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Prologue


A small body of Scythians rode fast toward a jutting outcrop of rock through the deepening gloom of sunset. Dense pine forest clung sullenly to rocky slopes, intensifying the shadows. A carpet of pine needles softened the sound of passage. The men, dressed in felt and leather tunics, jackets and leggings, sat astride wiry horses, thick felt blankets flapping against the horses' legs. Breath plumes of both men and mounts gusted whitely in the frosty air, ice coating beards and moustaches and flecking muzzles. They approached an outcrop and paused, pulling their mounts into a tight milling knot, searching the ground around them for the presence of others. The tallest of the men dismounted, slapping his arms and legs against the cold.

"Where in the Mother's name are they?" he growled.

A small man jumped down beside him, bowing obsequiously. "He will be here, my lord. He assured me..."

"Yes, yes, Scolices, I am sure he will be." The man scowled at the darkening sky and the clouds scudding overhead then turned his gaze to the surrounding rock. He pointed. "Make a fire, over there by the rocks." He watched as Scolices scurried off, calling to another rider to help him find firewood and pinecones. Turning to the remaining men, now dismounted, the tall man beckoned one over. "Thoas, set a guard...a good one. I have no wish to be surprised."

"Yes, my lord Areipithes," Thoas replied.

"Two back down the trail, pairs off to each side and get someone on top of that rock." He pointed at the jutting outcrop of weathered sandstone. He stared at the man who stood waiting expectantly. "Now, Thoas, before we are discovered and have no need of guards," he added softly.

Thoas flushed and turned away, snapping his fingers at the men and shouting out orders.

Areipithes turned away with a sigh and trudged toward the beginning flickers of flame in the lea of the outcrop. He found a dry spot among the wind-strewn leaves and sat with his back to the rock, waiting, listening to the night sounds and the murmur of men and horses. He accepted a horn of wine from Scolices without comment, dismissing the man with an impatient gesture.

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