Blade had little time to think of Nantee during the next week. The track narrowed and new storms broke on them. The cold increased. Mongs died of it, or of the coughing sickness, and the corpses were flung into the chasm. He went only once that week to Sadda and she was sullen and demanding in love, but would not speak of the plot against the Khad. When he had satisfied her, she clung to him with a hint of tenderness, then dismissed him.
Food and dung chips ran low. Horses had to be brought up and slaughtered in the snow, in a narrow space between wagons. One poor beast, sensing the knife, went into a panic of rearing and kicking and took three Mongs with it into the chasm.
At last they reached the summit. Beyond this point the pass began to slant downward. Blade, leading his pony at the moment, looked out over the roof of this strange world. It was utterly dreary, a lifeless waste that stretched to every horizon, and it was utterly grand.
Blade stood at the center of a gigantic bowl of mountains. As far as he could see, in every direction, they thrust jagged peaks into the sky. Range after range after range of shale and snow and basalt and granite, glinting all dark and gray in the twilight air. No Jade Mountains here. He began to understand the harshness of the Mongs a little better. They were as their land was - cruel and hard.
The Mongs never halted. The van of the column crested the summit and began to spill down the far pass, slithering like a slow dark avalanche. Horses moved faster and men breathed easier of the thin dry air. Blade, who had been sickened and weakened by the altitude at first, now was as oblivious of it as any Mong.
He tugged his pony onto an outcropping and watched them pass. To his left there was no end to the dark straggle of horses and men, and the herds must still be brought over the summit. To his right the line was lengthening as the caravan picked up speed and moved toward a widening of the track.
Blade looked up to see Morpho passing on a horse, jogging at a faster pace than the others and passing when he could. The dwarf, who normally rode close to the Khad's party, must have been back to see Nantee.
Morpho gave no sign of recognition when he saw Blade. But his head moved in a nod, once, slightly up and down. Nantee lived.
Another three days and they were out of the pass and into desert again where the sands blew yellow instead of black. They halted on the desert to rest and reorganize, and for the herds to catch up with them. The black tents were hauled from the wagons and pitched, like sable mushrooms on the desert, and once more there was singing and laughter and quarreling around the fires.
Blade was called to service the lady Sadda regularly, in his role of first stud, and she was at times affectionate and nearly tender, and teased him about a secret concerning him which she would not tell.
"When it is time," she whispered. Then she bit his ear. "Come, Blade. Again - again!"
He carefully avoided the dwarf. Rahstum, he thought, carefully avoided him. The Khad remained aloof, sober and serious, with no hint of madness. He was still pursuing the vision of Obi, though he no longer spoke of it. None of the Mongs had ever been in this country before and while there was superstitious murmuring, there was no fear of the unknown.
Blade and the legless cripple, Baber, had long talks from time to time. When they camped Baber left the wagon on his little cart and propelled himself about with his pointed sticks. He was now Blade's personal slave and attended to his needs with loving care. It gave him something to do, as Baber said, and it accustomed the Mongs to seeing them together.
And so Blade waited, watching for a sign from Rahstum, for a sign from the dwarf, for a sign from his lady Sadda. Everything was in midair, suspended in doubt and uncertainty. He was a man walking a tightrope over an abyss. A free man now, in all but name. But he still wore the golden collar. Each day it galled him more.
It took a week for the Mongs to recoup from that terrible journey over the mountains. An official tally was taken, in which Blade was called on to help, and they found they had lost over a thousand dead, men, women and children, and nearly four hundred horses.
Baber, with his cynical laugh, said the loss in population would more than be replaced during the halt. The married warriors were hard at it in the tents and the bachelors visited the camp followers in a steady stream.
"Making little bastards," said Baber, "who will have to spend their lives gathering dung. It was not our way among the Cauca. A man had to acknowledge his child."
That very night Sadda told Blade that she was carrying his child. She rubbed his nose with her own and for the first time he thought her near to tears. He had not thought her capable of tears..
"Not a word of this to anyone," she commanded him. "Until our plans are carried out and I give you leave."
Blade, who was stunned at the news, managed to gulp weakly and say, "This, then, is the secret of which you spoke?"
"Only part of it, Blade. Only half of it. The best part you will hear later."
He did not even tell Baber. He did not like to think about it, and tried not to, yet it began to haunt him. A child by Sadda! A tiny half Mong, half Englishman brought into this cruel barbaric world. He found himself wishing that Sadda was wrong.
As soon as they camped the Khad sent scouting parties out to the east, north and south. The parties sent to north and south came back in three days and reported to the Khad in private. The group that had gone east did not return for a week and then a long secret conference was held in the Khad's big tent. The next morning they struck camp and headed east.
Gradually they moved into steppe country, vast undulating savannas, sparsely treed, where the grass grew tall and sweet and the Mong horses and ponies fell into an ecstasy of eating and rolling. They found wild hay, which was cut and baled by slaves. Tons of it was loaded into empty wagons and they were again on the trek. The steppe, as vast and empty as ever, began to slant downward, and one day when the wind blew from the east, Blade caught a scent that riffled his nerves with odd pleasure. Salt water! They were nearing the sea.
None of the Mongs had smelled salt water before and it amused him to watch them sniffing and frowning. Then the wind changed and the salt smell was gone.
One day a scouting party came in from the east with a prisoner. Blade, supervising a slave work group, stared as curiously as the others as they rode past. The prisoner rode a horse, his hands tied behind him and his feet held with rawhide under the animal's belly. He was a Cath, but not like the Caths Blade had known. His skin was light yellow, and he was beardless, but he was much sturdier with arms and legs well muscled and nearly as large as Blade's own. The prisoner, who held his head high and stared straight ahead, wore wooden armor with the moon symbol emblazoned) on the chest. On his left shoulder he wore an epaulet. He was a Cath officer of fairly high rank. That night, after they had made love, Sadda told him about the prisoner.
"He calls himself a Sea Cath. He speaks freely, without threat of torture, yet he tells nothing that we could not find out for ourselves. He is a subcaptain and thinks he is very grand." She frowned and added, "As do all the Caths!"
Blade, who was eaten with curiosity, managed to appear bored.
"Where was he taken?"
"There is a pass three days march to the east that leads into a valley. A small fort guards it. Our warriors took the fort and slew all the Caths except this one, who was in command."
Blade yawned. "What will happen to him? To this Sea Cath?"
Sadda shrugged her slim shoulders. "Who knows? Who cares? And do not yawn when you are with me, Blade! I do not like it. If I bore you I will find another way of amusing you, and myself."
In that tense moment she was the old Sadda, her eyes narrowed and dangerous, and Blade cursed himself for his laxness. The new Sadda, the princess of tenderness and love for him, and the mother of his child, was only a mask, a thin veneer that need only be scratched to reveal the reality beneath.
He sought to repair matters as best he could.
"I could never be bored with you, my lady."
She frowned. Another mistake.
Blade smiled and kissed her averted face. "Sadda. I am tired. Sleepy. I admit it. These nights with you are paradise, but they are also long. And I have my duties during the day."
He bent to put his ear against her belly, flat and taut as ever, and again smiled as he said, "I could not sleep anyway. I keep thinking of this miracle - of being a father to a new prince or princess."
For a moment he thought he had overdone it, troweling on such obvious flattery, for she still frowned and regarded him coldly. Then she smiled back, for she was a woman after all and Blade spoke what she wanted to hear. She moved into his arms and began loveplay. Blade, sweating a little, vowed never to grow careless again. She was a kitten that could turn into a tigress in a second.
The Sea Cath was eventually tortured, and he babbled like a child. When his tormentors deemed him bled of information he was put to death.
The steppe, funneling downward now, led them to the pass guarding the valley. They were greeted by a few Mongs who had been left to hold the captured fort. They reported no sign of hostile action in the valley. Blade, contriving to see and hear as much as possible, wondered at that. Were these Sea Caths as proud, as haughty, and as stupid, as the wall Caths back in Serendip? It appeared so, otherwise the fort would have been retaken and reinforcements brought up.
The smell of the sea grew stronger as the Mongs wound their way through the valley, ever downward into a belt of thick vegetation where trees clustered in dense copses and huge orchid-like plants bloomed and gay-plumaged birds sang and traced lines of color in the sky. The Mongs marveled at such country, and did not like it. It was too soft, too efflorescent, too tender, for these hardy sons of the black sands. Sweet bird song grated on their ears.
A last gradual rise and the sea lay before them, sapphire and unruffled, edged by golden crescents of beach where wavelets creamed in and out.
On this day Blade was riding with Sadda, not far behind the Khad and his guard of honor. From the top of the rise the party surveyed the downward slope and what lay beyond it.
The Khad Tambur held up a hand. The order was repeated and carried back and the marching column of Mongs came to a gradual halt. Twenty miles of horses, men, and wagons stretched far back into the pass.
Blade and Sadda moved their ponies up to the crest, off to one side of the Khad. No one paid them any attention. The Khad, slumped in his saddle, his malformed back bent half over in constant pain, stared at the scene with his good eye.
Blade, with two excellent eyes, was seeing it differently. This, he knew immediately, would not be easy. He understood why the Sea Caths had not reinforced the fort at the mouth of the pass. They thought themselves secure enough in their city.
Below them the land sloped away to level into a great green plain. Perfect terrain for the Mong horsemen - if the Sea Caths would come out and fight.
They would not be such fools. Blade was sure of it. The city below was perfectly situated for defense. It stood at the mouth of a harbor shaped like an hourglass. An enormous chain, glistening now in the sun, stretched across the narrow waist. The inner harbor was crowded with craft of every description from tiny fishing boats to tall clumsy-looking men of war. They floated placidly at anchor, with no sign of bustle or alarm. As well they might. The Sea Caths had nothing to fear from that direction.
High cliffs ran around the inner harbor, right up to the waterfront of the city. There was no approach that way. The cliffs were effective flank guards. The only feasible line of attack was the direct frontal, across the broad green plain which lay below them. It was inviting - until you got to within two hundred yards of the low city wall.
First there was a wide ditch that sloped gradually down until it met the perpendicular back wall. Blade guessed the wall at twenty feet. From the lip of the ditch to the wall, the slope was covered with sharp-pointed stakes set firmly into the earth and pointing at the lip. Men could move among those stakes. Not horses.
Beyond the ditch - Blade saw immediately and understood, and knew the Mongs would not comprehend - was the trap. The real defensive trickery. A wide moat. Dry now.
Blade traced the moat around the city and his lips twitched in a dry smile. Those were sluice gates where the moat ended in the harbor, and those long poles and levers would open them and let in the sea. A quick glance and rapid calculation convinced him. The sea wall fronting the city was keeping the harbor in its place. Open the sluice gates and gravity would do the rest.
For an hour the Khad and his Captains studied the town and the terrain. Blade saw Rahstum and the Khad in deep debate. Meantime he and Sadda had ridden even more to one side and were safely out of earshot.
Sadda, her knee touching his as the horses stood patiently, said, "We must make ready now, Blade. The time is coming again. I know my brother as few do, and I see signs of the madness returning. Not yet, but soon. And when he takes this city there will be a great feast and celebration. Greater, and wilder than would have been on his birth date. That will be our chance. Be ready."
He masked his eyes and nodded. "I will be ready. I have forgotten nothing and I know what I have to do."
Kill the dwarf after Morpho had killed the Khad! Blade knew it was not going to work out that way, but he still puzzled about how Sadda expected to force the dwarf into killing her brother?
She laid a hand on his, whispering. "I will tell you the other half of my secret now. You will see how clever I have been, and how perfectly everything fits."
A child bragging and wanting praise.
"Before this battle, Blade, I am going to ask the Khad for your freedom, that he let you break the golden collar. He will ask me why, in that sly way of his, and I will tell him truth - up to a point.
"I will say that I have love for you, which is true, and that I mean to marry you. He will shake with rage and scream at me, but in the end I think he will permit it. It has been done before, as I shall remind him. Not often, but royal women have married their slaves before."
Blade was watching her face. She was veiled, as always when they rode abroad, but he had come to read her beneath the veil. Her coronet of black hair glistened in the sun as she leaned to tap his knee with her whip. Her eyes were narrowed in speculation.
"There must be no mention of the child I carry. No one must know of that yet. But you see it, Blade? If my brother permits the marriage, and it is done according to Mong law, then our child is a legal prince or princess. Our marriage is legal. And when he is dead you will sit by me as legal Consort. We will have many children, Blade, and so found a new line of great warriors and conquerors the like of which has never been seen before."
Blade had not thought her so ambitious, and had deemed her much too selfish to be concerned with her posterity. It was another facet of this diamond-hard lady.
The Khad wasted no time in sending a courier to demand the immediate and abject surrender of the Sea Caths. Unconditional surrender! He promised them nothing but their lives, which would then belong to the Mongs.
Meantime the Mongs were on the march again, moving from the pass out onto the broad green plain before the city. They debouched and spread in their thousands, covering the plain like a dark tidal wave. Tents were pitched and fires built and horses slaughtered for food. There was a great furbishing of weapons and much laughter and song. After the bitter defeats at the wall, and the horrible trek over the mountains, the warriors were primed for blood and booty. For killing until they were surfeited with killing. To none, save Blade and possibly Rahstum, did it occur that the attack might be beaten back.
While they waited for the courier's return, the Khad entertained a small party in his tent. Blade was included.
He kept well in the background and watched. The Khad was in high good humor, drinking often of bross, and though Blade could discern no sign of the madness yet he judged that Sadda was right. It was on the way. Now and again the Khad's voice would reach a high pitch, nearly a scream, and his laughter was shrill. He demanded constant entertainment. Belly dancers were summoned, and acrobats and eaters of fire, and Morpho had to run through his entire gamut of tricks. The Khad's beloved melons, packed in snow, had been kept in supply at great expense of time and men, and now the dwarf must throw his voice into a melon and beg, in a whimper, to be eaten by the Scourge of the World.
Morpho performed skillfully, without a glance at Blade, who wondered at the little man's thoughts. As the madness grew the Khad would once again be casting about for little girls. But surely Nantee, in her rags and dung gatherer's filth, would be safe enough.
Seeing the Khad in such high good humor, Sadda leaned and spoke to him from her throne. Blade, noting this, felt himself tense. He knew, even before the Khad crooked a finger at him, that Sadda was beginning to carry out the first part of her plan.
Blade went to the throne and bowed with dignity. His nerves were jumping but he kept his face impassive. He was not, as he well knew, an unimpressive sight. He towered over them all, but Rahstum, and his leather armor was as well fitted and burnished as any. His beard, though kept well trimmed by Baber, bristled fiercely and he wore a sword as though he had been born with it.
After his bow Blade met the Khad's eye without flinching, matching that single orb stare for stare.
"You summon me, Lord of the World? I am at your command."
The single eye narrowed and something fanatic gleamed for a moment, then it widened and the Khad struck his knee and laughed harshly.
"Are you now, Blade? Hah. I had thought you only at the command of my sister - and Obi knows she commands enough of you, eh? How do you fare, Blade? How is it to bed my sister?"
Hate and jealousy in that eye now. The Khad was impotent, except with small girls, and he was remembering.
Blade, walking on eggs, felt them crackling beneath his tread.
He bowed again. "I have no complaint, Khad Tambur. No complaint at all."
There was a moment of silence. Rahstum crossed his arms and stared stonily at Blade. Morpho juggled. The Khad inched his tortured spine forward to peer at Blade. Then he went into a gale of laughter.
"No complaints, eh? No complaints! I think not, Blade, and I know! Or once knew. But it is most generous of you to acknowledge that you have no complaints."
The company, taking their cue, joined in the laughter. They ceased abruptly as the Khad raised a hand.
"Be still, all. I want you to hear this. Hear my sister's request - and hear my answer. She would have me free Blade. Strike the golden collar from his neck! What think you of that?"
Murmurs of puzzlement. None of them knew what to think - the Khad not having yet told them.
The Khad raised his hand again. "But wait. My sister tells me more, makes another request of me, her beloved brother. Would you hear it?"
Assent from the crowd. They knew what was expected.
The Khad, Blade admitted, was not a bad showman. He waited until the murmurs and whispering died away, then went on: "Sadda wishes to marry this man Blade! After he is freed, of course, for no Mong princess can marry a slave. And what think you of that?"
Blade, watching for reaction from Rahstum and the dwarf, saw them glance swiftly at each other, then at him. Their blank faces told him nothing.
The tent was buzzing like a beehive. Everyone was darting glances at Blade and Sadda. He got the impression that some of the company were not too much surprised.
And now madness did flare in the Khad's eye. It glittered at Blade and the Khad's grin was that of a carrion ape.
"I will permit this marriage," the Khad said. "I will free you, Blade, of your collar. After the town of the Sea Catlis has been taken, and after you play a part in taking it. An important part, my friend, for I would have you in the foremost rank!"
Blade bowed and nodded. "That is most generous of you, great Khad. I will try not to disappoint you."
The Khad snarled and pointed to his sister. "Just be sure that you do not disappoint her! I know you are a great warrior, Blade, or so I am constantly told. And I saw you defeat Cossa, so there may be some truth to it. But tomorrow we will see if your victory over my champion was a freak of luck."
Rahstum, without looking at Blade, spoke up. "A wise decision, great Lord. But I would have a favor also. I would have this Blade fight with me and my men, and in the foremost rank as you say. I will give him such a testing as he has never had."
The Khad nodded shortly. "So it shall be. And if the city surrenders, as I do not think they will do without a fight, then we will find yet another test for Blade. He who aspires to marry my dear sister must prove himself more than any ordinary man."
The Khad meant that he should die. Blade was sure of it.
Sadda, taken by surprise, had been battling to restrain her anger. She leaned to the Khad and in a silky voice said, "You forget something, my brother."
The Khad glared. The madness was coming on fast.
He mimicked her tone. "And what do I forget, my sister?"
"The ransom, my Lord. Surely it will come' one day, for the Caths think Blade a great man, and how shall you have the ransom if he is killed in battle?"
The Khad smashed his fist on his knee. "Bah, sister! For one thing I do not think the ransom will ever catch up with us. For another, when I take this city, the way around the wall will be clear. I will scourge Cath, and plunder it, and leave nothing alive. Who needs ransom then? I will rule Cath! And a third thing, which your woman's brain has not enough of, is that ransom is for a slave, not a warrior and husband of my sister. If he marries you, I will be his brother-in-law, will I not? And who can sell his own brother-in-law!"
His logic, by Mong custom, was impeccable.
A warrior came hurriedly into the tent. He carried something in his hands. To Blade it looked like crumpled folds of parchment, dark parchment. Blood dripped from it into the richly hued rugs.
The Khad looked up and stared at the man. "What now, man? And where is my courier? I had expected him back long before now."
The warrior held out his hands and let the parchment unroll and dangle before him.
"The courier has returned, your greatness. This is he - what the Sea Caths sent back of him."
It was the skin of a man, dripping blood still. The Sea Caths had sent their answer.
Khad Tambur stared for a long time at the remains of his courier. Blade, so fascinated that he forgot his own danger, watched the man who ruled all the Mongs.
The eye began to roll and show white. The bad teeth, were bared in a soundless snarl. The Khad's face twitched, contorted, and a froth of spittle appeared at the corners of his mouth. He twisted his decaying spine and clawed at his chest with both hands.
Blade knew, even before the Khad fell silently forward from his throne, that he was seeing the falling sickness. It was epilepsy. He had forgotten that the Khad was subject to fits.
Only Blade was surprised by the sudden convulsion. The others watched in silence as the Khad lay on the rug, foaming at the mouth, kicking and twitching and making horrible sounds. He picked up a corner of the rug and thrust it into his mouth and began chewing savagely.
Morpho gave Blade the tiniest wink as he hurried past to the Khad's aid. The dwarf carried a small round cylinder of wood, and passed so close to Blade that he could see the teeth marks in the wood.
Morpho deftly inserted the piece of wood into the Khad's foaming mouth. Four huge blacks came forward with a litter and the twitching figure was lifted on it and carried out.
Blade, thinking of the Sea Caths, hoped their sea moat was efficient. There would be no mercy for them now. Then he remembered that he would be in the foremost rank of attackers. He could not afford to waste sympathy on the Sea Caths. He had to think about himself.