SEE ALSO THE LILITH GALLERY, THE ART HISTORY ARCHIVE & THE LILITH EZINE.
Carlo stared. He had never, ever seen anything so massive. He had seen the plateaus in western Stornium, but the Kinian Mountains dwarfed them easily. The walls and gates of Athex and Kobalix's Citadel both were ants compared to these mountains of sheer rock, ice and glaciers.
He fell off his horse and tumbled into the snow. Cursing, he wiped snow from his beard and neck. His hand snagged in his beard and he reminded himself to shave it off as soon as they reached Jaton. Or the nearest castle.
Brenda reined in her stallion and bent forward in the saddle. "Need some lessons?" she asked and held out her hand.
"No, danke. I'll manage," said Carlo, spitting out snow. He took her hand and pulled himself to his feet and nearly slipped on the ice. He stared at the ice and spat. "It's a shame we don't have ships that go on ice. We'd be there in half the time!"
Their newest instructor, a minotaur brigadier named Mathex, looked up. A thoughtful expression came over his face and he smiled slowly. "Do you remember what I'm supposed to teach you?" he asked.
"Ingenuity," said Eluth. "How that's supposed to help us God only knows!" He shook his head.
"Repeat your wish Sir Carlo," ordered Mathex.
"It's a shame we don't have ships that-" Carlo broke off and stared at Mathex. "Well what the hell!"
The young minotaur pulled a crumpled, but fairly new map from his pack and unfolded it. He pointed to a castle near a river to the northeast. "If we go there, I could easily fashion such a vessel from the local ships."
Roreed nodded. They all knew the minotaur before them. The one who had designed the Great-crossbow, the Goban sword and quite possibly about to build the first Iceship. Carlo visualized a whole fleet of ships. They swarmed over the icy landscape causing great clouds of snow to fly into the air as they passed by.
"Being that Jaton is at the merging of two rivers there will be plenty of ship builders there. Lord Carlo, I understand you're a sailor?" demanded Mathex. Carlo nodded. "Then you can navigate this ship? It will be like a sailed dory without a rudder?"
"But you can't steer without a rudder," protested Carlo.
"I know. I'll have to devise a drag or something. Ballast perhaps?" Mathex pulled out a parchment and began to sketch rapidly with a chunk of charcoal.
Brenda went back to chatting with Roreed Eluth pestered Mathex with questions. Carlo shrugged and mounted his gelding. Carlo began to day dream.
"Honestly Lord Redhawk, they're a good group, but I think your 'elite' group are destined to die. Carlo looks like he's never ridden a horse before, and he keeps day dreaming of the sea. Eluth can't even tell which way is north or figure out where he is on the map. Brenda doesn't always listen to orders and Roreed is more likely to stab himself than the enemy," General Chek spat. "I'm flattering them. You couldn't have picked a group with more klutzes!"
Redhawk was only half listening. He was too caught up in once again seeing his homeland. The chill mountain air seemed to embrace him and cradle him in the icy splendour all around him.
Gisoni snorted. "You won't get any response from Redhawk today General Chek. He's busy. The mountains are very important, if not sacred, to Kinians."
Chek nodded and left. There was no use talking to Redhawk now if he wasn't really listening anyway.
"Talking to yourself," commented General Sardias. She was tall, blond and blue-eyed. Chek knew she was also as strong as an ox and as stubborn as a mule.
Chek realized that he was indeed muttering to himself. He clamped his mouth shut and glared at the general. He knew there was no point in arguing so he immediately gave up.
Sardias studied him seriously for a moment. "Ist something wrong?" she demanded.
"Ya, dere ist. Now what ist it?"
"I don't have a problem."
"Ya, you do! I saw you talking to yerself!"
Chek cursed and turned away. Sardias followed and pestered him constantly. He spurred his horse away and ignored her as she kept pace with him.
Finally he reined in and turned to face her. "Shouldn't you be doing something other than following me?" he demanded.
Sardias bit her lip. "Not at the moment. Now answer me! Why were you talking to yourself?"
Chek knew he'd regret it, but he refused to answer her and tell her that she was just too damn stubborn! She walked away angrily and it was then that he realized that he'd spoken aloud.
Ever so silently two figures crept through the corridors of Castle Redhawk. They made their way to the stables where they readied two horses for themselves. One of them struck flint against steel and lit a torch.
"I really hate to leave Gith here with Larry, but I can't stand it," said Victoria, mounting her stallion.
Wynic frowned. He wasn't thinking of Gith, but of a strange feeling like he was being watched. He knew that feeling. He had felt it many times just before being attacked. This new feeling was different, there was no... hostility.
He turned around and stared into the darkness. "On second thought, I think we should stay. I'm going to see about something."
Victoria saw the strange look in his eyes and shuddered. She looked into the darkness and felt the feeling. It wasn't hostile.
The huntress cursed silently and ducked. She swore that he'd seen her there, but she couldn't be sure. She receded farther into the shadows and knelt there in silence.
The woman looked in her direction, but there was no hint that she saw the huntress. She heard the pair left the stables and the huntress forced herself to resume normal breathing.
Making her way through the stables, she ended up in the smithy next to it. Her pet waited silently, the snow melting off it's white fur coat. Snowdancer knelt beside the cougar and sat wondering. What if he-?
"You know me, now introduce yourself."
She felt a razor sharp blade come to rest under her chin. She stopped breathing and looked at a polished shield to see herself and the assassin, Wynic Doxon. She hadn't even 'sensed' his approach. How the hell did he do that?
"On second thought, perhaps we should wait until my wife returns with my brother and a fellow cutthroat."
Larry grumbled but got up. Victoria hadn't talked to him for three days now and he was wondering if she could have forgotten about him. Nah, he thought, not likely.
Pothax was already on the move. He had grown bored over the past week and his thirst for excitement was at the top of his list of things to see and do. Deciding that the halls here inside the building had too many walls, he stepped out onto the balcony, climbed onto one of the vines used for making Kinian wine and slid neatly to the ground.
Victoria, eager to get away from Larry followed. Bren, his face a huge grin, came next and finally Larry, trying unsuccessfully to buckle his belt in the darkness. He cursed when he reached the snow-covered ground. He'd forgotten his shoes.
Wynic lost his grip on the dagger and stared into his and the lady's reflection. The same nose, the same eyes... The dagger slipped between numb fingers.
Feeling the dagger land in her lap, Snowdancer jammed her elbow into the assassin's stomach and spun around to face him. She raised the dagger threatening.
"I don't think you'd want to use that," came a sneering voice.
Snowdancer felt a dirk pierce her fur cloak, her vest and tunic. It pricked her darkly tanned skin and she felt a trickle of blood run down her back. She shivered.
Pothax withdrew his dirk and sheathed it. "Drop it," he ordered, placing a second dagger under her chin. She obeyed.
The cougar looked up at Wynic. It appeared puzzled and switched it's gaze to Pothax. Seeming to shrug its shoulders, it went back to sleep.
"Who are you?" demanded Wynic slowly. He retrieved and sheathed his dagger. He stared at her in silence.
Snowdancer looked up to meet the assassin's eyes. Her eyes began to mist over so she looked away in shame. "Snowdancer," she replied quietly, "Doxon."
To a regular traveler it seemed impossible that Waytorn could have arrived in Jaton from Glist when travelers from Athex still hadn't arrived. Yet here he was in Jaton already. News travels faster in the underworld and apparently so do people.
He pounded on the door of a simple townhouse and waited impatiently. It felt odd that he was actually knocking on a door since he usually entered through other means. He looked around, wondering if she was even home.
The door opened slowly and a fist came flashing out. It struck him on the jaw and he tumbled backwards into the snow. He looked up, dazed, at Dame Larel.
The knightess was considered to be the greatest crossbowist on the continent and it was but a question of time until Waytorn, King Culprit, came around wanting to hire her. "I'm not for hire," she spat and slammed the door.
Waytorn was not easily dissuaded. He climbed to his feet and studied the closed door for barely a second. he could easily break it down, but that wouldn't be polite. Instead he knocked on the door loudly, prepared to duck this time.
The door swung open and this time a steel-toed boot came out. This time Waytorn was ready. He sidestepped forward and grabbed hold of the Dame's thigh. he ducked her punch and closed the door behind him.
Larel pulled a pistol-crossbow from her vest and jammed it into Waytorn's throat. "Get out!" She tightened her finger around the trigger.
"I'm not here to hire you," said Waytorn in his inexplicably calm voice. "I've been asked by Lord Blackaxe and Lord Redhawk to inquire if you're interested in a teaching position. Well? Are you?"
"You've got a lot of nerve coming back here. What makes you think I'm not going to kill you?" snarled Larel. Her grip on the trigger had caused her finger to turn white.
"Because I saved your life," replied Waytorn. "Twice."
Larel cursed, took a step back and planted a kick in Waytorn's stomach. Or at least that's where it would have gone had he not sidestepped and her foot went clear through the door. She tried to pull her foot free, but discovered it was stuck.
"Oh dear," remarked Waytorn coldly. "I do believe you're stuck. I'll just help myself to the Kinian brandy. Why don't-"
Larel reached out with one mailed fist and grabbed the cutthroat by the neck. With the other, she punched a chunk of wood loose from the door and pulled her boot loose. "You're leaving. Now!"
"On the contrary, I think I'll be staying," answered Waytorn, slamming his fist into her wrist. Larel's grip loosened and he jumped out of reach. "For quite awhile."
Larel's face flushed red in anger. "All right, all right! I'll teach then. Now get out!"
"You know, dear, you've grown awfully tempersome in the past years. Is there anything I can do about it?" He looked around the room, studying Larel's crossbow collection.
"Oui, you can leave! I told you I never wanted to see your terrible face again!" spat Larel. Almost immediately she regretted saying that.
Waytorn's fists clenched and he looked at her. His scarred face was pale and she could see tears shimmering in his eyes. She'd never, in all the years that she'd loved him, ever seen him cry.
"I'll-I'll leave now," said Waytorn slowly. He walked towards the door and opened it. He turned slowly to face her. "If only I could go back and change everything I said and did," he said wistfully. He closed the door behind him reluctantly.
Larel looked down at her hand. It was clenched in an angry fist. Blood was running freely from where the diamond on her wedding ring had bit into her palm.
Wynic's knees buckled beneath him and he sank to the floor beside the albino cougar. He stared up at who was very likely his half sister. She looked like a twin except her hair was brown and her skin was heavily tanned. She looked like a paler version of an Ice Folk maiden.
Wynic and Pothax's father, Ror Doxon had been a huge, charming cutthroat. The emphasis is on charming because he spent a great deal of his life luring young maidens away from their homes and families. Not long after the maiden gave birth to a child, Ror would abandon her and take the child. When Pothax was born, slavery was common in Avolic where Ror lived so Pothax was sold into slavery by his own father after a severe beating that nearly killed the boy. Ten years later, after slavery was abolished, Wynic was born, though this time it was closer to a father-son relationship though many wondered about the multiple bruises on Wynic's body. When a boy, perhaps five winters older than Wynic's eleven winters, confronted Ror it was clear to Wynic that the boy was his elder half-brother. Ror killed him. Not long after Wynic murdered his father and ended his torture.
Before his death, Ror had made many frequent journeys to the north and to the east. It would be easy to say that on one of these journeys Ror ran into a young Ice Folk maiden that happened to meet his fancy. The result was Snowdancer.
It had been about five months ago when Wynic first met Pothax. Both had been shocked but the same could be said about now, though to a lesser degree. It struck Wynic as funny that he might have hundreds of brothers and sisters he didn't know about, and he burst out laughing.
Pothax's reaction was quite different. He simply stood and stared dumbstruck at his sister. Thoughts raced through his mind, but none of them seemed to register. He was paralyzed.
Bren sat down beside the cougar and stroked it's wet fur. It growled and Bren yanked his hand back warily. Then he laughed and realized it was purring.
"I think we should go back to the suites and discuss this matter," said Victoria. She watched Snowdancer warily and kept her sword ready. "Don't you agree Larry?"
"Aye, aye Cap'n," mocked Larry. He gave her an elaborate salute.
"Shut up Larry."
Nebonex and Cap'n Siars positioned themselves between Pothax, Wynic and Snowdancer. Both knew of the Doxon's inherent rage and it's dangers. Both wished Redhawk or Rades was here, they always seemed to be able to control the brother's tempers, a trait Victoria and Gith were just learning.
Gith and Victoria sat opposite of Snowdancer, assuming the role of interrogators. Gith like a wise but stern and understanding father, and Victoria, an experienced commander with an air of duty and obedience about her.
Larry sat in a padded chair, 'sampling' Redhawk's supply of Kinian wine and brandy. He seemed content to sit and listen to the discussion while watching Bren pet the cougar, Whitethunder, who lay in front of the fireplace soaking up warmth.
Victoria took a deep breath. "What proof can you provide that you're a Doxon?"
Snowdancer, looking like a fragile yet stalwart doe in the face of a hunter, looked down. Reaching inside her cloak she withdrew a silver chain. Dangling from the chain was a tiny silver dagger. "Ror gave this to my mother the last time he visited us in Fort Phal."
Wynic drew a breath like a hiss. He recognized it as his father's, it had even become a symbol of his father because Ror had always worn it. He had never taken it off. And yet when Wynic thought back he swore he'd seen it on his father the day he killed him. He lurched forward, hands outstretched for Snowdancer's neck.
Nebonex heard the roar, sounding like a Kinian cougar so much that Whitethunder looked up and he knocked Wynic over the head. The assassin sank back into his seat unconscious.
Pothax didn't protest to his brother's injury. He was too busy studying the tiny silver dagger. It looked familiar though he couldn't remember why. He barely remembered anything of that brief time he'd spent with his father before being sold into slavery.
"Where did he go after he left?" asked Victoria. She knew the story of Ror's death better than even Pothax and knew that Ror's body probably still lay in an alley in Jaton.
"He went to the Minotaur Empire. Years later-" Snowdancer stopped abruptly and refused to continue on the subject.
"Why are you here?" asked Gith.
Snowdancer opened her mouth to speak, but quickly closed it. She would have said to kill Lord Redhawk, but then they'd ask why. She didn't even know why herself. It was her orders and she was expected to carry them out.
It became obvious that they wouldn't get her to talk about anything useful so Victoria and Gith eventually gave up. Victoria would have to talk with Wynic when he woke up. The assassin is the only one who could shed some light on the situation.
Or perhaps Redhawk.
Mathex had said dory, but what was built was closer to bark, a small sailing ship. Actually the bark, was already built, it just needed some minor adjustment to make it 'iceworthy'. Such things as adding steering ballasts, steel runners along the sides and the hull had to be cut down to decrease wind resistance and weight.
Payment for the bark was charged to the Minotaur Empire through the castle's baron and the Minotaur Embassy in Athex. Mathex was certain that the Embassy would find this ship a valuable expenditure. He just hoped it worked.
Carlo had his doubts about the ship, but in the end, when he raised the sails and watched the ship drag their makeshift anchor for five hundred yards before the rope finally snapped, he decided the ship was more than 'iceworthy'.
It just needed a name suited for its purpose, something like Icecharger or Snowmaid. Unfortunately Roreed decided to nick-name it Rat's Nest because of it's rat population. To Carlo's never-ending despair, the name stuck.
Thus on the eighth day of the first month in the year 2249 was the first Iceship, named Rat's Nest, launched.
Adrienne looked across the campfire and caught Dillard's eye. She sipped at her hot tea and studied the knight. The scar above his eye caught her attention. "How'd you get that scar? Was it during Kobalix's Quest?" she asked.
Dillard blinked. He reached under his cloak and withdrew a silver medallion. "I gained it when I was an apprentice knight. I'm sure you've heard the story of Hitlot?"
"Versions of it, most of them probably exaggerated and missing parts of the true story," shrugged Adrienne.
"Hitlot wanted to overthrow King Searle. He gathered an army of renegade knights, cutthroats and mercenaries. He trained them and prepared for an invasion on Jaton. His plans were so advanced in comparison with modern tactics he'd have won with only half the men. He started to capture other castles and estates in the direction of Jaton. I had very few friends at the time and we had all traveled to Kinian on some hair-brained scheme to make us all rich. We ran into one of Hitlot's war parties near Castle Redhawk. They left us to die and went on to attack Castle Redhawk. They managed to kill the aging Lord, but gained a much younger man's vengeance. Lord Redhawk, the one you've heard of, went to Avolic to hire Wynic Doxon, who was working for Queen Elexenia as a spy. On the way he found me, barely alive and almost begging for death to be merciful. He took me back to Castle Redhawk and left me with his squire. He returned later with Wynic Doxon and a troop of Stornium knights. They planned to sneak into Hitlot's Castle through the cavern's linked to the wine cellars. I accompanied them. We got lost in the wall passages, Redhawk was supposed to be an expert, but he was drunk half the time."
"Your version of Lord Redhawk certainly is less knight-like," commented Adrienne.
"I'm sure he prefers the exaggerated version where he fights a huge muscular Hitlot and outwits the brute, but that didn't happen. Hitlot was a great military leader, but nevertheless he was very mad. He was a short, little fellow and took temper tantrums constantly. In any amount he tripped on a rug and impaled himself on Redhawk's sword." Dillard smiled in remembrance.
"Why'd he hire Wynic then?"
"It had never occurred to anyone that it could have been that easy to kill Hitlot. It wasn't a waste though since we never would have made it out of there without Wynic. Nobody has ever beaten Wynic in a sword fight that I know of. Unless Wynic's father did, though you'd have to ask Wynic and he's tempersome where his father's concerned."
"What about Kobalix? Didn't he almost beat him?"
"Almost. He was faster, stronger, had more endurance and better training. Wynic's cunning and skill won out though. Wynic's different than most humans. I hate to say it, but minotaurs are much better fighters than humans."
"Now if only they were smarter," laughed Adrienne.
Dillard shook his head. "Once again the myth about minotaurs is shown. They are the smarted ones."
"What? Have you been drinking?"
"I'm more sober than you are. Minotaurs are superiorly smarter than humans. You're-"
"But Wynic beat Kobalix! He outsmarted him!"
"Wynic is an exception. He's spent his entire life perfecting the art of combat and killing. So much that it's almost instinctful. Now back on topic. Who invented the galley?"
"Who invented mangonels?"
"Minotaurs," replied Adrienne with a resigned expression.
"Actually, it was a minotaur named Mathex. He also invented the Goban. Who invented distillation and discovered fermentation?"
"Yes. Once again it was the minotaurs. They have a stronger government, more universities and started the Academy of Combat where Kobalix was trained and more industry. They're richer too, I'll bet!"
"Okay, okay. You've proved your point," Adrienne snapped. "I didn't want a lecture on the subject of how stupid we are!" She studied Dillard's medallion in the dying firelight. "And what about that?"
"I received it shortly afterwards Hitlot's death for bravery in battle."
Adrienne nodded. "You were one of the few that went to Kobalix's picnic? Weren't you?"
"Yes, as did Rades, though I don't remember why he got to go. He's a fair swordsman, but he lacks the skill and discipline to become a great."
"Oh great," said Rades with an oath in old Stornium. He felt like screaming in frustration. And cold. To the north of him was a lake. He dared not cross it because of fear of thin ice. It would take him two days to go around since the lake was cradled in a steep sided valley between two towering crags.
He had no choice, so he started walking west. He prayed his food would hold out until he reached a warm haven. He prayed he wouldn't freeze to death.
Roderick, called Derick for short, was Redhawk's squire. He was trained as an apprentice doctor and as such had been the one to bandage Redhawk's should during Kobalix's Quest, make a cast for Wynic's fractured ribs and with the minotaur Mathex's help, invent and build the first wheelchair for Redhawk who had lost so much blood he couldn't stand. He was also concerned about Redhawk's excessive drinking.
Redhawk was drunk this morning due to drinking while taking his turn at the watch. Usually they would dunk his head in a water barrel and wait for him to sober up. Unfortunately, all the water was frozen.
Gisoni crossed his arms and looked at Lord Blackaxe questioning. "We could throw him river. It might not be frozen yet."
"Absolutely not," exclaimed Derick. "The alcohol in his blood will give him pneumonia. We need something that will serve as a shock, preferably something that doesn't kill him."
"We could stuff snow down his back," suggested General Chek. "That's always a sudden shock!" He laughed and reached for some snow.
"Wait that might not work either. It has to be a shock to his entire system, not just his back," explained Derick.
"Well, why don't we give him some Kinian brandy or Minotaur vodka and hope that gives him a shock. Of course it'd probably make him worse," suggested Gisoni, adding the latter after a pause.
"We might as well tie him across the saddle and depart from camp. it will wear off. At least I hope it does."
"Queen Helen," said Derick cautiously, later that day. "Why'd you marry Redhawk?" He glanced at his drunken Lord still slung over the saddle.
Helen frowned. Her beautiful pale face studied Derick's for a moment. She opened her mouth to speak, but shut it quickly. "Because I love him. What other reason do I need and don't ask why, cause it's too confusing and too hard to explain," she said finally.
"That was a order," Helen said, ignoring his further protests.
Pothax opened the door and received a sharp kick to the face. He cried out in shock and pain and fell backwards. He reached for a dagger hidden in his sleeve.
A fist smashed into his cheek and he forgot about the dagger. He glanced up at his attacker and immediately ducked as a fist came flashing into view. It was Snowdancer. He would have felt faintly proud of his sister if not for the circumstances.
Snowdancer struck out again with her fist and hit Pothax in the forehead. The stunning blow caused unconsciousness and even before his head hit the wood floor she was busy stealing a dagger. She glanced back at Nebonex lying unconscious in the room and fled on foot.
When Wynic discovered her tracks later on it is interesting to note that she fled bare foot. Her feet barely left marks in the snow as she passed. It was almost like she had been skipping. Or dancing.
"My god, can she ever hit!" swore Nebonex, resting his head between his knees as Victoria instructed. "I didn't even see it coming and she needed to do it only once too. Didn't hear a thing either. You got to be pretty good at stealth to manage that on minotaur ears!"
"She's definitely a Doxon," commented Victoria. "Only a Doxon could-"
"No she isn't!" spat Wynic. "That silver chain was left in a drunk alley with my father wearing it! She must have found it somehow!"
"Does this mean that we're going to pursue her?" asked Bren hopefully.
"Definitely. The war can wait. This girl is involved in it somehow or otherwise she wouldn't be here!"
"And what about her cougar?" asked Gith, pointing to the huge cat sleeping in front of the fireplace.
"He'd make a good leadcat for the catsleds. He may even lead us to her," said Victoria. She cast a worried glance at her husband.