Asherah rode her black pony through the valley as the snowfall grew heavier. The clouds hung low, blotting out almost all the dim light of what was called day here in the very north of the world. She knew there were other lands, warmer lands where there was bright sun and no snow lay upon the earth. It had never been given to her to see those places, and it never would be. Asherah was one of the Karkahd, the people who dwelled here in the dark. They were charged to always guard the sacred land where their kings lay buried.
She kept her fur drawn up over her mouth and squinted into the snow. This was the last part of her regular route, and she would not give it up because of a little storm. Her horse knew the way, and she was warm enough. In her left hand she bore one of the torches of eternal fire – a cast iron and brass handle that was set with a shard of the burning star that burned and never faded. It lit her way and gave heat even in this cold place.
Hers was the most remote path, the road that led north out of the lands inhabited by men and into the forbidden lands. Her way took her to the very gates of the burial grounds, over the pass and to where, on a clear day, she could look upon the stone pillars that marked the border than no man might step across.
She thought of her way home. Soon she would return to the keep and find warmth and food and her companions. Her mind was occupied with her thoughts, and then she found the trail. There, through the drifted snow, lay a wide path, a trail left by many horses along the pass, and then it turned north to where no one was permitted to go.
Her heart began to beat faster, and she drew rein, looked around her and saw no other sign, no light and no motion. She drew her saber and swung down from her horse, pushed through the snow to get a closer look at the trail. She thrust the pointed tip of her torch into the ground and bent to examine the tracks. The snow was marked by the tread of shod horses, and she saw the marks of sled runners. They were in narrow file, so it was difficult to say how many, but she guessed at least a dozen horses, perhaps more.
How had anyone come so deep into their lands? The way was guarded and watched, and riders ranged all along the borders, hunting for the signs left by would-be grave robbers. Whoever had come this way with a company of men was a canny trail man, able to elude much searching. Now they had reached the very heart of the lands guarded by the Karkahd, and Asherah was alone. Her hands stole inside her coat and touched the ruby that she wore around her neck. Etched with sigils and caught in a cage of golden wire, it was an heirloom of her family.
She stood and looked down the trail, torn between her desire to ride after them and her desire to go at once for others to help her kill the intruders. It would take half the day for her to reach the keep, and then it would be hours to gather whoever was there, arm them, and lead them back. Some of them might not believe her. The Karkahd had guarded this land for three hundred years, and never had any raider come as close as this.
They could surely catch them before they escaped with anything, but to think of the tombs of the kings desecrated made her blood boil. Perhaps she could kill them, or drive them off. Arrows could lame their horses, and if they had a sled she could cripple it. If she could even destroy their supplies, they would likely starve.
She examined the trail and saw how light the dust of snow was on the tracks. They had passed this way very recently, and she was not far behind them. That was what decided her. She shrouded her torch so the light would not be seen from far off and mounted her horse again. Grim-faced, she pushed her way north.
The trail led through the rocky hills and the thick trees that had never known the axe. With her light shrouded it was harder going, but she kept on the trail and she kept moving. The snow was heavy but there was not too much wind, so she listened closely, knowing she would likely hear them before she saw them. She had a good horn bow and twenty arrows. From the dark she could strike them down if she had targets to shoot at. The Karkahd were trained to track and hunt and fight to the death. To give their lives, if need be, for the dead.
At the mouth of the valley two great pillars had been raised, stone piled on stone, carved with skill by artisans brought from kinder lands. They were wider than trees and as tall as towers, and she saw them long before she reached them. They were worked with scenes from the life of their first king. Druan, the Hammer of the North. Between them was stretched a heavy rope, tapped to keep it proof against the damp, the ends sealed with molten gold.
When she came in sight of the towers she got down from her horse and tethered him, took her bow and crept forward to spy out the pass. Even in the dim light she could see that the rope had been cut, and the golden seals were gone. The path led straight between the pillars, and she ground her teeth in rage. Blood would pay for this, as had been demanded by Druan himself. This land was forbidden, save for when a new king was interred with his ancestors and his family, and then only the Karkahd were permitted.
Silent, she crept through the snow, arrow set to the string. The blowing snow did not slow her, only made her watch carefully, seeking any sign of men left behind to watch the entrance. It was quiet, so quiet, and so she heard a rough cough long before she saw the shapes of the men. They were huddled in the lee of the leftmost pillar, close around a small fire that was well-banked so it could not be seen from far off. She saw a shadow move in front of the fire, and so she knew they were waiting.
Waiting, but not doing a good job of watching. Rather than keep their eyes on the pass, they were close to their flames, eyes blinded by the light. Closer, and she saw there were four of them. By this she knew the intruders were many. A small party would not have left so many behind. Now she knew they were at least twenty. They were careless as well, and these men were not of the north, not inured to the hardships of the cold. They were wrapped and swaddled in heavy cloth, but not furs, and their weapons were strange. She saw one bore a short spear with a silver counterweight gleaming in place of the back spike, and the others wore swords longer and more ornate than anything she knew.
Strange or not, they would die as easily as any. She sighted across the fire at the one who sat facing her direction, unaware. He would be the easiest target, and she could be sure to put one of them down. She took another arrow from her quiver and held it between her fingers, for a quick second shot.
She drew, glad of the slight wind, and aimed carefully. He was not moving much, and she waited for him to lean down, add more wood to the fire, and when he sat up straight she loosed. Her bowstring, muffled for hunting, made only a slight sound, and then the arrow punched through his eye and the point stood out from the back of his head. He sat up terrible and straight, made no sound, and in the moment of shock as the others stared, she drew and shot her second shaft.
She caught the second man just as he reached for his companion, and her arrow buried itself under his arm. He howled and pitched over, writhing, and the other two jumped to their feet and kicked the fire out. They were smart enough for that at least, but she could still see them well enough. She drew, waited for them to venture out, and when they did, she loose again, and the third man went down with an arrow in his chest. His scream echoed, and she cursed. The rest might hear his caterwauling.
Asherah moved fast. She sheathed her bow in its case, then took her saber in one hand and her long knife in the other, moved in on the last man, keeping low and circling in from the left where the pillar would cover her approach.
It covered him as well, so when she found him, she was almost on top of him. He saw her blade in the dark and slashed at her, startled. She ducked back, then lunged in with her sword cutting high. He parried high and left himself open. He was probably armored under his heavy clothes, and so she brought her knife up and cut deep on the inside of his thigh, blood spraying out before the blade was even clear of the wound.
He went down, gasping for a scream, and she kicked his blade aside and they stabbed down into his throat, cutting off his cry. The man with the arrow in his chest was gasping and coughing, but she put a stop to that with a heavy blow of her sword, taking his head off. The blood was black in the faded light, and it steamed as it poured into the snow.
She moved quickly to finish the other wounded man, and then she cleaned her blades before the blood could freeze to the steel and ripped her arrows out. It only took a moment to clean them enough to use, and then she searched the dead men. Under their heavy clothes they were pale, light-eyed men. They were tall, with long limbs and big hands. She had never seen men like them. They wore mail armor under their coats, and the workmanship was very fine. Their swords were long, meant to be used in two hands, and the hilts were decorated with gold.
Each man wore a heavy golden pendant under his collar, and she looked at it, noting the shape of the hand molded on the metal, a symbol in the palm. She took one, snapping the chain, and she put it in her pouch.
Enough. She left the bodies and returned to her horse, mounted quickly. They had not left these men any horses, which meant they were meant to wait until their companions returned, which meant they did not intend to stay long. That puzzled her. The valley contained dozens of royal tombs, many of them filled with splendid treasures. It would take them a long time to excavate even one, and they would have to choose one that held what they wanted.
She did not think these men had come all this way with such care unless they wanted something, and to move quickly and hope to escape undetected, they had to know what they were looking for, and where it could be found. That meant she had to move fast if she wanted to be in time to stop them.
Her horse was tired, as was she, but that did not matter. This was her duty, the purpose to which her people were sworn. She would die before she gave up the trail, or allowed them to escape the valley of the kings without paying with their lives.
The snow came down heavily, and the sky fires burned above, turning the clouds to green and pink and gold. Asherah pressed on and crossed into the valley of the dead. On all sides she saw the irregular shapes of snow-covered tombs, silent and watchful as sentinels. She saw the progression of grave-building, from simple tumulus graves covered over with earth and stones, to great carved mausoleums, flanked by obelisks and guarded by beast-faced statues that roared silent into the eternal dark. The trail led past them all, and her anger and her apprehension mounted as she followed it deeper into the valley, until she saw lights ahead and hunkered down in the saddle, peering ahead, to the center of the necropolis.
She had suspected this was why they came, for what tomb was grander or steeped with greater legend than the resting place of Druan himself? Here was the great mound, covered over with stone and ringed by spears driven into the earth. Every thirteen moons they returned to this place and thrust fresh spears into the soil, so the grave was always surrounded by a hedge of iron points, the hafts slowly rotting away from water and ice and wind, leaving the ground stained with rust and treacherous with dagger points.
Asherah came down from her horse and crept ahead, hid in the lee of an ancient wall that had stood since before memory, and she looked on a scene of utter blasphemy. There were more than twenty horses, along with mules and sleds of tools and supplies. She counted at least fifteen men, all of them armed and of the same tall, well-wrapped kind as those she had slain. They were not men of the north, that was plain. They had come from some foreign land to plunder the tomb of Druan, the first and greatest emperor, the conqueror of all lands. She ground her teeth and drew her bow from its case. She would not permit that to happen.
She saw no digging, and no tools nor slaves to wield them. She wondered what they expected to accomplish with bare hands. But then a distinct figure stepped forward, and Asherah saw this was a man unlike the rest. He was taller, and when he cast back his hood, she saw he had sallow skin and a thin, vulpine aspect. His hair was a single scalp lock tied in a long braid, and his eyes were darkened with some dye or tattoo, so they seemed hollow, like the sockets of a skull.
He seemed to have to fear of the cold, and she saw him hold up his arms and gesture strangely, heard his voice lifted in a strange chant. She wondered if, perhaps, these men had come to do homage to the Emperor, to revere him as a god, as some of the peoples of the southlands were said to do. The matter was not so serious if that was why they came. They still must die, but they would not defile the grave itself.
The earth shuddered beneath her, and Asherah clung to the rocks as she stared, unbelieving. The hands of the chanter glowed, and the air around him seemed to come alive as if at some incandescent flame. A light blazed on the mound of the tomb, as if shining up from beneath the stones, and then the very earth tore itself open.
Asherah gasped in horrified shock as the burial mound erupted as from within, exposing the blackness of the interior like an open maw. It looked so like a wound that she expected to see blood, as though the flesh of the earth would rip and bleed like her own.
She felt cold with outrage and fear. A sorcerer! That changed everything, and now that the tomb was open, she must do everything she could do. She rolled over the wall and crept closer, flitting from cover to cover until she was close enough to shoot without fear of missing. The wind was soft but unpredictable, and she wanted to be sure of her kills.
The wizard would be first, and then the rest, until she could placate the spirit of the Emperor with the blood of the defilers poured out upon the soil and their heads impaled on the spears that guarded his tomb. She drew and sighted, aiming for the deadly spot behind his ear. She breathed deep, calmed her racing heart, and then loosed.
He turned, as if he heard the sound, turned to look her direction, and the arrow plowed into his right eye and ripped through the side of his socket, cracking the bone with a sound that carried. He screamed and clapped a hand to the wound, fell over into the snow, and then Asherah drew another arrow and loosed a rain of steel upon her enemies.
She fired as quickly as she could, and three of them fell with arrows embedded in them before the rest could scramble for cover. Some of them hid inside the tomb, and that infuriated her even more. She saw the sorcerer rise, staggering and wounded, and she drew aim on him again. This time, she would put a shaft through his heart.
The arrow struck her left arm like the blow of a hammer, and she fell into the snow, spitting and cursing. The shaft was clean through the muscle of her upper arm, painful and bleeding, and she hissed as she snapped the point off and pulled the shaft from her flesh. The wound would not stop her, but now she knew another archer was watching for her, and that changed everything.
She rolled left and crawled low through the snow, staying behind the rocks. She shoved her bow back in its case and instead drew her saber. She would not be able to shoot accurately now; now it would be blade work. She drew her dagger with her left arm and winced. It hurt, but she would not let it stop her.
There was shouting, and the sounds of men running through the snow. She heard a voice lifted, calling in a language she did not know. She slipped along the ridge and pressed close to a tree, peered around and then heard a twig snap. There she saw a dark shape, bow ready, creeping low toward where she had been, and she smiled through gritted teeth.
The hunter stalked closer, and she leaped. He must have seen the motion in the corner of his eye, because he had time to parry her sword-stroke with his bow, though her steel notched the stave and cut the string. She slashed low with her dagger and he had to jump away to escape. Then she saw his face, and shock fell on her like a blow. His face was tattooed as was hers – the marks of the Karkahd.
That was how this force of interlopers had made their way so deep into the forbidden lands without being spotted. They were led by one of her own brethren. He was marked as of the clan of Sultai, the guardians of the west, while her line was descended from Arun, the guards of the east. She did not know his face, but how could one of the chosen aid a desecration like this?
He swept out his own sword, and they fought, there in the shadows. Steel rang on steel, and he took his knife in hand and they dueled edge to edge. Her left arm, wounded, was weakened, and he forced past her guard and cut her shoulder, slashed a line up her cheek, and then lights came as the other warriors closed on the sound of battle.
She could not fight them all, not like this. Desperate, she flung her knife in his face and when he ducked back she struck furiously and cut off his left hand. He howled and blood splashed the snow, and then she reeled away as more warriors rushed in with their lanterns held high.
Halfway up the slope, under the trees, she turned at bay. With both hands on her sword hilt she met four of them in a storm of steel edges. They thrust at her with their short spears, slashed with their long swords. They were hampered by their heavy clothes and by the lanterns they carried. She evaded the stroke of a spear and struck at the lantern, shattering it so that burning oil spilled over the man. He screamed and staggered away, but even then another spear pierced her thigh and she fell. Even as her leg folded, she struck back with venomous speed, and her sword bit through his mail and slashed open his chest.
Asherah forced herself to her feet and retreated, hearing shouts as more men came. Two swordsmen engaged her, pressing her as she backed up the slope, her wounded leg all but failing with every step. One of them overextended and she slashed open his throat, sent his bleeding body sliding down the slope with a red trail in the snow, and then she stumbled over a rock and the other swordsman cut her head with a quick blow and sent her tumbling down the reverse of the ridge, rolling in the snow.
She held grimly to her sword, and at the bottom she found she was half blind with blood. Every instinct roared for her to go back and kill as many as she could, but with a Karkahd betrayal, it was much more serious. She could not kill them all, not against a sorcerer and one trained as she was trained. She had to get back to the keep and gather help. Her wounds would tell her tale.
Desperate and anguished, she turned from the tomb and staggered for her horse, clawing blood from her face as it ran over her eyes and froze in place. The snow was coming down thicker than ever, and it made it harder to see, even as it protected her from pursuit. She bore no light to betray her path in the dark. She staggered through the trees to where her horse was tethered, and she dragged herself into the saddle. Already she felt cold seeping into her limbs from the lost blood, and she cursed death. She gave a last look back, and offered up a prayer to the ghost of the Emperor, asking him to forgive her, and promising that she would return. She would avenge this outrage.
She heard voices coming through the snow, and she snarled and turned her horse toward home. She leaned low and held on and gave him his head. He knew the way and would bring her to the keep. All she had to do was stay alive.