SCYTHIAN DAWN Chapter Two

The city before her was one which Arixa had never seen before, which was to say it was not Roxinaki. The people crowding its stone-paved streets were not Scythian. They were lighter-skinned, and the colorful garments they wore left their arms and legs bare, as if the weather and elements were of no concern.

The structures which towered above the people’s heads were brightly colored, too, with stout columns of fluted stone supporting fabulously engraved roofs. Among and between the buildings stood vivid likenesses of semi-nude heroes and ornately draped goddesses. Water splashed into mirrored pools from the snouts of stone beasts.

Arixa looked upon this foreign vista from some tower or ledge. She did not know where for she could not turn her head. In a way, there was no need to. It was if she saw not with eyes at all. With impossible clarity, she saw these unknown folk walking their markets and gardens, trading and bickering, laughing and shouting, running and lazing. She wondered idly who they were and how she had come to be among them.

The sky was as Scythia’s sky, vast and blue and streaked with insubstantial clouds behind which the sun blazed. The day seemed warm, and it must have been, judging by the people’s dress, but Arixa felt no warmth. She was aware of no sensations at all, no body whose limbs she could summon to motion.

It reminded her of something, looking up at a sky from within a body unable to move, but the familiarity was a distant one.

The sky darkened. Slowly, a shadow fell upon the roofs and fountains. The gaily dressed men and women looked up as one at a dark object emerging from the clouds, cleaving them like a sailing ship on the Bleak Sea parts a morning mist.

The object in the sky was oblong in shape, and it grew… and grew… and grew… until Arixa could see that it was itself the size of a city.

Its surface was smooth, mostly, but irregular in places. In no way did it resemble anything natural, like a mountain or an enormous beast. This thing had been made by men. Or gods. Much of its surface reflected the ground below, warping the image slightly, as water might, or…

Not water. Was it possible that this behemoth was built entirely of metal? It would require far more metal than all of the swords in Scythia, every stirrup and buckle, every Parthian artifact, every woman’s brooch and hairpin. Even then, Arixa could not imagine it would amount to enough.

Her heart would have pounded, but she had no chest to contain one. She would have backed away, but she had no legs that were hers to command. She possessed no body, not even any eyes to close, and so it was only her mind that trembled in fear at this overwhelming sight which she had no choice but to witness. She heard the object, too, or rather felt its steady hum in imagined bones: a deep, permeating vibration.

Staring at the behemoth, she began to understand what it must be. This was a vessel, but not of the sea, and not of men.

It was a ship of the boundless heavens and of gods.

From points along the perimeter of the floating object there issued a number of smaller, swifter shapes which soared like eagles in graceful, swooping arcs. As these smaller ‘skyboats’ descended upon the streets and temples of the city, Arixa better discerned their outlines: they were boxy and lacked wings, and green discs glowed brightly on their undersides.

Many of the city’s inhabitants began to scream, sensing that the visitation was of ill intent. Some began to run, others prostrated themselves wherever they happened to stand. Shrill horns of warning sounded, but were as the buzzing of gnats before the great hum of the god-ship overhead.

When they had reached a height barely above the highest roofs, the skyboats began to deploy a yellowish substance upon the streets, particularly over the largest congregations of men and women.

Arixa thought for a moment that it must be meant to kill, some sort of poison which the gods threw down on men as farmers might poison vermin.

Then she saw her mistake. This yellow substance was no lethal weapon but an ensnaring one, like a fisher’s net or a spider’s web. On reaching the ground, the liquid solidified to form a clinging prison for whomever it touched.

After each craft’s passage, what had been a mob running for its collective life was rendered a single, translucent yellow mass in which individuals were embedded as bugs in amber or nuts in a festival loaf.

Once these skyboats had criss-crossed the city, trapping clusters of its people, they turned and circled back, flying lower over the yellow masses. A door opened in the rear of each blocky vessel, and thin arms of metal emerged. Bands sprang from the ends of the arms, coiled around one end of the yellow cake, from which jutted a head or a leg here, half a man there, and began to hoist them into the air and toward the ship’s waiting open hatch.

The mass of snared men and women were pulled into the ship like dough into an oven, and then the hatches shut while the craft moved into position to consume another.

The ships went about collecting like this for some time, and as the bellies of the craft became full, they began returning to the god-ship above.

A great many men and women yet remained in the city. Some still ran, screaming or not, while others vanished, seeking refuge inside homes and temples. In any case, the number captured could represent only a small proportion of the great city’s inhabitants.

When the last of the skyboats had disappeared again, small red discs flared to life near the edges of the huge god-ship.

Wide beams flashed down toward the city, and wherever they touched, men and women simply dropped to the ground, dead, their flesh smoldering until the corpses were withered husks wrapped inside clothing that remained pristine. Likewise the streets and walls, anything which was not flesh, remained intact and undamaged, while the beams swept left and right over the whole of the city and its periphery, eradicating all who had managed to avoid entrapment.

The horror on display was sufficient to crush the stoutest of hearts. No man or woman could look upon this sight and fail to shriek, or flee, or pray, or vomit from fear, or any combination thereof.

Arixa was given no choice but to watch. With neither stomach to empty nor eyelids to shut tight, she witnessed a city far finer than Roxinaki reduced to empty streets and wailing spirits.

The god-ship’s red beams winked out, but it was not yet finished with the city. Near the center of the impossible metal hull, an array of white lights appeared, and from them lanced beams of blazing fury like a hundred bolts of lightning. Where they struck, fires erupted with explosive force, splitting open the roofs of temples, collapsing walls, turning stone-paved avenues into pits of blackened gravel.

Like the diffuse red beams before, these more focused and brilliant beams of white swept back and forth across the city, etching trails of total devastation. On and on the bright lances danced, roving from neighborhood to neighborhood until everywhere fires burned and nothing was left.

Where mere minutes ago had been a glorious city, now hardly two stones stood stacked upon one another.

By now Arixa’s desire to give vent to terror, by screaming, by sobbing, by burying head in arms and never emerging, verged on overwhelming. But it was not to be. For she was but a bodiless spirit, it seemed.

She was… dead.

She had fallen. The memory of it dwelt just out of reach.

With unblinking eyes, Arixa watched the god-ship withdraw into the sky, the clouds absorbing its massiveness as sunlight was restored to a freshly wrought ruin.

* * *

As a nearly drowned man might as he finally broke the surface of a lake, Arixa gasped for air.

Her limbs too flailed as frantically as a drowning man’s. Her eyes, suddenly wide open, looked upon no sight that matched either of her last, fleeting memories—of a city annihilated, of a bone-breaking fall.

She was not drowning. This was no sea or lake. No water filled her mouth and nose or slowed her wild movements, which she promptly ceased.

Panting, she sat upright on a yielding surface, like a moss bed. But this was no forest. All around were smooth surfaces that gleamed.

Seeing a hint of dark movement at the edge of her vision, she turned her head—and she screamed.

Staring back at her were a pair of wide, black, reflective eyes, and the eyes were set in a face which was coated with gray-brown fur. Its nose was black, with wide nostrils, and set at the end of a blunt snout, and the mouth beneath it was a dog’s mouth, full of canine teeth set in glistening purple gums. Its ears were stiff and protruded upward half again the height of its head. Around its neck were waves of still thicker fur that hung down over the collar of its clothing—clothingwhich was blue and white with sleeves down to the furry elbows and tight-fitting trousers.

Faced with the nearness of something which should not exist, Arixa’s body acted clumsily and of its own accord to put distance between her and the creature. The attempt sent her tumbling backward off of the waist-high platform on which she now realized she had sat. Some of her instincts must have remained intact, for she partly broke her fall with an arm.

During the fall, she realized she was still screaming, and also realized she was naked. Both revelations were equally embarrassing, but only the first was in her power to quickly remedy. She shut her mouth.

Regaining her feet, she looked across her former perch, a soft-topped table of sorts, at none other than the dog-like creature which she had recently chased to her—

Death.

It raised its right hand, which was not like a dog’s paw but comprised of a palm with three fingers and a thumb. Its left hand gripped an object: a slender white cylinder with intricate markings lining its smooth surface.

When the dog-man stepped closer and raised the object menacingly, still more instincts took over. Arixa leaped over the table, reaching out to catch the wrist of the thing’s left hand before it could bring the strange weapon to bear.

Her instincts may have been present, but her agility was not. Her limbs felt thick and sluggish. Instead of reaching her target, she wound up draped over the thin table on her belly, her hand barely brushing fur. The dog-man touched his wand to her shoulder, and instantly all became black.

* * *

Arixa awakened on her back with a feeling of ease and well-being pervading mind and flesh, as when one has inhaled just enough cannabis vapor, but not too much. She drew deep breaths and blinked her eyes to focus. The sight which met them was that of a smooth, polished surface broken by clean lines and perfectly etched circles.

Though this was a strange and fear-inspiring sight, she remained strangely at ease. She tried to move her arms, then her legs, and found she could not. Even that revelation failed to shatter her calm. A light dent, perhaps, as she realized she was at the mercy of… whom?

Perhaps it was those gods who had destroyed a city and scooped up its people in scores.

That particular thought did manage to speed the beating of Arixa’s heart with mild panic.

“Be welcome, Arixa,” someone very near said in accented Scythian.

She tried to angle her head toward the source of sound, and found that it worked.

Although this was the same room in which she now recalled having spilled naked onto the floor, she was pleased to now find herself in the company of a man and not a dog. She was also pleased to find herself clothed, even if it was only in a sort of linen shift.

“Do not be afraid,” the man said. “Bodily control will return to you shortly. Considering your earlier reaction, we thought it a wise precaution. We mean you no harm, and you are unlikely to accomplish any against us.”

The man was smallish of frame, smooth of complexion, and neatly groomed with a pointed black beard that matched his short, gloss-black hair. He wore long-sleeved, tailored garment of black and gray with no ornamentation.

Arixa had never seen such garments, in or outside of Roxinaki.

“I… do not…wish harm,” Arixa said, finding her jaw, much like her mind, to be more relaxed than was ideal for conversation.

The man smiled. “I believe you, Arixa. You saw something outside the confines of your accepted reality. Rather than fleeing or trying to destroy it, as most Earth-born would, you let the desire for knowledge drive you, did you not? A rare quality, and in a warrior, no less.”

“You know… my name.”

“We have our ways. None of which are needed when your comrade is kind enough to shout your name repeatedly in the vicinity of a being with quite large and sensitive ears.”

“The dog…”

“Indeed, he does resemble a dog. Dr. Fizzbik was enjoying a walk when you elected to give chase. He felt quite badly when he saw you fall. He turned back to check on you, and finding you clinging to life, he fetched you to our shuttle and repaired you. You’ll find you are rather better off than you were when you arrived. For one, you had a tumor in your breast which would have killed you before you reached thirty. Had you not broken your skull and spine, that is.”

“Fizz… bik?” Arixa spoke the name of the dog-man which she was meant to believe had saved her from certain death.

“You are human,” she observed to the speaker.

“Forgive me for not introducing myself,” the man said with a kind smile. “My name is Vaxsuvarda. And yes, I am human. You might try moving now.”

Arixa wiggled her fingers and flexed an arm, feeling pins and needles on the skin. She brought the arm before her face and found it to be the arm she knew, with its familiar inked bestiary. She could take nothing for granted. She attempted to push herself up, and succeeded. Her captor or host, Vaxsu… something, made no move to assist her.

Looking herself over, she accepted herself to be in full health. Or better: at least one scar which had been below her right knee had disappeared.

She now vividly recalled her fall, the snap of many bones on stone.

She should have been a cripple for life, if she had lived. Yet she was healed.

Something felt wrong with her head. A certain lightness. She put hand to temple and realized that her braids were gone. Instead, her scalp was covered with fine, soft hair of a length not much greater than an inch.

“It was necessary,” her host explained. “Dr. Fizzbik was also prepared to remove your tattoos in regenerating your skin, but I convinced him to make some effort in preserving them. I felt sure they must hold special meaning to you.”

Fingering the soft hair which felt nothing like her own, beginning to feel her strength return, Arixa looked squarely at her host, appraising him. He was, after all, the lone familiar thing in this polished, strangely lit environment, a human.

For what her steppe-born instincts were worth in this strange place, she sensed no deception or ill intent.

“Many thanks,” she said, and meant it. “The loss would have pained me. You will have to repeat your name. Possibly more than once.”

The man with the pointed beard smiled in acceptance of her gratitude. “Vaxsuvarda. Some relations call me Vax. You may also, if you like.”

“Where do you come from… Vaxsuvarda?

“That…” Vax began with a strange and thoughtful look, “is no simple question. Or you could say it is two questions. My ancestors came from a city called Parsa, which once stood to the south and east of your land.”

“I know of it,” Arixa said. “An empire of old. Persia. My ancestors fought them often. And won.”

Vax laughed softly. “Congratulations.”

“And the other meaning of the question?” Arixa prompted. “Where are you yourself from?”

“There is the unsimple part,” Vax said. “My birthplace, from your perspective, would be… the heavens.”

* * *

Thanks for reading!

I hope you want to continue the story as Arixa learns about the state of the galaxy, attempts to save her people from the devastation she has witnessed, and even dares to dream of making the attackers pay.

To read more, and see awesome concept art depicting Dr. Fizzbik, please create a Free Rider login. Note that to finish the book, you’ll need to buy a lifetime $1 Dawn Rider account. You can always upgrade later. (“Why should I pay?“)

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I hope to see you on the other side!

SCYTHIAN DAWN Chapter One

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.

Arixa!”

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!”

Ho, Captain!”

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—

A dog.

Standing upright.

Wearing clothing.

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.

Wait!

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.

* * *

Continue to Chapter Two