May 20 2010 9:40am
The city was old, begrimed by time. A place of wind-worn stones and tumbled masonry, its towers tilting and its walls crumbling. Wild sheep cropped the grass that grew between cracked paving stones, bright-plumed birds nested among columns of faded mosaic. The city had once been splendid and terrible; now it was beautiful and tranquil. The two travelers came to it in the mellow haze of the morning, when a melancholy wind blew through the silence of the ancient streets. The hoofs of the horses were hushed as the travelers led them between towers that were green with age, passed by ruins bright with blossoms of orange, ochre and purple. And this was Soryandum, deserted by its folk.
The men and their horses were turned all one colour by the dust that caked them, making them resemble statues that had come to life. They moved slowly, looking wonderingly about them at the beauty of the dead city.
The first man was tall and lean, and although weary he moved with the graceful stride of the trained warrior. His long fair hair had been bleached near white by the sun, and his pale blue eyes had a hint of madness in them. But the thing most remarkable about his appearance was the dull black jewel sunk into his forehead just above and between the eyes, a stigmata he owed to the perverted miracle workings of the sorcerer-scientists of Granbretan. His name was Dorian Hawkmoon, Duke von Köln, driven from his hereditary lands by the conquests of the Dark Empire, which schemed to rule the world. Dorian Hawkmoon, who had sworn vengeance against the most powerful nation on his war-tormented planet.
The creature who followed Hawkmoon bore a large bone bow and a quiver of arrows on his back. He was clad only in a pair of britches and boots of soft, floppy leather, but the whole of his body, including his face, was covered in red, wiry hair. His head came to just below Hawkmoon’s shoulder. This was Oladahn, cross-bred offspring of a sorcerer and a Mountain Giantess from the Bulgar Mountains.
Oladahn patted sand from his fur and looked perplexed. “Never have I seen a city so fair. Why is it deserted? Who could leave such a place?”
Hawkmoon, as was his habit when puzzled, rubbed at the dull black jewel in his forehead. “Perhaps disease—who knows? Let’s hope that if it was disease, none of it lingers on. I’ll speculate later, but not now. I’m sure I hear water somewhere—and that’s my first requirement. Food’s my second, sleep’s my third—and thought, friend Oladahn, a very distant fourth…”
In one of the city’s plazas they found a wall of blue-grey rock that had been carved with flowing figures. From the eyes of one stone maiden fell pure spring water that splashed into a hollow fashioned below. Hawkmoon stooped and drank, wiping wet hands over his dusty face. He stepped back for Oladahn to drink, then led the horses forward to slake their thirst.
Hawkmoon reached into one of his saddlebags and took out the cracked and crumpled map that had been given him in Hamadan. His finger crept across the map until it came to rest on the word ‘Soryandum’. He smiled with relief. “We are not too far off our original route,” he said. “Beyond these hills the Euphrates flows and Tarabulus lies beyond it by about a week’s journey. We’ll rest here for today and tonight, then continue on our way. Refreshed, we will travel more rapidly.”
Oladahn grinned. “Aye, and you’d explore the city before we leave, I fancy.” He splashed water on his fur, then bent to pick up his bow and quiver. “Now to attend to your second requirement—food. I’ll not be gone long. I saw a wild ram in the hills. Tonight we’ll dine off roast mutton.” He remounted his horse and was away, riding for the broken gates of the city while Hawkmoon stripped off his clothes and plunged his hands into the cool spring water, gasping with a sense of utter luxury as he poured the water over his head and body. Then he took fresh clothing from the saddlebag, pulling on a silk shirt given him by Queen Frawbra of Hamadan and a pair of blue cotton britches with flaring bottoms. Glad to be out of the heavier leather and iron he had worn for protection’s sake while crossing the desert in case any of the Dark Empire’s men were following them, Hawkmoon donned a pair of sandals to complete his outfit. His only concession to his earlier fears was the sword he buckled about him.
It was scarcely possible that he could have been followed here, and besides, the city was so peaceful that he could not believe any kind of danger threatened.
Hawkmoon went to his horse and unsaddled it, then crossed to the shade of a ruined tower to lie with his back against it and await Oladahn and the mutton.
Noon came and went, and Hawkmoon began to wonder what had become of his friend. He dozed for another hour before real trepidation began to stir in him and he rose to resaddle his horse.
It was highly unlikely, Hawkmoon knew, that an archer as skilled as Oladahn would take so long in pursuit of one wild sheep. Yet there seemed to be no possible danger here. Perhaps Oladahn had grown weary and decided to sleep for an hour or two before hauling the carcass back. Even if that were all that was delaying him, Hawkmoon decided, he might need assistance.
He mounted his horse and rode through the streets to the crumbling outer wall of the city and to the hills beyond. The horse seemed to recover much of its former energy as its hoofs touched grass, and Hawkmoon had to shorten the rein, riding into the hills at a light canter.
Ahead was a herd of wild sheep led by a large, wise looking ram, perhaps the one Oladahn had mentioned, but there was no sign at all of the little beast-man.
“Oladahn!” Hawkmoon yelled, peering about him. “Oladahn!” But only muffled echoes answered him.
Hawkmoon frowned, then urged his horse into a gallop, riding up a hill taller than the rest in the hope that from this vantage point he would be able to see his friend. Wild sheep scattered before him as the horse raced over the springy grass. He reached the top of the hill and shielded his eyes from the glare of the sun. He stared in every direction, but there was no sign of Oladahn.
For some moments he continued to look around him, hoping to see some trace of his friend; then, as he gazed toward the city, he saw a movement near the plaza of the spring. Had his eyes tricked him, or had he seen a man entering the shadows of the streets that led off the eastern side of the plaza? Could Oladahn have returned by another route? If so, why hadn’t he answered Hawkmoon’s call?
Hawkmoon had a nagging sense of terror in the back of his mind now, but he still could not believe that the city itself offered any menace.
He spurred his horse back down the hillside and leaped it over a section of ruined wall.
Muffled by the dust, the horse’s hoofs thudded through the streets as Hawkmoon headed toward the plaza, crying Oladahn’s name. But again he was answered only by echoes. In the plaza there was no sign of the little mountain man.
Hawkmoon frowned, almost certain now that he and Oladahn had not, after all, been alone in the city. Yet there was no sign of inhabitants.
He turned his horse toward the streets. As he did so his ears caught a faint sound from above. He looked upward, his eyes searching the sky, certain that he recognized the sound. At last he saw it—a distant black shape in the air overhead. Then sunlight flashed on metal, and the sound became distinct, a clanking and whirring of giant bronze wings. Hawkmoon’s heart sank.
The thing descending from the sky was unmistakably an ornate ornithopter, wrought in the shape of a gigantic condor, enameled in blue, scarlet, and green. No other nation on Earth possessed such vessels. It was a flying machine of the Dark Empire of Granbretan.
Now Oladahn’s disappearance was fully explained. The warriors of the Dark Empire were present in Soryandum. It was more than likely, too, that they had recognized Oladahn and knew that Hawkmoon could not be far away. And Hawkmoon was the Dark Empire’s most hated opponent.