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Gortah Rides for Winterbourg by John C Adams

Gortah Rides for Winterbourg

Whenever eighteen-year-old Gortah van Murkar was away fighting, the king made it a point of principle to travel with the other men as if he were one of them, to eat from the common table and to sleep in a simple tent or under the stars.

For Gortah’s dash into Reliatra, to snatch a copy of the book he’d been pursuing for four agonisingly long years, the king selected a crack team of loyal soldiers.

But Gortah did deviate from habit in one sense. He took his mistress Lydia Momsre, who was a Reliatran by birth, along on his mission.

As the group waited for darkness to fall, Gortah lounged with them around the fire, enjoying the smell of roasting rabbit and draining the last of the ale. He told the men why the book mattered to him.

He’d suffered his share of mockery since he’d confided first in his elder brother, his father, then his grandmother and his aunt why he wanted to get hold of a copy.

Only his sister had shown a serious interest in the fortune-teller’s claim that Gortah would find his destiny written in its pages.

While Lydia went down to the stream to wash her long, black hair, the men listened with respect to Gortah’s tale of a dark-haired, alluring, young woman he’d come across in a woodland hovel when out riding with his grandmother one day.

He concluded the tale on his usual note of sadness. He’d sent messengers to all the countries in the known world, even those with whom Murkar was at war, to ask whether they possessed a copy.

“However,” Gortah added, stripping the last of the rabbit flesh from the bone and smacking his lips as the juices dribbled down his chin, “Scimita never answered.”

A general buzz of agreement rippled through the men. That country was a mystery.

Gortah’s second-in-command, Willem, chuckled. “They wouldn’t. What answer did you receive from Eira, Sire?”

“Same warmongering rhetoric as usual. Our nuns at Spits did tell me that, centuries ago, the Eiran monastery at Bui had a copy, though. Perhaps they still do. I’ll have to sail across the Silent Sea and sack the place.”

Gortah lay on his back and stared up at the red sky above his head.

High up in the mountains, here on the border between Reliatra and Murkar, the air was clear and fresh.

With the sun going down, it would soon be possible for them to cross the border at Muller and ride under cover of night to the university city of Winterbourg ten miles away.

“My Uncle Roberto in Logor said they’d had one in the ancient library at Florienza,” Gortah added. “But the Logorian national history claims that a hundred years ago a dark shape descended on the city, engulfing it and sucking up every volume in their university library. Witnesses claimed the thing looked like a great octopus. Every last book, including the Annals of the South, gone forever.”

A collective shiver went around the men at their young monarch’s thoughtful tone. In a world where books were hand-copied by monks, thousands of hours’ work had been snatched. Most of the tomes in the Florienza library had been unique.

Gortah continued, “Aspatria were coy about the contents of their library, when I sent a messenger to enquire. Perhaps they’d heard tell of the Logorian experience. Not sure Murkar has the kind of sorcery that can produce an octopus out of the sky, but perhaps the Aspatrians think we do.”

The men exchanged glances.

Flinging the dregs of his ale onto the fire, Gortah got up, kicked some earth onto the dying fire and collected the flagons. He threw them into a sack hung from one of the pack animals’ saddles.

The other men leapt up, helping to load their provisions and tightening their horses’ girths. Lydia returned from the river and put her few possessions into a bag. She jumped onto her horse from a nearby rock before Gortah could offer to lift her into the saddle.

Gortah mounted his nippy chestnut mare. His long, brown hair blew back from his face as he turned into the breeze. He gazed at the mountains of eastern Murkar and felt a surge of swelling pride for his country.

“Not thinking of asking the Albins if they have one, Sire?”

Gortah slapped Arjan on the back as he turned his horse. He led the way towards the border. The man was one of the finest archers the Murkan army possessed. With Bartel, the army’s best swordsman, and Lydia to act as translator, that made five.

It was enough for a swift mission.

Gortah scowled at the thought of asking the slave-trading Albins for anything. When he wondered how many Murkan souls they’d ask for in exchange for the book, his expression clouded over.

He had no intention of offering a single one of his subjects, no matter how much he wanted the book.

“Reliatra it is!” Gortah shouted over his shoulder.


GOT THIS FAR EDITING In the early hours, the group cantered across the grass plain leading to the ivory-coloured city. Winterbourg was world famous as a seat of learning. All countries at peace with Reliatra, including Murkar, sent young men to study here. The university occupied the upper levels of the spiral-shaped stone city. Below, were the homes and business of the thousands of traders who made the city’s academic life possible. Thanks to Lydia’s family, Gortah had finally been able to ascertain that there was a copy of the Annals of the South here.

Gortah raised his hand as the group approached the city. The moon sailing across the sky on a clear, cloudless night had lit their way. They skirted the sprawling village that had grown up around the white walls and headed towards the rear of the city.

A secondary gate allowed them to leave the city and re-enter again the next morning. Although it was against university rules for the students and staff to have personal relationships, it was rumoured that upwards of half the academic faculty were secretly married and visited their wives in the village outside the city every night.

Gortah and his men left their horses behind a barn next to the gate. Lydia agreed to stay behind as look out. Gortah told her to make the cry of a raven to alert them to danger. The four other men, with their king leading the way, planned to dash into the city, find their way to the deserted library, and snatch the book from the inner sanctum containing the most valuable and secret volumes in the university collection.

Gortah slid down from his mare and handed the reins to Lydia. She murmured last-minute words of advice, including reminding him of the precise layout of the city.

Gortah checked his belt for his dagger. He swirled his cloak around his shoulders, and drew his hood over his head, before he beckoned his men to follow him into the city. A black cloud, immense and low, had blown across the plain from Muller in their wake. It hung over the city, casting gloomy shadows into every corner. Gortah shivered and pulled his cloak tighter around him.

The four men ran light-footed through the sleeping village towards the back gate. Since Winterbourg operated an honour system it was left unlocked throughout the night. Gortah led the way, dagger in hand, up the deserted streets. The library was a large, intricately carved, white, stone building right at the top of the winding streets. Gortah had committed the city map Lydia had drawn him to memory and the group were soon outside the library door, skulking in the shadows.

Gortah beckoned the men to follow him. Arjan had his bow, arrow resting on the string, loose on his hip. Bartel held his sword lightly, relaxed but poised for action. Willem brought up the rear, acting as their lookout but ready to lunge forward with his dagger if anyone saw them and tried to raise the alarm.

Gortah pushed open the beautiful oak doors. They were carved with images of Reliatran history and myth. He stepped inside the library and gazed up at the shelves of books. The first room was circular, the shelves stretching as far as the Gortah could see. Spindly ladders were attached to the shelves on wheels. The tiers of bookcases went so far up towards the high ceiling that the ladders included belts to secure their users to them as they climbed their thousands of rungs.

The other men waited patiently behind their king. Gortah stared around the huge room. There was nothing like it elsewhere in the known world.

Gortah gestured to the men to follow him. They stayed close together as they crept through one room after another to the inner sanctum. Gortah peeped through a tiny window in a small, inconspicuous, walnut-coloured door right at the far end. A musty smell hung in the air. He gently opened the door.

Gortah stared in amazement. Before him, on a bookshelf surrounded by other volumes, was the pale-blue tome, edged with gold, the clairvoyant had described to him. The Annals of the South! It was here right in front of him at last and he was about to open its pages and drink in the details of his future. His heart ached to rush back and show Lydia the book.

Gortah reached out his hand. As he did so, the moonlight shining through the windows of the corridor disappeared. The whole sky darkened in only a few seconds. The party were plunged into darkness. Gortah murmured for them to stay still and quiet. The men waited for his next command.

Into the silence came a sudden wind, whipping around the ancient towers of the city. The darkness deepened until Gortah could no longer see his hand in front of his face. He reached out for the cherry-panelled walls, and tried to inch away back in the direction they’d come. He murmured for the other men to do the same. Willem called out to the others to follow him, grabbing at each man’s cloak in turn to avoid their being separated.

Gortah turned back towards the inner sanctum. He had come so far to steal this book, and the prospects of finding another copy elsewhere were so remote, that he couldn’t bear to leave it behind now. He stepped through the tiny door, feeling his way. The books were emanating a cold, bleak light. The pale-blue cover looked eerie. Gortah reached out his hand to touch it. He grasped the book, pulling it into his chest. Then everything went black.

A roaring sound descended from above the library. A fierce wind whipped the tiles away and destroyed the roof. Gortah grabbed the doorframe but he felt himself being sucked into the dark cloud that had settled over Winterbourg. Books were flying up into the cloud in a maelstrom. Tiles shattered and wooden beams cracked. The stones fell into rubble as the building collapsed in on itself.

Gortah shouted to his men to hold on. He fell down and gripped the floor but the boards were warping under the force of the wind. The bookcases fell into smithereens, and their books were catapulted upwards into the chaos of the clouds above.

Gortah stiffened. He lay on his back, grasping the Annals of the South to his chest, and stared up into the cloud. A giant tentacle, long and black, reached out to snatch the book away from him. Gortah grappled with it. The tentacle wrapped itself around his arm and squeezed hard. Gortah fumbled for his dagger. He slashed at the tentacle and it yelped a whiny, high-pitched protest as his blade cut its flesh.

Gortah fell back. The book was still in his grasp. He closed his eyes and held onto the volume with every morsel of his strength. When he thought he would fail, he tried to imagine going back to everyday life after having held a copy of it in his hands. He closed his eyes and prayed to the Gods of his people, Gods that young Gortah of Murkar hadn’t ever believed in as strongly as he might have done, to deliver him and his soldiers safely from the tumult. Then he knew that consciousness was being ripped from him, and he felt the sensation of floating gently upwards.


Gortah felt the cold first. It bit into his massive frame and seemed like it was eating away at his body from the inside out. His heart was beating in feeble pulses inside his huge chest.

Gortah groaned and tried to roll onto his side. He desperately wanted to drag himself to his feet, but the cold was gnawing away at his arms and legs. He took an enormous breath of icy air and forced himself over. He curled up in a tight ball, feeling like his legs would crackle and splinter, and rocked backwards and forwards, moaning.

Gortah heard an answering moan only a few paces away. He tried to stretch out his hands to reach for his companion but the cold was still paralysing him.

Gortah thought of what it would mean for his younger sister Cornelia to hear of his death. She would be queen even though she was only thirteen. Gortah felt the tears smart at the image of her being forced into marriage, either with a foreign king to prevent Murkar from coming under attack or, little better, into marriage with a Murkan nobleman who would try to rule in her name. Gortah imagined Cornelia’s despair at losing her last sibling. Their five elder brothers had died in battle before Gortah had become king.

Gortah thought, too, of the thousands of Murkans who would die in battles that would’ve been avoided if he had lived. His four-year-reign had been peaceful, considering his age and the death of his older siblings in war. Gortah had achieved that peace through skilful diplomacy, listening to his allies and only fighting when he could win. The Murkans’ young king was beloved of his people for a reason.

Gortah thought, too, of Lydia’s beauty, her sparkling dark eyes and black hair. The lovers cared about each other deeply regardless of the fact that they never expected to marry. Her joy of life would be marred forever at the news that he had died so young.

Gortah opened his eyes. The brightness blinded him and he cried out, but gradually his vision became accustomed to the white, icy surroundings. Gortah groaned when he saw Willem lying on his back beside him. Bartel and Arjan lay cold and stiff on the other side of their king.

Gortah sat up, his head pounding. He crawled over to Willem and shook him. Gortah helped him into a sitting position. Gortah crawled round to Arjan and Bartel. He shook them both into consciousness.

Arjan stared at his monarch with a wide-eyed, terrified gleam in his eyes. Gortah laid his hands on the man’s shoulders. Arjan shook him off, screaming at him that they would die here in this icy hell. He fumbled in his cloak and drew out a dagger. He thrust it forward at Gortah, shouting that the king was to blame.

Gortah threw himself sideways but he felt the blade graze his skin. He scrabbled under his tunic. The blade had nicked his torso and blood was dripping down his abdomen. He grimaced as the cold clawed its way inside the wound. Gortah ripped an inch-wide strip off the bottom of his tunic and wrapped it around himself. He tied the bandage tightly, drawing in sharp breathes at the pain.

Willem drew out his own dagger and stabbed Arjan in the back. He fell over and, in the intense cold, his eyes clouded over and his face stiffened almost at once. Gortah dragged himself up. He stared down at the man in silence. They had served together for four years, ever since Gortah had become head of the Murkan army as well as its king. Arjan had been loyal and true throughout. But his mind had shattered with the intense cold and shock of waking up in a foreign land, without any rhyme or reason to the events that had led them there.

Gortah helped Willem and Bartel up. Willem was strong, but Bartel’s face was pink with the cold. His nose was black. Gortah noticed his fingers were the same. Gortah and Willem half-carried the man through the labyrinth of ice tunnels. The crunching of their boots was the only sound that broke the silence.

“Where are we, Sire?”

Gortah murmured that he didn’t know.

They came out into a wide square. Around them in the dull half-light lay great mountains of snow and ice. A voice inside Gortah’s head whispered the words Noton and Kadiphonek.

Bartel collapsed, dragging Gortah and Willem down into the snow. Not a single footprint marred its pristine perfection. Bartel spluttered a final breath, sending out misty droplets that clung to the air in front of Gortah, before he groaned and lay still. Gortah laid the man’s body down on the snow. He and Willem stood silently for a long time staring at the corpse of their companion.

Inside Gortah’s head, the same voice whispered the words Olathöe and Sarkis. He shook it off. Madness lay all around him, ready to crawl into his psyche and feed off his innermost thoughts if he let it.

Gortah looked around. The city lay in a plateau between the mountains. The place was carved entirely out of white marble. Columns of smooth white stone. Towers carved out of the soft material. Great domes stretched so far up into the sky that Gortah could not see where they ended. Flakes of snow the size of a man kept falling without respite.

The place had a terrible beauty to its grandeur. A man could gaze upon it once and abandon all sense of right perspective. Gortah knew that he might easily run shrieking into psychosis, never to be recovered from its ice-cold grip.

There was not a single soul in sight. The city was eerily quiet. It seemed utterly deserted, though the carvings of grave-faced, bearded men in the upper parts of the marble pillars showed that, whatever had built this city, man had once dwelt here.

Gortah shivered. He thought of home, of the warm stone and wood of his castle at home in Zwaarstad and of the other towns and cities of Murkar. He thought of blazing log fires and of roasting meat on spits over them, of his family, of everything it meant for him to be a king who both ruled, and loved, his people.

Gortah dragged Willem inside the nearest building. The iron door clanged shut after them. It was no warmer inside. Gortah looked up around the walls of the great hall and shuddered. An empty throne, at one end of the room, was covered in ice and half-buried in a snowdrift. The half-light shone down through great cracks in the roof and gave chill illumination to a frieze detailing people trekking south away from a great ice sheet.

Gortah stared up at the design in wonder. He felt their despair, their aching need to escape the cold that seeped down into their bones until the pain of its intensity overwhelmed their every waking moment. They had come here to a city the voice inside his head told him was Lomar to escape that cold. But they had found it here before them, waiting for their arrival, and in the end they had succumbed to its cruel embrace deep in the mountains and died.

Willem swayed and groaned. He sank to his knees in the snow. Gortah tried to haul his companion up but, with the young king’s immense physical strength depleted by the cold, he couldn’t lift the man back up off the ground. Willem slumped down and gasped, his final breath freezing in the air.

Gortah shuffled away into a corner. He rocked back and forth, moaning to himself in odd, foreign words he didn’t understand but which had burrowed into his consciousness from nowhere and lodged there. Tears streamed down his round face and he angrily wiped them away with the edge of his sleeve. He shouted into the immense isolation that surrounded him that he was Gortah of Murkar and he would return to his people. The final syllables echoed around the hall, bouncing off the frozen walls and coming back to him ten times stronger.

Gortah crawled across the great hall towards the giant, iron doors. The whispering voice inside his head was back, murmuring to him that he was lost on the far side of callous, uncaring universe that would chew him up and spit him out. Back home he might be king but here in this gigantic, icy waste he was nothing at all.

Gortah sobbed at the voice to leave him alone. He clung to the marble pillar by the entrance to the great hall and screamed out into the blackness that he would find his way back to his mistress and his sister. He would know Lydia’s loving embrace, and Cornelia’s tender smiles, again. He would live long enough to marry and to father the dynasty that would rule after his death.

Gortah staggered down the steps and yelled into the infinity of frozen emptiness that stretched before him that he would find a way home again. But instead of the sight of Winterbourg, or even Murkar, materialising before him, the darkness was unchanging. Instead, he felt the presence of a terrible evil rising within the walls of the deserted city.

Gortah cried out to the dark shadows to leave him alone. He fell to his knees and crawled away through the deep snow. He had no idea where he was heading for, or what he hoped to find when he got there. When he turned and stared back at the path he had forced through the snow, he found that there were no tracks, only a perfect expanse of undisturbed white.

The young king wept as he crawled away into a narrow alley. At the end, blocked by a high wall of marble, he curled up in a ball and offered his soul to the Gods if they would take him from this torment. Gortah closed his eyes and sobbed with every atom of his being that he wanted to be home again. The biting cold didn’t change, but he realised that the howling wind was gone and he was inside a small, round room crafted from blocks of ice.

Gortah saw a warm light shining in front of him. He got up and held his hand out towards it. A row of ancient, powerful deities resting in a deathlike sleep lay in front of him. He stretched out to touch them but a strong force drew him back, no matter how hard he tried to reach them. They were like nothing he had ever seen before. The voice inside Gortah’s head told him that they were the Great Ones, and that his small, insignificant Murkan deities could do nothing for him here. Panic gripped the eighteen-year-old as, for the first time, he realised that he might not even still be in his own world, but in some terrible other dimension. His mind shattered at the realisation that he could be anywhere in the universe, stuck millions of miles away from home on another star, so distant that his own world might not be able to see it even as a speck.

Gortah stumbled around the deities and through an archway. He found himself in a smaller chamber, which was lit by flickering lights stuck on the side of the ice. He ran his gloved hands along the walls and heard the raw scraping as the ice fell in shards to the floor.

A row of manuscripts, encased in glass, was at the far side of the chamber. Gortah rested his cheek against the glass. He felt the sheer impossibility of making any sense of the horror that was unfolding. Behind the glass was a wooden chest carved with images of a great half man, half octopus, with flailing tentacles on both sides of its mouth.

Gortah fell to his knees and heaved the lid of the chest open. Inside, he found a pile of pale-blue books with gold edgings. He drew one out, then the next, until finally ten identical books lay spread before him. Gortah felt his heart thumping. He had travelled across aeons to find this book. Finally, the Annals of the South lay before the king.

Gortah gingerly opened the cover and flicked through the pages. The book was handwritten in black ink, with simple illustrations peppered through the text. This was the story he had been aching to read. He sighed and turned over the frontispiece, which contained only the title, and slowly began to read the first page of text. Gortah was soon immersed in the familiar world he had had left behind and yearned to return to. The book told him of a life spent at war, of love and happiness, but also of great grief and sorrow, to compound the loss of his five elder brothers in battle. It told of an urge that would lead Gortah south, to the very outer limits of the known world back on his home planet, in search of his destiny. And it told him that he would finally return to Murkar, after great pain and suffering, and again make his home with his own people.

Gortah finally closed the book and put it back in the chest. He gently closed the lid and got up, moving back towards the larger chamber. A door, in the far side, led out to the large square in front of the great hall. Gortah entered the great hall. He expected to find it cold and frozen, as before, but instead a blaze roared in the enormous fireplace. The throne, previously swathed in snow, was warm and inviting. Gortah went and sat on it out of pure habit. His throne back home in Zwaarstad was where he most often went to think about his life and its responsibilities. It was the safe place he crept to whenever the challenges of ruling an entire people even though he was still young and inexperienced threatened to become overwhelming.

Gortah closed his eyes. The room became hotter, until he ripped off his cloak and gloves. He gasped for air as smoke drifted across the room. It began to fill his lungs. He sank down in the throne and felt the darkness engulf him again.


Gortah woke to find that he was lying on his back on a warm, soft carpet. He rolled over. Smoke was billowing under the door. The doorframe was just beginning to catch as flames licked at its base. He dragged himself up and yanked the door open. He covered his mouth and ran, coughing and spluttering, down the steps and out into a square.

The chaos of people screaming and running away from the fire hit Gortah almost before he realised that he was in back Winterbourg. He staggered down the spiral of streets, pushed along with the crowd fleeing from the burning city, until he found himself outside the main gates.

Gortah heard the caw of a raven. He searched the throng for the direction of the sound until he remembered the large barn. He found Lydia trying to calm the horses there. She was in her saddle, with the other reins bunched in her hands. The smoke was terrifying the beasts. Gortah shouted to her to let them go. As Lydia turned her horse around, Gortah grabbed the reins of his mare and flung himself into the saddle.

Lydia and Gortah galloped away across the plain. They paused on a plateau below the mountains to look back at the chaos. Winterbourg was now engulfed in flames. Then they pressed on across the border back to the safety of their base camp five miles inside Murkar. During the ride Gortah began to feel very odd. The last thing he remembered was Lydia taking his reins to lead his horse onwards, as he slumped forward in the saddle, and her shouting to him to just hold on as the camp was only a few miles further ahead now.


In the decades that followed, Gortah of Murkar was tormented by the certainty that he’d seen a copy of the Annals inside the Winterbourg library. He was convinced he’d opened its cover.

There were moments, as he suffered from disturbed dreams of the fire that had reduced the city to ash, when Gortah was sure that he’d read every page. But he was never able to remember any of its contents, nor could he explain what had happened to the soldiers who’d accompanied him into the city that night.

Gortah woke from these dreams shivering even when his valet had kept a blazing fire going in his bedchamber. His queen was unable to understand why his body temperature had fallen dangerously low or why, when he was tormented by the worst nightmares, he raved in an alien tongue the linguists of Murkar were unable to identify.

For the rest of his long life, Gortah had a faint awareness within the farthest recesses of his mind of a marble city in the frozen wastes. He had been there. But he never knew how he’d returned alive, nor the names of the deities who’d shown him the truth he sought.

Thank you for reading my story. If you’d like to read more of my short fiction, you can read it here.

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