The Seven Altars of Dusarra

Lawrence Watt-Evans


The rider paused at the top of the low ridge; the plain that lay just beyond was spread out before him under the pale stars of late summer. Directly before him there was an interruption of the flat earth; jagged silhouettes rose in black humps, huddled together within an uneven stone zing. The circle was broken at the point nearest him, and a single shattered wall rose to mark what had once been a substantial gatehouse; beside that wall flickered an orange flame, as warm as the stars were cold.

Although he was still too far away to discern any details, he knew that this was the town of Skelleth, and that the single light was the watch fire of the guardsman at the ruins of the North Gate. He had been here before, and knew that of the five gates in the crumbling city wall only this one was guarded. It was guarded against him and his kind.

There was no sign of life other than the lonely fire, and even had the man posted there been fully alert- as he undoubtedly was not at this hour-he could not have seen the rider or his party at such a distance in the dark. Their approach was undetected.

The mounted figure sat for a moment, his face invisible in the darkness and the shade of his trader's hat, studying the panorama; he glanced up as a nightbird flew overhead, and his eyes shone a baleful red with reflected starlight. His hollow-cheeked face had no nose, but only close-set slit nostrils; ragged black hair hung almost to his shoulders, but there was no trace of a beard on the leathery brown hide of his jaw. He was inhumanly tall and correspondingly broad. He was, in short, not human, but overman.

His long-fingered hand, with its oddly jointed thumb and opposable fifth finger, grasped the guidehandle of his mount's harness, an unnecessary precaution; his warbeast was trained to obey verbal commands or the pressure of its rider's feet, and moved with such feline smoothness that there was no danger of dislodging its master. The creature was blacker than the night sky, and as silent; its golden eyes and polished fangs were the only discernable features. It stood the height of a man and, from its stubby whiskers to lashing pantherlike tail, measured a good eighteen feet. Its triangular ears were up and alert, but it gave no warning growl.

Accordingly, the overman raised his arm in the signal to advance and led his companions over the final ridge and down onto the plain. His warbeast moved with silent catlike grace, its great padded paws disturbing not a single stone; the rest of the party was not so circumspect.

There were four in the party, all grown overmen, but only the leader rode a warbeast; his three followers made do with yackers, the universal beast of burden of the Northern Waste. Each rode upon one of the ugly creatures and led another heavily laden with the goods they hoped to trade in Skelleth. There was something slightly ludicrous in the stately dignity of the overmen as they perched stiffly upright upon the broad backs covered with ropy, matted brown hair, and guided their beasts with finely tooled silver bits in slobbering black-upped mouths full of uneven yellow teeth. The yackers' hooves rattled on every pebble, it seemed, and there was a constant snorting and rumbling from the six shaggy, drooping heads.

They were travelling the ancient Wasteland Road, which led straight to Skelleth's North Gate; as the last yacker reached the foot of the ridge, the leader turned his warbeast off the road, heading west instead of south.

'Hold, Garth!' called the second in the procession.

The leader tapped a signal with his heel and the warbeast halted. 'What is it?'

His companion drew up beside him and asked,

'Where are we heading? Is that not Skelleth?' He pointed to the flickering watch fire.

The third overman pulled up beside them as well as Garth replied, 'Yes, of course that is Skelleth, and that is where we're going.'

'Then why have we left the road? These yackers are quite slow enough as it is.'

It was, the third overman who replied, 'Larth, did not Garth explain our situation to you?'

'I remember nothing that explains our turning away from our destination.'

'Then you remember nothing. We are to enter the town in secrecy.'

'It was not you I asked, Galt.'

'Galt, however, speaks correctly,' Garth said. 'The Baron of Skelleth does not want overmen in his town; most especially, he does not want me there. When last I saw him he ordered his guards to kill me on the spot. Fortunately, they did not cooperate. However, if we can present the Baron with a peaceful trading caravan in the market square, not as a possibility but as an accomplished fact, I think he can be made to see reason and accept us.'

'So we are to sneak in like thieves?'

'Why else are we travelling by night?' Galt's tone was sweetly reasonable.

'It is not dignified!'

'And what would be dignified?' Garth inquired.

'To ride directly in by daylight, and demand as our due that we be allowed to trade.'

Galt snorted. 'That might be dignified, but it would also be stupid, perhaps fatally so. Garth says there are more than thirty guardsmen in Skelleth; true, they are mere humans, and none too well equipped by his account, but there are only four of us, and we are not exactly well armed either.'

Garth added, before Larth could reply, 'It would not do for friendly traders to be bristling with weapons; we cannot risk incidents involving bloodshed. That is why I required that you three be unarmed, and I will conceal my own weapons before we begin our dealings with the people of Skelleth.'

'Quite correct.' Galt nodded in agreement. Larth continued to look unconvinced.

'Still,' he demanded, 'why have we left the road?'

His answer came from the fourth and youngest overman, who had not yet spoken, showing the proper deference to his elders; he could not, however, refrain from replying, 'Because there's a guard on the road, stupid!'

Larth's voice was emotionless as he said, 'Galt, restrain your apprentice.'

As all knew quite well, that flat tone was indicative of building rage; Galt did not hesitate to order his underling to shut up.

When Larth had calmed somewhat, he asked, 'How do you know that we can find another entrance unguarded?'

'I don't know for certain,' Garth said. 'But when I was here before, they guarded only the north; the West Gate opens on a road that leads only to the Yprian Coast, which has reputedly been deserted for centuries, so what need to guard it? Therefore, we will enter through the West Gate. We will reach it by circling wide around, well out of sight and sound of the guard at the North Gate. Now, if we are to reach the market square before dawn we must move onward, so let there be no further debate.' His warbeast, in response to a signal undetectable to the others, strode onward.

'Very well,' Larth said. It took rather more to get his yackers moving once again, but a moment's prodding eventually registered with their dim brains and they resumed their plodding and snuffling. Galt and his apprentice were not far behind.

There was still an hour remaining before first light when the little caravan reached the West Gate-which was, as Garth had expected, unguarded. It was also in such a state of total ruin that only the fading trace of an

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