Two men knelt at the foot of the dais. One wore thick-plated lamellar armor, the other snug gray wrappings that hid all but his eyes. Similarly dressed pairs made a half-circle around the kneelers, each individual set connected by a short iron chain.
On the dais, two more men stepped forward. Though they were dressed no differently from anyone else in the great cathedral, no one could have mistaken them for the others. They stepped forward in perfect unison, as though each were a mismatched reflection of the other, stretched and warped by a carnival mirror. Between them, they carried a chain like the others, holding it reverently in all four hands.
"This chain does not bind." The leaders' voice—for there was only one voice, spoken with two mouths—was smooth and reverent, rising up to ring off the cathedral's high dome. "Today, you cease to be two men, and instead become szerik—shared mind, shared heart. This chain will be your symbol, announcing your bond to the world. Yet the Iridian Fold is not a guild, with a chain of office. It is no religion, with a chain for a holy symbol. It is greater than these. For with love, with discipline, the lines between you will blur and fade. You will be as one soul in two bodies. This is the great mystery of the Iridian Fold: to let the bond between you grow until the union eclipses the self. And in that moment, you will no longer need the reminder of the chain." Two sets of eyes crinkled into a smile. "You will be the chain."
"Be the chain!" the congregation chorused.
Fifty feet above, Roshad glanced over at Bors and squeezed his hand. The pair crouched on the narrow gallery running the circumference of the cathedral's dome, Bors's bulky lamellar forcing him to contort himself like a dying insect in order to stay hidden behind the low balustrade. Despite the obvious discomfort, the bigger man's stone-slab face broke into a smile as he met Roshad's eyes, and he tugged lightly on the stolen chain running from his chest to the collar around Roshad's neck.
Roshad smiled back, knowing that no veil could hide the expression from his partner. His szerik.
My Boar, Roshad thought, and the words came bittersweet. This is no place for him, lurking in the darkness like a beggar. If only we could be down there with the others. We—
The cathedral's doors banged open, replacing the soft glow of stained glass with the flare of noonday sun. As quickly as it appeared, the light was blocked by half a dozen figures, men and women in the furs and leathers of the horse tribes.
"Where are they?"
The leader of the troop, a bull-faced man with a long horsehair plume atop his conical helmet, shoved his way through the assembly until he stood at the foot of the dais, looking up at the congregation's leader. Around him, the gathered men of the Iridian Fold hissed at the affront, hands going to blades. The other invaders looked less comfortable, yet dutifully spread out behind their captain.
The men on the dais raised their hands in a calming gesture. "You do us a disservice, stranger."
The captain snorted. "I figure you get serviced plenty." Behind him, several of his own people frowned. "But what you Iridian Fold do is no business of mine. Now where are they?"
"Where are who?" the Iridian Fold men asked.
"I don't have time for games, holy man. One of the street kids saw them slip in here not half an hour ago." He looked back at one of his warriors. "Dosk?"
"They're not in the group, Captain. Unless they're disguised."
The captain grimaced, then looked around at the cathedral's many shadowed corners. "Fine. Aizha, light this place up."
A woman in a thick-furred hat stepped forward and raised her hands, grasping the air as if kneading dough. Four globes of golden light blazed into existence around them, each the size of a juggling ball. She gestured, and they shot outward, making a circuit of the vast chamber at head height, then rose higher to light the gallery.
Roshad searched frantically for somewhere else to hide as the globes floated closer, but without the shadows, the posts of the stone balustrade did little to obscure the two men. He met Bors's eyes.
"There!" Down below, one of the horse warriors pointed. The captain gave a command, and the company ran for the narrow spiral staircase leading up to Bors and Roshad's perch.
They were trapped. The stairway was the only way down to the cathedral floor—as usual, Roshad and Bors had crept up it shortly before the Iridian Fold men arrived for their ceremony.
A narrow ladder on the opposite side of the cathedral's dome caught his eye, its rungs disappearing up into the shaft of the cathedral's windcatcher.
Well, if they couldn't go down...
Roshad yanked Bors to his feet and jerked his chin toward the ladder. Bors nodded once and ran, his armored bulk threatening to overflow the narrow catwalk. If he tripped, the thigh-high balustrade would do little to save him, but the man moved with the grace of a desert wolf. Roshad's heart swelled as he followed, the chain swinging lightly between them. Below, the whole congregation now pointed and shouted, shocked to see two men dressed as their own racing around the inside of the dome.
They reached the ladder and began to climb. The shaft was blessedly wide, and broken at intervals by smaller horizontal tubes that led back to the dome, the better to let the rising hot air escape and draw up cooler air from the cathedral's catacombs. Roshad could feel the breeze as he hauled himself quickly upward.
The shaft ended abruptly in a covered ledge, barely wide enough for Roshad and Bors to stand together. Beyond a row of narrow pillars, the grand city of Ular Kel spread out before them, beckoning with a thousand places to hide, to lose themselves in the market crowds like loose stones on the steppes.
If only they could reach it. Roshad stuck his head out past the pillars and looked down. The drop was at least eighty feet, and the outer face of the windcatcher tower had no access ladder. Nothing but smooth stone until it met the blue-tiled plaza below. He grimaced and pulled back inside.
"Nothing?" Bors rumbled.
"Not that way." Roshad clasped Bors's armored forearm. "Hold tight."
"When haven't I?"
"Yeah, well..." Taking a deep breath, Roshad planted one foot firmly on the edge of the ledge, then swung out into space. He let the momentum pivot him around, doing his best to ignore the dizzying expanse of air below him as he reached out and caught the outer edge of the tower's wall. He hugged the corner as if it were Bors himself, pressing into it, and looked around.
Damn. He'd hoped for some sort of access ledge on this side, but instead the tower was one long fin of stone extending back to the dome's apex. Even if they could get on top of it, there'd still be no good way down.
"Rabbit." Bors's voice was calm but urgent. "Time to go."
Roshad swung back onto the safety of the ledge. Below them, the horse warriors were in the shaft now, their curses rising up ahead of them. "Just had to check." He let go of Bors's arm and unclipped the chain from his collar, then stepped close to the larger man, his back against Bors's armored chest. He quickly looped the chain around both of them, under their arms, then handed the loose end to Bors. "Ready?"
Bors wrapped huge arms tight around Roshad's shoulders. "Always."
Roshad kissed the man's bracered wrist, then fixed the image of a small brown house spider in his mind, his hands twisting in the motions that had come to feel so natural. He knelt, Bors wrapped around him like a shell, and whispered the words.
Then he rolled off the ledge.
There was a moment of disorientation, his stomach rebelling at the shifting horizon. Then his hands found the sheer stone of the tower wall, and suddenly it was as if the world had turned ninety degrees, and he was crawling along a flat plane leading to the vertical blue wall of the plaza. His hands and feet moved effortlessly, sticking and releasing at will as he crawled, hindered only by Bors, who did his best to lock his legs around Roshad's middle. The warrior's weight on Roshad's back pulled steadily forward, urging them on.
And then they were down. The world twisted again as the two men untangled themselves and stood. Bors's expression was as stoic as any war mask, but his breathing was quick and his tan skin paler than normal. Roshad smiled up at him and refastened his chain.
A shout from the tower drew their attention. High above, the soldiers were peering down at them from between the pillars.
Bors tugged at Roshad's arm, leading him away across the plaza, but Roshad couldn't resist shooting their pursuers a rude gesture. "Better luck next time, geldings!"
Except that there wouldn't be a next time. At long last, he and Bors were finally leaving the city, heading out to—
The woman in the furry hat appeared between the pillars. She shouted something, then began shoving warriors off the ledge. One by one, they fell, unable to keep from pinwheeling their arms, faces contorted with fear—and yet moving nowhere near as quickly as they should have. In a heartbeat, the first had touched down, as lightly as a falling leaf. He smiled at and drew his sword.
"Right. Wizard." Roshad turned back to Bors. "Okay, now we go."
They ran, cutting across the plaza and through the crowd of onlookers that had gathered. Beyond it, the street was packed with merchants, travelers, and locals out for a walk in the city's picturesque temple district. Barrow runners pushed their one-wheeled carts to and fro, working on commission to spread caravan goods from the city's central market out to the rest of the populace.
Roshad grabbed the edge of one such barrow and pulled, dumping a load of ornamented baskets into the street. The runner screeched in protest and dove to recover her goods before they got trampled or stolen by the swarming street kids who knew an opportunity when they saw one. The pursuing horse warriors cursed, bogged down in the morass, and Bors and Roshad turned a corner and kept running, staying close together to keep their chain from clotheslining bystanders.
Someone shouted, and Roshad looked back to see that several horse warriors had broken through and were still on their trail. This part of the street was less densely packed, and the pursuers were gaining.
"The hell with this!" Roshad careened around the edge of a coffeehouse and ducked into an alley, pulling Bors along with him. He pressed the big man back into the shadows against the wall, then held his hands out toward the alley's mouth, fingers spread.
A gauntleted hand grabbed his shoulder. "Rabbit, no!"
Roshad grimaced and shot Bors a look. "They're not going to stop, Bors."
Bors simply stared at him, mouth set in a disapproving line.
"Piss and hell!" Roshad grabbed Bors's shoulder and shoved him back into a run. "If they catch us, it's your fault!"
They sprinted through a maze of alleys and access ways, past middens and watering troughs, their footfalls echoing off the mud-brick walls. Their pursuers weren't even bothering to yell anymore, just focusing all their efforts on closing the gap between them and their quarry. Roshad yanked Bors around another corner—
And stopped. The alley dead-ended in a small courtyard, kept shaded and cool by the many-storied buildings on three sides. Every door was shut tight.
Roshad grabbed the latch on the nearest door, but to no avail. Bors gave it a tentative slam with his shoulder, but the ironbound wood didn't even groan. They spun around just in time to see the first of the horse warriors appear.
"Now?" Roshad asked Bors, raising a hand.
Bors only shook his head. His fingers were tight on the hilt of the huge sword slung across his back, but Roshad knew it was a bluff. Bors would never hurt these people.
Fine—there were other spells. The climbing again. Roshad began the incantation—
"I wouldn't." The voice was the captain's, albeit strained. The man emerged from between his troops, sweating but exultant. To either side of him, warriors stood with bows drawn, arrows pointed straight at Roshad's chest. The captain grinned and moved forward.
"Now, thief," he said, "you'll give us back our prince."
Coming Next Week: An audience with the lord of the Horse Throne in Chapter Two of James L. Sutter's "Boar and Rabbit"!
James L. Sutter is the Managing Editor for Paizo Publishing and a co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. He is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novels Death's Heretic and The Redemption Engine, the former of which was #3 on Barnes & Noble's list of the Best Fantasy Releases of 2011 and a finalist for the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. He's written short stories for such publications as Escape Pod, Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the #1 Amazon best-seller Machine of Death. His anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published short stories of science fiction luminaries with new interviews and writing advice from the authors themselves. In addition, he's published a wealth of gaming material for both Dungeons & Dragons and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, including such fan-favorite Pathfinder Campaign Setting books as Distant Worlds and City of Strangers. For more information, check out jameslsutter.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameslsutter.
Illustration by Eric Belisle