Sammy woke at the kitchen table, head resting on its surface, face tucked into the crook of her elbow. She was cold and her neck was stiff. She rubbed at it as she stood up. Hami had gone, the stove was out, and the cottage was sliding from side to side over Louis’s hips. They were on the move.
She found Mehrak in the bedroom putting clothes away in the wardrobe. The room was darker than it had been. A fine mist had gathered in the ceiling forming a halo around the chandelier, and a chill prickled the skin on her arms
“Is it foggy in here?” Sammy asked.
“It is. We’re getting close to Honton Keep. Did you sleep okay?”
“No,” Sammy replied. She had a dull headache and her eyelids were heavy and dry. She kneaded them with her fingers. “Where’s Hami?”
“On the front balcony.”
Sammy yawned. “It’s gone really cold,” she said, shuffling towards the curtains.
She pushed through and a swathe of icy fog folded itself about her, snatching her breath away and filling her lungs with a shrinking tightness.
There were no mushrooms. In their place hung a dark grey fog that boxed in Golden Egg Cottage on all sides.
Sammy rubbed her hands together and approached Hami, who was leaning on the railing at the prow, staring ahead.
Two powerful oil-lantern headlights hung from the balcony projecting beams of light across the barren hard-packed dirt below and out into the fog.
“Where are all the mushrooms?” Sammy asked, shivering.
“We left them behind earlier this morning.”
“We’ve left the forest?”
“Technically we’re still in it. This is the Moat. It’s a clearing, a hundred stadia in diameter, in the middle of the forest. The Keep is in the centre. The Moat was created so advancing armies couldn’t use mushrooms as cover.”
“But it’s dark without the mushrooms. The armies could use that as cover. Not to mention the fog.”
“They could try.” Hami coughed and hacked up a lump of phlegm, which he spat over the balcony. “The Moat is patrolled by the Marzban guard riding karkadann.” Sammy’s expression must’ve conveyed confusion, as Hami followed up with, “Karkadann are a large breed of woolly rhino. They’re carnivorous and come from the same mountains as that manticore I fought. In fact, they’re often known to attack and eat manticore. Ferocious beasts. They’ve got a tremendous sense of smell, which the fog enhances. Not much gets past them.”
“Will we get past them?”
Hami snorted but said nothing.
Sammy hadn’t been joking. She seriously wanted to know, and was about to say as much when Mehrak came outside wearing a thick, grey-striped fur coat. He held out a flat loaf of some sort to her.
“Breakfast,” he said.
Sammy’s teeth had begun chattering. She rubbed her hands up and down her arms before she took the bread.
“I’ll get you a coat,” Mehrak said, and went back into the tower.
Sammy folded her arms tightly across her chest. She was thinking about following Mehrak back inside when two distant blasts of a horn rang out.
“What was that?”
“The Marzban,” Hami said. “Their karkadann have smelt us. Two blasts is a low threat. Good sense of smell, eh?”
“Not as good as Louis’s,” Mehrak said as he returned with a second fur coat, which he placed over Sammy’s shoulders. The coat was heavy and hung to her knees. “Louis smelt them a while ago,” he said. “They’ve only just smelt us.”
Hami ignored the comment. “We’re a low threat so we’ll be getting a Marzban commander to meet with us to find out what we want.”
“What if we were a high threat?”
“Then we’d have heard four blasts on the horn, followed by the sound of a regiment of the Regent’s fiercest karkadann charging us down.”
Sammy stared at the flatbread in her hands. She didn’t feel so hungry all of a sudden. “How do they know we’re a low threat?”
“Because we don’t smell like crabmen. Crabmen are the only high threat you’re likely to find out here. You don’t want to be entering the moat smelling of crabmen.”
“What about a manticore?”
“As unlikely as seeing another manticore would be, it would probably be a medium. Three blasts on the horn. A couple of Marzban could dispatch a rogue manticore without too much difficulty.”
Below them, Louis twirled his ears in his unique style of sign language.
“Louis says they’re getting close,” Mehrak said. “And they aren’t charging.” He smiled awkwardly at Sammy, which she assumed was supposed to put her at ease.
Giant, meat-eating rhinos getting close. Sammy hoped her tingling fingers and elevated heart rate was from excitement rather than fear. That’s what she told herself anyway. No big deal. She’d seen rhinos in the zoo. Sure, they’d been of a non-flesh-eating variety and they’d been in enclosures. But karkadann couldn’t be that bad. They had people riding them so it stood to reason that they’d be tame. Maybe.
“There they are,” Mehrak said.
“Where?” Sammy croaked. “I can’t see them.” She leaned further over the railing.
Golden Egg Cottage creaked to a standstill. The mist continued past, spiralling slowly in the fog-lights.
Three faint lights appeared high in the fog, rocking side to side as they floated closer. Silhouettes of three beasts formed underneath, and as they neared, their grey, washed-out shapes filled with colour, resolving into rhinos the size of African elephants. Each was covered in thick, rust-coloured fur and bore a single horn, the length of a man, pointing straight out of its forehead.
The three karkadann stopped in front of Golden Egg Cottage, grunting, their heads lowered. On their backs, the Marzban guards sat on red and gold saddles, dressed in dark purple uniforms with flowing navy robes. Each man wore a pale pink turban with a red gem set in a golden brooch on the front. Curved swords hung from their waists and they held long, lance-like spears with lanterns hanging from the sharp ends.
“Greetings,” called the Marzban in the centre. He had dark eyes, the beginnings of a black beard and a rugged manly face, spoiled only by a scar that started just below his right eye and ran diagonally across his nose and down his left cheek. He looked like a convict, yet he clearly outranked the other two men, with gold epaulettes on his shoulders and a larger, darker-furred karkadann. He came forward, raising his hand to shield his eyes from the fog-lights.
“What is your business here?” he called up.
Mehrak leant over the balcony and closed off the lamp shutters. The Marzban remained spotlighted under their lanterns, but the karkadann disappeared into shadow, giving the illusion that the men were floating on restless mounds of hair. Sammy shuffled uneasily in the dim light of the balcony.
“Hami Hootan of the magi brotherhood,” Hami called down. “I’ve come to see the Regent.”
The Marzban commander’s eyes widened. “Hami Hootan?” he said. “As in Principal Hami Hootan?” The two men behind him shared furtive glances.
Hami raised his staff and the orb at the end illuminated, bathing the balcony in white light.
All three Marzban stared up, open-mouthed, then, remembering their manners, bowed their heads.
“Narok Grotta, Second Chief General of the Marzban Guard,” said the main man. “Would you allow me the honour of escorting you to the Keep?”
“You may. Thank you,” Hami said.
Mehrak shot Sammy a look and raised his eyebrows.
Narok and the Marzban bowed again, then turned their karkadann and led the way towards the Keep.
Louis and Golden Egg Cottage followed.
“Are you a celebrity?” Sammy asked Hami.
Hami looked down his nose at her. “A what?”
“Those guys think you’re a big deal.”
“They do, don’t they?” Mehrak said. “What is the deal? You appear unannounced and only have to say your name to get an audience with one of the highest-ranking lords in Perseopia.”
“I’m an old friend,” Hami said.
“Sure,” Mehrak said, and turned to Sammy. “Your lips are blue. Go downstairs and sit by the stove.”
“It’s gone out,” she replied, suppressing a shiver. “Why did it turn so cold anyway?”
“It’s the fog,” Mehrak said. “The magi made it cold to deter crabmen.”
“The brotherhood created the fog as a protective barrier around the Keep,” Hami said. “Crabmen need a warm climate; they can’t survive in the cold.”
Sammy was freezing, but she wasn’t going inside; not while they had three giant rhinos escorting them. It was too unreal. The best part was how important Hami had turned out to be. The Marzban had been properly star-struck. Maybe she should start hanging out with the guy, seeing as he was handsome and famous. Some of his popularity might rub off on her.
They saw no one else as they followed the guards through the barren, fog-filled terrain. After a while, a lone karkadann materialised from the fog like a spectre. It was saddled like the others, but riderless, and had its back to them, feeding frenziedly, crunching something in its jaws. Sammy leant forward as they drew parallel.
Underneath the animal’s head was a lumpy grey and blue blob with long, hairy legs splayed out from it.
Something changed for Sammy in that moment. Pinpricks of sweat beaded her forehead and her stomach seemed to drop away. The manticore had been terrifying, but Hami had finished the fight cleanly, like heroes in Saturday morning cartoons, or like when Pokémon battled. Perseopia no longer seemed like a fantasy adventure, it’d become real. A messy, gruesome, complicated reality. How would her dad react to seeing something so
disgusting? Would he act tough and pretend not to feel sick? Would he genuinely not feel sick?
“I can’t believe a crabman made it this far,” Mehrak said, his mouth set in a grimace.
“That was a crabman?” Sammy replied. The shapeless pile of flesh and legs didn’t particularly look like any kind of creature she’d seen before.
“They must be getting more foolhardy trying to get this close.”
“Or tougher,” Hami said.
Sammy tightened her grip on the railing. Then felt Mehrak’s hand on hers.
“It’s just one crabman,” he said. “We’ll be safe when we’re at the Keep. Nothing can happen to us there.”
With a violent lurch forward, Hami suddenly retched. He vomited heavily over the balcony, narrowly missing Louis. “Sorry,” he mumbled as he wiped the black goo from his chin. The exertion had made his eyes red and watery. He blinked away the tears. Then his gaze became distant and he scratched at his wrists again.
“Are you feeling okay?” Mehrak asked. But Hami turned without answering and stumbled away through the curtains and into the bedroom.