such help as I have.” He moved aside a few small boxes and pulled out a sword in a scabbard from a shelf above his workbench. He blew some stone dust off of it, revealing the scabbard and pommel that extended out of it to be rather plain and somewhat worn. “My great grandfather fought in the Great Houses War. This was his sword, passed down through the generations. I’ve had no use for it, but this, I think, is a noble cause.” He presented the sword to the surprised Elton, who gratefully took it in both hands.
“But master, a family heirloom?”
“Bah, my chisels and hammers are my heirlooms. That sword is just a memento of deeds long past. Just take care that you come back whole.”
Elton clasped forearms with Oramond. “Thank you, master. I will always remember your kindness and your wisdom.” He departed the masons’ hall, and began his quest.
Elton made his way to the village’s edge and briskly trotted to the fields. At first, his sword slapped against his thigh and threatened to tangle his legs as he jogged. He removed the sword from his belt, and rolled it into the middle of his blanket pack, which resolved his problem. He found that if he stretched, he could grasp the sword’s pommel and draw it. In the field he found the giant tracks in the soft dirt and followed the broken and stomped crops up to the beginning of the forest.
He stopped and squared his shoulders, looking into the shadows beneath the forest canopy. The villagers of Gorod seldom ventured away from their fields. The wilds held little allure for them, with the exception of such hardy souls as Fardis. Like most of the people in his village, Elton had never been more than a dozen leagues from his home. He took a deep breath to steel his nerves and after a moment he exhaled and said aloud, “Very well now, step forward. It’s just a forest.” He made sure his sword was held fast in its scabbard, and then adjusted his pack. “Straight, forward into the forest.”
“Are ye goin’ or no?” a croaky voice said.
Elton yelped and jumped backwards. His foot caught on a shrub, and he windmilled his arms, flailing for his balance. It was to no avail; down he went painfully on his rump. Looking wildly around, he saw a short, squat man with snaggley teeth emerge from the brush.
“Laying about like that is no good. No, no good at all,” the man said.
“Urtose, you fool!” yelled Elton. “What in the name of blessed Cahleyna are you doing out here? You’re like to scare a year off my life, popping out of the woods like some Shuul-damned beast.”
Urtose bobbed his head and giggled. He shuffled over to Elton and tried to help the mason to his feet. “Heh, thought ye were gonna stand there all day, I did. Never gonna catch up like that. Heh.”
Elton waved off Urtose’s help and struggled to his feet. “What are you talking about, Urtose?” he asked.
“She was taken, aye. Gotta find her. This way they went, they did. Ye comin’, or no?” Urtose answered.
Elton closed his eyes and sighed. “Blessed Cahleyna,” he thought, “I know I prayed for help, but what were you –?” Elton paused and took a moment to clear his mind before he became blasphemous with his deity.
The mason looked at Urtose grimly. The halfwit must have heard about Sala’s being taken. Elton had asked for help in the village, but no one had stepped forward. Now here was his volunteer: Urtose, the village idiot. Urtose was harmless enough, though he occasionally disappeared for months at a time. Elton knew Sala often gave the fool scraps from her father’s bakery. He supposed that must be why Urtose fancied himself a rescuer. Elton shook his head and looked at the scruffy vagabond, who was dressed in mismatched leathers and homespun while carrying a long stick with the end crudely sharpened. “I think you had better stay here, Urtose. This could be dangerous, and it will take all my attention.”
Urtose looked at Elton with a lop-sided stare, and then snickered. “Attention? Yes, lots of attention. Ye know the forest then? Ye have eaten worms and slept in the rain, have ye?” He bounded to the woods with a couple of hops, and looked back at Elton. “No more talk. Further away she’s gonna get. Gotta go, gotta go.” He scrambled into the forest, following the tracks towards the Darst Range.
“Urtose, wait!” called Elton, and dashed into the underbrush after him.
Elton, with Urtose following, carefully picked his way along a rocky path. It wound its way through the forest as they slowly approached the roots of the Darst Range, which cut its way through the heart of Baranur. He and the fool had followed the trail where, away from the soft soil of the farmlands, it had dwindled to almost nothing. Once in a while Elton would see a clear footprint in a muddy spot, but for the most part they were left searching for clues. Much to Elton’s surprise, Urtose had proven invaluable on this quest. Several times when the trail had seemed to disappear entirely, Urtose had been the one to discover minute clues: a broken stick, bent-over grass, or a few overturned pebbles which had been enough to return them to their path. The idiot had even been able to snare rabbits and forage tubers and berries enough to sustain them.
Three days’ hard travel, from dawn to late in the moonlight, had brought the pair up to the foothills of the Darst Range. The trail led to a path that curved around a high, rocky hill with a steep dropoff. The freshly bared soil and debris below suggested that the ledge had been wider, but had sheared off when their quarry had passed over it. It was now much narrower.
The narrowness of the trail forced Elton to rub one shoulder against the nearly straight wall of the hillside, while the other dangled over open space where the land rapidly dropped away. His careful march was interrupted when the ground he stepped on broke apart. Elton tried to backpedal, but everywhere he stepped, his footing crumbled. Abruptly he was tumbling down the steep slope, twisting desperately in an attempt to avoid smashing into the larger rocks that projected from the soil.
Elton wrapped his arm around a gnarled sapling that was growing out of the slope and arrested his descent. The sudden stop nearly jerked his arm out of its socket, forcing him to grunt in pain. He ducked his head against the rain of debris that followed him down the slope. The collapse of the path he had been using had started a small rockslide, one that was threatening to bury him.
After several menes, he no longer felt stones pelting his back and all fell silent. Elton tried to move, but was held tight by the weight of the dirt and stones that had nearly buried him. He shook his head to throw off the loose soil and blinked several times until he could see again.
“Rock buster, are ye living?” Urtose called. “Glowin’ mess this be,” he complained, and then started to gingerly climb down the slope.
“I live!” shouted the mason. “I’m here Urtose. I’m stuck fast.”
Urtose reached Elton’s resting place and dug furiously. A few menes of hard work uncovered the mason’s torso and arms, but his legs were trapped under a mass of heavy boulders which were wedged tightly together. The idiot worked for nearly a bell trying to free Elton’s legs. For every handful of dirt he scooped out, more flowed in to take its place. Drenched in sweat and caked with dirt, Urtose finally quit his futile task.
“Leave me,” Elton said dejectedly. “Go rescue Sala; I am done for.”
“Oh, a hero be ye?” smiled Urtose. “Ye be a shining knight, giving yer life fer yer lady; just like the tale spinner’s talk, eh?”
“It’s ill enough that I die,” Elton grumbled. “There’s no need to make sport of me for it.”
Urtose threw the back of his hand to his forehead, looked to the sky, and said, “Ooh the horror of it all! I must die so dramatically, they shall sing songs of me.” Urtose cackled as he shambled a ways up the slope.
Elton fumed at the giggling fool. He could only hope Urtose would find some way to help Sala. Eventually the animals would come to finish him, he was sure. Perhaps he could fend them off for a time. Even if Urtose went to Gorod for help, it would take him at least a sennight to return. Surviving so long trapped here didn’t seem likely.
A long, ululating wail caught his attention. “Ol’s balls! What’s that fool up to now?” Elton wondered aloud. Urtose didn’t return, so the mason could do little but ponder his woes, while he heard the almost animal-sounding wail occasionally in the distance.
Elton blinked awake. He had fallen asleep where he was trapped, as the daylight had turned to darkness. The rocky slope was lit by the disc of a nearly full moon. A clattering of stones drew Elton’s attention to the two figures nearing him. One he recognized as the hunched, shambling silhouette of Urtose. The other was much larger, nearly half a man taller than any man Elton had seen, its outline blurred by long wisps of hair. Elton’s eyes widened. “Kushago,” he whispered. He tried to reach for a rock, or a stick with which to defend himself, but none were near. Elton struggled desperately, tugging hard against the boulders that held his legs, while the Kushago advanced on him. “Beast!” snarled the smith. “You took my Sala. I curse you. I wi ll spit upon you from the heights of Kisil-Seed, from the high tower of the gods.”
“Heh heh, what are ye on about then?” laughed Urtose. “He’s here to help ye, rock buster.”
“The Kushago took Sala, you fool. We’ve been following his trail. Now you’ve brought certain death to us, and ended any chance she might have had.”
“Yer being silly. The beast-men no more want our women than ye want to eat yer stone,” Urtose replied disdainfully. He motioned the Kushago over and demonstrated trying to lift one of the larger boulders. After a moment it seemed to grasp Urtose’s intention, and moved to help.
The rocks that had defeated Urtose and Elton earlier in the day proved to be no match for the strength of the Kushago. The huge man-beast gripped a boulder with both hands and, with a grunt, raised it off the ground and tossed it away. In only a few menes the mason was freed from his rocky prison.
Elton shook away the stinging sensation in his legs, which had gone numb during his ordeal. They were scraped and bruised, but no bones were broken, he gratefully noted. He decided that they should make camp right where they were; he wanted to talk to Urtose about the Kushago. It seemed to be friendly enough, or at least it wasn’t threatening. The beast shied away from the campfire and looked to prefer the trees to the open. Urtose told the mason that he had encountered the Kushagos on his frequent forays into the forest. He had, on occasion, lived among a nomadic band of them for months at a time. He had learned the way of the wilderness from them, and they had treated him as a member of their tribe, something that could not be said of the villagers of Gorod.
“Can you ask him if he’s seen Sala, or her captor then?” Elton wondered.
Urtose shook his head, “Nay, they don’t talk like that, they don’t. Hungry, help, hunt: things like these I can say. More than that, there are no words.”
“You said a Kushago didn’t take Sala, but the tracks we’ve been following –”
“Ye thought they were the steps of beast-men, did ye?” Urtose interrupted, “Nay. Nay, those be the feet of a man.”
“They’re huge! They’re too large for a man, Urtose,” the mason sputtered.
The fool just grinned his lopsided grin, shrugged his shoulders, and replied, “Aye, so it’s a really big feller, light footed too, to cross the trail ye broke.”
“Fark. We’re falling behind. I fear we may never catch our quarry. In these mountains I can barely see any kind of trail. We’re certain to lose them.” Elton laid back, cushioning his head with his folded arms, and sighed in frustration.
“Heh, we’ll find ‘em rock buster. Bruce has got a sniffer on him. Aye he’ll sniff ‘em out,” Urtose replied.
“Who is Bruce?” the mason asked, puzzled.
Urtose nodded toward the Kushago. “He is,” he said. “Man can’t make the growl he calls hisself. I call him ‘Bruce’.” The idiot shrugged. “He doesn’t seem to mind, and he looks up when I yell it at him.”
“I hope he can help us then, Urtose. We’ll need that and good fortune to rescue Sala.” Elton lay back and stared up into the night sky. A few moments allowed him to pick out his favorite constellations. To the east was Aurus, the mistweaver, to the west was Pyrale, the torch, and straight up was Valonus, the oak. He couldn’t read the stars like the fortune teller, and could only wonder what they held for him and Sala. Perhaps now, with the Kushago as an ally, and Urtose his friend, he really had a chance to rescue her after all.