Arixa didn’t know the purpose of the iron object she had unearthed in the ruin.
Its creators had known, but they were long gone. Like any Scythian, Arixa only knew that the Parthians who once had built cities in this land south of the Bleak Sea had forged harder metals and known more uses for them than the Scythians of today did.
Long ago, the Parthians had ruled from their distant capital, building forts along the rivers of what now was Scythia.
And then the Parthians had fallen. Some enemy in the East, it was said, had devastated their capital. If you believed the Ishpakians, the sect named for the long-ago prophet Ishpakai, then the gods themselves had razed the Parthian capital, as one day they would return to devastate other cities.
But Arixa did not believe the Ishpakians. Nor did most Scythians. Were the gods to return, the city and empire struck down must be their own, the one ruled by Arixa’s father.
How the Parthians had fallen was a debate for the palace scholars of Roxinaki who had tutored Arixa as a child. She had been their favorite student, keen of mind and quick to learn, but that had not been enough to keep her there. The scholars could argue if they wanted to about why the Parthians fell, but in the real world, the world of the steppe and forests and mountains, it didn’t matter.
What mattered was that today’s Parthians were slaves and farmers whose toil provisioned the Scythian war bands which ensured the safety of Roxinaki and its tedious, long-winded scholars.
War bands like the one Arixa had founded, which she had named the Dawn.
She rose with the dirt-encrusted object in hand, returning her knife to its sheath. Having been used to prize the artifact from hard earth, the blade would need cleaning, sharpening and oiling back at camp.
It was Ivar who called her. He came into sight around an intact corner of the collapsed and roofless ancient Parthian fort in which Arixa knelt.
“The Captain of a war band does not also need to be a scavenger, Arixa!” Ivar scolded in his odd accent of the frozen North. “A blasted Sai princess even less!”
“I’ll decide what a Captain and a princess should be, Ivar,” Arixa returned calmly.
She brushed caked clods of soil from the bent metal rod she had unearthed. A half-rotted wooden handle clung persistently to one end of whatever it had been, some sort of tool.
“This iron makes good weapons,” Arixa said, carrying the scavenged item toward Ivar. “I don’t know about wherever the fuck you came from, but in Scythia, a good warrior cares about good weapons.”
“A warrior in Svialand cares about raiding. Not digging rusty shit out of the ground.”
“I’m trading,” Arixa joked. “I took a piss behind that wall, and the Parthians traded me this good metal. Sviar know about trading right? Until their boats flip over and Goths kill them all, that is.”
As she met up with Ivar, Arixa saw the midday sun glint on something in the grass. She stooped to investigate.
“That’s low, Arixa,” Ivar complained, although he punctuated the complaint with a laugh. “Even for you.”
Six years ago, the trading boat on which Ivar had voyaged far south from his homeland had sunk on the Dneister, stranding its entire crew. Two days later, a band of Goths had attacked the shipwrecked Sviar, killing most and hunting down the scattered survivors for sport. Arixa had found Ivar alone and feral in the mountains a month later.
At least, that was the story Ivar had told her once he’d learned to speak enough Scythian. He had also claimed that his people called him Ivar Shieldbreaker.
Foreigners were not uncommon in Scythian war bands, but Ivar stood out more than most with his frost-white skin and hair the color of straw. Amazingly, he still had the weapon with which he’d left Svialand: a hook-headed ax not much larger than the ones used for chopping wood. Ivar had cut down a great many men with that ax in the last six years—many of them Goths.
Six years ago, Arixa had been just a spite-filled runaway royal full of vague notions of proving something to her father. Ivar had helped her build her war band. Their bond ran deep.
Ivar spat. “Fucking Gotar,” he cursed, using his people’s name for the Goths.
The Sviar’s phlegm landed not far from the glinting shard that Arixa had spotted in the grass and now picked up.
In addition to stronger metals, the long-ago Parthians had been able to craft pots and other vessels from a material which one could see right through. Some vessels were tinted various colors, while others were fully transparent. What few of these goods remained intact were highly valued, while the broken shards were used by artisans in decorative applications.
No Scythian potter or craftsman had yet managed to recreate the material. Its secret was apparently lost with the razing of Parthia’s capital and the collapse of its power.
Sometimes Arixa collected such shards for trade, but since this piece was tiny, and it was to be many days before they reached a trading post, she cast it back into the ruin.
She and Ivar walked in the direction of the road which led to the Dawn’s camp. “If you don’t want to be insulted,” she said to the Sviar, “then don’t call me a princess.”
“Bah, you’re right,” Ivar scoffed. “Princesses are much more beautiful. Not half a head taller than me with tattoos from shoulder to wrist and blue hair so tightly braided it could not get clean if you tried. Which you do not.”
Ivar was not wrong. Arixa’s looks were plain by Scythian standards, and she was taller and broader than most men. Her dozens of blue-tipped braids were only untwined once every six moons by some other female fighter of the band in the vapors of a cannabis lodge. Each of the designs inked on Arixa’s skin, acquired over the last six years, had a meaning. Many of them were marred by scars.
“Magnificent…” Arixa observed with a sigh. “What a word-picture you create, Shieldbreaker! To think that you learned our tongue so late in life, yet already you have mastered—”
Ivar pursed his lips and blew a farting noise. “Enough! Your point is made!”
“No, I mean it! You should be in the capital, composing verse.”
“Stop! You win. Like always!”
The small figure waving at them from the old stone-paved, weed-strewn Parthian road, was another foreigner of the band, Memnon. His people, the Hellenes, had once ruled the land around the warm Southern Sea, a sight which Arixa had never seen.
As with the Parthians, Hellenic dominance had been smashed—either by men or gods—long ago, and now most Hellenes were slaves in foreign lands. Memnon and his sister Andromache had come to Scythia in chains and joined the Dawn a few years back after winning their freedom. Neither was a champion fighter, but they had enough other skills to make them worthy of their provisions. For one, they looked after the band’s most invaluable resource, its horses, with as much competence as any Scythian breeder, which was to say the best breeders in the world.
“Did I hear Ivar call you princess again?” Memnon asked. “He never learns!”
Next to Memnon on the road were two more men of the band.
There was Matas, Arixa’s maternal uncle, who had left the city with Arixa those six years ago, partly to protect his niece, but just as much for his own reasons.
And there was huge Sandaksatra, whom they called Dak, the only one among the four who was taller than Arixa, and the one man whom no one dared to challenge at arm-wrestling unless they had no need to hold a weapon the next day.
“Can’t a girl take a piss without four men showing up?” Arixa griped.
She knew why Ivar had come; in fact, his presence shadowing her as bodyguard was expected and appreciated, if rarely required. But Memnon and the others must have some other reason.
In answer to the thought, gray bearded Matas announced, “The scouts have returned. The Goths are taking the expected route. It should be two, maybe three days before we have them where we want them. There are three small farming communities in their path. I have riders awaiting your word to warn the locals to evacuate.”
Here was the function of all of Scythia’s ranging war bands: to detect incursions and draw the invaders to a place where it was convenient to destroy them. In the time of Scythia’s great-grandfathers there had been no cities or towns to defend at all, and so it hardly mattered where an enemy army went.
Today there was a capital, Roxinaki, on the northern shore of the Bleak Sea, plus a few towns here and there, but otherwise, Scythian lands were as they had ever been: vast stretches of steppe and plain dotted with seasonal encampments and subject villages. Enemy armies ventured in at their peril, finding little worth raiding. If an army came in vast numbers the small war bands of Scythia could coalesce into a horde to meet the threat on a field of its choosing.
Sadly, this had not occurred in Arixa’s lifetime, and did not seem likely to.
The invading Goth bands were larger than their Scythian counterparts, but unlike Scythians, the Goth warriors were not all mounted. A great many of the invaders marched on foot, and thus they could be easily outmaneuvered.
“Send the riders,” Arixa commanded. “Tell them if any of the threatened farms grow cannabis, return with all that they can carry. No sense leaving it to be destroyed. Since we won’t be fighting tomorrow, tonight we can throw the last of our own cannabis on the fires.”
“If I ever were to return to Svialand,” Ivar remarked, “this is the one Scythian tradition I would take with me.”
“I thought the soil was always frozen there,” Memnon said.
“Only in winter. The remaining two months are—”
“Did you see that?” Arixa interrupted, staring into the sky in the direction of the Parthian ruin, away from camp.
She pointed, and the others looked.
“There! There it is again!”
“It’s just a star,” Dak grumbled.
Arixa smacked his tattooed, iron-hard upper arm. “Is a star green, and does it pulsate and glide about in the daytime sky like a firefly?”
“It’s a firefly, then,” Dak snorted back.
The light continued to glide slowly across the sky, growing subtly larger. As they all watched, it halted and changed direction, moving groundward.
“We all know what it is.” This from Memnon. “I’ve seen its like once before and had the sense to go in the opposite direction. You’ve heard the legends. There is some truth to them.”
Ivar gave the Hellene a shove. “Are you ready to go join the Ishpakians now?”
“It’s nothing to do with that!” Memnon insisted. “This is about Hunters and Watchers.”
Ivar chuckled. “And which variety is this, O great Sky Monster expert? Does it want to hunt us or watch us?”
“How do I know? Any of you with any sense will return with me to camp and forget you saw this.”
Already, Memnon had turned away from the descending light and started the walk back to camp.
Arixa, on the contrary, watched with intense interest as the green light touched the horizon in some wooded hills to the east.
“Uncle, Memnon, return to camp and dispatch the riders,” she said. She handed her uncle the scavenged metal bar. “Ivar, Dak, accompany them, but one or both of you return with my horse and bow. I’ll start on foot toward where the light landed. You are welcome to accompany me, but you need not.”
“Of course we’ll come,” Ivar answered for both. “But should we not ride in greater numbers?”
“Bring ten,” Arixa conceded.
She did not really care how many came. It was curiosity which drove her. There were some ways in which the favorite student of Roxinaki’s royal tutors had not fully died, but instead lived on inside the tattooed body of a war band Captain.
This was an opportunity to learn something. If it also meant danger, then the warrior side of her would welcome that, too.
“I would come along,” departing Memnon called back over his shoulder, “but you know, there’s my sister to think of. And the horses.”
“We’re all aware of your famous cowardice, Memnon,” Ivar taunted. “No need to call attention to it.”
“Cowardice and common sense are cousins,” Memnon answered plainly. “One is often mistaken for the other.”
“One of your Hellenic sayings?” Matas asked.
“Sure, if that improves its credibility.”
The rest of the conversation between the men on the road was lost to Arixa as she hurried alone across the Parthian ruin and toward the hills beyond.
Less than an hour later, a dozen sets of hoofbeats vibrated the hard earth under her boots. Soon after, Ivar and Dak and ten others caught up, bringing her saddled red roan horse, Turagetes, which she mounted. Progress thereafter was much swifter, with Arixa taking the lead and the others trailing at a gallop.
It was not long before the terrain forced them to rein in their mounts, the open plain giving way to rocky, lightly wooded slopes of the hills into which the green glow had descended. Arixa tried to keep an eye always on the very spot where it had vanished, a task which would have been easier at night, with stars to serve as guides.
It was instinct more than any landmarks which at length caused her to signal a halt and dismount. As the others behind her followed suit, a slight movement up a slope caught Arixa’s eye: the swaying of a low-hanging branch of evergreen. There was no accompanying fluttering of wings, and few birds would perch so low. A squirrel, perhaps, but Arixa spared no thought for guesses before stringing her bow and putting arrow to it as she ran up the slope.
Her comrades followed, but Arixa was the first to mount the crest. She looked down with bowstring tensed, and she saw—
Looking back at her.
Its wide, dark eyes gave her only the briefest of glances before it sped off behind some rocks.
It was gone by the time Ivar and the rest drew up alongside Arixa.
She stared at the place where the thing had been. She had only glimpsed it for an instant. She must have been mistaken.
“What did you see?” Ivar asked.
Briefly Arixa considered lying. She knew what her own reaction would be to the truth. But she was Captain, and these men would be wary of mocking her.
In a few breathless words Arixa told them what she had seen. Without waiting for them to break their stunned silences, she unbent her bow and bounded down the slope.
“Arixa!” Ivar hissed loudly. He cursed in his native tongue, and then Arixa heard branches snap as fierce loyalty sent him after his Captain, even on a course he found foolish.
He was probably right. He definitely was. But Ivar had not seen the dog-man. If he had, he would be leading the way.
Who could see such a sight and not give chase?
Arixa reached the spot where the dog-man had vanished behind jutting rocks, but it was not there. She scanned the terrain now visible, which was treacherous. A valley lay ahead, and hardly a step of the passage into it consisted of unbroken ground. There were sparse woods, consisting of evergreens which grew in tall spires, and the space between trunks seemed nothing but naked, uneven rock, worn smooth by time such that any careless step could end in a limb-breaking fall.
Just beyond one of those rocks, a small dark shape caught Arixa’s eye. Without hesitation, she barreled on toward it, leaping from crag to boulder to shallow tree-root, one hand clamped on her sword scabbard when she could, to keep it from swinging wildly. She slipped more than once on barren soil and landed hard on her buttocks before bouncing up to continue without losing speed.
“Arixaaaa!” cried the increasingly distant, echoing voice of Ivar.
But Arixa pressed on, knowing the danger, knowing that this might indeed be one of those monsters of legend who were said to descend from the sky for seemingly no other purpose than to challenge mighty warriors.
Such legends only ever ended with the warrior’s glorious death.
Arixa had no fond desire to die with glory this day, but she could not conceive of a future in which she had not given her all in pursuing this encounter to its ending, whatever it may be.
The dog-man had not struck her as particularly fearsome. It was possible she was being led into a trap laid by some more formidable creature.
It was equally possible that a monster’s ability to kill men and women should not be judged by its appearance.
While vaulting over a boulder, she took a fleeting glimpse behind her, where the members of her war-band were small, dark shapes high up on the ridge. They were loyal, but hurling oneself down a rocky hill in pursuit of what sounded like a cannabis-dream was a test of any man’s loyalty. Memnon would call what they had common sense.
It didn’t matter. Arixa hoped they would not risk themselves. The further behind she left them, the more convinced she became that this was something for her alone. Those warriors in legends always met their destinies alone.
It seemed highly likely that she would be forced to climb back up the hill with nothing to show for her efforts. And for many years, behind her back, the story would be told of the time she chased an invisible, clothed, upright-walking dog…
There! Fear of humiliation fled as Arixa caught fresh sight of her quarry between some arrow-straight pine trunks, and there was no mistaking it. The thing was fully visible, if for only an instant. She had gained on it, just a little.
“Stop!” she cried out. “What are you!?”
A man or woman could hardly move faster, but Arixa managed, partly by belatedly throwing down her bow and quiver of arrows. Even if this creature gave her the opportunity, she had no intention of sinking an arrow into it. If she needed to defend herself, she had her blade, which in fact was slowing her down. She might have been tempted to discard it were it not for the few seconds delay it would require to do so.
It disappeared again in the rough terrain, which offered a surplus of cover. Even if she looked back, which she was not willing to do, Arixa knew she would no longer see her comrades. Fully alone, she plunged on into the deep valley, finally reaching a stretch where the footing was surer. She poured on the speed, frantically scanning ahead for traces of movement.
It was then, perhaps due to overconfidence in her footing, that she tripped over something concealed in a clump of tall grass and found herself sliding head-down on a rocky slope far too steep to descend by any other means than falling. And fall she did, feeling explosions of pain all over her body, one after another, from each of a dozen impacts. Each time her body met a surface, she grasped for purchase and tried to slow or break her fall, only to be denied, or have a joint wrenched in a direction the gods had not intended it to move. Her sword hilt was driven hard into the side of her stomach before the scabbard broke loose, the blade inside it surely bent.
At some point, although her head still spun, she realized she had come to rest awkwardly on some rocks. Her body was a mass of pain which barely responded to commands to move. Gazing up helplessly at clouds in an azure sky, the sky of Scythia, Arixa wept. She had written the ending of her legend, after all, that of the Sai princess who had given up the stifling comforts of the palace to build her own war band and lead it to victory in battle after battle, only to accidentally run off a cliff.
It was not a warrior’s death, but that of an utter fool.
She hoped that when her story was told, it might omit the part about the dog.
She managed a faint smile. Ivar would see to that.
With that smile on her lips, and tears drawing tracks down the sides of her broken face, Arixa shut her eyes on the skies of Scythia for the final time.
* * *