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This is a tale of a time long ago, when the Gods did not meddle in the world as they do today, but left space for heroes to do mighty deeds. It begins far from any city of men or othermen, and far from any wilderness filled with peril, on a treeless hill in the highlands where nothing could be grown but eggfruit vines and pignuts. On that hill there lived three brothers. The brothers were poor, but of good character, and good sons to their aged father. Their father was healthy and strong, but one day he fell from the back of the one podigast they owned, and was killed. The brothers mourned him, and called together all their kin from the other hills near and far, so that they might drink and feast in their father’s memory. Their little house was filled for a little time with cousins, and wives or husbands and children of cousins, and nieces and nephews, and they drank more wine and ate more flesh than they could afford, and sent off their father into the long night in as grand a manner as any Duke.

When the three brothers had made farewell to the last of these visitors, they found that they were missing one thing. It was a clock that their grandmother had brought with her many years before, when she first came to the farm from a town of the lowlands, carrying their father in her belly. The clock had never worked, not since the old man had been a little boy, and its brass wheels lay beneath a dome of green glass like some treasure sunken beneath the sea. The brothers thought when last they had seen this clock, and none could recall for certain, but each was sure it had been at its place on the mantelpiece when the burial feast began. None of their kind would have stolen the clock, of that they were certain, but each recalled having seen a woman at the feast who they did not recognize.

‘I took her for a sister of the husband of such a cousin,’ said the eldest of the brothers. ‘I took her to be the daughter of such-a-one, who we had not seen for so long,’ said the youngest of the brothers. ‘I guessed her to be the new wife of this other cousin, of whom we have heard little,’ said the third brother. They found that they had all meant to talk to her, and find out who she was, but among the great number of kinfolk they had somehow never made it to her side. She had left early, of that they were certain, before they had all walked to the temple. They were also all certain that she had been finely formed, and that she had skin the colour of cream, but they were of various minds as to the colour of her hair, and the garments she wore. The eldest brother said that she was dressed in wine purple, with dark hair, while the youngest brother said that she was dressed in green, with hair of a nut brown, and the middle brother said her dress was light blue, and she had hair like flax. They agreed then that she must be a sorceress. If a sorceress, they agreed that she must be a thief. If a thief, they agreed that they must recover the clock of their grandmother, even from such a one.

So the three brothers took all they needed for a long journey on the back of their one podigast, and drew it after them by a cord on the road to the rest of the world. First they went to the town that was a long day’s walk distant, where they were used to take their eggfruit to market. There they found no word of the one they sought. Then they traveled further, to the lowlands, where a six-day’s walk brought them to a town where lived a Scholar who was called the Finger of Autarkis. He was given this name because he had been given by Autarkis a gift, in that if you described to him any place, person, or object, he could straight away point in the direction where they lay. The three brothers stayed at the Temple for the fourth part of a season, until they had paid the fee the priests required, and then this Finger of Autarkis pointed out for them the direction in which their grandmother’s clock was to be found.

In that direction they traveled more days than the eldest brother could count, across rivers and streams, plains and hills, kingdoms and freelands. And on their journey they met ferrymen and skalds, innkeepers and mad priests, clocksellers and old beggarmen. From everyone they met they asked word of the sorceress they followed, and the clock they sought, but none could give them any word of either. Whenever any man tried to cheat them- for they were but poor farming men, from the highlands- they could not be cheated, for they were blessed by Sharm of justice on this quest.

They continued even to a country where the antmen dwelled, and opened their mouths wide before many marvels. One day they found in that country an old quarry which had filled with water, deep and dark and clear, and at its edge they saw one of the antmen, taking off all of its garments and jewelleries. It became less ornamented as they drew closer to it, and when it was naked it leapt into the water, where they saw it sink out of sight as though it were made of brass. The brothers were of good character, and could not stand by to watch such a thing, so without a moment’s thought they dived into the pool. With great difficulty they dragged the antman from the pool, for it was limp and heavy like a sack of clay. Neither did it rejoice to be saved, but when it was laid on the bank began to wail with a miserable keening, as though to be a living man were worse than to be a drowned one.

‘Why do you wail so?’ asked the oldest brother.

‘Did you purpose to slay yourself, contrary to the will of the Gods?’ asked the youngest brother.

‘If you are set upon such an action, then I warrant you will have no more use for these golden ornaments?’ asked the middle brother.

‘My disgrace is grown too great for me to live,’ the antman told the three brothers. ‘I have failed my master, and my trade, and my family, and am now fit only to feed the eels.’

‘How have you failed?’ asked the eldest brother.

‘What is your trade?’ asked the youngest brother.

‘Join us, and earn honour enough to balance out your shame, little man,’ said the middle brother.

‘I am an artificer,’ said the antman, ‘and have risen in my trade to have care of one of the most esteemed artefacts of our city, a clockwork antman of gilded silversteel. It is my job to keep its clockwork oiled, and its surfaces polished, and make it go as it is made to go at the appropriate places and times. The night before yesterday a human came to our workshop and asked if he might see this artefact. Ninety times nine-hundred woes! I could see no harm in this, and with great pride I showed the human the antman of gilded silversteel, both within and without, and explained to him all the details of its working. The human thanked me and left, and I thought only of how well I had explained my artefact to him. But the next day I found that the artifact would no longer go as it is made to go; and looking more closely I saw eleven of its pieces had been removed. A search found them not to lie anywhere within our city, and it was proved that this human had taken them, without doubt by some sorcery or sleight of hand while I showed him the workings of the artifact. Then I was punished, and cast out of my trade, and now have no hope of marrying or regaining honour in my city. Neither have I any hope of recovering what I have lost. So I have resolved to remove myself from the lists of the living.’

The brothers asked the antman to tell them what the human looked like, but he could tell human from loman only with difficulty, and one human from another barely at all. They figured from his words at the end that the human had been a woman, with skin paler than theirs. They had guessed from the beginning that it was the sorceress they sought, going about the skin of the world and thieving clockwork.

‘Come with us, for we also seek something stolen by this same man,’ said the eldest brother. ‘Where one will fail, four may succeed.’

‘Yes, join us,’ said the youngest brother, ‘For we have also lost an artifact to this sorceress, and your knowledge of artifacts will doubtless aid us greatly.’

‘With your golden ornaments we will be able to stay in wayside houses, rather than in stables or beneath the stars,’ said the middle brother.

The antman chose then to join with the three brothers, and see if he might help in finding the thief, and the four of them went on together in the direction in which the Finger of Autarkis had pointed the brothers. But the middle brother was disappointed, for in choosing to live, the antman chose also to adorn himself as he was adorned before, and would not suffer any of his ornaments to be sold.

They traveled on for more days than the youngest brother could count, and opened their jaws wide before many marvels, and then they came to a great wall of icy mountains across their path. They were tall and cold and terrible, like giants from before the time the stars were kindled. There was but one way forward, a door set into the side of the mountain, twice the height of a man and made of star iron. It was guarded by a monstrous Bemmel, as tall as the temple of Sharm in Texelin, with black skin and eyes like burning coals. Its legs were as thick as trees, and its hooves like barrels that can hold a thousand pints.

‘The brothers approached the otherman and greeted him with courtesy.

‘May we pass this door? ‘asked the eldest brother.

‘What lies beyond these mountains?’ asked the youngest brother.

The middle brother said nothing, but thought their grandmother’s clock might not after all be such a thing as he should risk death to find. Neither did the antman say a word, but stood quietly and held the halter of the podigast.’

‘It spoke then, saying ‘You may pass the door if you are willing to pay the price. From each one of you, a pint of your blood, and gold enough to fill one of your boots.’ Then it answered the second question. ‘There are three thousand steps beyond this door to the other side of the mountains, and the land beyond the mountains is a country of the lomen, where the air is chill and without savour, and they have no love for any other kind of men.’

‘Is there no other price we can pay to pass?’ asked the eldest brother. ‘For we can spare neither blood nor gold.’

‘Who has last passed this way?’ asked the youngest brother. And the middle brother held his tongue still.

The Bemmel opened his mouth and roared, and the blast of his breath withered all the flowering vines that grew about that place, so that they were shriveled to dry stalks in an instant. ‘The one who passed through her last did not pay the price!’ said the Bemmel, and the sting of his breath brought tears to the eyes of the three brothers. ‘He hid his face and did not speak, and when I named the price to him he made a sign with his hand, and vanished from my sight. Then I heard the door open and shut, which I am too large to pass beyond, and saw that my key had been taken.’

‘That sounds like it may be the one we follow,’ said the eldest brother.

‘Does it?’ asked the Bemmel, with a shrewd glint in his eye.

‘When did he pass?’ asked the youngest brother.

‘A six day gone,’ said the Bemmel.

Then the third brother asked, ‘Might we bring you word of how to find this one who cheated you, in return for our own passage?’

‘Word will not suffice,’ said the Bemmel. ‘You may bring me back four pints of his blood, to pay for you all, and also his kidneys and his liver, for thieves’ kidneys are as dear to me as silver, and thieves’ livers dearer than gold.’

The three brothers bowed low before the monstrous Bemmel and gave it thanks, and promised that they would pay the price it asked, and it took out a great key and opened the iron door.

‘Wait,’ it said. ‘One of you must remain behind as surety, so that you will not think of shunning this road should you find the task I have set you too difficult.’

The three brothers misliked this, and huddled together to speak among themselves. ‘I will stay,’ said the antman, ‘for my limbs are weak, and I will be slow to climb such a great stair in the darkness. And I will be worth more to the Bemmel for the value of the ornaments I wear, as you have said.’

But this was not acceptable to the guardian of the door. So the three brothers drew lots, and it fell to the youngest brother to stay at the side of the monstrous Bemmel, to cheer it with stories and fetch it bowls of tea throughout the winter. The brothers embraced, and promised they would meet one another again.

The two brothers that remained, and the antman their follower, climbed the three-thousand steps through the dark roots of the mountains to the land beyond. They lit their way with a single lamp which the antman had, and their skin writhed with cold and with fear in the darkness. Beyond the mountains they found it as the guardian had said, a land of stranger-hating lomen, and they were forced to eat the rotten fruit that had fallen from the trees, and what fowl and crawling beasts that they could catch, for no one would speak to them to sell them food. Still they went on in the direction which the Finger of Autarkis had pointed, and had cause to gape before many marvels wonderful and terrible.

After more days than the middle brother had kept count of, they came to a bridge, as long and thin as though it were spun from spider silk, crossing a great gorge; and beyond it there were mountains far in the distance, as green as jade. And standing before this bridge was a monstrous Argandarr, as tall as the castle tower in Anminster, with skin as white as snow and eyes like great waves tossing ships upon the sea. Its legs were like siege towers, and its horns were like engines of war. It was a she-Argandarr. The brothers approached this otherman and bowed before it in a courteous manner.

‘May we pass this bridge?’ asked the eldest brother.

‘What lies beyond this bridge?’ asked the antman. ‘Pray, tell us that the road ahead does not climb nearer to the stars.’

The Argandarr answered the first question, saying: ‘All men may pass who can pay the price; and the price is a pound of flesh from each of you, and jade enough to fill one of your boots.’ And the Argandarr answered the second question, saying: ‘The road that lies ahead climbs ever higher and nearer to the stars, and the land where it goes is a country of the thudun, who carve their houses out of stone and hold their husbands and wives in common, and they hunt all other kinds of men with fleet hunting beasts, whose teeth are like knives and which can run for a day and a night without ceasing.’

‘Is there no other price we can pay to pass?’ asked the eldest brother. ‘For we can spare neither flesh nor jade.’

And the antman asked, ‘Has a hooded human passed this way, and it may be, cast some enchantment?’

The Argandarr shouted at the heavens, and at the sound the bridge shook like a piece of straw, and he grabbed the antman by its waist and lifted it in the air, and went to tear off its horns, but found it had none. ‘How do you come to know such things, child of dung?’ he asked. ‘The one who came here last did not pay the price. He hid his face, and did not reply to my greeting, but waved a wand of gold at me, so I fell into sleep.’

‘That is the one we follow,’ said the eldest brother. And the middle brother added in the same breath, ‘Not as friends, but as foes.’

‘Is it, now?’ said the monstrous Argandarr, placing the antman back on the ground. ‘Then you may bring me in place of the price I asked three pounds of the flesh of this human, to pay for you all, and also its golden wand and its robes of sorcery, for I would cast my foes into a stupor with such ease.’

The two brothers and the antman bowed low before the Argandarr and gave it thanks, and promised that they would bring this fee, and it let them pass onto the bridge.

‘Wait,’ it said. ‘One of you will remain behind, to ensure that you will return by this road, and not find another road back to your own land, should you not find this sorceror we both hold in spite.’

‘I will stay,’ said the antman, ‘for I will not live much longer in these lands where the air has no savour, if I am to walk day after day without ceasing, and on scant provision; and I bear more ornaments and raiment of price than do these humen.’ But this was not acceptable to the guardian of the bridge. So the two brothers drew lots, and it fell to the eldest brother to remain with the monstrous Argandarr, to rub unguent into the vast knots of its shoulders and bring it cups of wine through the winter. The brothers embraced, and promised they would meet one another again.

Then the middle brother and the antman crossed the long bridge over the gorge, which took half a day. A mile beneath the bridge flowed a vast torrent, tumbling along trees like blades of grass and great boulders like grains of sand. Beyond the bridge they found it as the guardian had said. The road climbed ever upward toward the stars, through a land of tall firs and rushing streams. They had to travel at night in secret and mask their tracks with anise balm which the antman had brought, for all who dwelt there would have slain them on sight. Still, they went on in the direction in which the Finger of Autarkis had pointed, and night by night approached ever nearer to the mountains as green as jade.

Beyond the land of the thudun the road passed through a forest where they saw no man or beast for a six-day, and then they came to the temple of a strange God, standing on a green hill above a pool of clear water. And behind it stood the mountains as green as jade, as tall as the walls of the world, and seeming close enough that a man could reach out and touch their peaks.

Then the antman said to the last of the brothers, ‘let us stop by this place, even if they slay us, for I am weary unto death from this traveling where the air has no savour, and each breath cuts me like a knife.’

And the human said, ‘If we had not left my brothers in the keeping of those monsters, I would turn around now and set my steps homewards, and give over to the void between the stars our clock and your artifact alike, Keth unmake the fires that forged them.’ But he agreed to see if the temple was a hospitable place, and they turned aside towards it.

On the path but a little way farther they found a girl sitting in the dust, playing with some marbles. Her skin was as the petals of spring roses, and her eyes like sapphires. She wore a shift of white, and her feet were bare though the air was chill, and she laughed to see the two of them walking together, the antman and the human. The middle brother bowed before her, saying, ‘Know you if we may seek lodging with the temple which lies beyond, fair lady?’ And the antman spoke also, saying ‘What God is worshipped in that temple?’

The girl said, ‘This is the temple of Arcol, who is a Very Strange God subject to Shurka, who knows all the secret arts that men have devised in all ages. We worship Arcol always in the form of a beautiful youth, with the tongue of a lizard, and wings of a dragonfly. The priests who serve Arcol are wise, and full of valour, and hold ancient secrets like so many pieces of straw clutched in their gnarled old hands. They are hospitable to true travellers, but not to any coarse wanderers who do not respect the will of Arcol, so they have set me here to guard the way. They require but a little offering of all who seek lodging with them, and all who make that offering may pass.’ Then she winked at the middle brother, and smiled, and at the sight of her smile his blood raced through his veins as though he had an ague, and he could not speak. ‘You may pass if you give me but a thimble full of your marrow, and afterward water enough to fill your boots,’ said the girl.

‘This price I will pay, if such a thing must be,’ said the middle brother, for it did not seem like a grievous price to him.

‘Has a sorceror perhaps come this way?’ asked the antman, ‘Who hides his face, and has the power to cast men into a stupor, or hide himself from their sight by sorcery?’

Then the girl pulled at her hair, and stamped her feet, and said, ‘the one you speak of came by this morning, and would not pay my price; she seeks entrance to the temple, to do some wickedness there. The priests have barred the gates against her, but she still abides somewhere nearby, planning some evil.’ And she smiled a smile full of rue at the middle brother.

‘We seek this sorceress, and will not turn away until we have captured her,’ said the middle brother, ‘for she has stolen that which belongs to us, and is the key to free my brothers from their bondage.’

‘Then I will show you to the place where last she was seen, that you may find her and bind her and bring her to account for her misdeeds,’ said the girl.

‘This we will do with glad hearts,’ said the middle brother.

The girl thanked them and led them to a place nearby where, she said, it was thought the sorceress had hidden herself to plot her capture of the temple. This was a stone door, scorched and blackened, set into the side of a hill. ‘Somewhere in the deeps of this delving of the ancients,’ she said, ‘the sorceress broods over her evil plans, like a venomous beast over its young.’

And the middle brother and the antman laid their hands on the great stone door and pulled it open, and made to pass into the darkness beyond.

‘Wait,’ said the girl. ‘I beg that one of you will remain by my side, should the sorceress come out by a secret way, and seek to punish me for leading you here. For I have no skill in the arts of battle.’

‘I will stay with you,’ said the antman. ‘For I cannot move with swiftness nor with stealth, and I am not used to these delvings built by the mannish races.’ But the girl wished the middle brother to stay by her side, and bid the antman go before them to scout the way.

The antman walked through the stone door, and beyond it until he came to a bronze door, which was locked and sealed. He was skilled in the arts of such things, and picked the lock, and the piercing spines that came out slid off the bone of his hand and did him no harm. ‘This is cunning of the sorceress, to hide herself behind these locks and traps of the ancients,’ thought the antman. ‘I wonder by what magic she passed this door, to hide herself within.’ For it seemed to him that the lock had lain untouched for long ages.

Next the antman came to a door of black iron, which was likewise locked. Again he picked the lock, and this time dodged aside from the pit that opened at his feet, and from the spears of iron that flew down from above to pierce him.

Third the antman came to a door of polished silversteel, in which it seemed his double stood. He could tell that this was locked and trapped in a more terrible way than either of the doors which had gone before, and he paused a long time before it. He wondered again by what means the sorceress could have passed this door, for it like the others seemed never to have been opened for ages of the world. He thought of the danger of it; but then he thought: ‘Would I not long be dead, if it were not for these three humen? What does it matter if I die in this place instead?’ So he took apart the lock of the door with great care.

There was a rushing noise and a sheet of flame, and the antman ran forward into the beyond he could not see, and tumbled through a gulf of space onto a hard floor. ‘What manner of hiding place is this?’ he thought, as the place shuddered and rumbled about him. ‘This is like no place I have ever seen,’ he thought. For on every side were artefacts of gleaming clockwork, in brass and iron and silversteel and other metals which we have no names for, more wondrous than any he had ever seen before. There were those as large as a temple, and those as small as his hand, in forms as varied as the colours of spring. He knew that he had come to one of the places of the ancients, where they had left their artefacts to wait for the day of their return.

The antman saw then the girl and the middle brother, climbing down into the vault the way he had fallen down. ‘Where is the sorceress?’ he asked. For he had looked about him to every side, but could see no sign of any sorceress, only the vast vault spread out to distant walls of sky-blue stone, with artifacts in it as might have lain there for ninety times ninety years. Then the girl drew herself up to her full height, and shook her hair free, and said, ‘I am she.’

The antman saw that the girl bore a golden wand, and that the middle brother walked a little behind her and carried a clockwork device, in which he could see pieces from the artifact he had watched over in his own lands. It seemed to him that the sorceress had sent him out to face perils she did not wish to face, and to have the human alone to work her sorceries on. If such were the custom of the antmen, he would then have cried out and torn his garments. Instead he bowed down before her, and begged her mercy to live and to serve her, for he was an antman, and had not the pride of a loman or a human. He had read where it is written that evil always contains within it the seeds of its own destruction, and knew this to be true.

‘You have served well thus far,’ said the sorceress. ‘Follow then, for you may yet be useful again.’

She led them to a great ship of white iron and silversteel, as large as a Paladine merchantman, with wings of crystal as long as it was tall, like the wings of a dragonfly. ‘This is the Ship of Arcol,’ she said. ‘Stand there,’ she said to the antman, and ‘place the device there,’ she said to the human, and then she did something to the device that made it cast a dancing blue flame all about, that shone but did not burn. Then she climbed onto the ship, and had the middle brother carry the device after her. She commanded the antman then to fix it to the deck of the vessel in a certain place, and link it to the clockwork that was already there.

‘What do you purpose to do?’ asked the antman.

‘I purpose to sail this vessel to the Black Fortress beyond the edge of the world, and to fill it there with starmetal and glassy jade, for the love of wealth that fills my psoul so that no other love may enter it, and I desire to buy lands and men to work them, palaces and treasures to ornament them, armies and armaments, artifacts and artificers, so that I will want for nothing that I can imagine.’

‘What if you are never sated?’ asked the middle brother.

‘How can I know, unless I try?’ said the sorceress, and laughed. And it seemed to the antman then the middle brother was not ensorcelled, but made as antmen are, rather than humen, and only waited as he did for the evil within the sorceress to grow to ripeness, and destroy itself. Then the sorceress made a promise to them upon the names of the Gods who we do not name. ‘Once we have looted the Black Fortress beyond the edge of the world, I will give to you one nineteenth part of my treasure, to split among yourselves, if you join me. But if you do not join me, I will leave you in some place where you cannot trouble me; a desert beyond the walls of the world, it may be, or an island in the Outer Ocean, from which it might take you fifty years to return home.’ So they both bowed before the sorceress, and promised that they would follow her to the Black Fortress.

The sorceress brought the Ship of Arcol into the air with the device that she had made. The blue flame around it burst through the roof of stone and steel as though it were of rotted laths, and earth mounded above it as though it were straw, and broke free into the sky.

‘O Dread Mistress,’ said the middle brother. ‘You will gain victory with more ease over the guardians of the Black Fortress if you have yet more servants. I have two brothers, who are strong and clever and would serve you well. But we have had to leave them behind. One is at the bridge into the land of the thudun, in the keeping of a great white Argandarr, and another at the tunnel into the land of the lomen, in the keeping of a great black Bemmel.’

The sorceress tilted her head back and laughed, and said: ‘To spite that Argandarr and that Bemmel, I would collect for you a crew of the most scabrous beggars in the world, and make them my boon companions for this journey.’ And she danced about in pleasure, and took little care for the guiding of the ship for a time, so that the middle brother feared that they would be spilt out of the sky.

In a few minutes they had passed over the great forest, and over the land of the thudun who hate all men, and over the gorge in which trees trunks were tumbled like blades of grass, and had landed before the Argandarr. It was as tall as the castle tower in Anminster, but beside the Ship of Arcol it appeared like a girl Argandarr of five or six years, and the eldest brother, who poured it wine, appeared no greater than a soldier made of nut meat.

The middle brother and the antman climbed down from the Ship of Arcol, and bowed before the monstrous Argandarr in a courteous way.

‘We have brought you the golden robes and wand of the sorceror, and three pounds of its flesh,’ said the middle brother.

‘Oh ho!’ said the Argandarr. “You have taken your time! I hope the meat will not be too dried and shriveled, and weigh less than the three pounds that was agreed.’ And she smacked her vast lips.

‘We did not wish to bring you any less than you asked for, and having no scales, we have been careful to bring you much more than was asked,’ said the middle brother.

‘Give them to me, then,’ said the Argandarr.

And the middle brother said, ‘Here is what you wished,’ and stood aside for the sorceress to come down from the Ship of Arcol, with her robes and golden wand, and flesh enough for many nights of feasting.

The Argandarr rushed forward with its great fist upraised to smite the sorceress to the ground; for cunning is not a quality proper to Argandarr. But the sorceress lifted her golden wand, and cast it into a stupor, and it fell to the ground like a mountain falling into the sea. And the sorceress came over to it with a wicked sword she had found in some evil place, and would have had its heart for a trophy, but the eldest brother threw himself upon the chest of the Argandarr and pleaded with her.

‘Do not harm this Argandarr, O Dread Sorceress, for she has been a good mistress to me, despite her evil ways, and I love her dearer than a sister.’

‘You are but ensorcelled,’ said the middle brother, and with the help of the antman he dragged his elder brother off, and the sorceress cut out the heart of the Argandarr. Then the middle brother went to find the jade that the Argandarr had hoarded from so many travelers, but the eldest brother threw himself down on the corpse, and washed its face with bitter tears.

And lo! When the middle brother emerged with an armful of jade, he found no dead Argandarr, but a living human maiden. Her hair was dark, and she blinked eyes the colour of copper in wonder at the tear-streaked face of the eldest brother.

‘With your tears you have saved me,’ she said, and embraced the eldest brother. ‘I was cursed to remain a thing of horror, for age after age unending, until one should love me in truth, and mourn my passing with bitter tears.’ And the eldest brother took her hands, and loved her better than he had when she was a monster.

‘How did you know to cut the heart out of the Argandarr?’ the middle brother asked the sorceress. The sorceress laughed, and shrugged her shoulders, and said. ‘I only wanted a few pounds of flesh, to remember this Argandarr by. I have heard of such sorceries, but never dreamed I would see them.’ And she threw the Argandarr’s heart into the air and caught it again with one hand, for it had become a great ruby, as red as blood.

‘How did you come to be cursed?’ the eldest brother asked the dark-haired maiden.

‘My father was a poison-psouled sorceror king, such as are found in the oldest tales,’ said the maiden. ‘He cast this curse upon me, and bound me to watch over this gate, because I loved one I was commanded not to love, and would not bend my psoul to the practice of forbidden arts.’

‘What of the one you loved?’ asked the eldest brother.

‘He ran from in fear, when he saw the form I had taken,’ said the dark-haired maiden. ‘And he is dust these last thousand years.’

‘Take the woman with you, if she can abide you at all,’ said the sorceress. ‘I have not all day to dally here, so you had best stop your nattering.’

The sorceress and the antman, and the two brothers and the dark-haired maiden, climbed onto the Ship of Arcol, and in a few minutes they had crossed the whole of the land of the cruel lomen, and the great and terrible icy mountains, and come to the gate where the Bemmel stood. It was as tall the temple of Sharm in Texelin, but beside the Ship of Arcol it looked no bigger than an cat, and the youngest brother, who brought it tea, looked less than a rag manikin one might give a cat to sport with.

The two brothers and the antman climbed down from the Ship of Arcol, and bowed before the monstrous Bemmel in a courteous way.

‘We have brought you four pints of the thief’s blood,’ said the middle brother. ‘And its kidneys and liver also, as we promised.’

‘O day of delight!’ said the Bemmel. ‘I hope you did not trim the fat from the kidneys.’ And he smacked his vast lips.

‘We did not, not at all,’ said the eldest brother.

‘Then give them to me,’ commanded the Bemmel, reaching down with hands like the branches of trees.

‘With joy,’ said the middle brother, and stepped aside, and there was the sorceress, with kidneys and liver, and blood enough to fill many goblets of amethyst. She cast the Bemmel into a stupor with the golden wand she held, and it tumbled insensible before the gate in the mountain, like the ending of an age of the world.

Then the sorceress came forward to cut out the heart of the Bemmel, to have a trophy as she had before, and youngest brother rushed forward to stop her. But his two older brothers held him back. ‘Stay, brother,’ said the middle brother. ‘Though you love your master, it may be that it is a beautiful maiden ensorcelled, as sure as eggs are eggs; but first this girl must cut out its heart, and then you must weep bitter tears over its body.’

And it happened just as the middle brother foretold. When he emerged from the Bemmel’s treasury with a sackful of gold, he saw no dead Bemmel, but a human maiden with nut brown hair and eyes as grey as the sea, embracing his youngest brother.

‘With your tears you have saved me,’ she said. ‘I was cursed to remain a thing of horror, for age after age unending, until one should love me in truth, and mourn my passing with bitter tears.’

And again the sorceress laughed, and shrugged her shoulders, and tossed into the air the heart of the Bemmel, which had become an emerald of great size, as green as poison.

‘How did you come to be cursed?’ the youngest brother asked the grey-eyed maiden.

‘Hurry, hurry,’ called the sorceress. ‘There will be time enough for that later.’

Then the sorceress and the antman, and the three brothers, and the dark-haired maiden, and the maiden with grey eyes like the winter sea, climbed onto the Ship of Arcol, and sailed it for a night and a day to the Black Fortress that floats beyond the edge of the world. There it is always night, and the air is like glass, and an hour is as nine hundred years, and nine hundred years is as an hour. The antman unlocked the three gates of the Black Fortress, and the sorceress defeated the three guardians – the Termagant of Iron, and the Beast with a Thousand Eyes, and the Dark Spined Thing Vast Beyond Reason- and the three brothers brought out from treasure chambers greater than cities glassy jade and starmetal, and heaped it in the hold of the Ship of Arcol until there was no more room for a single bead.

One nineteenth part of all this wealth the sorceress had promised to the brothers and the antman. And eighteen nineteenths she held for herself, riches more than any emperor of that age. And it was as the middle brother had feared. The sorceress stood at the prow of the Ship of Arcol, a circlet of starmetal in her hair, a necklace of fire opals around her neck, and robes of glassy jade fashioned by magic long ago. Magical blue flame danced around her, and she said: ‘Now I can buy lands and men to work them, palaces and treasures to ornament them, arms and armaments, artifacts and artificers. All I need do is lift my hand, and all things on the surface of Tsai can be mine. But still I am not sated. With my wealth and my magic, I shall conquer the whole of the world, and raise a great armada of sky ships. Then I shall conquer the stars, so that no many may gaze upon any thing that is not my possession.’

The three brothers were alarmed at these words of the sorceress, and conspired to somehow leave her on the Black Fortress, and escape to Tsai on the Ship of Arcol. But all their plans came to naught, because of the cunning of this sorceress, and the way the middle brother’s blood quickened at her smile.

Then a thought came into the antman’s mind, and he stole into the chamber of the sorceress while she lay sleeping with a knife of glassy jade, and cut out her heart. At this the middle brother awoke and smashed the antman to the floor, and would have broken him into pieces with his fury, had not the two other brothers rushed in and held him back.

‘You are but ensorcelled by this woman,’ said the eldest brother.

And the youngest brother said, ‘She prepared to make herself mistress of the Wanderers, and of the fixed stars. Who knows what dangers she would have led us into next? In truth, the antman has done a good thing.’

But the middle brother would not be comforted, and threw himself on the body of the sorceress, and washed her face with bitter tears. The eldest brother bore the antman away, for he could not walk, and when he came back he saw the blue-eyed sorceress blinking at his brother. The sorceress with the flaxen hair whose heart had been cut out embraced the middle brother, and said: ‘Worst of all was I cursed, O my saviour. For I kept my outward form, and to it was added power and cunning, but my inward form was twisted into evil, and made insatiable with love of wealth so that no other love might enter it. But ever does evil contain within it the seeds of its own destruction.’ And the middle brother took her hands, and loved her better than he had when she had been a sorceress.

‘How did you come to be cursed?’ the middle brother asked.

‘My father was a sorceror-king with a soul as black as the dark spaces between the stars, and he had three daughters. My elder sisters would not bend their psouls to sorcery, and loved those they were commanded not to love, so my father had them transformed into things of horror. I also recoiled from the sorcerous arts with loathing, but my father was resolved to have an heir for his evil designs. At last he learned how to distill his own evil into a precious stone, and put it into my chest as a false heart.’

‘Do you still wish to conquer the stars?’ asked the youngest brother.

The flaxen-haired girl who had been a sorceress laughed, and said, ‘No, nine hundred times no!’ And they all rejoiced that evil always contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. ‘For if I had not had this hunger for wealth which could not be sated, I would never have stolen from you, and drawn you all into my schemes; and had I not been cruel, my two sisters would still be ensorcelled, and no one would know how my ensorcellment might be undone. So in placing these evils within me, my father planted the seeds for the undoing of his evil.’

On the Black Fortress they tarried for a time, and two times. With the breaking of the curse the flaxen-haired girl had forgotten all she knew of magic, and feared a little to leave to leave the Black Fortress, lest she sail the Ship of Arcol into the sun, or into the void, or into the side of a cruel mountain. Thus they feared, and at the same time had no need to leave, for the Black Fortress had been prepared for a vast army, with provisions preserved by magic, so had all things needful for life. But at length the antman began to weary of living among the wonders of the ancients.

‘You may have lost your sorcery, but not your wit,’ said the antman to the flaxen-haired girl. ‘And you are not alone. I know much of the lore of artifacts, and there are many artifacts in this place that may aid us. I long to return to the city where I was made, to make recompense for the harm I did it, and I am sure that together we can sail this vessel back to the world, if we do nothing rash.’

The girl who had been a sorceress nodded her head slowly, and said: ‘I, too, think that we can do such a thing, if we do nothing rash. And truly I begin to long to see sunlight on still water, and would have my child born on the green world, where it is not forever night.’

‘I also would have my child born on the green world,’ said the girl with grey eyes; and the dark-haired girl said a similar thing.

It happened as the antman had said. The girl who had been a sorceress and the antman did nothing with rashness, and sailed the Ship of Arcol back over the edge of the world. They came in low at sunrise across a wine-wet sea, and saw the cliffs of the land across the water, coming nearer and nearer with each instant. Then joy came over the flaxen-haired girl, at the sight of sunlight on still water, and joy came over the antman, at the thought of his city, and for but a moment they took little care for the guiding of the ship, so that the middle brother feared that it would fall out of the sky.

And so it did. It fell into the sea near to the land, and they all swam ashore without hurt- the antman towed by each of the brothers in turn, for he could not swim. The Ship of Arcol sank into the sea with all the treasure it contained.

‘We are still much richer than we ever dreamed,’ said the elder brother, for they all had rings on their fingers and bracelets on their wrists, and pouches full of gold, and earrings, and necklaces, and also the stones that had been cut out of the chests of the three sisters. And he took the hand of the dark-haired girl.

‘We are all still alive, and in good health,’ said the younger brother. ‘Our feet rest on the sands of the green world, and the sun shines down upon us.’ And he took the hand of the grey-eyed girl.

‘Yet we are a thousand thousand times poorer than we might have been,’ said the middle brother, looking out to where the Ship of Arcol had been swallowed by the wine-wet sea, as though it had never been. And he took the hand of the flaxen-haired girl, who once had been a sorceress.

The antman said nothing, and followed the steps the three brothers set for the highlands. They traveled for more days than he had will to count, and saw many wonders less wonderful than the things they had seen before, and came at length to the hill where the house of the three brothers had been. There they found that nineties of years had passed while they tarried in the Black Fortress, and none now remembered the three brothers who had set out to find their grandmother’s clock. But the three brothers who returned were not unwelcome, for they did not speak like lowlanders, and they were free to spend the wealth they had gained beyond the edge of the world. Their neighbours envied them a little- for their wealth, and for the wives they had brought from distant lands- and thought it odd that an antman dwelled with them, but all in all they lived well. They did not travel again, and raised fine children whose lives pass on into other tales.

One day the flaxen-haired daughter of the woman who had been a sorceress woke before dawn to find the antman packed as though for a journey, and with his forefeet on the doorstep. ‘Where are you going, uncle?’ she asked.

‘I am going to look for something I lost, little one,’ he said. ‘It fell into the water long ago, and I must find it, if ever I am to be one of my own people again.’

‘Are you leaving us forever?’ asked the girl.

‘Only until the stars are put back in their boxes, little one,’ said the antman. ‘Do not make water with your eyes. Here, take this, and remember me by it.’ And then he gave the child an adamant stone which had been the heart of a sorceress.

The antman did not come back, for the stars have not yet been put in their boxes, but the little girl kept the stone, an