We did journey mostly by night. So that none dwelling between Jomsborg and Almaty might be alarmed by the immense size of my allies. Thus, by dawn of our first night out from the western end of the Krkonose Pass, we did encamp on the outskirts of Kiev (whither I had been found when first I was captured by the slave raiders).
And, in wading cross the Khazarian Sea the next night, we did pass close to its northernmost port of Saksin-Bulgar (in the slave market of which I had been bought by the Egyptian cotton merchant).
During each daytime stop, we did sup on jerked beef and drink of orpine leaf-tea.*
By dawn of the third day, we had reached the outskirts of Almaty. We did rest for a few hours, of course. Then, did we journey to the gates of the city, itself. Upon reaching its market place, we did half-pretend to be interested in various fruits and vegetables. Yet, each time we did broach the subject of Avar-aral's precise location, the merchants so questioned became immediately frightened. Telling us, quite angrily, to be off!
Towards early evening, we did sup in the outer courtyard of a local inn. Enlightening each other as to our respective failures to elicit the desired information.
"If I had any doubts as to Vulda's veracity," proclaimed Svyatogor: "...they are dispelled. Clearly, Baba Yaga has engendered much fear among these people, if they prove so reluctant to even mention her island's name."
"Agreed," replied his daughter: "But, we should be wary. For, that kind of fear can cause our presence to be whispered of in the wrong set of ears."
"I think it already has," I remarked.
Whereupon, I did point towards the main gate serving as both entrance and exit to this courtyard. Coming through it, straight toward our table, was a score of the city guard. Each of them carrying scimitars in his right hand!
"You!" said the officer in charge, pointing at us: "Come with us. Now!!"
I did look at the two Varangiants, who nodded as one. And, together, we did spring to our feet. Overturning our table in the direction of our would-be captors!
The latter did react on instinct and leap backward. Granting Svyatogor and Skogul ample opportunity to achieve ten English feet in height. And, with them, their saxes and shields of brass-studded, fire-hardened oak, accordingly!
The startled city guardsmen did lose a quarter of their comrades to a right-to-left stroke from Skogul. While her father did fell just as many with a slashing motion from the opposite direction. I, myself, did parry a blow from one, with my spiked buckler, which did allow me to disembowel him with my falchion, before clashing with his immediate comrade for only slightly longer!
We then left the rest behind as we retreated to the street. Only to see two ranks of spear-wielding horsemen advancing upon us from both flanks. Whereupon, Skogul's father ordered her to resume normal height. While he conversely increased his!
There were naturally both screams and panic-stricken whinnies when the latter did occur. Which is precisely the effect Svyatogor had hoped to engender! And, those dismounted spear men who did not immediately run off, after their far more sensible horses, did wind up crushed to bloody pulps beneath the venerable old Varangiant's boots.
Upon reaching the main outer wall of the city, he did easily step over it. Whereupon, he did stride very swiftly in the direction of Lake Balkhash. Not stopping until not even his gigantic eyes could glimpse Almaty in the distance.
"Mayhap, they only wished to banish us," he did venture to opine: "If so, we have achieved their purpose for them."
So saying, he continued on towards the lake. Not resuming normal size until we had reached its shore, so that he might help us set up camp. When this had been accomplished, we had our usual evening meal before turning in.
When we awoke the next morning, however, it was to behold a most unexpected sight. A bald man of Cathay (conical rice-frond hat and all), sitting alone in a rowboat, with a grin most mischievous!
"Greetings," he did call out to us...in perfect lingua franca.
"Good morn to you, sir," I did reply: "Are you a fisherman of these parts?"
"Nay! I am here to aid you in your cause."
"Our cause?" echoed Skogul, suspiciously.
"You seek to vanquish the she-demon who dwells on Avar-aral? Then, you will doubtless seek to travel there, stealthily! And, in these parts, there are none who can do so more stealthily than I. I being...Lin Kuei."
Cathay: obsolete Occidental name for China.
Lingua franca: a sort of pidgin-French, used as a commercial trading dialect throughout the medieval Mediterranean world.