The Pool of Imegara was a jewel among highland lakes. It clung to the edge of the mountain and was kept from pouring over a steep precipice by a narrow stone shelf. On the inner
The Pool of Imegara was a jewel among highland lakes. It clung to the edge of the mountain and was kept from pouring over a steep precipice by a narrow stone shelf. On the inner side of its curving crescent, and at either end, tall pine, fir, and cedar grew, cutting it off from the narrow tracks the hillfolk used to climb from peak to peak.
By those cool, secluded waters a young woman stood, a basket on her hip, searching the crags and the bases of trees for berry bushes. She was red haired and pale, with slanting golden eyes above high, sharp cheekbones. She moved with such confidence and bearing that any who saw her would know she was a princess of that strange people called the Pale Foxes. As its gentle waves lapped near her feet, she looked out to the far side, where the water was deep and dark. Divers had plumbed those depths, but she had not. Suddenly, a narrow strand of wettened darkness broke the placid surface of the pool and flew toward the woman, wrapping around her arm.
It was cold, and strong as steel. She screamed as she tried to jerk away, but it pulled her, step by step, into the icy cold of Imegara. When the screams stopped, the girl was gone. A basket lay tipped over by the shore. The waters were calm again. No one had heard.
The Pale Foxes of Hishine’s clan sat about the fire in the great longhouse that served as both livestock pen and dwelling-place. Their work for the day was done, and now they sat listening, wide-eyed, to the tales of the man in their midst.
He was an outlander from the distant west, blue eyed and dark haired, with sun-browned skin. He had learned the San speech in the floating palaces of Da Niat, he told them, and they knew it as well. It was not safe for the Foxes to be ignorant of the speech of the cruel folk who dwelt in the valleys below. He spoke to them of the Bird People, of distant empires, of magical trees and lost hordes of gold, and of the goings-on in the Lands of the Seven Rivers.
They understood that the man’s name was “Orsog” in his own uncouth speech, but the closest even Hishine could come to it was “Orosage.” Hishine was not a trusting man, but his life had been saved by the stranger, and so he named him his guest. And the guest of the chief was the guest of the clan.
Just as Orsog was telling them of the most recent war between Da Niat and the dominion of Wa Yun Ha, the shadows of the longhouse were thrown back by the dim rays of twilight. A middle-aged woman, her red hair fading into silver, rushed from the open door to Hishine, whispering fiercely in his ear. Everyone’s attention turned away from Orsog, so he remained silent, watching.
“Take up lamps,” Hishine said, turning from the woman. “My daughter did not return from her gathering. We go to Imegara to find her.”
Orsog stood and grabbed his sword from where it lay in its silver-worked scabbard, propped against the wall. As he belted it on, Hishine raised both his hands, palms facing the stranger in a gesture of gentle denial.
“My friend, the mountains are dangerous tonight. I would not have you lose your footing in the dark.”
“You call me friend, Hishine,” the foreigner said, his rich baritone lilting out uneven vowels.
“That is what I am. I cannot sit by while your daughter is missing in those dangerous mountains. Besides, I have traveled many thousands of miles, and seen the eyries of the Bird Folk. You know I am as sure of foot as any of you mountain goats.”
Some of the young men laughed, and Hishine shook his head. “Very well. But stay close and do not stray from the path. Loose stones are not the only danger in these lands.”
In a moment all had wrapped their furs about them, gathered and lit their lamps, and filed out behind Hishine and the older woman. Twilight was already a deep blue, and as they made their way to Imegara stars began to fill the ink-black sky.
The orange glow of the lamps sparkled on the water and lit the shore with strange shadows as the people milled about. When they found the basket, a cry went up. Orsog and Hishine were crouched beside it, looking for signs. A black residue coated the soil and pine needles where Hishine’s daughter had stood. A trail went toward the lake. Orsog followed it, noting the gouges in the mud where the girl was dragged onto her knees.
“Does something live in the lake?” Orsog asked.
Behind him, the chief let out a wild, grief-stricken wail.
Orsog turned to see him fallen on all fours, weeping. Around him, the other Foxes covered their mouths in fear and horror.
“What is it?” Orsog asked. “What happened?”
One of the young men, Hirome by name, motioned for his silence while joining him. “It is the demons, Orosage,” the youth said. “The demons of the sorcerer of the Blackened Mountain. They have taken her to his castle.”
“How do you know this?”
“The blackness. It is their mark.” The young man turned to look at his chief, wailing on the ground. “What has happened cannot be undone. Do not speak to Hishine this night.”
Orsog’s hand found its way to the hilt of his sword, and he clutched it hard. He had followed the trail expecting an accident or to find the girl was lost. He could do little about the former, and the latter was an idle hope. The Foxes knew their land too well to lose their way. But this was violence and treachery. And Orsog knew violence well. He’d use it to help rescue the lost Pale Fox.
To Be Continued on 10/21