When you ride for a long time over a bare steppe, even if it’s spring and the steppe is covered with sparse pale-green grass, you completely lose the sense of movement. It feels as if you, the horses, and all your brothers—the other men-at-arms—remain motionless, while only the hoofs continue tirelessly drumming on the ground. This was the feeling shared by all the soldiers in Prince Tagas’s squadron; even so, the men from Areya knew that soon they should see the blue ribbon of the River Gela, flowing south from the midday lands toward the midnight lands to the north, with a small frontier settlement on its bank, residents of which maintained prairie roots and obstinately refused to move further inland.
For two days in succession, Prince Tagas had been leading his squadron through the endless steppe in the direction of the sunrise on the trail of a fairly large pack of monsters that had scoured the outlying districts of Areya. Several small groups of these monsters had already been successfully destroyed by the prince, but yesterday, at dawn, the squad had reached a big market settlement, connecting agricultural villages with steppe peoples, which had just weathered a fierce storm of a raid. When the squadron had arrived, beaten monsters were being thrown down from the stockade, the injured people were being bandaged, and the excited volunteer heroes had begun vying with one another, bragging about their escapades in the last fight. When Prince Seles finally managed to calm their most experienced man, their doyen, it was discovered that the monsters had raided before sunrise, so no one was caught outside the gates of the settlement. Accustomed to such raids, the guards on the settlement’s observation decks had immediately begun banging on their huge iron shields, calling people to battle. A brief but violent fight had ensued, in which the villagers had lost two volunteers. In general, this would have been nothing unusual, if not for three facts the doyen had shared about the beasts: they had quite a weird, unwonted appearance, were very numerous, and—what was most alarming—were quite clever. Unlike a typical raid by monsters in which one side or the other was completely wiped out, this time, when the monsters had realized that this human prey was too tough for them to overtake and that they would not be able to seize the village, they had stopped attacking and had run off in an unusually organized way.
After examining the bodies of several large wolf-like creatures distinguished by their disgusting distorted snouts and the presence of six legs, Tagas had changed his mind about taking a rest in this settlement. It was necessary to try to catch up with the beasts before their trail grew cold. The prince’s men jumped back into their saddles and headed after them.
The monsters had vanished. The riders encountered several smaller villages as they ventured deep into the vast steppe, and only in the last village did a guard from a tower report seeing a large bevy of roe deer running away to the river as fast as they could. Following his direction, the men soon found the very little that was left of the bevy, nothing but a few bones and horns.
The remote parts of the steppe were almost deserted, except for fishing villages along the river. All those who once lived here and bred cattle had long ago gone to the more peaceful lands. Gradually, the proximity of the great river began to reveal itself as the grass became thicker and bushes with narrow leaves rose over it here and there. Sensing water, the horses quickened their pace. Still, the sparkling expanse of the water rose up unexpectedly between the hills that straggled along the river. The tired horses climbed a hill toward the broad river; they urgently needed water and rest after the two days of marching, and the men had long been in need of a real halt.
Having placed a guard, Tagas observed his men camping on the hillside and leading the horses to the river; he followed to wash off the dust from the ride. Throwing off his sweat-stained clothes, he plunged into the alluring water, which immediately refreshed him. The prince made a few strong strokes, then rolled onto his back and screwed up his eyes. The same bottomless blue of the river poured over him in the form of the sky above; there was a very large bird or a griffin floating there, or perhaps it was one of his ancestors watching from the heavens.
Only for a moment longer, he allowed his tired mind to take no notice of his surroundings. Then Tagas started and opened his eyes, immediately back to full attention. Nothing catastrophic had happened; the majestic stream had carried him downriver only a little. Cursing himself for his weakness, for this was how he thought of his moments of relaxation, Tagas swam to the bank, pulled himself up onto a low slope, and then immediately plopped back into the water with a splash. Directly above him, among the bushes, there was a young woman watching the naked prince with interest. It cannot be said that Tagas had ever avoided the company of such beauties; quite the contrary. But this girl so brazenly stared at him with her slanting eyes and so ironically arched her plump lower lip, that the prince needed some extra courage to pull himself onto the bank again and step onto the grass.
Feeling that he was blushing, and getting even angrier at himself because of this display of emotion, Tagas slipped quickly into his dirty clothes, frowned, and sternly asked, “Well, where did you come from?”
“I live here,” replied the young woman with confidence. “Our village is over there,” she added, gesturing upriver.
“And they let you go alone roaming the steppe?”
“Look at these.” She waved the bunch of herbs she held in front of the prince’s face. “If we don’t gather the herbs now, they will become overripe.”
“Do you know that there are monsters hanging about here?”
“What monsters?” The herbalist pricked up her ears.
“What monsters?” Tagas mimicked her. “Such monsters as you have never even seen before. My men and I are on our way to your village; we think the beasts may attack it. Therefore, you must not go farther alone. You can stay overnight with us, and before dawn we shall proceed.”
“Very well.” The carefree girl nodded, and willingly followed the prince when he emerged from the bushes and turned towards the camp.
Feeling incredibly awkward, but nonetheless interested in this young woman, Tagas walked past the stunned guards, and then past the men now dropping the dry twigs they had been collecting for the campfire as they stared at the prince’s beautiful escort. Tagas continued on to the group of soldiers who, together with Seles, bent over a map unfolded on the grass.
“O-o-ooh,” drawled one of the foremen, looking up from the map for a moment. Others amicably turned their heads and also stared at the girl following the approaching prince.
“So,” began Tagas straight off. “This is…” He hesitated, glancing at the girl.
“Kenush,” she quickly suggested.
“This is Kenush, from the village where we are heading. She was picking some herbs and strayed too far. So, she will spend the night here and go to her home with us. And… can someone bring me clean pants, at least?”
While the prince dressed himself in clean clothes and inspected the camp, checking to see how well the men and horses were settled, dusk fell. Tired soldiers ate and went to bed, wrapping themselves in their leather covers. Movement lasted only around one campfire, where loud voices and laughter were heard ringing among the gallant foremen who preferred to stay up rather than to return to their respective units. Vying with each other to cheer up the unexpected guest was much more entertaining.
“And so I decided against walking to the forest any more!” Foreman Malusha finished his story to the laughter of his friends, and he moved around the circle to speak closely to Kenush. “I don’t know whether you understood the whole point or not, since you have never seen a forest, you poor girl.”
The girl was sitting on someone’s blanket rather far from the campfire and eating something from a camp bowl. When Malusha moved closer to her, she quietly shifted a bit further away.
“With your horse-laugh, you are impeding even the horses’ sleep,” grumbled Tagas, approaching the campfire. “So be quiet here!” He shot a certain look at his friend Malusha, and to make his point more serious, he slyly showed Malusha the hilt of his sword.
After a moment’s hesitation, Malusha slowly rose from the blanket, reluctant to give up on flirting with the girl so soon.
“That’s right,” the prince nodded. “Are you full after your meal? Then go to rest; we don’t know what awaits us tomorrow.”
The men around the fire started murmuring in lowered voices, still unwilling to end the evening.
“We have spoken of a lot of things here. Now let our guest tell a story,” Seles suddenly suggested.
The murmuring immediately became a chorus of approval.
“Story?” Kenush was obviously surprised. “About what? Nothing interesting has happened in my village.”
“Then sing a song!”
“The story doesn’t have to be true. Recount a legend!” another voice suggested.
“Well…” The girl became thoughtful as she considered. “I know a legend. But it’s very, very sad.”
The men near the fire grew quiet and stared at the teller.
“Once upon a time, there lived a nice young man,” Kenush began melodiously. “And everyone loved him, everybody was pleased with him. The only thing was that he did not want to live like everyone else, just by fishing or raising sheep. He was interested in everything, and he wanted to know about it all, so he decided to become a magus, and he went on a journey around the earth. One day, this young man met a real endowed magus who had been trying to understand the main secret of earth and of all life upon the earth, and this magus took the youth with him as an apprentice on his travels. The young man helped the endowed in everything, but it turned out that the endowed was an evil magus. When the secret of immortality was finally revealed to the two of them, the wicked magus turned the boy into a horrible beast and left him to run through the steppe in the hope that hunters would kill him, and the magus would be the only one who possessed the secret of immortality!”
The warriors sat listening with bated breath; only Seles slowly stirred the coals in the fire. Suddenly, seemingly by accident, the stick twitched in his hand, and a large orange coal rolled onto Kenush’s blanket. The narrator howled piercingly, shot up to her feet, and rushed into the darkness, knocking down the lingering foreman, Malusha. He fell, plunging his hand into the fire, and shouted in pain at the top of his voice. The other men had already jumped up but their feet were getting tangled in their blankets, their swords clanking futilely.
“She is a wolf!” yelled several of the terrified listeners.
Someone rushed into the darkness in pursuit of Kenush, while others began kindling torches and the guards prepared weapons. But there were no werewolves attacking from the darkness, and the steppe was still quiet and deserted.
“Come back!” cried Tagas, stunned. “Everybody, come back! No person shall depart from the camp!”
“Where is she?” Seles raised a torch high above his head and looked around.
“She has run away!” cried a guard in a trembling voice. “Like a storm, she swept past me and had already begun to turn!”
“But how did you guess?” Tagas turned to his brother, who continued looking across the steppe.
“It just seemed to me that there was something about her…” Seles trailed off, and then angrily shook his head, continuing, “But I, as usual, paid no attention to my instinct. And then she made a mistake by choosing the wrong ‘legend.’ How could she have known about the young man-beast? No one other than the boy himself and the evil magus could have known this tale, and the magus never would have told. Only the boy could have told her his story, so I knew then that she had to be another speaking beast.”
“Hey, Malusha,” chuckled foreman Esen as he helped up the fallen man. “What if you had stolen up to her at night and tried to give her a little kiss? Instead of a burned hand, you would’ve been left without any hand at all, and even without your head!” he finished to the cheerful cackles of their nearby comrades.
Suffering Malusha wrapped his hand with a wet cloth, frowned, and said nothing. Seles shook his head.
“I don’t think she was planning to attack someone. Most likely, she just wanted to be with us while moving through the dangerous territory. The new monsters threaten not only human beings, but all living creatures escaping from their path.”
“Except us,” someone laughed, indicating the squad’s bravery.
“Why did you scare her, then?” Tagas asked Seles, gloomy now that the beautiful Kenush was gone.
“Well, would you dare to let a werewolf stay for a night in our camp?” his brother answered reasonably.
Feeling dozens of eyes upon him, Tagas slowly shook his head and ordered the soldiers to disperse. Tomorrow would be a difficult day, and the prince felt it clearly. Oh, these misgivings! For some reason, the dukes and their heirs were forced to suffer especially from such dark presentiments, but never once had these feelings of foreboding helped the rulers to avoid the most desperate and losing situations.
Like shadows in the dim gray predawn light, the men-atarms flew through the deserted steppe. All the native creatures had become so adept at concealing themselves upon smelling the poisonous breath of the vile monsters and hearing the tramp of their countless murderous paws that they seemed to be extinct. Out of the corner of his eye, Tagas saw the faces of his warriors become more severe and noted that the clatter of the fighting horses’ hoofs grew firmer. Seles, galloping to the right of his brother, turned to him and motioned.
“The monsters have reached the next village, so we should increase our speed. Otherwise we will not arrive in time to help the villagers.”
Tagas rose in the saddle, urging the troops forward by raising his hands up towards the narrow strip of pink which blazed upon the horizon. The squad spurred their horses on, and soon the real sounds of a battle, sounds that an experienced soldier could never forget, reached the men’s ears, making their blood drunk with adrenaline as their hearts raced faster and faster.
The battle was raging on the low wattle and daub walls of the village, which had been strengthened with large shields of polished copper. Howling piercingly, the creatures jumped onto one anothers’ backs in an effort to reach the defenders, who were standing an arm’s length apart all around the perimeter. The people fought back with a well-organized approach using short spears, javelins, and lights flashing here and there in the form of arrows wrapped with burning rags that caught the monsters as they rushed about. But here and there, where the battle had already reached the walls, the beasts had punched a few holes through the village’s defenses and stepped up the pressure. They, at all costs, wanted to burst into the village on a rampage until they were satisfied. Anticipating a victory, the monsters screeched furiously, urging on all the frenzied pack.
“What filth!” Seles grimaced in disgust upon seeing these horrible creatures even from a distance.
Without slowing down, his brother again rose in his saddle, drew his sword—followed by a hundred other swords breaking out together in the first rays of sun—and headed toward the besieged settlement.
“Hur-r-ah!” Tagas shouted menacingly.
“Hurrah! Hurrah!” joined the men-at-arms as they arrived at the village.
The monsters rushed about wildly. The clever creatures immediately assessed the changed situation, reared up, and turned upon the new enemy as the squad, still on horseback, ran into the fighting pack of monsters. Using their strong legs, some of the creatures leapt up into the air while others crept on the ground, trying to get closer to the horses’ bellies. Some unwary monsters were killed by the hoofs of the fighting horses. Without giving themselves a rest, the people worked with their swords, while the horses bit and kicked the fallen beasts. At some point, the creatures receded from the walls, trying to regroup in order to break through the squad and run away into the steppe, but the riders inexorably closed their ring, pressing the surviving monsters back against the walls of the village.
During battle, Tagas, like everyone else in his family, seemed to have wings. On his huge black horse, he galloped across the field, managing time after time to help others in the thickest fighting where it was particularly dangerous. His sword, as if it was enchanted, always caught up with the nimble beasts who attempted to flee from him. Seeing that the monsters’ opposition had slackened, the prince lifted up his eyes to the people on the village wall. It seemed the whole village was there looking down, and the volunteers continued hurling spears, managing somehow to avoid the warriors. Tagas’s horse neighed shrilly. Throwing off a creeping beast with one foot, the prince again plunged into the battle, and, after a few minutes, the village’s gate opened and its inhabitants poured out. All of the men, led by a strong gray-haired old man in a long shirt, came to the aid of the squad.
After the battle, the inhabitants began promptly pulling the dead and dying monsters away from the wall toward a huge bonfire. The process was evidently familiar to them, even to the older children, and without any fear they dragged the beasts by their clawed paws. Without a complaint, the smaller children immediately came up with a new game, as some of them howled and jumped, while others brandished dry sticks, obviously borrowed from the domestic reserves of firewood and adapted to be swords.
“Hail, pure Duke,” rumbled out someone, distracting Tagas from the mock battle.
The old man, surrounded by tall men who bore a great resemblance to him, approached the prince, examining him with shining dark eyes. In general, the residents of the village were outwardly quite different from the fair-haired warriors. The women and many men had dark plaits, almond-shaped eyes, and round faces. They called to one another in an unfamiliar guttural language.
“Hello, my good man,” answered the prince. “I am not the Duke, but his eldest son. I, with my brother and our squad, traveled to the outposts until we tracked down this pack of monstrous beasts.”
“You are not Vlady?” The old man shifted his gaze from Tagas’s stained face to the prince’s banner. “Oh, yes, of course, so many years have passed…”
“Do you know my father, my good man?”
“When we were young, we travelled this steppe far and wide. Perhaps, he can still remember Melek. Where is your father, prince?”
“He is in Stronghold, in the heart of Areya.”
“For some reason, I saw something else.”
“You saw?” Seles, who had silently approached the two men who were speaking, now joined in. “Are you a magus, my dear Melek?”
“Nothing of the kind,” the old man sighed. “It is just that when you are responsible for other people, you must learn many things. Please, be our guests. Today is a happy day. We have won a victory; we should celebrate it.”
Silent, smiling girls took the warriors back to their families’ houses, and soon the men, washed and refreshed, appeared on the only square of the village. While a group of the menfolk watered and cleaned the horses, others treated wounds the noble animals had received in combat. To heal people, two very old ladies crawled to the square, but each had such an ugly look that the chaps immediately began to hide their bites and cuts. The Duke’s men suspected that either one of the old ladies, or even both of them together, might turn out to be true yagas, witches. Brave Tagas was the first who rolled up his bitten-through trouser-leg and put his leg at the disposal of the particularly picturesque wise woman with a long nose and yellow teeth. The bite had already begun to turn blue, and he knew that it was dangerous. Following his example, other injured soldiers moved toward the ugly women after the prince, and the healers’ aid was given even to Malusha, who had forgotten yesterday’s burn in the heat and wounding of today’s battle.
Meanwhile, tables were being set on the square, upon which the men, who became a little merry, found not only numerous fish dishes, but also a dark, imported ale. The fishing villages which still remained in this part of Areya were successful in trade. Using large rafts, the fishermen sailed up the river, where the water was colder and where only small fish could be found, to sell their catch, and trade for various goods, including this welcome ale. Soon the feast was in full swing. Mingling with the villagers, the prince’s warriors drank and argued, danced to the rollicking whistling of reed fifes, and some willingly rested their elbows on the tables in preparation for a contest of strength.
Everyone had fun celebrating the victory. Only old Melek was heavily sitting alone on a bench, occasionally glancing at the Duke’s sons. Discerning the tall figure of his brother among the dancers, Seles grabbed a heavy clay mug and sat down near the old man.
“Judging by today’s battle, am I right that these monsters not so rarely attack your village?” he asked.
“More often than the pure prince thinks,” admitted Melek, nodding. “You can even say that we have long become accustomed to them. My sons, for example, can hardly remember the time when there were none of these creatures in the steppe. The only thing is that the creatures have begun changing of late. They have become fiercer and more intelligent. And there was never such a large pack as those who attacked today. I’m not even sure that we could have defeated them without your help, and the men here are experienced fighters.”
“Why don’t you go north to the midnight lands? What if the monsters succeeded in breaking into the village—”
“Come with me.” Leaning heavily on the table, Melek rose to his feet. “I want to show you something.”
Looking around curiously, Seles rose and followed him up onto the wide wall of the village. The field where the battle had recently taken place was spread before them, marked out by trampled grass. In the distance there were several large fires, slowly burning out.
“Look there,” said the old man. “Here is what was awaiting us, if the beasts had broken through the wall.”
The wattle-and-daub wall was not round, but on one side of the village it narrowed, going down to the bank of the Gela like a corridor, within which lay firm rafts heaped with large leather packages.
“Of course, we had no intention of dying here. Every family has its own raft, which can take them away to the north on the river in case of danger. But this is our home, and we don’t want to leave it unless we absolutely must. Also…” Melek hesitated, sighed, and finally finished, “I don’t think that relocation can save anyone these days.”
“Why?” Seles asked, surprised. “The Duke has other outposts within three days’ journey from here. Under their protection, people live safely. Packs of monsters cannot overcome such sophisticated defenses as those.”
“These monsters cannot,” replied the old man after a slight pause. “But then, who said that all the creatures are like these, or that they come only from the steppe? Maybe they can appear in other places as well.”
“What do you mean, ‘can appear’?” The prince was bewildered.
“I don’t know whether I would be endorsed by the pure prince or not, but I sometimes rescue werewolves who have been driven under the village walls by the monsters,” Melek said, staring into Seles’s eyes. “I let them sit snug until the volunteers finish with a pack. And lately there have been many more such werewolves than usual, and they have all been very scared, talking of new varieties of monsters from the forest.”
“From the forest? Well, it simply can’t be. Of course, some smaller groups of monsters often slip through the gates and then dart about the forest. But they are small beasts, which my brother and I together can beat by the dozens without even tiring our hands. Everyone in Areya, like you, has learned to cope with them. They’re basically harmless.”
“What, in that case, happened to the people in Moose Ravine?”
In general, it was quite difficult to catch Seles unawares—he was known as a clever lad, able to out-talk any magus—but this simple question completely stunned him.
“Eh… how do you know that anything happened there?” he finally managed. “Was it the werewolves again who talked about that?”
“So, for all that, it is true. It did happen.” It seemed to Seles like Melek grew truly old within a moment. There had been a hale, slightly older man standing on the wall, and suddenly he grew very old—burdened by the news—and stared wistfully into the distance. “So, all the more, we have nowhere to go. Nowhere is truly safe. Perhaps, when our time comes, we should sit on the rafts and trust in fortune, and let it bring…” Melek’s voice trailed off vaguely.
The next morning, the residents of the village again poured out onto the wall. They saw off the squad, throwing bundles containing the area’s customary fish and waving their hands, and someone shouted a cheerful joke. But, one and all, they refused Tagas’s proposal to go to the northern midnight lands under the cover of the soldiers. They shook their heads and stubbornly averted their eyes, as if they knew something causing them to believe that their destiny was no more uncertain on the steppe than it would be in the midnight lands.
The day was unusually calm, and the squad rapidly approached the outposts of the Duke’s kingdom. After the destruction of the pack, as if sensing that the danger was over, the inhabitants of the steppe were emerging from their shelters. From among clumps of dry grass peeked the watchful muzzles of gophers. A skinny jackal was trotting around, pretending that he had no concern for the well-fed rodents. Several thin-legged antelopes flashed like arrows in the direction opposite that of the horsemen, directly toward the river.
However, despite all the silence and grandeur of the landscape, Seles was anxious. He glanced at the impassive face of his brother and cursed himself for his own sense of alarm as he continued to rise involuntarily in his stirrups, staring into the distance. Thanks to his sense of foreboding, the prince was not surprised when a cloud of dust appeared on the horizon and rapidly crossed the path of the squad.
“Aha!” As if he, too, was awaiting this, Tagas directed his horse forward more urgently.
The men rushed after the princes, following dutifully. In silence and with restless impatience, a hundred men flew toward the cloud, in which the figure of a human, pressing himself close to a horse, became visible.
“Trouble, pure princes!” the rider shouted from a distance, coughing due to the raised dust. “Monsters have attacked the Oak Gates!”
At full gallop, the squad encircled the dusty gray boy—only his eyes shone—as they tried to figure out exactly what he was talking about. The chain of military outposts had stretched across the entire steppe border of Areya since the old days of the war with the nomads. These outposts, or gates, were named for the material composing the walls of each fortress. Each of them had a signal tower, and there were magi, although not the strongest, in many of them. If a gate could not cope with yet another monster pack, the magi contacted each other, or caused brilliant yellow light to flash out from the tower, and neighbors hurried to the aid of those sending the distress signal. The same signaling system had been adopted by all the border settlements, which did not have their own magi. But, judging by his clothes, the messenger was not an official guard from the Oak Gates, just an ordinary villager who had miraculously tracked down the squadron on the steppe.
“The elder sent a few people to find you!” the young man explained quickly. “The guards knew that a few days ago you rode to the aid of the fishermen. Our village volunteers have already gone to the gate!”
The princes looked at one another. Whether with fright or due to the heat, the boy had obviously become delirious. The outposts existed to get villagers out of scrapes and disperse the wicked beasts from the settlements; certainly not vice versa.
“The volunteers went to help the Oak Gates?” Seles clarified.
“Of course! We have no magus, so we don’t know what happened there. But they lit the red light.”
The red light? Seles felt a shiver run down his sweaty back. He could swear that in their squad, which consisted entirely of the princes’ peers and childhood friends, only the brothers knew what a red light at the signal tower meant. In the youth of their father, that red light had been lit in a besieged fortress by a doomed garrison.
“How soon can we reach the Oak Gates?” From the tense voice of Tagas, Seles realized that his brother was thinking the same thing.
“I will accompany you!” rejoiced the messenger. “If we don’t stop or wander, then tomorrow, when the Eye of Day rises to its zenith, we will be in place.”
Dubiously looking at the emaciated boy, Tagas nodded, but asked him just to make sure:
“Are you confident you and your horse can withstand the galloping?”
“I was born in the steppe,” the guide answered resentfully. “I am used to long rides. However, I have no water, and it would be nice to eat something.” Water and food were quickly provided for man and beast.
The night flew by without being noticed amidst the endless clattering of the horses’ hooves. In order not to ride the horses too hard, Tagas held back the pace of their movement, although it was hard for him not to break into a gallop himself. It seemed like various oddities arranged to get in his way just now, when he was so far from the Grand Duke, and there was nobody to help him put the flow of life back between its usual banks. Suddenly, the prince remembered the last letter that he had sent to his father with a postal bird just a week ago. “The monsters are subdued,” he reported to the Duke. “Seles and I beat them well; they were not able to oppose us.” But as it turned out, he thought to himself now, perhaps they were able. First, an unprecedentedly huge pack of the creatures had appeared, and then… what? What could have made the Oak Gates, one of the strongest of the Duke’s outposts, with a large garrison, kindle the red light?
Gradually, the landscape of the steppe began changing. On the left, fields showed green, and the squad raced past a small settlement, bravely cultivating the land beyond the line of the outposts. Behind its low wall stretched a transparent lake, and Tagas allowed the soldiers to wash themselves and quickly water the horses. Near the next village the squad met a small detachment of volunteers, the foreman of which was also leading his people toward the red light. The prince did not object to their intention, and the taciturn men, riding strong draught horses, joined up with the tail of the squad.
After crossing a narrow tributary of the Gela, Tagas turned toward the hills shooting up among a sparsely growing oak-grove. Because the outpost was already quite close, the princes needed to get a good look around at the lie of the land from this hill before throwing the squad into a battle. Together with his brother, two foremen, and the guide, Tagas took off up the emerald hill. He knew that further toward the midnight lands the oak area extended, thickened, and merged into the Eternal Forest. Somewhere in the middle of the area, there should be the tower of Oak Gates, blazing a red fire. The warriors did not see anything like that.
“Well, and… where is it?” Seles turned to the hushed guide.
Looking bewildered, the boy examined the dark forest.
“Look!” Esen suddenly shouted. His sight had always been keen.
But the others had also already noticed what alarmed the foreman: in the direction of the sunset lands to the west, against the background of the cloudy sky, a bright yellow dot blazed.
“Yellow light,” muttered the guide in shock.
“Yes,” sighed Tagas. “And what do we have on the left of the Oak Gates? The Earthen Gates.”
At this point, the flow of the river, avoiding the hills, veered to the north, and the fortress of the Earthen Gates, made of strong fired bricks because there were almost no trees in the area, was raised on its bank. The princes imagined the line of defense clearly enough from maps they knew, but the villagers, evidently, had got it wrong, and the squad urgently needed to change their route.
“No, pure prince.” When the brothers came down from the hill the foreman of the volunteers, a man with a big moustache, was shaking his head as he understood what each prince believed. “We also saw the red light, and could not have made such a mistake. We have sent such a signal more than once ourselves, and the squad of the Oak Gates has always come to our aid.”
“Let’s go!” Tagas decided, turning the horse toward the sunset lands to the west.
Certainly, he believed, the residents knew the local fortresses at least as well as he himself, and they had indeed seen the red light burning on the Oak Gates a few days ago. It had been burning, and now it was not. Unfortunately, this could mean only one thing: there was no longer anybody in the besieged fortress who could use the help. But he knew the other garrison was now in need of additional forces, and this squad of a hundred well-trained warriors would be a very mighty power against enemy monsters and human armies alike.