10. A City on the Fulgren Sea

The moon was pale and the stars were gone. He had slept and it was almost dawn. At last the shuffle of tired feet sounded more closely in his ears as they now marched on a road, stone and all, raised above the devil grass to the height of a tall man. Ahead he could see the shimmer of white walls in the wet morning heat. The challenge of a guard, the sounds of people living busy lives, shadows of buildings and the mocking laughter of children. Short buildings with rich cloth hanging from every window and streaming between houses to form a squat, shaded corridor for thew procession to march under. A tall man could reach up and touch the patterns on the silken roof as no building stood higher than two men. Hormud grinned his sour approval, this was why no one talked of a city on the Fulgren Sea.
The paved street ended and his captor’s boots lifted clouds of dust that tasted of cattle as the houses were left behind. They passed through another walled gate and Hormud was in a city of tents. Skins of animals formed roofs and walls, hides of horses and wolfs, and there was one larger than the rest and it was covered with the rich furs of the black fox.
Before this tent, just as the sky turned rose with morning, the red men carrying him staggered to a halt, hefting the lance carrying him onto the forks of two upright posts where he continued to dangle limply while the tent city woke up. Their women and children came out to poke and gawk at this strange new visitor while the sun brightened until it was a brassy sword that pierced his very brain. But Hormud clamped his broken lips beneath his beard and spoke no word to these new people. As hours passed through his pain and weariness the world swirled into unreality.
Only the jerk of his tortured limbs told him he was moving again, and he called fiercely on the reserves of his dwindling strength for he knew that the end of his travails was near and that another, sharper test lay ahead. He forced up his throbbing head and saw that the arched gate through which he travelled bore human gargoyles, with the severed torsos and heads of these red warriors tightly forced into stone alcoves to give the illusion of having the limbs of bears rearing in defiance or salute, though their slack faces and sagging flesh didn’t seem triumphant. Above them, arrayed along the wall in such a way that he had assumed them to be ornate crenellations, stood small men no taller than a boy, looking at him incuriously.
Soon there were more of these small men, as they passed through a bazaar where vendors shrieked from booths of brass and silk, forcing their goods under the noses of passing men and women, uniformly with long free hair and dressed in the most extraordinary colours Hormud had seen since leaving the arenas and seraglios of the Empire. Their children pelted Hormud with fruit payed for by smiling parents, the sharp husks of the peculiar fruits left him bloodied and bruised until the soldiers absently shooed them away.
The crooked streets of the market gave way to a broad avenue, where cedar and larch threw pools of shadow on ranks of stone statues whose pediments bore the graven figure of a bear standing as a man, not triumphant as the gargoyles before, but waiting. Among these they came to the steps of a pillared palace whose low facade stretched off further than Hormud’s limited view in each direction. The men who bore him fell down on their knees to shuffle up the steps. Hormud felt the hot marble scrape the skin from his back and he knew they approached the ruler of these people, and he laughed, though it could barely be recognised as one.
“Thank you friends. It is a rest for my ankles.”

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