Togura, dizzy with smoke, fear and excitement, hung back as the masked men attacked. His drawn sword was strictly for self-defence. He was them close in on Roly Suet, who fought as best he could, crowning one with a food bucket and kicking another in the privates. They overwhelmed him and carried him off.
"Give me back my man!" said a vast, slurred, grubbling voice.
It was Slerma. She was not pleased.
A man slashed at her with his sword. She threw up a forearm to defend herself. By rights, sword versus arm should lead to instant amputation. But the blade scarcely managed to cut deep enough into her blubber to reach the bone. Next moment she had seized the miscreant by neck and by ankles, and was tearing him apart. As Togura blinked, gaped and boggled, the man ruptured and split, spilling -
Togura closed his eyes, feeling sick.
By now, others had realised what was going on. Suets and guests, arming themselves with tables, chairs, carving knives and roasting spits, gave battle. Those with no weapons flailed at the attackers with jackets, coats, cloaks and capes, seeking to entangle their swords or beat them down so they could close for a stranglehold. Roly's kidnappers were cut off from their escape route. Two sat on Roly, holding him down, while the others fought in the burning building.
Slerma, thinking the battle was going against her side, went to the rescue.
"No!" screamed Togura, seeing her bulking off the reinforced section of the floor.
But he was not heard or was not understood or was ignored. Slerma rumbled ahead, spitting and growling, ready to defend her true love with her life, ready to kill, crush, mutilate and mangle. Some of the masked intruders fled howling at her approach. Slerma advanced in triumph.
Then floorboards broke beneath her, precipitating her into the abandoned mine shaft below. The invaders raised a cheer, and began to prevail. Then a squad of musicians joined the affray, their instruments becoming weapons of war.
As battle raged,huge bubbling roars came from underground. Slerma was still alive, and most indignant about her predicament. Two suets, overwhelming an invader, tossed him into Slerma's pit. Shortly his pitiful screams maimed the air, then came a slubbering groan, and then - from him, at least - silence. The din of battle masked the sounds of feeding.
Togura, sword in hand, skirted round the outskirts of the brawl, making for the daylight. But a masked fighting man stepped forward to confront him.
"Who is it who dares to trifle with Barak the Battleman?" shouted Togura.
And the masked man tore away his disguise. It was Cromarty, claymore in hand.
"Crom!" cried Togura.
"None other," said Cromarty, grinning with open delight. "And what have we here? Why, why, it's little Tog-Tog. Gather round, boys. Now it's really party time."
But there were no boys to gather round.
"You're on your own this time," said Togura.
"That's all right," said Cromarty, evenly. "I'll manage."
And, turning ferocious without further ado, he attacked.
Their war-blades clashed. Togura sliced Cromarty's thigh. Cromarty nicked his nose. Blooded, they broke apart, coughing and panting, their eyes stung with tears as smoke whirled about them. They began to circle, posing fiercely and talking tough.
"Come closer," said Togura, "and I'll slice you from pox to piles."
"Not so hasty, salami minor, or you'll be eating your arsehold for breakfast."
"Talk's cheap, you son of a slut."
"A slut? Look who's talking. I raped your mother on the night she died."
"Shut your filth and swallow it."
"Believe me, Tog-Tog. She loved it. She asked for more and more and more. She licked my - "
A burning beam crashed down between them. A smaller timber fell, striking Cromarty, knocking him to the ground with a glancing blow. As the building broke up, the fight was breaking up. People were running for their lives. Togura started to scream a threat at Cromarty, but broke out into a fit of coughing instead. His half-brother was lost in the swirling smoke. Togura sheathed his blade. A man came blundering his way, blinded by blood streaming from a cut on his forehead. It was Roly Suet.
"This way!" shouted Togura, grabbing him.
Roly tried to fight him.
"It's me, stupid! Barak the Battleman, rescuing you!"
Togura hustled him out into the street. Smoke reeled up into the sky. Roly, coughing, tried to wipe the blood from his eyes. The street was filled with skirmishing fighters, rearing horses, screaming children and indignant citizens of all descriptions.
"Togura!" yelled a black-masked fighter standing at bay some distance up the street. "Give us the boy!"
Togura knew that voice. It was his father. As Baron Chan Poulaan cut away the sundry Suets opposing him, Togura fought to control a frightened horse. He mounted up. The animal almost threw him, but he got control. He helped Roly up behind him. Cromarty came stumbling out of the building, still armed with his claymore.
"Cut him down, Crom!" roared the baron, wounded now, but still fighting his way toward them.
Half-blinded by smoke, Cromarty glanced round then attacked. Togura kicked him away, getting slashed on the calf in the process. He saw a gap in the scrabbling fight, and rode for it, with Roly hanging on for dear life. Behind him, the Suet's Grand Hall collapsed with a prolonged crash, sending burning debris sprawling across the street.
The baron was separated from his sons by a pile of burning wreckage. Gathering his wits, Cromarty ordered the nearest half dozen warriors to join him in pursuit. Seizing what horses they could, they did.
Togura rode for hell and high clappers, taking the road to the palace. When they came to the outskirts of the piggeries, he reined in the horse, thinking them safe. Then he looked round and saw the pursuit closing in behind.
"You should have stayed in the town!" yelled Roly. "We would have lost them in the side streets."
"Thanks for the good advice," snapped Togura. "It's brilliantly timed."
He was tempted to push Roly off into the mud and the slother, but resisted the temptation. Roly was what Cromarty wanted. Togura was not going to let him have it that easily. Togura kicked the horse in the flanks, and they rode past palace and piggeries. The road, such as it was, soon plunged downward. They hastened down recklessly, making one of the fastest descents ever of that particular piece of track, which was known as the Slippery Skaddle. The pursuit followed remorselessly.
"Where are we going now?" cried Roly, as they started down a track between bogland and gorse.
"Ahead, unless you've got a better idea," said Togura.
He knew they were now on the Fen Route, a raggle-tag half-road picking its way across some of the worst country in all of Sung. The horse was close to failing, but before it could collapse they came to Skob Crossing, a festering marsh crossed by a disintegrating one-step bridgeway.
"Dismount," snapped Togura, getting down.
When Roly hesitated, Togura gave him a push. As the Suet scrambled up out of the muck, Togura, half-running, ventured the creaking bridgeway, which was green with moss and soggy with wetrot.
"Don't leave me!" cried the plaintive Suet.
Togura paused long enough to shout "Follow!" - then was off again. The Suet scuttled over the bridgeway behind him. Skidding, slipping and sliding, they panted down a rutted track. Behind them they could hear Cromarty and his mobsters baying at hight hunt.
The track grew narrower, and became overgrown. They sprinted through nettles, yelping. Blackberry clawed at them. They shoved aside vines, hoping none were poison ivy. The gaunt trees overhead, their leaves a caltter of autumn, were drenched with draggle-moss, blighted by canker and pockled with fungus. Rory, glistening with sweat, was failing fast.
"I can't - keep - up," he gasped.
"I'd guessed that much," said Togura. "Down! Take cover! I'll lead them off."
And he shoved the Suet into a thicket of clox, kicking his backside when he hesitated. Then Togura ran on, holding his side, for he was getting the stitch. He blinked as sweat scabbed into his eyes, stinging fiercely. He could feel his strength failing. Behind him, the enemy cheered. They had him in sight now.
Togura slowed almost to a walk as he padded up the knoll ahead. On the far side was a narrow strip of swamp, just too wide to jump across. Togura sprinted down, tore a rotten pole tree from its foundations and swiftly probed the water, failing to find its depth. It was green with swamp grass; to the casual eye it could have been any depth from ankle onwards. Quickly, Togura nipped round the flank of the swamp, then used his snapped-off pole tree to thrust and stir, confusing the surface of the swamp so it looked as if he had sprinted straight through it.
Cromarty and his bounders came panting over the knoll. They saw Togura on the far side of the swamp, apparently untangling himself from some barbarian thorn.
"Have him, boys!" screamed Cromarty.
Whooping and hallooing, they charged down the slope and into the swamp, plunging in it up to their noses. All except two. Who began to skirt the swamp as Togura turned and fled.
"You klech!" shouted Cromarty. "You gan-sucking jid of a veek-nucking ornskwun hellock! Come back here, you gamos-eating son of a toad-mother. Scalp him, boys! Cut his oysters and shaft him!"
Togura, labouring up another rise, stumbled. There were rocks underfoot. He picked up a large one, turned, and hurled it at his nearest pursuer. His victim flung out his hands. Snatching up one stone after another, Togura pelted them both. Battered, bruised and bleeding, they made a hasty retreat. Togura had no breath with which to celebrate his triumph.
Down below, the victims of his swamp-trap were extricating themselves from their predicament with some difficulty; the swamp did not have a quicksand bottom, but it was certainly soft. Togura manage a slight smile. Which vanished the next instant as reinforcements came over the knoll on the far side of the swamp-strip. They pointed, shouted, then joined the pursuit.
Togura turned and ran.
But he did not go far.
He ran a hundred paces, hit another rocky stretch which would show no footprints, leapt sidways, went down into a boggy wallow, crawled into a thicket of stilt trees, then hugged the ground and lay still. He waited. He did not have to wait for long. The pursuit panted past. As soon as he thought they were gone, Togura shuffled deeper into the stilt trees. Then, thinking himself out of sight of the track, he rose to a crouch and began to run, nipping from tree to tree, casting fequent looks backward.
He came to a stretch of swamp and plunged in heedlessly, going in up to this neck. He waded across, hauled himself up on the far side, and was off again. For a while he sometimes heard faint, distant shouts and cries, but after a while even these died away. He blundered on, losing track of place and time. Then, finally, he heard the far-off baying of hounds. It terrified him.
Dogs! They were using dogs! He went crashing through the undergrowth, till he found a narrow, wending, slovenly stream snaking its way through sedge and mud.
Togura waded down his stream, determined to kill his scent so the dogs would be unable to follow. Unfortunately, he broke enough twigs, grasses and creepers for even the clumsiest tracker to follow, and splattered mud on vegetation that escaped his trampling feet. Fortunately, the dogs were not looking for him: they were seeking a member of the pursuit team, who, realising Togura had left the road, had ventured to search for him in the wilderness, and had become hopelessly lost. Unfortunately, Togura himself, by the time he stopped, was also hopelessly lost.
At first, Togura did not realise his predicament. What he did realise was that his dog-bewildering highway was full of leeches. He left hastily, and counted his assailants. There were seventeen of them, nine of them having battened onto his flesh where his calf had been slashed by Cromarty's sword. He had no fire with which he could burn off the leeches; he decided it was best to leave them to bloat themselves with blood, after which they would drop away of their own accord.
Still concerned about the dogs, he set off across country at the best pace he could manage. The predominant vegetation here was sickle trees, tall and stringy, their shafts of autumn foliage closely clustered, soaring up into the sky above. As he went on, he became half-aware that the going was getting easier; the ground was getting firmer.
Then the sickle trees began to give way to some kind of vegetation he was unfamiliar with: tall, thick, scabrous grey trees set far apart, their foliage so dense that virtually nothing grew beneath them. These trees were covered with long, cruel, jagged hooks, barbs, spikes and claws; their leaves, when Togura was incautious enough to touch a few, snagged at him with myriads of tiny teeth. He decided they deserved the name claw trees.
Realising he was in a very strange neck of the woods, Togura stopped, and went no further. He decided it was time to orientate himself. He looked around for a landmark, but the thick-foliaged claw trees and the high, spindly sickle trees cut him down to hundred-pace horizons in all directions.
He could see bits and pieces of the sky, which was now a diffuse, misty grey; the good weather which had graced the start of the day had failed him. He could not climb the claw trees because they would cut him to pieces; the sickle trees, while harmless, would never support his weight. Without landmarks or sun-light, he could not judge his location or the time of day.
He sat down to think things through, and stood up immediately. The dead dried leaves of the claw trees, which littered the ground underfoot, retained their teeth even after they had littered down from their parental branches. Leaning against a couple of convenient sickle trees, Togura took stock of his situation.
He was lost.
He was tired.
He was hungry.
His clothes were damp and caked with mud.
He had no food, excepting half a dozen persistent leeches, which did not really count.
He had one sword, which by rights should now be cleaned, but which was not going to be because he couldn't be fagged.
He had no water.
He had a painful sword-cut on his nose; though only a tiny little piece of his nose appeared to be actually missing, this was no calculated to improve his beauty.
He had a more serious wound to his calf, which was not disabling - no tendons had been severed, and he did not think it was deep - but which was filthy with muck and mud and was now throbbing painfully.
The day was not getting any younger.
So what should he do?
He first tried to retrace his steps, but found himself rapidly getting lost amidst a featureless expanse of sickle trees. He managed to get back to the claw tree forest, then reconsidered his position. Whatever the dangers, he had no doubt that a return to Keep was his best option. But his chances of getting anywhere by blundering about the wilderness at random were slim.
The ground on which the claw tree forest grew appeared to be sloping steadily uphill. He decided to follow the rising incline, hoping to come to a prominence which would give him an all-round view, or, failing that, at least a prehensible tree capable of supporting his weight.
Togura set off, walking slowly, for he was weary; he limped, as his wounded leg was very sore. Remembering Cromarty floundering in the swamp-trap, he managed a slight smile. All in all, he could be proud of himself. He had kept his head in a burning building. He had matched Cromarty, blade against blade. Riding out of Keep, he should by rights have been able to shake off the pursuit; it was just bad luck that the enemy had managed to follow him through the streets and out of the town. Even then, hunted and outnumbered, he had scored a resounding success with his minor tactics. But that didn't alter the fact that he was lost.
Gradually, his little glow of self-satisfaction faded; he plodded onward, getting slower and slower. The day aged; the light faded; a little rain began to drizzle down through the trees. Eventually, he realised it was evening, and would soon be night.
The smart thing to do now would be to climb a tree, to be safe from wolves. Or find a cave, and barricade it. Or at least cut branches to make a lean-to shelter in which he could bivouac. Then eat, scavenging worms, snails, slugs and fungus.
A country boy born and bred, he knew what he had to do. But the landscape was singularly unhelpful. He was surrounded by unclimbable claw trees; there was now no undergrowth at all, the ground below the trees being littered with sharp-toothed leaves; there were no helpful rocks or hollows; to the best of his recollection, he had not seen or heard any bird or insect since entering the claw tree forest, nor had he sighted any fungus, edible or otherwise.
He was in a cold, dead, evil place, barren of life and bare of water; the rain sifting down through the creaking, rheumatic branches was strong enough to chill and damp him, yet insufficient to give him any hope of assuaging his thirst; a cold wind soughed through the leaves overhead, promising a bitter night.
Togura came to a decision.
What he had was nothing, but it was all he was going to get, so he had better make the most of it. Drawing his sword, he scraped away the leaves, clearing a space where he could lay his body down. Then it occurred to him that he could dig a shallow grave in which he could lie down out of the wind. Better still, he could dig a foxhole in which he could sleep with his knees drawn up to his chest to conserve warmth.
Eagerly, Togura set to work, but found the ground hard and unyielding, seamed and knotted with tangles of tough, fibrous roots. It was hopeless.
He ended up spending the night huddled on the bare ground, sleeping in snatches; whenever he fell asleep, he soon shivered himself awake again. By the time morning came, as unfriendly as a hangover, he was feverish. His wounded leg was almost too painful for him to walk on. The lymph node in his groin was swollen, hard and painful; he suspected that if he had been able to clean his wound and examine it, whe would have discovered an angry red line running up his leg, denoting blood poisoning.
He had no food: even the last of his leeches had left him.
"On your feet, Togura Poulaan," he said.
Rising, he sought for support, and tried to take hold of the branch of a claw tree. A mistake - and one that he immediately regretted.