Chapter One

 

 

          Ohrl rolled over to rest his head against his arm. He huddled next to Faerl behind a jutting piece of tundra, protecting himself from the relentless wind that blew across the plains. The brothers had trekked for two days toward Sira’an after traversing the Grimr Pass, making a final stop within the tall tussock grass under the ever lengthening shadow of the great Meil’vohllen wall. Blistering winds had hampered their progress, forcing them to walk with their faces shielded for much of the journey.

          The sun had already lowered beyond sight, turning the once brightly burning orange grass to a sombre brown. Given to them from the cave exit of the Grimr Pass, Ljótur’s instructions were to remain well hidden until they reached the city, and enter under the secrecy of night.

          Unable to sleep, Ohrl sat up.

          “What’s wrong?” Faerl shouted over the noise of the wind, unsettled by his brother’s dark mood.

          Ohrl did not respond. He stared silently at the unknown horizon, wishing the city would finally come into view.

          “Have patience,” Faerl counselled, rising to follow Ohrl’s gaze. “Once we find refuge in Sira’an and we are assured of our safety, I will delve into the River Stone and try to make sense of what Imad al-Din showed me. Until then, we must remain hidden.”

          Ohrl sighed. His body ached and he longed for rest. He knew the dawn wind would blow all trace of them away, yet he was impatient. He willed the sand to stop its siege against them, but to no avail. He was not its master. Not yet. Frustrated, he conceded this fight and turned away.

          Though the wind howled and the tussock stood in parts taller than both brothers, they purposefully hid themselves from sight. Wrapped in the heavy, dull brown woollen cloaks Ljótur had provided, they nestled in a sheltered pocket between the sand covered reeds. The wind did not lessen as the evening slowly cooled and night began to assume control. Stars broke through the haze far above the horizon, and the moon at last conquered the battling sands, marking their path east. Under its guidance, the brothers began their final march toward Sira’an.

          Faerl abruptly stopped walking as the last of the daylight failed, grabbing hold of Ohrl’s cloak. “Can you hear that?”

          Ohrl tilted his head to one side, unable to hear anything but the shifting sands whistling through the reeds, then he caught a haunting voice upon the air. It was faint and he couldn’t make out the words, but the sound sent shivers over his arms.

          “I thought I heard that same voice while we were resting, but I couldn’t make out what it was,” Faerl said. “We must be closer to the city than we thought.”

          They pushed on for another hour before their shelter gave way, and the open plains stood before them. Far beyond, needle thin towers rose from the horizon, piercing the belly of the moon. Outlined in ghostly white, their silhouettes soared over a multi-domed structure that shimmered above the plains. The rest of the city was lost on the horizon beneath the haze of the shifting moonlit sands.     

          “It’s smaller than I thought it would be,” Faerl noted, trying to discern the edges of the city. “It doesn’t look half the size of Brúnn from here.”

          “Though probably twice as dangerous,” Ohrl countered. He stood at the edge of the open plain, unwilling to step out under the exposing moonlight. They had advanced toward the city from its western edge, and could see firelights penetrating north beyond clear sight. To the south the lights ended as the land abruptly fell to the Inner Sea.

          “Come on,” Faerl urged. “Ljótur spoke of finding a way in at the southern tip, to conceal our true path. Although the dust hides us, we have no reason to be approaching from the plains if we’re caught. We must not be seen.” He stepped forward but Ohrl held him back.

          “Let’s wait well beyond midnight, when few are likely to be awake. We’ll make our way to the cliff edge as far as we can within the tundra’s shelter.”

          Faerl looked from Ohrl to the city, unsure if it would make any difference, but followed his brother as he stepped back into the shadows. They circled the lower reaches of Sira’an until nothing but rock lay between them and the southern most shacks, their crumbled black frames now visible through the whipping sands. They found a last remote piece of shelter, and lay down to rest. Several hours passed, and as the people of Sira’an lay sleeping in their beds, several broken clouds gathered across the moon. Under the deepening shadow, Ohrl and Faerl rose to at last move secretly into the city.

 

          When dawn broke, the true size of Sira’an lay before them. They had sheltered in a hay strewn barn containing work horses, rising well before the night sky allowed any hint of colour to return. The wind had lessened during the night and the temperature had dramatically dropped. After they left the protection of the barn, Faerl and Ohrl cautiously skulked cloaked and unchallenged through silent alleyways, searching for a route that would take them east.

          The tiny avenues twisted and turned. Walls of rough stone enveloped them, the night sky barely visible through the thin gaps between buildings above. Though the sky had at last yielded to dawn, the sun had not yet risen, and no shadows were cast. Ohrl was beginning to lose any sense of direction, reminded of the labyrinth riddled within the Smior. With grim determination, he led Faerl through a corridor barely wide enough for the two of them to walk side by side, roughly paved between two buildings. When they broke free, the alleyway gave way to a large open avenue set above the great sea entrance to Sira’an.

          The brothers stood high upon the western bank of a crack in the earth, its width in parts dwarfing even the mighty Oystkrakr, yet it narrowed further to the south where it met the Inner Sea. They could hear huge spumes of water smashing their way through from the pounding waves beyond, joining a river that flowed through the crack from the city’s harbour. Below them on the opposite bank, Sira’an spread for miles upon a flat plain, perhaps a hundred yards from where they stood.

          The buildings below were of broken white and yellow stone, their bulbous rooftops framed by chiselled parapets, mirroring the scores of colossal domed buildings scattered throughout the city. One large building lay as a jewelled centrepiece in the heart of the city, its white hued walls fringed by tall slender towers that rose as though waiting to spear the dawn sun. Although the building they had seen the night before was now hidden from view, they both sensed the white walled building below would have swallowed it whole. Beyond lay a lake, harboured in the northern part of the city. The still light of morning settled pale and calm upon its surface like a mirror for the pre-dawn sky, sheltered from the whipping winds by a great natural wall that encircled its girth.

          A light burst from the horizon, and the rising sun set the tips of the towers ablaze. Weathered and blasted from their arduous journey across the plains, the brothers’ faces crackled against the warmth of the new dawn. As they soaked up the invigorating dawn light, a lone voice rose from the city, as though a single sea bird floated in the updraft and called to Ohrl and Faerl alone.

          “This is the voice I heard last night,” Faerl said, straining to make sense of what was being sung. “I don’t understand the language. It’s like nothing I’ve heard before.”

          Ohrl listened for a few moments, lulled by the melodic tone. He stared out over the city as the rising sun filtered rays of light between buildings and parapets on the rooftops. The ensuing shadows slowly shifted before his eyes, making the city yawn and stretch as it woke. A gentle change of breeze urged Ohrl closer to the edge of the chasm, where the earth dropped beneath him to the surging waves. There was something momentous in the song, it stirred in his heart, and his eyes came to rest upon the white domed building below, gleaming above all others as it caught the first of dawn’s light. In that moment, Ohrl forgot the rest of the world, save for the song that floated upon the wind.

          “Ohrl!” Faerl repeated heavily under his breath. Ohrl snapped his attention back to his brother, before noticing an old man walking toward them.

          “Quickly,” Ohrl said, gently leading Faerl by the arm and urging him to walk. “Let’s cross the chasm before the city wakes. We’ll seek lodging near that building. Then we can work out what we need to do.”

          The voice continued to rise from below as Ohrl and Faerl made their way along the cliff edge, and it was soon joined by others throughout the city, the call uniting like a city ablaze. They made it to within sight of the first bridge before the song faded, the last echoes wafting formlessly into the air, the strength of its fire spent. The abrupt silence forced Ohrl and Faerl to stop walking, for it seemed as though the city held its breath. As it was expelled, life came forth in the form of thousands of people pouring from doors and alleyways, the chatter rising in a wave that pounded against Ohrl’s chest. They were soon swept away in a tide of similarly attired brown robed men who were making their way with purpose and speed in the direction of the closest bridge.

          “This is perfect,” Ohrl said. “If anyone marked our entrance during the night, they will surely lose us in this crowd. Let’s find the protection of a cosy inn. I’m nearly dead on my feet.”

          “I’m right behind you,” Faerl said, eyeing the current of people swirling around them. “I won’t be tempted to use the River Stone until I have fully rested.”

          Faerl moved with haste through the crowd, but slowed as they neared the bridge. “There are not many people crossing over to the other side. Look, most are heading to stairwells beside the bridge.”

          “It doesn’t matter,” replied Ohrl. “No one will question us if we keep walking. Just don’t stop and stare as though we don’t belong.”

          They pushed through the wave of men heading for the stairwells, before breaking free to stand upon the bridge. A strong wind tore through the chasm, buffeting them as they left the shelter of the cliffs. Keeping close to the railing, they peered north along the cliff line as it arced its way to the right.

          The bridge stretched across to the lowest part of the city, cut from the same dark stone that lined the cliffs. Faerl looked further up the gorge and realised this was the steepest of all the bridges, for the bank they had just left slowly descended toward the lake to meet the level of the city below. Lined with tall red flags, the bridges spanned the cliffs like coarse and bloodied gut from a surgeon’s needle struggling to close a vicious wound. Faerl looked down to the raging river below, and shuddered against the howling wind that whipped through the gorge.

          “What are those things clinging to the edge of the cliff?” he said, suddenly noticing where the men were heading. “They look like large catchment funnels, and those trailing tubes run all the way across the gorge into the rock face on the other side.”

          Ohrl turned to see a hive of brown cloaked men scurrying across the precipitous walkways scored into the rock, but he did not stop.

          “It’s not our concern,” he said, continuing along the bridge. “We have more important things to worry about than the chores of local men.”

          “Remember what Ljótur said,” warned Faerl. “We need to take the time to see what is going on around us, to learn about the people that make up this city.”

          Ohrl replied without breaking his step. “We’ll do it another time. I’m tired and hungry, and if I don’t find the white building before my frustration overflows, I will sack this city bare handed.”

          Faerl took one last look at the cliff edge behind them, examining the makeshift shacks precariously attached to the gorge walls, and then turned and hastened his pace in order to rejoin Ohrl.

         

          Ohrl wasted no time making his way along the bridge. He didn’t take his eyes off the stone pathway several feet in front of him until they hit flat ground. An avenue stretched before them, fronted by a stone archway that yawned like a gaping mouth ready to swallow them whole within Sira’an. Ohrl waited for Faerl to step off the bridge and join him, before they were both sucked inside to merge with the throng of people. Less were dressed as they were in the heavy brown robes, but Ohrl knew if Faerl lost sight of him, his brother could easily begin following the wrong man.

          “I’ve never seen so many people,” Ohrl heard Faerl shout. He turned to see Faerl darting to one side to avoid being trapped by the opposing flow of foot traffic.

          “Stay close to me,” Ohrl said calmly, though he felt anything but. His grim mood grew darker, and he released that energy out into the streets. The crowds parted, unaware of why they gave the two brown cloaked men such a wide berth, before merging again behind Faerl.

          The brothers pushed against hagglers and merchants for another half hour, with Ohrl frequently searching the skyline between houses and down alleyways. The amount of people lessened as they turned into narrow lanes, only to converge with another equally busy thoroughfare heading in a different direction.

          “Cursed city!”

          “What is it?” Faerl came to stand next to Ohrl, scanning the crowd from beneath his hood. He was sweating, the morning temperature rising well beyond what he’d become used to in Brúnn, and in the months trapped in the caves of the Brotherhood. Faerl’s sweat clung desperately to his body, the thick woollen cloaks allowing no fresh air to pass through, and the proximity of so many people made the air clammy. Agitated, Faerl shifted his attention back to Ohrl.

          “What are you looking for?” he asked.

          “When we were on the banks of the gorge I thought I had marked a clear path to that white structure we saw. I thought the towers would be easy to see once we were close, but now that we are here, these maddening streets have consumed us. I can’t get my bearings. I have been searching the roof-line for the tips of the great towers, but I haven’t seen a thing.”

          He spun, gripping Faerl’s cloak at the chest. “Food. I need to eat, before hunger claims my sanity faster than Hallen lost his.”

          Faerl saw the wild spark of desperation in his brother’s eyes, and quickly scouted ahead. The avenue opened up to a small market square, and on the opposite side, Faerl saw a dark skinned old man, hunkered over a large deep blackened dish with a hot fire set beneath.

          “Over there,” he said, jutting his chin in the old man’s direction. Ohrl hardly looked up before setting foot against the throng of people, shuffling and thrusting his way through them without a word, until at last they caught sight of what the old man had to offer.

          Inside the dish were boned, split fish, frying in a layer of fat and salt. Fish were a delicacy in Brúnn, being so far from the sea, and the smell was foreign to them. The old man noticed their reaction and urged them to come closer. He scooped two fish from the bowl with a long iron ladle, dropped them into two rough chunks of bread, then generously ground coarse salt over both. He smiled, revealing only several side teeth as all those in front were lost, and slapped a the humble meal into Faerl and Ohrl’s hands. Then he held out his own, waiting for payment.

          Faerl raised one eyebrow. “How much?”

          The old man smiled and nodded, shaking his open palm.

          “You have to tell me how much you want for the fish,” Faerl repeated. Still the old man smiled, and brought a second open palm to join the first.

          “I’m not sure he can speak,” Faerl said to Ohrl, a little bemused as to what to do next.

          “Here,” Ohrl said, handing Faerl a small bag of kopjes. “Give him some small change, it can’t be worth much.” Ohrl was desperately hungry, and he took little interest in the old man. He sniffed the fish, and took a deep bite into the bread.

          Faerl dipped into the bag, which caused the old man to smile even more and press his hands together almost in prayer, thanking Faerl in advance. Faerl dug out five kopjes, a little less than what he expected to pay for a street meal at the markets of Brúnn. The old man continued to bow as he took the money, then stopped suddenly when he saw what he held. Confused, he turned the coins over in his hand, and looked back to Faerl.

          “Kopjes are not worth much here, my friends,” said a stately voice from behind them. Ohrl, Faerl and the old man turned to see a stocky man in his forties, dressed in a grey cotton full length robe. As Ohrl and Faerl stared, the old man held out the coins Faerl had given him, gesturing to the man in grey. The stranger leaned forward to count the coins.

          “If you are to trade in the highland currency, you must give him more than that. This man is a beggar, you are giving him a donation for his fish, but he will not be able to trade this paltry amount in the port. You must give him more, or something of higher value.  Have you not any of our coin? Have you no dhirat?”

          “No,” replied Faerl. “We are yet to exchange any.” In truth he was unaware that Sira’an held a different form of currency. The man in grey grunted.

          “Then give this beggar more than you have. He will be able to exchange it at the port for poor rates, but only if he has enough to warrant interest from the money lenders. For him to receive a fair amount, you must pay him twenty kopjes.”

          “Twenty?” Faerl’s voice rose a little too loud, attracting glances from several passers by. “That’s extortion, just for two fish sandwiches.” He pulled his arm back as the old fish seller clawed at him, imploring him to offer him some more money.

          “Just pay him,” said Ohrl, already halfway through his meal. “I am not in the mood to argue the point.”

          “But Ohrl. Twenty kopjes? I doubt he would sell ten dirty little fish for that amount. We are being robbed.”

          Ohrl pulled Faerl close. “I am tired and still hungry. That fish has calmed me a little, but I would willingly pay twice that amount for a proper meal. Let him have the money, he needs it more than we do. It doesn’t matter if we are cheated this once. Let this beggar have his day.”

          Ohrl took the money bag and pulled out another fifteen kopjes, handing it to the beggar. The old man looked at the coins and nodded his head, smiling once again.

          “Come on, let’s go,” Ohrl urged. Faerl turned as they moved away, angered to see the man in grey step forward and exchange the coins with some of his own, no doubt giving the beggar the poor exchange rate he had earlier foretold.

 

          The brothers continued northwards, following a heavier avenue of traffic until finally the tall, needle like towers of the huge white building punctured the surrounding skyline. The towers still seemed distant, their tips piercing the morning sky, armoured at their peak by two connecting crescents attached back to back, one facing the ground, the other open to the sky. Ohrl noticed that the constriction of tight alleyways and shop front awnings lessened, and soon they burst into an open avenue bordered by an immense white stone wall.

          Ohrl and Faerl could not help but stand and stare. The construction of white stone stood five levels tall, each brick a man’s length and half as high, and Ohrl guessed probably twice as thick. Yet adorning its surface was carving of such delicacy it made light of the wall’s heavy construction. Flowing curves that faded into the stone lifted each block onto the next as though scoured by the wind, frozen in that one moment of creation, and set for all eternity.

          A huge entrance to the courtyard beyond opened before them, straight sided to where Ohrl could perhaps reach if he stood on his toes, then a bulbous arch ballooned outward, coming together not to complete a circle, but angled upward to meet as an arrow pointing upwards to the heavens. The same two opposing crescent moons sealed its apex. Here the strength of the wall’s construction became apparent, the thick stone parting the intricately carved wind as it rippled across its surface, allowing passage to an immense courtyard inside.

          “You never forget the first time you see the great temple,” said a young voice from behind the two brothers. Faerl did not turn, far too captivated by what lay beyond the gate, but Ohrl spun around, surprised to see a boy several years his junior.

          “This is a temple? To whom?”

          The boy’s eyes lit up. “You are new to the city? Would you like me to be your guide? I can take you many places.” The young boy feigned a polite bow, and touched his hand to his heart. “My name is Tarbuk. I can get you anything you need, show you everything you desire, and find anything you want.”

          Tarbuk’s last remark finally caught Faerl’s attention.

          “You can find anything?” Faerl grinned at Ohrl, lowering his voice. “Wouldn’t that be handy? We could be home in a week.”

          Tarbuk cocked his head quizzically at Faerl’s comment, but Ohrl waved it away. “Can you find us a place to stay? Preferably close to this temple, but quiet and clean. We are not wealthy, so something simple will suffice.”

          Tarbuk eyed them suspiciously. “Where did you get your cloaks?”

          “We swapped them with two travellers heading to Njall,” Ohrl said quickly, and with confidence. Tarbuk looked them over once more, then shrugged his shoulders with indifference.

          “I will show you to a comfortable place. The price is modest, but I am family and I will bargain for you.”

          Tarbuk turned and made his way north along the wall, past the great entrance, leaving Ohrl and Faerl with no choice but to follow. He disappeared after a sharp left turn, quickly swallowed within an alleyway crammed with stalls and markets. Awnings protected those below from the sun as it shafted through, the smoke of street vendors’ fire mixing in hazy plumes that sent sweet flavours of spices and meat into the air. The smell  inflamed Ohrl’s stomach, and he buried his impatience for food and rest in silence as they followed Tarbuk’s lead.

          They did not travel far. Through a few selected alleyways that barely looked passable, they entered through an iron gate into a small leafy courtyard. A mosaic of different sized stone tiles of off white and yellow were set into the ground, forming geometric patterns that arced and spiralled from the centre of the yard. One line of blue tiles flowed through the centre, like an ancient map following a great river through the desert. It captured Ohrl’s interest, but it was nothing more than a simple pattern set in stone. Tarbuk asked them to wait in the courtyard, before disappearing in search of the owner of the house. The serenity of the courtyard was in absolute contrast to the chaos of the streets surrounding the temple, and it made Faerl nervous.

          “I thought we desired to arrive in secrecy?” Faerl questioned in hushed tones. “Now we have our own guide. We must have heralded our naivety as though we were the ones singing above the city at day break.”

          “I know,” Ohrl said, turning back to look at the busy street beyond the iron gate. “Yet ask yourself this. Would you ever have found this place? I swear we are still a stone’s throw away from the temple, but not in a hundred years would I have thought to come this way. Though it burns me to say this, we may have to be led by the hand until we find our feet.” Ohrl turned to face the door frame beyond which Tarbuk had disappeared. “Perhaps he can be of use to us.”

           “We don’t want to be relying on him either,” Faerl replied cautiously. “We don’t want anyone aware of our every move, suspicious or not.”

          “Let’s just allow this to play out,” Ohrl requested. “All I need is food and a day of rest. Then I will be able to concentrate.” He laid a reassuring hand upon Faerl’s shoulder. “As desperate as I was to eat that fish, it was disgusting. My coin purse was not the only thing to be cheated. My taste buds may never talk to me again.”