"Go. Away." brayed an old and unwelcoming woman, as sudden as ambush. Her brittle voice fell on them from above, hard, like tipped stones.
Alastor murmured, "We have their attention then."
A step back showed him the all of this barrier, and clearly enough, though the scene hung in mountainhaze that reeked of burnt egg. What had appeared grey in the gloom before dawn now glowed, slightly, like last embers might. Bronze gates, and three men high. The mountain's gusts and dust doubtless had scoured the place and kept off the green of ages. They barred the way like an old shield: cold, pitted, encrusted with knobblies. And such thoroughly unwelcoming knobblies: famously fantastical maneaters and snake-haired women seemingly appeared out of the night before Alastor's eyes. The knobblies perhaps discouraged visitors for a thousand years. There was a talking-hole high overhead in the rightside gate. Alastor figured a man standing on another man's shoulders might just be able to look in through it. A bird could, of course.
Borysko, like a captain, hoarsely reported at his side, "D'ya not see the lamp? Burning up in the hole. They only put it out."
"Priestesses," Alastor muttered. "Bricked up in their mysteries. So they know we're here. We know they know."
"Careful, Fa." Drakon whispered.
"Observe the courtesies, sure. You can trust your old fa. I know my way 'round women — HELLO INSIDE."
Urska, still in girl shape, bumbled against Borysko's shoulder, tumbled him into Alastor's steadying arms. She snarled at them both and moved off, shoulders hunched over, seeming ready for the morning change to take her.
"HELLO INSIDE. THE KING VISITS. HE WOULD ASK —"
"You know your own answers already, old king. Go away."
A klakk overhead startled. High upon the gate, a boss of a fearsome gorgon shifted inward, rasping. A second talking-hole, beside the first.
"Gently, Sister Gatekeep," purled a younger voice, sweet as honey. "They have come from afar. And we have seen our place in their story."
Alastor smiled. "Thanks, gentle Sister —"
"Your place, Alastor, is where you stand. Later...you will be sitting."
Behind the gates, a trio of Sisters, all clashing and inharmonious, proclaimed in chorus, "The King is arrived. Two armies pursue. At the gates, the King and five. We welcome the King and two."
"Two armies," said Alastor, Borysko, and Drakon, as one.
A sulfurous breeze swept past.
Wrinkling his nose, Alastor called up, "How far — those two armies?"
That instant, golden sunlight burned the edge of Alastor's eye.
That trio chorused, "Urska the Enchanted changes!"
High and across the great gates, klakks cracked, a dozen more talking-holes rasped opened.
Alastor squinted into the warming glare. Away in the scrub by herself, Urska bulked up and furred over. She seemed ablaze with sunshine.
"What of the two armies?" he called again.
"Tell us, please. The two armies." said Drakon, an arm around Alastor, and the other around the cub.
A riot of voices rang out in reply.
"The King asks."
"Welcome the King."
"Borysko, his Bory'."
Alastor caught his heart's sound drumming. He regarded his Drakon, under his arm.
"His Bory'." he murmured.
"Aye. My King." said Borysko, perhaps a bit too forcefully.
"Welcome," and the gates kraakd, sqawwkkd. The leftside half groaned inward, just so a man might pass inside, if he turned sideways. Or if he fit.
Inside, Alastor glimpsed a smoky courtyard, floor blue as sky, and assorted Sisters robed in paler blue, such as a young man might dream of, if he had not the memories. These ranged from the young to grandmotherly. Also, here, peering out at him were temple servants: girls, plainly Vagari. Alastor realized there must be a village nearby. Porters would regularly bring the temple food. His empty belly growled, as he remembered longago feasts of savoury simple stew. He smiled, recalling Nyssa and himself.
"Urska no go there. Stinks. No." said she.
"Urska refuses," sang the chorus.
"Urska, be easy on me. You and I have come here for this," and Drakon left his side. He went to Urska. He touched her twitching ear. He led back her lumbering hugeness, without further protest.
And then the confirmation — "The young King, we welcome. The King and two."
Alastor halted his son only long enough — "The Two Armies, son."
"I will, Fa," and he smiled, like when he was a boy.
"We'll learn all, my King," said Borysko.
"Out my way," growled Urska, shouldering Alastor aside.
Drakon fit through the gap in the gate. And Urska: puffing, displeased, close on his hip like a loving dog. Her bear bulk nudged the massive gate wider. Eyes widened, mouths fell open in wonder, and the Sisters crowded close. They passed their hands over Urska the Enchanted, her broad head, her twitching ears. And they welcomed Drakon.
Alastor caught Borysko's arm in passing — "Protect my son, Borysko."
"Even if it kills me, my King." said the man, smirking just the little, and his attention ahead, inside, toward a brownhaired pretty, who was openly smiling at him.
Once inside, though Borysko's eye stayed with the smiling pretty, he had reined in Drakon with a hand over the young man's shoulder.
A pair of Vagari village girls bearing food and drink, platter and ewer, appeared in the gap behind Borysko. Also, an unsmiling snow-haired grandmother robed in sackcloth, who narrowed her stony eyes at Alastor.
Accepting the closer girl's platter, he bowed his head to her bright watchful eyes — "Ahhh, scaepcheese and bread. Thank'ye. Reminds me of my days with your people. Is your village far?"
"Valley beyond. Two days." came her reply, and small smile.
"I've an abiding love for your people," Alastor added, setting down the platter on the stump of a fallendown pillar.
He returned to the gap in the gate. The sour grandmother presented the ewer. The girls were being shepherded inside by another Sister. Alastor heard big Marron shuffling nearer, and the cub mewling. He hoped there would be something left of that platter.
However, here was this grandmother to charm first, and he gave her all the smile he had — "Thank'ye, Grandmother."
Her voice was hard, like stones tipped on his head — "If to me, you'd have nothing. You took our Nyssa. You took our all. Old King."
At his back, Marron and the cub made noisy play of the platter, the scaepcheese, the dark delicious bread. The grandmother allowed an unkind smirk to flicker over her thin mouth. She backed inside. The gate groaned shut with a thud.
King Alastor puffed out his chest. He turned, faced whatever might remain of his breakfast.
Bears being messy eaters, quite enough did remain, scattered on the dusty ground, among the broken bits of town. Naturally, none of the cheese remained. None that Alastor could safely get to. It was the bits of bread then he sat down to. Sitting himself down on a hard cold bench of some ruin, he munched and slurped contentedly enough on bread and doe's milk. Curious, possibly sensing drink, the cub with hardly any coaxing took a piece of bread soaked in milk directly from his fingers. And the old king chuckled. By the time the ewer stood emptied, even old Marron had accepted four times. And the old king had still all his fingers.