Ianva Martis

Simon Whitechapel

High on the plateau he came across the arch, the one remnant, it seemed, of a once great building, temple or palace, in a vanished city, and surely destined to collapse with the weight of a coming winter’s snow. Already massy fragments of stone had fallen from it, crushing the thin, pale-flowered grass of the tundra, and he would have spurred his horse on and by, giving it a wide berth lest even the faint shudder of hooves trigger the final collapse.

But at that moment, by some chance or whim of the gods, one of the tumbleweeds of the region, long denuded of its seeds, came rolling and bounding over the tundra in his tracks, and passed between the fallen fragments and beneath the arch. And he blinked with surprise, for with that the tumbleweed was gone, as though swallowed by the air. He dismounted, leaving his horse to pluck desultorily at the turf, and went cautiously nearer, picking up a fragment of a fragment, split loose by frost, and hefting it to judge its weight. When he was eight or nine paces short, he stopped, swung his arm back, and pitched the fragment forward.

It passed beneath the arch and was gone, winking out of existence against the white jags of mountain framed between the crumbling stone. He grunted and walked forward again, seeing now that the stone was carved to seem crumbling, that the fragments lay there by design, that the appearance of extreme and fragile antiquity was a sham. Aye, the arch might be old enough, but if it had stood for many centuries it would stand for many more, unapproached by all travellers but those, like him, whom chance had granted a glimpse of its secret.

But now something in the feel of the tundra beneath his feet made him look down, and he saw that streaks of red sand lay beneath the wiry stems and leaves. He stooped and scraped a meager handful up, rubbing it between his fingers, then letting it fall. The wind had blown the tumbleweed through the arch from this side; another wind might occasionally blow back, carrying with it the substance of another world. Brushing final grains of the sand from his hands, he returned to his horse and unsaddled it before sending it trotting off with a slap on its rump.

If his pursuers came across it and claimed it, they would treat it no worse than he; if not, it would likely survive, slowly making its way back to warmer clime and richer pasture. But he could not leave the saddle here, causing his pursuers to linger at the spot, searching for further clues, and perhaps learning the secret of the arch as he had done. He lifted and shouldered the saddle, wherein the heat of the horse’s body was already fading, then turned back for the arch, hearing his feet begin to crunch softly in the half-hidden red sand as he walked the final steps and passed beneath.

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