Kronos Heraclius dufiarchen dindrienfiardu - alfiov drichen dinenfiar enfiar - kwayulka (Year of Heraclius Six hundred and thirty-nine - day three hundred and fifty-five - morning)
The man who had led them into the cave interior took them to where a man sat by the fire, a young man. He had long hair, almost white, and he was evidently very tall, which they could see from the length of his legs. He stood up, and indeed he was taller even than Cormac, and even more powerfully built.
'Shaffeek, they claim to be friends to the cause.'
'I heard,' Shaffeek said. His face was dour, unfriendly. 'I know the girl. Send her back to the village. Her disappearance will arouse their suspicions. Who is he supposed to be?' he asked, indicating Cormac.
'Reyniksen, her man. He claims to have killed Reyniksen, and possibly Jand.'
'And who is he really?'
'I can speak for myself,' Cormac said, drawing himself to his full height. 'I am Cormac, son of Tiberis, kjal of Walfen.'
Shaffeek nodded, and walked all around him, appraising him.
'Take her back to the village. She should hope they were not followed.'
'We were not followed!' Caraleen exclaimed. Cormac turned to see her at the entrance to the cave.
'Maralien!' he cried, running to her.
'It is Caraleen,' she said softly, gazing up into his eyes.
'Can she not stay here, with us?' Cormac asked, but Shaffeek shook his head emphatically. Cormac took her hands in his.
'Maralien,, I know you wish to deny your past, but remember this. You are now mine. When this task is completed, I will return for you. I will find you, wherever you are, and claim you for my companion.'
The girl nodded. There were tears at her eyes.
'Malthennior said you were a good man,' she whispered. Two men each took her by the arm and she was escorted from the cave, leaving Cormac to ponder over whether he would ever see her again. At least she had made mention of Malthennior at last.
'You carry a sword,' Shaffeek said. Cormac nodded. 'You claim to be able to use it.'
'I have used it.'
'You claim also to be a friend to the cause.'
'If you mean that I wish to help defend Walfen against the invasion by the Korissians under Connacht, yes.'
'It may not be as straightforward as that,' Shaffeek said. 'In the first place, you are in Koriss, no longer in Walfen. Secondly, we are not fighting to defend Walfen against Koriss, we are fighting to take Koriss itself. Thirdly, if I was to let you join us, you would need to prove yourself.'
'In what way?'
'You will find out soon enough.'
'If I were to join you, would I be free to leave later?'
'To return to Walfen? Of course. You would not be a prisoner. You came here of your own volition. If you prove yourself true to the cause, you would be just another fighter in a growing militia.'
'And if you were not satisfied with my proof of my fidelity to your cause?'
'You would be killed.'
'Indirectly, if I fought alongside you, I would be helping to protect Walfen from the invasion. We would, in essence, be keeping the invading forces occupied here in Koriss.'
'There is that to it.'
'Let me prove myself, then.'
Shaffeek nodded his head, and two of his men brought another man into the light. He was tied by the wrists and the ankles. He had already been badly beaten. There were bruises about his face and neck and the upper part of his body, and it appeared that one of his legs might be broken.
'Draw your sword, Cormac, son of Tiberis, kjal of Walfenland, take this wretch outside and execute him.'
Cormac's eyes narrowed in suspicion.
'And my killing of this man would confirm to you that I am loyal to your cause, would it?'
Shaffeek stared him out, and finally broke into a laugh.
'That is for you to work out, my friend!' he roared, and the other men began also to laugh. Some of the women turned to see what was going on, but by and large it became apparent to them that this was men's business, and they returned to their cooking and other tasks.
'Very well,' Cormac said, without hesitation. 'I have been given no information regarding this man. For all I know, he may be one of your men, tied up and beaten to test my loyalty! I will not kill him in cold blood without knowing who he is and what he has done.'
Shaffeek sat down in front of the fire again, and a mysterious smile played about his lips.
Abruptly, he spun round to face Cormac.
'Very well. I will tell you about him. His name is Namir. He is Korissian. He is a spy. He has been sent into the hills because he has family who are familiar with the cave dwellers. He was caught trying to overhear our plans. He was caught also raping one of our women. He has been tried and sentenced to death. If you are loyal to the cause, you will take him from the cave, and you will kill him.'
Cormac considered the matter carefully, but was still not satisfied with this sketchy explanation. Pushing past the men, he went to the group of women and positioned himself on the floor of the cave amongst them.
'Tell me,' he said, 'are you all cave women?'
They nodded, hesitantly, for they did not know in which direction his questions would lead.
'Is there honour amongst them?' he continued, nodding towards the men.
'Of course!' a young woman cried indignantly.
'They do not tell lies?' he asked.
'They do not tell lies!'
'Very well. Answer me two questions more, and I will trouble you no further. The man Namir has been accused of being a Korissian agent, working to bring about your downfall from within your ranks. He has been accused of raping one of you. He has been sentenced to death. Is he guilty of these offences?'
They answered slowly, but each of them said 'yes'.
'If I cut off his head, will it mean that the threat to you cave-dwellers will be removed?'
One by one the women answered 'no'. Cormac stood up and went back to where the two men held the prisoner, Namir.
'I will take care of him,' he said. He took the man to the cave entrance and out into the hills. Several minutes later he returned.
'It is done,' he said. Shaffeek turned round, his eyes fixed on Cormac.
'Show me your sword,' he said. Cormac held out the blade hilt first for the leader of the Skards to examine. Shaffeek looked long and carefully at it, then handed it back to Cormac. Then he called his men to him and a whispered conversation took place.
'I am satisfied,' he said. 'You may join us if you wish. Where is the body?'
'In the ravine. I broke his neck.'
'You did not mark him? they will find the body.'
'I did not mark him. They will think that he fell. A fall from that height is commensurate with the lesions and the contusions, and the breaking of his neck.'
'I am impressed.'
'You are a fool!' Cormac said. Shaffeek glared at him. Immediately a number of his men surrounded Cormac, their hands on the hilts of their swords.
'Explain yourself!' Shaffeek cried. 'You are as good as dead yourself!'
'I could have killed him,' Cormac said, slowly and deliberately, 'by slicing off his head. I could then have wiped my blade on the grass on the hills. You would never have known.'
Shaffeek paced around the group, still glaring at Cormac.
'You are a fool yourself, Cormac of Walfen!' he said. 'Do you think I am so inexperienced as that? I sent two men to watch what you did. I know what you did. I know that you did not use your sword, and for that I congratulate you. When the Korissians find his body they will not know that he was executed by us, they will believe that he lost his footing and plunged into the ravine, breaking his neck. That means that they are no nearer to finding our place than before. But if you think I am so careless, then you are not worthy to join us after all!'
Cormac stared moodily at his boots.
'I apologise,' he said. 'I did not think I was followed.....'
Shaffeek roared with laughter and clapped him on the back.
'You were not followed!' he cried, laughing, and they left Cormac thus, frowning, not understanding, then the truth of the matter dawned on him, and he scowled, and went to sit at the fire, staring into the leaping flames.
'Do not pay him too much attention,' a soft voice said, and turning he saw that one of the women was approaching the fire with more brush wood. She knelt by the hearth, and he noticed that she was dark-haired, and wore only a simple tunic fastened across her shoulder, revealing one breast and belted at the waist so that it draped over one leg but left the other exposed. She was not so beautiful as Maralien, nor Caraleen, yet she was attractive withal and he wondered who she was.
'He bullies everyone who joins his men. You were lucky. Had you sliced off the man's head he would have had you killed.'
'So he said. Who are you?'
'We are just his women,' she said, indicating the other women who were preparing food for a meal of some sort. 'We keep the men company when they are not fighting.'
'Leave her!' one of the men called. 'You are to come quickly. The Korissians are on the move!'
?This was something new to Cormac, hurrying through afforested hilllsides, but he managed to keep up with the man. A few hundred feet from the caves, the man started off in a different direction.
Soon they came to a high ridge where there were few trees, and the snow lay deep. As they came down to the ridge, Cormac saw Shaffeek and his men hiding behind rocks. looking down into a narrow pass some two hundred feet below.
'They will be coming through this pass in a few moments,' Shaffeek told his men. 'When they are directly below us, and not before, you will hurl rocks at them, cast your spears, and when they are totally surprised, we will attack!'
Cormac listened and looked. It seemed to him that this was an excellent plan as far as it went. He concealed himself, as the others had done, and they waited until the first Korissian entered the pass riding a high deichen its long back legs with the middle claw making a distinct impression in the sandy floor.
'How many?' Shaffeek called out to his furthest lookout.
'I can see fifty,' the reply came. Cormac decided to go and see for himself. He crept along behind the rocks, keeping low, until he reached the point directly over the entrance to the pass where the lookout crouched. Beyond the first few riders he could see a good number, and a swift head count confirmed that there were at least fifty men, each mounted. But he was still not satisfied. Keeping his head down, he moved on beyond the lookout, beyond the entrance to the pass, until he reached an overhang, on which he was able to lay flat and peer down into the valley which stretched out away across to the grey-white permafrost of the Tuarassa lands. Momentarily he caught his breath. For coming behind the riders, of which he was now convinced there were nearer two hundred, were many more hundreds of men on foot, carrying pikes and spears and shields. They marched in lines, each mankeeping to his line. They were well-disciplined, thoroughly trained. He shook his head in disbelief. The invasion of Walfen was set to begin in earnest unless Shaffeek and his band of men could put a stop to it, and this he doubted, seeing the readiness and the urgency of the army marching into the pass.