The Karthian, part III by David Staiger

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The sentries posted at the mouth of the rift commanded a wide view of the sandy plain north of the cliff wall. There were two of them, and they nested on ledges about twenty or so feet below the upper rim of the crevice. From the top it appeared as if an angry axe blade had struck at the ridge repeatedly, chopping out a narrow defile no more than ten or fifteen yards wide. It ran in an unbroken zig-zag all the way back to the pit in which the house of Varagos nestled. The whole of it was like a fortification of raw gut-rock.

It was late into the night now, and even the crescent moon had dragged its soft illumination beyond the western rim of the world. Only the stars, bright and commanding in the clear desert sky, offered any color to the shape of the landscape. This forced the sentries to use small lanterns as they moved along the walls of the crevice.

At its mouth, the rift cut deeper, forging out a black crack in the face of the precipice nearly two hundred and fifty feet deep, and almost fifty feet across. Narrower at its bottom than at the top, a warn path snaked along its belly into the jagged hills, rising almost a hundred feet over a quarter mile, until it broke into the side of the slaver's gorge through a thin slice in the rock barely nine feet wide. Midway up this defile the gates of the compound had been erected—a stone rampart with a wooden gate, atop which another pair of sentries waited to greet any visitors to their master's retreat.

From the top of this barricade, narrow ledges climbed up the walls of the cut on either side, steep stairs in the side of the rock that gradually leveled until they reached the high lookouts at the mouth. In the middle of the night, carefully making their way along the thin ledges with small lanterns in hand, a man on either side of the ravine approached the lookouts to relieve the pair of sentries already stationed there.

The ledges ended in wide flat rocks where the walls of the cliff had been cut back enough to accommodate a place for the guards to position themselves. A makeshift parapet of stones lined the ledges here as well, offering additional concealment. When the replacement sentries arrived, the men exchanged comfortable greetings, though their voices remained hushed and tense.

"Any word from Malluk or Tagan?" asked one of the new arrivals.

"Not a sound," replied his fellow tiredly. "Maybe they got lost up there. Those rocks are difficult to navigate at night."

"Maybe they got caught in a thorn patch," mused the first man, and they both shared a weak laugh. "Serves him well, though, running out on a fight. A dozen men at once!" he hissed sourly. "Maybe he would have made the difference."

The tired guard passed over his sounding horn and took up the lantern. He muttered, "Unlikely, I think," and passed back down the ledge path with a grumbled parting.

From twenty feet above on the eastern rim, Arabel observed the exchange of men on both sides of the mouth. Away to the north, the night fires of the town burned like a reflection of starlight open the open flat.

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