The trees of Looming Forest were unfamiliar to Togura. The first time he made a fire, the wood was damp, and reluctant to start; when it finally kindled, it burnt with a bleak blue-grey flame, unlike anything he had ever seen before. Disturbed, he wondered if it was a bad omen.
The first night, he hardly slept, but lay awake listening to a mournful, night-boundered wind wandering through the trees. He was further from home than he had ever been before; he had left the Ravlish Lands, had crossed the Penvash Channel, and was now in the continent of Argan.
His fire went out.
A large animal went crunching through the undergrowth.
Togura sat up in his sleeping bag, huddled against a tree, and drew his sword, prepared to fight to the death if need be. The animal crunched away, and he did not hear it again. But he listened for it. Dawn found him tired, ragged and irritable, but he told himself the first night was always the hardest. He was sure things would improve.
But they did not.
Togura did not relish being back in the wilderness. Indeed, it was something of a shock to him. He had forgotten the cold of the night, the immense height of the stars, and the enormity of darkside shadows and noises; after that first night in the open, he dearly wished he was back in the safe, comfortable castle on Drum. But wishing failed to help him, and renewed familiarity failed to make the nights less cold and dark.
The winter spent slouching around the castle had softened him. The days marched his heels into blisters. Each night, slumping to sleep, he had rheumatic nightmares in which his swollen joints stumbled down forest paths at a crawling pace. He would wake from these dreams to hear heavy-footed noises hunting each other through the darkness; he would keep a silent vigil until they departed, permitting him to sleep. Each morning, when he woke, he found his body still aching from the rigours of the day before.
On waking, he would eat some salt beef, drink from the stream he was following toward the east, break camp, shoulder his pack, then tramp on through the forest. His pack, heavy and invincible, oppressed him every step of the way. Unaccustomed to marching under load, Togura suffered. The shoulder strap restricted circulation, making veins in his hands swell; his burden constantly tried to drag him backwards, so he finished each day with an aching back and aching shoulders.
Reachin the point of mutiny, Togura hurled his pack at a tree, then tried to kick it to death. It was indifferent to this treatment. To kill it properly, he would have to burn it alive. But he was not reckless enough to do that. He needed his pack to carry, among other things, the salt beef he needed to stay alive. But he was sick of salt beef! He longed, with fervent nostalgia, for some pickled octopus - or even some sea anemone soup.
As he drew nearer to the Hollern River, Togura kept an eager lookout for any sign of human beings. he longed for human voices, proper food, fireside companionship, laughter, jokes, songs, music, and the beauty of women.
The first sign which looked hopeful was a fresh, deep-ploughed scuffling track, as if something of great weight had been dragged through the trees. The track approached the stream then veered away from it. It had certainly not been made by any animal. Whatever burden had been dragged through the forest had flattened undergrowth and small trees; from the way the vegetation had been crushed down, the direction of the track was clear, and Togura followed.
He had not gone far when he saw a stone standing in the forest at the end of the track. It was a large stone - twice his own height. It was covered with dirt, mud, pulped vegetation, filth and muck. Togura could only presume that it had been abandoned there. But some of the mud was still damp. Those who had dragged this enormous chunk of rock to this place - strange that he could see no sign of footprints - could not have gone far.
"Hello?" called Togura.
The rock quivered, moved, and fell over on one side. Are falling rocks bad luck? Togura was not sure, but, just in case, he touched wood, which was a protection against many kinds of misfortune.
"Is anyone here?" cried Togura.
His voice quavered disagreeably. He was ashamed of himself. He gathered his strength and gave a great shout.
"Hey! Is anyone here?"
The rock got up.
"I did not see that rock get up," said Togura, in a slow, deliberate voice.
But the great mass of dirt-stained stone was now most definitely upright.
"Rocks, perhaps, sometimes fall upward," said Togura.
But he knew this was not true. The world has its habits, and never deviates from them. The sky is always up; the earth is always down. The rock must have -
"Gongaragon," growled the rock, shadows shaping to a vortex which appeared to be its mouth.
"I did not hear a rock speak," said Togura, in a level, even voice. "I am tired. I am over-stressed. I am starting to hallucinate. This is not unusual for an isolated solo traveller."
The rock took a step toward him.
"I did not see that rock move," said Togura. "I did not - "
The rock launched itself toward him on full attack. Without a moment's thought, Togura turned and fled. He had no time to drop his pack. He went sprinting back the way he had come with the rock roaring behind him. Togura reached the stream. He leapt across it. Then ran slap-bang into a tree.
Stunned, dizzy, he turned around and confronted the rock, which had stalled on the far side of the stream. It stood there, roaring at him. Togura wiped his nose, which was bleeding copiously.
"It cannot cross water," he said, hopefully.
As the rock continued to roar impotently, he convinced himself that it must be true. The thing had no way to cross water. Drunk with relief, he started to hurl abuse at it.
"Muck eater! Flat foot! You mud-screwing hump of a scallion! Pig-stuffing whoreson scab! Go eat yourself! Gamos!"
The rock backed off, then charged at a tree. Axed down in an instant, the tree fell dead, chopping across the stream. The rock slammed down another tree, right next to it. And then it began to cross.
"No!" screamed Togura, his voice a high-pitched wail.
The stone, lurching, swaying, smashing its way through branches, came after him. Togura doubled back and leapt across the stream. He ran a few paces further then stopped, panting violently, and turned, knowing that the stream would stop the stone.
Which was not what happened.
The stone charged straight through the stream. It screamed when it hit the water, but it kept on coming. Half-cripped by the water, its movements wild and erratic, it stumped toward him.
"No no no!" screamed Togura.
It was gaining on him.
Ahead, he saw something through the tress. The river! He charged toward it, summoning all his strength for one last sprint, hit the bank and jumped. With a crash, he hit the water. His pack promptly dragged him under. As he struggled to free himself from the pack, the obdurate leather seemed to grow arms and tentacles. It was hauling him down, holding him, clutching him, strangling him.
Then he was free.
He shot to the surface, swifer than a bubble, gasped for air then looked around. The current was swiftly carrying him downstream. Unpstream, he saw the rock. It was lying half-submerged in the water. He hoped it was dead.
Togura struck out for the shore, gained the bank and hauled himself onto dry land. Just upstream, a little swirl of muddy water, swiftly dissipating, marked - he hoped - the place where he had discarded his pack. He made his way to the place on the bank closest to the muddy swirl - now a memory only, for the water was running clean again - and marked it with a broken stick.
Then he went to check on the rock.
It was really dead.
And Togura, giving vent to an outbreak of hysterical anger, hammered the rock with a stick, jumped on it, swore at it and threw mud at its corpse. Then, exhausted, sat down and wept. It was really all too much. He had been prepared to meet dragons in Argan, and bears, and hostile wizards, and Castle Vaunting's monster, but nobody had ever told him anything about walking stones.
It was intolerable.
"This is intolerable," he said, later, at evening, after a lot of hard diving had allowed him to recover his pack.
His clothes were wet, his weapons were wet, his pack was soaked, his sleeping bag was completely sodden, his tinder box was saturated, and his salt beef had not been improved by being immersed in the river.
"I'll probably die in the night," said Togura.
But he didn't, so, when morning came, he had to pull himself together, and decide what to do now.
"At least I've reached the river. That's something," he told himself. "A little southing will take me to Lorford."
Unfortunately, his letters of introduction addressed to Prince Comedo of Estar were now, after their bath in the river, illegible. When he reached Lorford, he would have to go to Castle Vaunting and introduce himself without any assistance.
"I don't have much luck," said Togura.
So many things had gone wrong. Was he unlucky? Was he cursed? Was there an inescapable doom upon him? Back in the old days, when he had lived on his father's estate in Sung, he had never paid any attention at all to signs, omens, portents or the traditional prognosticating indications - bad dreams, flecks of white in the fingernails, unexpected encounters with two cats keeping company and so forth - but in recent days he had found himself becoming increasingly superstitious.
"Give me the day," said Togura, using a traditional formula for addressing the sun.
And, so saying, he bowed four times to that luminary, a practice which, or so he had heard, would bring good luck.
He had followed the riverbank south for scarcely half a day when he became aware that someone was following him. Stopping to listen, he realised there was someone in the trees alongside him. He hastened along the bank - and two men, armed and in armour, stepped out in front of him.
Togura drew his sword.
"Wah - Warguild!" shouted Togura, using one of his father's old battlecries.
The two men drew their own weapons.
"On the other hand," muttered Togura, looking around and seeing that another two men had stepped out of the forest behind him, "maybe we could negotiate ..."
And, so saying, he threw his sword in the river - an action which may have saved his life, but did not save his dignity, for the armoured men promptly crowded in, looted him and made him prisoner.
"This is not my lucky day," said Togura.
And, on that score, he was quite right.
- I could have jumped in the river.
So thought Togura, after he had finished lamenting his bad luck.
Then he had second thoughts.
- No. The river would only have carried me down to Lorford. These must be Prince Comedo's soldiers. They would have taken me in Lorford if they hadn't taken me here.
A little later he had third thoughts.
- If these are Comedo's soldiers, their behavior's very odd.
But, even though he later had fourth and fifth thoughts, he was unable to work out who or what the soldiers were. They had no permanent camp, but slept rough. They risked small, bright, smokeless fires by day, but would not have a fire by night. As they moved from place to place, they sometimes met other groups of soldiers carrying the same weapons and wearing the same armour, occasions which would lead to long, earnest, low-voiced conferences. Every one of these soldiers wore, slung round his neck on a cord, a strangely decorated oval ceramic tile.
Togura, their captive, was made to carry a great weight of gear like a beast of burden, to scrape out primitive latrine pits, to gather firewood, light fires and tend fires. This he endured; there was no point in complaining, as he had no language in common with these strange foreigners. But what he really resented, more than anything else, was that they refused to share their rations with him, making him eat his own salt beef.
And Togura made one solemn resolution:
- If I ever get out of this again, I'll never eat salt beef again in all my life.
That was for certain.