Prologue

Jagga, regent king of Janaka, looked at the child asleep in the trundle bed next to his sleeping queen Elinka and his frown dissolved into a fond smile. Tagun looked so much like his royal mother; the high brow, the oval face, the little raptor nose. Even as a baby Tagun 's face displayed his high-born Janakan breeding.

Jagga had sold his soul to Malvor, high priest of the cult of Orqu to gain ownership of the proud young queen. Within a month of Jagga's meeting with Malvor Elinka's husband, Koren, had been poisoned and Jagga made the sword thrust that had taken the king's life.

Jagga had expected Elinka to fight him or try to escape, but he found her waiting quietly in her chambers and Malvor had immediately pronounced the words that bound them as husband and wife. Since that day she had never reproached him, unlike his other wives who nagged him to show favor to their sons.

All of his sons but Tagun were were dull minded and ugly. Jagga had tried to make them understand that Tagun was the heir because Elinka was queen when he married her, but his other wives, acquired during the years of his rise as a merchant, were low born and aging, foolish and strident. The silly women gossiped that Tagun could not be his son. But the boy had been born almost ten months after the death of Koren.

It was true that Elinka had left the city of Janaka and returned to her mother to give birth to the child, but to make certain the birth occurred too late to doubt that the child was his son, Jagga sent his trusted scribe, Daglan, along as an escort.

Elinka woke and Jagga moved to her side. "Tagun is too old to share your chambers."

She gazed at the sleeping child with evident fear for the move, but nodded. "Who will you set to guard him?"

Jagga frowned. He had been prepared to argue. Her easy compliance left him without a reply.

He gently drew his finger across the scar on Tagun's cheek. It was one of several that marked the boy's small body. "I can't put him in with his older half brothers. I can't send Tagun anywhere in the harem chambers where my other wives could taint his food and drink. Perhaps I'll put him in his own room with a nurse."

"He is too old to be in the care of a nurse," Elinka said. "He needs a tutor, but where will you find someone you can trust?"

As if summoned by Jagga's need, Daglan, his scribe, scratched at the door of the chamber and obsequiously begged a moment of the king's attention. "I have records you should examine if you have the time," Daglan said.

With his shoulders curled and his back bent, Daglan offered no threat. On the other hand, Jagga had observed that when the scribe was near, no one threatened Tagun.

"I have an assignment for you," Jagga said. "My heir needs a tutor."

"He is young to be taught his letters," Daglan said.

"You will do as I say," Jagga said. "I suffer your presence here in my court even though you will not take the mark of the demon or become an initiate."

"If I take the mark of Orqu, all my powers from ordination as a priest of the Radiance will fail. It is a burden that I bear," Daglan said with his eyes lowered.

"You will teach Tagun," Jagga demanded. "You will guard him against his brothers and any other who wants to harm him. If he dies, I will have your head."

Daglan bowed even lower and nodded. "I will do as you command."

Jagga glanced at Elinka and saw that she had turned away. A tear glistened in the corner of her eye. It had been thus from the first time she met Daglan years ago when he had come to the court seeking a position not long after Jagga killed Koren. As a disgraced priest from Timora, Daglan knew secrets that Jagga could only guess.

Elinka had started up from her throne when she saw Daglan in his robe and cowl. Then she fainted. Since that day she had seemed to avoid the scribe. Perhaps she feared reproach for marrying her husband's usurper without protest. Jagga had pondered the problem, but he was certain Elinka and Daglan would never combine against him.

Daglan waited while Elinka woke the tiny boy and gathered his few belongings. To avoid the scene of tearful farewell, Jagga kept his eyes on the window and studied the towers and ramparts that comprised the palace and the sturdy shops and houses of the city that stretched beyond. With his marriage to Elinka he had won all this. The city crowned the pinnacle of a small mountain with the castle set in the center like a jewel of copper and stone. It was tarnished now, but someday he would order the masons to mend the broken stones and re-tile the roofs. For now every moment of their time was given to completing the great dark structure of Orqu's temple not far from the city gate. This was Jagga's gift to the demon in return for all he had been given. The by-blow of a Jaman skant and a rogue from Orenon had become the husband of a queen and the father of a prince at the cost of regicide. He had become an initiate to the cult of Orqu and led the cult in Janaka. Much of his former wealth had gone to supporting Malvor and his plans. In time the leaders of the cult would rule all Okishdu, but for now Elinka and her son were what truly mattered to Jagga.

Chapter 1 The Runt

Tagun whirled and raised his staff to block the blow at his head. Daglan, his tutor, backed away and gave an approving nod. "You have nearly mastered the staff, but you still have much to learn before I can trust you to walk in the palace without a guard while King Jagga is gone.

"I haven't seen mother for days," Tagun protested. "I know you are too busy this morning to go with me, but surely I have learned enough to defend myself."

"If your brothers come at you in force you could be killed," Daglan said. "You know better than to expect any help from the servants or the palace guards. Last time you ventured out alone you earned a broken arm. You were lucky it wasn't worse."

Tagun knew that Daglan was right about the threat. Ever since he had been a little boy his half brothers had stalked him whenever their father was away on one of his frequent forays to attack the people of the plains. The fact that Jagga clearly favored him and had named him as his heir only added to their hatred.

In all the vast crumbling palace he could only count on Daglan and his mother for protection. When Jagga was home all the servants and guards were eager to stand between his brutal older sons and Tagun, but as soon as the king left the palace they turned their backs on him.

"Perhaps you can visit your mother if you wait until afternoon," Daglan said. "A merchant arrived this morning with a shipment of dass, docil and wine. With Jagga gone there won't be a man or woman capable of standing on their own two feet in a few hours, except for the guards on your mother's room."

Tagun nodded reluctantly and turned back to finish the set of exercises he practiced for an hour each morning. Few who met Daglan as he walked the halls of the palace in a dingy white robe with his head down and his shoulders bent in humble submission would have recognized the man who stood before Tagun.

















He stood in the easy, confident stance of a warrior. The short kilt and vest he wore for the practice session revealed hard muscles and a spare frame. He moved from one movement to the other with grace and power. It had taken years for Tagun to reach the point that he could successfully block any move that Daglan made as he tutored the boy in staff fighting and wrestling.

Tagun panted with effort and sweat rolled down his brow before Daglan finally called a halt to the exercise. "You have made steady progress but you are small for your age. I advise you to stay here until I return but be cautious if you leave our room."

Daglan washed himself and put on the dingy robes that concealed his fit body under the guise of a decadent cleric before leaving to pursue his duties as clerk to the king. Tagun studied as he waited for the sun to begin to drop toward the west. He could hear his older brothers gambling in the courtyard below and checked to see that most of them were crouched in the circle around the Jaman trader. The acrid odor of burning dass rose up and reassured him. While they were engaged in losing their allowances and becoming addled with the drug, it seemed unlikely they would bother him. He set down his scribing tool and ventured out.

The attack came without warning when Tagun stepped into a dark corridor without checking first. He heard a grunt, the hiss of something headed at his skull and he was already dodging to the side when the blow glanced past his brow and hit his shoulder. He fell to the floor and rolled. His older brother Dugga raised the heavy cudgel and opened his left hand, showing the red tattoo on his palm.

It was meant to bring terror, but Tagun looked past the mark and gave an insolent grin. Dugga scowled and raised his foot to kick Tagun in the stomach but Tagun caught his heel and jerked upward, sending Dugga reeling backwards. He hit his elbow on a stone bench fixed to the wall and howled with pain when he tried to move his arm.

Tagun scrambled to his feet and glanced around to see if his other half brothers were waiting to continue the assault. The corridor was empty and Tagun hurried away toward his mother's room.

"Momma's boy," Dugga yelled after him. Tagun didn't answer. In effect the insult was true. In all the vast palace he could only trust his mother, his tutor, and his father, King Jagga. Time and again he had been betrayed by guards and servants.

The guard at the door of Elinka's room stopped Tagun. "Jagga's orders. None may pass but the queen's medicine woman until he returns."

Disappointed, Tagun turned and set out to return to the chambers in the north tower he had shared with Daglan since his childhood. When he neared the stairway into the tower he saw his half brothers waiting for him. Most of them stood slack limbed and vacant eyed, still under the effects of the drugs they had been taking, but Porga, the oldest stepped forward.

"If you are old enough to assault Dugga you are old enough to join the cult or be consigned to feed the demon," Porga said. He opened his hand and showed a brief glimpse of the red tattoo on his palm.

"Your father will make the decision," the words were quiet, but to a man all the princes recoiled when Daglan appeared at the end of the corridor as if on a gust of wind.

He moved toward them, his baton of office as Jagga's scribe held across his chest. None of the young men challenged him. They backed away, but Dugga, ever impulsive, shouted a threat. "Wait until Jagga gets back. I will tell him that Tagun attacked me. It is past time that Tagun accepts the mark and becomes one of us."

"Your father instructed me to teach you in his absence," Daglan said. "Every afternoon after you eat, you will meet me here and learn how to write your names and do simple calculations. You are little better than animals if you cannot take your places in the courts of Okishdu."

Porga and the others began to protest. Tagun used the diversion of the argument to move up the stairway toward his room. Smallest of the chambers in the tower, it had been Tagun's place of restand refuge since Jagga had removed him from his mother. He locked the door and went to his window. From here he could see the window of his mother's room in the southern tower. She had been growing weaker for months. Now she was bedridden much of the time. He shut his eyes and raised his hands in the form of prayer she had taught him when he still slept in a trundle close to her bed years before.

"I come before the Radiance and ask for surcease from suffering for Mother."

He paused, trying to find other words, but there was nothing more important. He pictured her rising from her bed and putting on a robe of blue and crimson, a wreath of white flowers in her hair with a tiny pendant of blue and green at her throat. It was a whimsical thought. He had the habit of bringing her small gifts, a tiny flower found in a crack in the stones of the castle wall, a few particularly salty pickled bread berries, and just last week a blue and green pebble of the copper ore that formed Janaka's wealth. She had smiled as she cradled the pebble in her hand. He coveted those rare smiles, but now she was shut away from him until Jagga returned.

He heard Daglan enter the outer chamber and left his room.

"It was careless of you to let Dugga ambush you but apparently you defended yourself well enough," the tutor said. "Let me look at the wound he gave you."

"Hardly a wound," Tagun said as he touched the faint bruise on his brow. "Dugga surprised me but I rolled under his blow and I caught his foot when he tried to kick me. He cracked his elbow on a stone bench when he fell. He never seems to learn that I can defend myself. By the way, Jagga left orders that mother will be secluded until he returns."

Daglan frowned. "He hopes to save her life."

"The healer woman is the only person the guards allow into her quarters."

"I hope no one tells her about the attack on you today. You are her hope. Guard yourself better Tagun," Daglan said. "I cannot always be with you. You know their intent."

They washed with a few scoops of water from the rain barrel set on a narrow ledge outside the window. Daglan provided a simple supper of ota shoots grilled on a brazier.

Their routine hardly varied in the next few days except for the periodic appearance of Porga and his brothers after their noon meal to study their words and numbers. Sometimes they came late. On the second week of Jagga's absence from the palace, they didn't come at all. Jaman traders had returned with a fresh supply of dass and docil roots.

With his brothers distracted and Daglan busy keeping the king's records, Tagun was often left alone. He had long since memorized the scrolls Daglan used for teaching and one day he ventured forth from the chambers in the north tower and made his way toward the library in the center of the castle hoping for something to read. Stone floors warned of the approach of servants and guards and he ducked into archways and behind columns to hide until they passed.

He stood in the shelter of the library door and searched the dim interior for signs of movement. The reek of stale, sour smoke filled the cavernous room. The shelves and scroll racks were mostly empty. Ripped scroll cloth and shattered slates littered the floor. He moved toward the section where he had been trying to piece together the history of Janaka from the few remaining scrolls. He was King Jagga's chosen heir, but he remained ignorant about the country he would rule if he survived his father.

The corridors of the palace were lined with shattered mosaics and defaced plaques where the names of Jagga's antecedents had been erased and struck through. Tagun longed to solve the mystery behind the wanton destruction but no one seemed willing to answer his questions. Even Daglan changed the subject when Tagun asked about the few names and dates he could decipher.

The scrolls had mostly burned but there were a few charred remnants. He tried to separate the layers of scroll cloth and find legible marks, but the fire had been doused with scummy water from the pot house and where fire had not destroyed the record, stain and bleeding ink finished the ruin. The evidence suggested that someone had been watching him and tracking his interests. It was likely a servant trying to gain credit with his brothers.

Perhaps his older brothers had wrecked the library. Even in childhood they had been rowdy and cruel. After taking oaths to Orqu they became more subtle in their cruelty but more vicious. Perhaps one of their mothers or their servants had wrought the ruin. Porga's mother, Manka, reveled in creating disorder and misery, but either way, the written records of the kingdom were being destroyed.

Tagun moved the soggy mess aside and found a few intact scrolls near the bottom. He carried them to a window seat and carefully pried one of them open, unrolling it slowly to avoid cracking the fragile cloth. It was only an old record of purchases, but the names and dates tantalized him with a sense of great changes that had taken place in the kingdom of Janaka since his birth almost two decades before.

The exercise of piecing together a picture of the trade and alliances of Janaka held real pleasure for him even when it raised more questions than it satisfied. For as long as Tagun could remember, the city of Janaka had refused to trade with any of the kingdoms of Okishdu other than Orenon and Jama. Yet these records told of timber from Tedaka, fish from Zedekla and tin from Taleeka. Far from being virtually isolated and perpetually at war, the records hinted at a cosmopolitan court with frequent, friendly commerce between the other cities and kingdoms.

Tagun wrote his observations in the journal he kept in his belt pouch. It was likely that these scrolls would vanish as the vandalism of the library continued. It made him sad as much as angry, but with Jagga away he had no power to stop it.

The end of haggling and voices raised in sounds of triumph or challenge in the courtyard below warned Tagun that his brothers had stopped gambling and his solitude could end. He put the scrolls aside and stood. This vast dusty room had been a refuge for him, but that had ended now that his enemies knew they might find him here.

He saw Daglan standing just inside the vast arched doorway. "Pon has been searching for you," Daglan said. "He wants to force the issue of your initiation into the cult. I told him you are too young, but when Jagga returns Pon might insist that you perform the sacrifice ritual to confirm yourself as Jagga's heir."

Tagun felt a chill of anguish at the thought. He braced himself for a confrontation. He looked along the corridor, expecting to see the dark-robed priest of Orqu and sighed with relief when he saw that he and Daglan were alone.

"I would just as soon that Porga was the heir. I will not become a member of the cult."

"You are the heir because your mother is the queen," Daglan said. "Jagga will not chose another as his heir as long as you are in Janaka. Your life is in danger. I have heard them plotting."

"I cannot leave Janaka while my mother lives," Tagun said. "But I will not worship Orqu."

"Now that Pon is intent to find you, you must hide until Jagga returns."

They made their way back to their chambers and Tagun quickly put some clothes and books into a pack before following Daglan into the central room where they normally held their exercises.

The tutor took Tagun' shouler and gravely studied him. "You say you will not worship Orqu, but the king is the high priest of the cult. To refuse to become an initiate could mean your death."

"You are not a member of the cult, but you survive," Tagun said.

"You father believes I am a disgraced priest of Yasa Dom. That is why he took me on as his scribe. Orquians believe that priests of the Radiance know secrets that give power. I am tolerated, but every other adult male in Jagga's court has undergone the ritual."

"But you taught me to pray to Yasa Dom, just as mother did," Tagun protested. "It was a dangerous for you to teach me other ways. If I had ever told my father, you would die."

Daglan nodded. "Do you know what happens in the ritual?"

Tagun closed his eyes and gritted his teeth with anguish. It was forbidden that anyone but an initiate of the cult be told the secrets of the ritual, but his brothers had been eager to impress each other as each became Orquian. Dugga in particular delighted in grisly hints.

"To earn the red tattoo on his left palm a man must kill a woman and eat her heart," Tagun muttered.

"You could die for knowing that," Daglan said. "Do any of your brothers suspect what you have learned?"

"They gave me hints, but I pretended to be ignorant of their meaning," Tagun said. "They swagger and pretend courage. I have seen the trains of young women and girls that are herded up the streets toward the temple of Orqu after being captured in battles, but there are very few women on the streets of Janaka, and those go veiled and guarded. It is not courage to kill the innocent. I would rather die myself."

The sound of urgent pounding on the outer door warned Tagun that his brothers had come searching for him. Daglan shoved a sturdy cabinet aside and motioned Tagun to slip into the opening behind it. Then he pushed the cabinet into place again and left Tagun in darkness.

He had been given a brief glance of the cavity when Daglan moved the cabinet. He explored it with his hands and feet. Beyond a lip of stone a vertical passageway with a ladder fastened on the wall went downwards. He braced himself against the back wall with his feet on the rungs and listened.

"Tagun is missing," Porga said. "Pon told us to look for him."

"He's probably hiding in his mamma's bedroom," Dugga jeered.

The sound of thumping and a cry of pain erupted. It was likely that one of the younger men had thumped Dugga at a signal from Porga. Tagun had seen it happen often. Dugga voiced their thoughts, then suffered quick retribution for his folly.

"As long as all of you are here you should stay and take your lessons." Daglan said. "Your father gave the order for your schooling and he'll hold you to account if you continue to avoid me."

"Get on with the lessons," Taca, one of the younger men said. "I know how to figure my gambling wins. It can't be too hard to learn the other things."

Again there was the thud of fist on flesh, but Taca didn't protest and Daglan started the lesson. Before long Porga lost patience. "This is useless. I mean to find Tagun. Tell us what you know."

"I saw him in the library piecing together some burned scrolls," Daglan said. "It seems that vandals have been destroying the records."

"Those records are good for nothing but a bonfire to warm a pot of cala," Dugga said, and again cried out as someone hit him.

Tagun suppressed a grin. Daglan had taught him that he should not take pleasure in another's pain, but of his brothers only Porga had been more relentless in finding ways to hurt him.

At last Daglan shut the door behind the quarreling brothers and dropped the latch before he shoved the cabinet aside and Tagun scrambled out of the hole.

"We could bring my mother here," Tagun said. "I haven't seen her for nearly two weeks since Jagga left on campaign."

"There is no way to gain access to Elinka without Jagga's permission," Daglan said. "She is well guarded. Through the years her enemies have tried to take her life by poison or assumed mis-chance, but their plots were always foiled. Jagga took their heads, and those of all their kin."

"Can't you do something to counteract the poison others give her," Tagun asked.

"It could be poison, but it could be something Jagga can't control," Daglan said. "She has been getting weaker over time."

They performed their devotions for the evening before eating and Daglan made a pallet for Tagun under the window. He slept soundly and woke early, but as usual, Daglan was up before him. They shared their meals, exercised and studied as the days passed by and whenever Daglan left to perform his duties he made certain that Tagun was hidden in the space behind the cabinet.

His older brothers decided to come for studies once again and Tagun hid before Daglan let them in.

"I a-a-am h-hon--or--d,"Porga struggled over writing a simple greeting.

"Y-you am st-stupid," Dugga mocked him.

The sounds of a brawl followed quickly; thuds, grunts, the clatter of a falling stool, Dugga's rising scream. Daglan herded the rowdy mob out of his chambers and Daca suggested another hunt for Tagun just before the door closed behind them.

Once Tagun scrambled from hiding he helped Daglan straighten up the room. Cracked slates and broken scribing tools littered the floor .along with the broken stool.

They were preparing for their evening devotions when a horn sounded from the hillside under the city wall. Daglan glanced out the window. "Jagga has returned. Come, you must be the first to meet him."

Instead of taking the corridor to the tower stairs, Daglan led Tagun through a small door that let out on narrow outer steps that were barely more than blocks extending from the wall in a pattern. The extended stones stopped more than a man's height above the pavement and Daglan jumped down nimbly and caught Tagun when he followed. They hurried down narrow passageways and through several small doors until they reached the city wall, the first to meet Jagga when he entered through the gate. Beyond the first group of warriors Tagun could see the line of captives, all young, all women, some little more than children. His mind flinched from the purpose they would serve.

Daglan fell into his accustomed servile pose and Tagun stepped forward. "Father, welcome home."

The burly ruler reached out and took Tagun in his arms, nearly overcoming him with the stench of old blood, sweat and Orenese perfume. It nearly took Tagun's breath, but to him it was the odor of security and strength.

"My son. You seem to have grown in the few weeks I've been gone. Surely it is time to talk to Pon about initiation."

Tagun took a step back, tempted to turn and flee. Close behind him Daglan gripped his shoulder and steadied him.

Jagga looked around and frowned. "Are you the only one who cared to give me welcome? Where are your brothers?"

"They went in search of something," Tagun replied.

The king turned and dismissed his troop of warriors with a gesture. "Come with me Tagun, I must visit your mother."

Tagun cringed under the urgent grasp of Jagga's thick fingers on his upper arm as he tried to keep up the pace. They moved rapidly through the corridors and stairs that led to Elinka's chambers with Daglan close behind them.

The guard at the door met Jagga's eyes and shook his head. "No one but your healer woman has passed the guards since you left. Lady Elinka has been provided with all she needs. I have personally tested all her food, but she grows weaker every day."

Jagga's grasp on Tagun's arm tightened for a moment, then he released him to open the door to Elinka's room. Smoke from incense burning on one of the low tables near the bed filled the room. The haze obscured Elinka, but her wheezing breath gave warning of her distress. Jagga reacted immediately, throwing open the shutters on the windows on either side of the room and using his hands to clear the noxious air.

"It is no use, Jagga," Elinka murmured after coughing to clear her throat. "Someone lit the incense hours ago. Is that Tagun?"

Tagun leaned over his mother and took one of her hands. Her skin glowed with a waxen pallor. Her eyes seemed enormous, the pupils dark and wide. He tried to to will his own life force to fight her weakness, but she met his eyes and shook her head so slightly that he doubted anyone else could see the gesture.

Jagga turned to the doorway with an outraged face but the guard had taken notice of the situation and scurried away. Jagga summoned Daglan into the room. "Send a servant to fetch my other sons, then return to me."

The king knelt on the opposite side of the bed from Tagun and took Elinka's other hand, his blunt features twisted in grief and anger. "I will discover who has done this and eat their hearts."

Tagun felt the shudder that ran through his mother as she struggled to speak. "Send Tagun to safety."

"He has not yet taken oaths to Orqu."

"He will not live a day after my death, and that will happen soon," Elinka whispered. "Send him away with Daglan now, or it will be too late."

Tagun had never thought he would see his father cry, but Jagga's shoulder's heaved and he uttered a keening moan. Elinka said no more. She closed her eyes and for a moment her fingers tightened on Tagun's hand, then weakened and became limp in his grasp. The rattle of her breath remained but he sensed her spirit leaving and his world seemed to collapse. She had always been the counter to the degradation of Janaka's court. Even when she had been secluded and he couldn't see her face, he had known that she was there. His spirit fell into a gulf of pain but he could not find relief in tears.

Daglan returned and waited near the door. Finally Jagga stood and beckoned his scribe. "Take Tagun away from Janaka. Guard him well. Return when he is old enough to take the oath to Orqu and become my heir."

Jagga took a large ring from his right hand and lifted Tagun to stand. He pressed the bulky jewel into the boy's palm. "This is a token of my promise to your mother. No other will supplant you. You alone will be my heir"

Jagga turned back to the still form of his wife and Daglan led Tagun to a curtained alcove near the window. Through a narrow gap in the curtain Tagun saw his brothers ushered into the chamber by several palace guards. Their eyes crinkled at the corners with glee when they saw Elinka's withered form. Tagun's fingers curled into fists. They had pursued and beaten him, but worse, they had taken every opportunity to slander his mother with rude jests and innuendos. The urge to take revenge tightened his muscles and he suddenly cared nothing for the consequences of rushing out and attacking them.

Daglan seemed to sense his anguish and laid a hand on his arm. Tagun's eyes moved from his brother's smirking faces to the calm face of his mother. He bowed his head and released his tortured breath slowly and silently. She had bought his freedom. He could not waste the gift.

Jagga moved out of the shadows near the bed, his eyes narrowed with suspicion. Most of his older sons lowered their eyes as soon as they saw their father's face. Dugga stepped forward and raised his left hand in signal to his father, the mark of Orqu red upon the palm. "Welcome Jagga, King of Janaka, greatest of the servants of Orqu. Is the woman finally dead?" His lip curled when he looked toward the still form on the bed.

Jagga made a sign with his hand and two of the guards moved forward and took hold of Dugga while Porga began to plead. "I knew nothing of the plot, I am your eldest son, your rightful heir."

Jagga turned his eyes away and addressed the guards holding Dugga. "Take him to the cells. Put his brothers together in the lesser chambers. We will weed out the traitors. Do what you must to get them to reveal who helped them in the plot."

Two of the younger men protested, earning a dark glower from their father. The others had wits enough to remain silent. Tagun watched as his brothers were led away, leaving Jagga bending over Elinka. The grizzled ruler knelt down by the bed and bowed his head, his hands locked on the hilt of his sword. His low moans mingled with the sound of Elinka's tortured breath. He had loved her. Whatever else he had done, he had protected her for years against the jealousy of his other wives. Tagun could excuse him nearly anything for that.

Daglan took Tagun's arm and led him from the room as soon as the sound of footsteps faded from the corridor. The halls were empty as they returned to the north tower. Daglan locked the door and propped a heavy chest to further block it. He opened the bench chest near the window and lifted out two packs. He added a few scrolls and filled two gourds with a fresh supply of water from a barrel by the door.

"Put on your hunting tunic and your soft soled boots," he told Tagun. "We have a few hours to put distance between us and your enemies, but be sure they will try to follow."

"Why do my brothers hate me and my mother so much that they risk our father's anger?" Tagun asked. "From the time that I was small they hunted me like a coney."

"You have Jagga's favor. If Porga held that place, they would focus all their hatred on him. Now follow me and keep silent until I speak again."

Daglan shoved the cabinet where Tagun had hidden aside and urged Tagun forward. He moved downward as soon as he could find a purchase for his feet on the rungs and heard the sound of scraping as Daglan pulled the cupboard back against the wall until the light from the room vanished, leaving him to make his way in darkness with the shuffle of Daglan's feet not far above his head.

Tagun panicked a little when there was no rung below his feet after several minutes of descending the ladder. Then he reached a little further with his toe and felt a solid surface. He dropped and landed with a thud as his feet met the stony floor. Groping with his right hand for a wall, he found space enough to stand aside while Daglan dropped from the ladder.

The tutor hardly hesitated before starting off again and Tagun followed the sound of his breathing through the darkness of a narrow passage in the rock beneath the palace. The uneven floor distracted him as he tripped again and again nearly falling but when it seemed he had no choice but to fall to the floor exhausted he finally saw a dim glow of light ahead.

When they drew nearer to the opening, Tagun saw figures moving and stopped just as Daglan gave a signal to sit down. They sat in silence and observed the movements at the entrance of the cavern which was used as storage by a farmer. Several loads of tubers were trundled out of the wider space below from ample piles. The low bellow of a dala hinted at the presence of a teamster with his wagon outside the storage cave.

Daglan handed Tagun the water gourd and waited while he drank his fill. Then he handed him a folded matla stuffed with a paste of breadberries and nuka fruit. After satisfying his hunger and thirst Tagun fell into a doze as he succumbed to fatigue of mind and body.

The storage room glowed orange from the setting sun when Daglan shook Tagun's shoulder and woke him. With a gesture, the tutor signaled Tagun to follow him. They ducked to leave the rough, low exit of the tunnel, and slid down from the narrow shelf where the passage from the palace ended. A wide natural trench stretched from one side of the cavern to the other, forming a natural barrier between the storage area and the entrance to the passage and it took some time to cross. By the time they worked their way to the door of the storage cavern the light outside had faded.

The scent of a savory stew came from a nearby cottage. A team of dalas were hitched to a wagon stacked with large lumpy sacks. Daglan studied the dimly lit farmyard then signaled Tagun to follow him. They took a couple of empty sacks from a pile nearby and climbed into the wagon, pulling the sacks up and concealing themselves among the other loaded sacks.

Moments after they were settled Tagun heard the voice of a Kumnoran teamster taking his leave of the farmer. "I appreciate your offer of a bed for the night, but you know the custom of my people Frag. I cannot stay within sight of Jagga's palace for more than a day or the elders of my clan will shun me."

The slow rocking of the wagon as it traveled southward tempted Tagun to sleep, but his earlier nap had satisfied his need for rest and he began to think about his mother. His chest ached as if he had been pierced with a spear at the thought that he would never see Elinka's face again.

Among the hundreds living in the great stone fortress that capped the center of the city, she had been a shining light in the midst of pettiness and evil. Whenever Jagga was gone the servants openly jeered at Tagun, questioning his parentage. Jagga's other sons were broad and burly like their father, their lank dark hair growing low on their brows above blunt noses. Tagun looked more like his mother, his hair curly above a high brow. He was short for his age, and his head was larger. Still, there was no doubt in Jagga's eyes when he called him his son.

Tagun's thoughts became dreams and he jerked when a hand touched his shoulder. He came fully awake when the sack over his head was lowered and he saw Daglan motion him to silence. A full moon lit the foothills of the surrounding mountains, and though the team moved steadily along the road, snores came from the front of the wagon. Tagun glanced up at the moon and realized he had been asleep for several hours.

Daglan rolled up the sack and tucked it in his belt. Tagun followed his example before they leaped from the back of the slowly moving wagon and hurried into the shelter of a niche that split the face of a cliff next to the road. Daglan edged his way inward and upward with Tagun close behind him. They emerged near a small cave at the top of a rocky cliff. Leaning forward, Tagun could see the road far below them, gleaming like tarnished silver in the moonlight.

"We should be safe here for now," Daglan said. "Jagga's warriors seldom take this road, but we will only stay as long as necessary. With your mother gone, you will not be safe in Janaka." Daglan turned away and began to sort through the pack he carried.

"My father gave his word," Tagun said.

Daglan turned and squinted at the boy, then nodded to himself. "It is time you knew the truth. Jagga is not your father."

Tagun yelled a wordless protest and ran at the tutor, fists flailing. He was caught by the wrists and spun away, falling to the ground only inches from the edge of the cliff.

"You are too old to act the fool. Surely you must have wondered why you look nothing like the king?"

"You insult my mother," Tagun protested. "She is loyal."

"She is loyal beyond anything you comprehend," Daglan said. "Do you really want to claim Jagga as your father?"

"How can you call my mother loyal but claim that she betrayed her husband?" Tagun demanded.

"Your father was Koren, a warrior of Algire Clan, king of Janaka. Jagga murdered him and took your mother as his wife with her husband's blood still red on his hands."

"Mother would have run away or killed herself rather than marry the man who murdered her husband," Tagun protested.

"Jagga set a guard on her. She was never left alone. He knew that marriage to the widow of his rival would earn him the right to rule. Somehow he found a spot of warmth for her in his cold heart and I believe he truly loved her by the time that you were born."

"How could you know that I am not Jagga's son?" Tagun muttered. He had heard the whispered innuendos often in his childhood and had steeled his heart against the slander that his mother had played Jagga false.

"I am your uncle, Elinka's brother, a warrior of clan Terifil. When I heard of the murder of King Koren I vowed to track down Jagga and destroy him. When I entered the palace in the guise of a disgraced priest from Timora I saw Elinka in the throne room wearing bonds to hold her to the throne. In order to stay near my sister and give both of you protection, I convinced Jagga that he should hire me to be his scribe. That is how I came to be your guardian and tutor."

Tagun squatted with his arms tight around his knees. Grief and anger warred within him, welling up in tears that wet his cheeks. Daglan turned away and set up camp inside the cave. He warmed some food and offered it to his sullen nephew after murmuring a prayer.

Tagun wanted to refuse the food, but his good sense prevailed. Pouting wouldn't serve his purpose. They ate in silence. The simple stew of breadberries with shredded dala jerky was savory and filling. Tagun's mind teemed with questions, but weariness overcame him and he wanted nothing more than sleep at the moment. There would be time enough tomorrow to ask questions.





Chapter 2 The Sword of Dorn



Tagun woke suddenly from a nightmare and opened his eyes. The dim light of morning lit the rough stone of the cave, reminding him of the desperate escape from Janaka's palace the day before. He wanted to shut his eyes and return to a dream that seemed less troubling than reality. There was no retreat in sleep. His world had changed.

He heard Daglan outside the cave softly humming a tune. The tutor, no, now he must call him 'uncle", seemed more cheerful than Tagun could remember. Probably with good reason. He no longer faced the daily tasks of bending his back in a pretense of humility or hours of trying to pound knowledge into the stony skulls of Tagun's brothers, no, that too had changed. They were not kin. That thought was a great relief.

His world had been shaken by a few short words the night before. Now he knew he owed neither duty nor affection to the man he had been raised to look upon as father. Of course it was Elinka who had earned favor from Jagga for her son, not any qualities he claimed himself. He was the opposite of Jagga's sons. He was cautious, thoughtful and small for his age. But Elinka had been graceful, beautiful and kind, setting him free from the evil of the cult with her teachings and example, and free from Janaka with her final plea.

The thought of his mother plunged Tagun into a mire of sorrow. He could resent her for concealing the secret of his true parentage, but if Jagga had known the truth, it would have condemned Tagun to destruction.

He left the cave and confronted Daglan. "Jagga must have suspected I am not his son."

"I tricked him," Daglan said. "When I reached Janaka and found my sister pregnant and married to the man who had murdered her husband, I ingratiated myself with the usurper. I kept the royal records before I became your tutor."

"But surely he could count," Tagun protested.

"Your mother had only just learned that she would have a child when Jagga struck. She requested leave to visit her mother when her time came to give birth. Ironically, Jagga trusted me to be her guard and spy for him. Between your mother, your grandmother and me we managed to confuse the exact date of your birth. Then of course you are a weedy bit, seeming years younger than your age. I promoted the confusion of your true age in the record I kept for Jagga. I sometimes wonder if your grandmother promoted the illusion that you are somewhat younger than your age are by managing your diet in those early months. Your father, King Koren, was a fine figure of a warrior. Your mother, as you know, was tall for a woman. How is it that you are able to pass for a child not yet old enough to take the oaths to Orqu that your age would otherwise require?"

"I never wanted to take the oath." Tagun said.

"I know you shunned the idea of the cult, but if you had been a burly boy, you would have had little choice but to undergo the rituals and take the mark upon your palm, or die."

"I would rather have died," Tagun said.

"Then it is well you didn't have to make the choice," Daglan replied.

Daglan had been busy as they talked and he presented Tagun with a matla wrapped around a savory paste of breadberries mixed with spice and salt. After waiting for his uncle to whisper an invocation to the true god, Yasa Dom, Tagun concentrated on filling the empty space beneath his ribs.

Unlike the brutes he thought were his brothers, he could think and eat at the same time. As soon as he had swallowed a long drink of cala he asked Daglan what they would do next now that they had reached the borders of Janaka.

"We will restore you to your place as Janaka's rightful king."

It was as well Tagun had swallowed or he would have sprayed Daglan with cala. His gasp of surprise was followed by a wary laugh.

"We are hiding in a cave on the borders of Janaka and you speak of turning me into a king."

"I would not be turning you into a king. You are the king of Janaka by birthright, from your father Koren traced through your ancestry to Dorn, the first king elected in Janaka."

"But if I am a king, I am a runt king without a throne or loyal subjects," Tagun protested. "What good is an empty title when all the forces of the Orquians would be arrayed against me?"

"There will be loyal subjects to support you when you prove yourself," Daglan said. "You are nothing now but an untried boy with potential. You know Jagga's court as well as any other, would you say that the men who follow him are either brave or wise?"

Tagun considered the question. In the ranks of those who inhabited the palace there were only two people he had admired. One was his mother, the other the man he now knew as his uncle. A thought at the back of his mind reminded him that he had trusted Jagga to protect him. He recalled the way he had been greeted with a full embrace when Jagga returned and he tried to bury the gratification he felt for that rough show of affection.

"I will show you what the world is really like," Daglan promised. "You have no way to judge the worth of men after a lifetime spent in the company of the worst collection of fools and rogues ever assembled in Okishdu. It is true that many of Jagga's cohorts have cunning. Some of those who are spreading the infection of the cult through other lands are brilliant in their ways. But you lack knowledge of the true nature of most ordinary men."

Tagun recalled the name his uncle had used earlier. "You speak of Dorn. I have seen remnants of that name among the ruined carvings in the palace. Who was he and what do you mean when you say he was elected. I thought kings gained primacy through inheritance or conquest."

"I have tried to educate your mind and keep your heart from growing rank like the others I was forced to teach, but there is so much you have yet to learn," Daglan said. "Who do your brother's claim as the founder of Okishdu?"

"They believe that Tarm received the knowledge of the cult from those who ruled Okishdu before the usurper Irilik took their land. Tarm's father Janak, a great general, founded Okishdu."

"You have learned many things that are fables and myths, meant to support the cult and give credence to Jagga's usurpation. He claims right to rule as a descendant of Tarm, but from records made long ago, we know that Tarm had no descendants. He learned the rituals of the cult from natives and initiated others before he died, but he left no heir. I have taught you the truth."

Tagun dropped his head between his knees and tried to clear his thoughts. "It is hard to separate the stories. I remember that you told me about Irilik, the prophet. He brought people from across the sea, and his friend Janak settled the mountains of the north."

Daglan nodded. "I will set you an experiment that will help you discern between the truth and lies that serve evil. First of all, think of your mother."

Tagun had spent the last few hours feeling very confused about his mother. He had always honored and respected her, yet she had lied and deceived her husband, but her husband had murdered her true spouse. Finally he decided to accept Elinka's actions as a sacrifice to save his life.

"I feel a sense of light when I think of mother," Tagun said.

"Now think of Porga," Daglan said.

Tagun's fingers clenched. He had studied Porga carefully as he tried to think of ways to avoid his notice and evade his traps. Of all the fools and rogues that walked the halls of Jagga's palace, Porga was the worst. He delighted in cruelty and the torture of anyone or anything under his power. Tagun knew that without the protection of Daglan, Porga would have killed him years ago when he was small.

"The thought of Porga is like darkness in my mind." Tagun said. "I feel anger mixed with fear and loathing."

"The Liar uses fear, pride and anger to attack your thoughts," Daglan said. "He plants subtle suggestions in your mind and fosters jealousy and umbrage. When you want to test your thoughts, or what is true from what is false, think of the difference in the way you feel when you think of Elinka or Porga."

Tagun was silent for a while as he sorted through his memories. Then he looked up at his uncle. "By that measure everything to do with the cult of Orqu is allied to the Liar."

"You have found a great key. Some learn the lesson early and apply it, others apply it in reverse. Jagga is the unwanted offspring of a Jaman harlot. He did whatever necessary to become a successful servant seller. He bragged to me of his triumph, from alley rat to merchant, to king of Janaka. He grew up bitter, vengeful and ambitious. Most of his choices were informed by the Liar."

"Maybe that is why he favored mother," Tagun said. "As much as she must have despised him, I never heard her nag or whine. She was always gracious to her servants. Jagga must have wanted something very different from what he had known. He couldn't be like her, so he captured her with murder."

"At least he didn't destroy her, as so many of the cult destroy anything virtuous or innocent," Daglan said. "The central act of worship of the demon is defilement and murder. If nothing else comes of escaping the palace, at least you were saved from initiation.

"I would have chosen death instead," Tagun said.

"If you had chosen to accept the ritual, I would have been forced to destroy you myself," Daglan said. "I made a vow to do so to your mother."

Tagun was shocked at first, but then he nodded. "I understand. If I had chosen the way of Jagga, all her sacrifice would have been in vain. She would have been better off to die before I could be born."

"But you didn't succumb to Jagga's pressure to join the cult. You made excuses and promoted the illusion that you are younger. I watched you struggle to stay free, not just of the murderous brutes you called your brothers, but the ideas and beliefs they held. You have already won your first battle Tagun, and it was not the least that you will face."

"Tell me about my father and Dorn," Tagun said.

"I will tell you about your father. You will learn what you need to know of Dorn when we are able to leave this place. Your father, Koren, was a warrior of Algire clan, as were the kings before him. He learned the craft of warrior from his father and his uncles. Unlike the ancient days when clan fought clan, the men of Algire and their allies fought the growing scourge of rogues who followed Orqu. The matriarchs of Janaka chose Koren to lead the effort against the cult. He followed in the stead of his father and his father's fathers back to Dorn, but he had to demonstrate his fitness for the stewardship of king."

"Why does Algire clan have preference," Tagun asked.

"It was not so much that Algire clan had preference," Daglan said. "Dorn was the first to unite the clans against the cult and most of his male descendants have shown similar courage. It is a heavy responsibility to rule Janaka as it should be ruled. It is a duty, not a privilege. It is also depends on the wife a man has the wits to marry. A foolish wife can use up her husband's substance. A proud wife can goad him into folly. The matriarchs are not fooled by the wiles of a young woman. Some men or women can persist and make a good life for themselves and their children even with a bad marriage, but it leaves little energy for greater things."

"Then I should find a wife before I try to earn my right to rule," Tagun concluded.

Daglan smiled. " Finding a wife will happen. It is best not to force the issue. Dorn's father made that mistake, but that's another story. You have a good model in your mother when it comes to choosing your wife."

"But how will I find a woman of Janaka who would be willing to marry a runt without a home?"

"It need not be a woman of Janaka. One of the finest smiths in Algire clan was Dorn's stepmother, Shira, who called Tharek of Zedekla her father."

"Tharek the Tyrant killed the heroes of Janaka," Tagun said. "It was he who kept our clans from conquering the fertile plains."

"A number of your ancestors called Tharek friend. Dorn spent a year as a guest in Tharek's palace as a child."

Tagun shut his eyes as his world shifted yet again. It had been hard to accept that Jagga was not his father, but it seemed that almost none of his assumptions about the history of Janaka were true.

"The great fault of Tharek was his possession of the sword of the wizard smith," Daglan said. "He took it from an Algire warrior and did not kill him. Then, to compound the error, the two of them became companions and defeated the emperor of Saadena."

"Enough," Tagun said. "I'm growing dizzy. It seems that very few of the the things I thought I knew were true."

"We will stay here for a while and I will teach you to handle a sword and more of the truth of how things are and how they came to be. When you are ready, I will take you to meet your grandmother on your father's side, the matriarch of clan Algire, Kabrika."

"How can you teach me to use a sword when it's been years since you carried one yourself?" Tagun asked.

"I didn't carry a sword while I was in Jagga's palace because I was pretending to be a fallen priest from Zedekla. If I had carried the sword my wife gave me when we married, I could not have concealed my identity as a warrior."

Daglan lit a torch and led Tagun further into the cave. Instead of growing smaller, the floor sloped down and the walls were further apart, making a sizeable cavern. There was a pile of crumbling bones shoved against one wall. "This was a wirra cave in ancient days when the great cats roamed these mountains," Daglan said.

He handed Tagun the torch before reaching up and removing a large rock from the back wall of the cave. He set it down then pushed several smaller rocks aside, revealing a long, low cavity. There were several items inside the niche, most of them wrapped in woven reed or leather. Daglan took them down one by one.

Daglan lifted the final bundle and took the torch from Dorn. "Come."

When they reached the opening of the cave Daglan paused and looked around and down toward the road far below. When he was certain they were unobserved he led Tagun downwards to a large bush that bounded the trail. Instead of skirting the foliage, Daglan pushed through it and Dorn followed with his hands held up to fend off whipping branches.

They came out on a wide flat area covered with sand and small pebbles. Steep rocky cliffs rose around them except for a wide cleft along the opposite side. "This used to be a Mareklan campground," Daglan said. "It hasn't been used in many years, but it will make a fine practice ground."

He placed the bundle on the ground and removed the leather-root twine that bound it. There were two long sheathed swords inside. When Daglan removed the first from its sheath Tagun's breath gusted in surprise. It was the finest example of a Janakan war blade he had ever seen. "Is this yours?" he asked as he reached up and touched the softly gleaming bronze.

"It is mine," Daglan said. "You can see that I could not have carried it in Jagga's presence."

"He would have tried to fight you for it himself," Tagun said.

"No, he would have had me assassinated and sent one of his minions to steal my sword. Jagga has the knack of leading discontents and rogues, but he is not a brave man. He won the throne with deceit and murder and they remain his favored weapons."

Tagun's feelings about the man he had called his father were still confused. He felt an urge to argue, but Daglan resheathed his sword and removed the other from its sheath. It was not the traditional sword of a warrior. The blade, instead of being curved and heavy, was shorter with a blunt and rounded section from the hilt midway down one side of the blade where the edge flared out and was sharp like the other side. It was more like a cross between a cleaver and a long dagger than a sword. Tagun puzzled over it. He had never seen its like.

"It is the sword carried by Janaka's kings, the sword of Dorn from the forge of Shira," Daglan said. "It is the only one of it's kind I have ever seen. Shira fashioned it when she was an apprentice of Darm, and she never made another sword."

Tagun picked up the sword and examined it closely. It must be hundred of years old but the surface was smooth without pits or fractures. "I take it Darm was the friend of Tharek you mentioned. Otherwise he would never have become a smith."

Daglan smiled. "You are learning. Yes, Darm lived out his life in Tedaka where he worked with all kinds of metal and forged fine tools, but Darm never made a sword"

"Surely when Jagga killed my father he would have taken his sword," Tagun said.

"Jagga did not take your father in his strength. One of his minions worked as a cook in the palace. Jagga broke in and murdered Koren while he was sleeping in the infirmary under the care of a healer."

"He murdered him in his sleep?" Tagun's whispered, incredulous. "That is an act of low dishonor."

"Jagga cares nothing for honor. He had what he wanted. The Orquians took over the palace and captured your mother. She hid your father's sword before she was taken. She had her chambers in the rooms in the north tower I used as my apartment. She told me where to find the sword. She wanted you to have it."

Tagun recalled the bed suspension hooks in the central chamber. "If her chamber was in the schoolroom, she must have known about the passage we used for our escape. Why didn't she use it?"

"She sent several of her servants to safety through the passage," Daglan said. "She had reasons to stay behind. She knew far better than Jagga the ancient traditions that hold in Janaka. As Koren's widow, she was acknowledged as the ruler of our land until she died, and now, you have the right to become the king."

"But you said I would have to prove myself," Tagun said.

"I said that the council of matriarchs chooses the king and you will be chosen if you do as I tell you. As long as you do not follow the cult of Orqu, you are the foremost candidate."

Tagun cringed with a sense of inadequacy. He was short and small for his age and almost alone except for Daglan. It seemed a petty threat against the might of Jagga's armies.

"Jagga rules all of Janaka. We could never overcome him," Tagun protested.

"Jagga rules all the rogues and cravens of Janaka," Daglan said. "Throughout the mountains your people wait in hope. The influence of Jagga is resisted by the matriarchs. He has no idea of their power since he knows very little about the land he claims to rule."

It had been difficult for Tagun to think of himself as a potential king even when Jagga had named him as his heir. For one thing, he had no skill with arms other than the staff. His brothers had practiced regularly with wooden swords. After several close calls in his early childhood when he had been beaten soundly and recovered slowly, Jagga had declared that he would train Tagun himself. Like most of Jagga's promises, it had been hollow. The king always found some excuse for delaying the effort.

On the other hand, the sword of Dorn that Tagun now held was comfortable in his hand. He moved it around, practicing the slashing movement he had seen his brothers use.

"You will have to learn a completely different series of movements to use the Sword of Dorn to best advantage," Daglan said. "You will have to forget much of what you learned about using a sword."

"That won't be hard," Tagun said. "You must know that I have not practiced with a sword since I was very young."

"Then you have a good beginning," Daglan said. "We will use wooden swords at first, but first we will have to make them. I noticed a balka tree not far down the trail that should do for the blades. I can help you appreciate the features of your sword. For one thing, it is not really made for slashing. You can slash, but the better attack is to lunge and pierce your opponent. Give me the sword."'

Tagun handed over the sword and stood back to watch his uncle. "Uncle", he liked using that word for Daglan. He had admired the tutor for years. Now, as he watched him wield the sword he saw an entirely different aspect to the man. He had thought of him as a scholar and he knew the tutor had the strength and agility to hold his own with the rambunctious antics of the princes, but Tagun had seldom thought of him as a warrior.

"You have seen the movements used to wield a traditional Janakan sword," Daglan said. "None of what you have seen is worth recalling. I would show you how such a sword should be handled, but I don't want you to copy me. I want you to watch my movements with this sword."

Daglan moved around as if fighting an invisible enemy. Time and time again he acted as if he were blocking a blow, and each time he did, the blunt section on what Tagun had come to think of as the back of the sword met the imaginary blade. After a while Tagun could almost picture the illusionary opponent by the way Daglan moved and parried. Finally Daglan lunged with the sword held out straight, his weight planted behind it. Tagun knew it would have been a death blow.

"I can see what you mean," Tagun said. "If I learn to use this sword properly I could someday be a warrior, but I am short and don't have much weight or reach. A normal man would easily vanquish me."

"Most will underestimate you. They will not be prepared for your way of fighting or your determination. I've known you since you were an infant Tagun. I've watched you brave blows and face vicious bullies without showing fear, but you are wise enough to hide and seek protection when you can. Those qualities will serve you well when you set out to reclaim your stewardship. A king is seldom called upon to engage in single combat. He must choose able men to act as his generals and aides. He must not yield to flattery or bribes. Perhaps the hardship you have faced from infancy has been the best preparation for your future. Enough of words. Let me see how you handle your sword."

Tagun took the sword and tried to envision an opponent. He thought of Porga and his leering comments about Elinka. Anger suffused him and he began to slash and lunge.

"Enough," Daglan said. "You are acting in anger. You must act with reason. Anger blinds the mind and confuses your movements. Revenge and anger are tools of the Liar. Perhaps that is the best lesson you can learn today. Come, we should cut branches to make practice swords and do some hunting."

Tagun liked the feel of the sword in his hand, but he recognized the vast difference between his efforts and the powerful and exact movements Daglan demonstrated. The rest of the day was spent replenishing their supplies. Daglan cut several branches from the tree. They refilled their water gourds at a spring and laid some snares nearby. Daglan showed Tagun how to use a sling to bring down small game.

A few fat coneys grilled over a fire provided a fine way to end the day. Tagun still felt a keen sorrow that his mother was either dead or nearly gone, but he went to sleep with a feeling of safety and content that he had never felt before, his sadness countered by the knowledge that Daglan was his uncle and sworn to support him.

The next morning Daglan made sturdy breastplates, helmets, thigh guards and shoulder pads from wood and leather. "In time both of us will appreciate the protection these give us."

"Warriors don't wear armor," Tagun said. "My brothers say only cowards wear armor".

"That is not true," Daglan told him. "Many Janakan clans use some form of armor. Some wear helmets, some breastplates, some put metal plates in their loincloths and others still strip naked to fight but wear metal arm bands. We are only practicing and there is no question of honor. It is reasonable to protect ourselves from wounds."

When they reached the practice ground Daglan lifted his wooden sword and assumed a pose.

"Watch me Tagun, then follow."

The swords were quite a bit heavier than the staffs they had used for practice, but Tagun followed the movements and felt the accustomed rhythm as they moved from pose to pose. Now he saw the meaning behind the years of drilling his body to lift and thrust, whirl and parry. But now, instead of a tap when he failed to make the right movement, Daglan hit him hard enough to hurt.

On the first afternoon of practice the protection of the rough armor kept Tagun from being bruised when time and time again his uncle's weapon thumped his limbs and body. Once his thrust broke through his uncle's guard and hit Daglan on his thigh only to earn him a return attack that sent him to the ground.

In the following days Tagun's admiration for Daglan grew. He was bruised, aching and weary of his lack of skill at parrying his uncle's blows with his wooden sword, but he improved. His body changed in response to the constant exercise, ample food and pure water. His arms and legs hardened and took on contours that better reflected his true age. Tagun's blade slipped past his teacher's guard now and then, but every time he succeeded, Daglan increased the pace and pressed him harder. Instead of his accustomed practice of spending an hour of exercise each morning, hours passed as Tagun learned new skill in handling a sword.

Each day when they finished practicing with the wooden swords, Daglan instructed Tagun in the use of the animals and plants they harvested for food and other purposes. He taught Tagun how to treat common illnesses with herbs and minerals as well as the care of wounds. Tagun hoped he was never asked to help a woman birth a child, but Daglan even told him what to do in such a case.

"I wish I could find some leather-root, my stores of twine are getting low," Daglan said one afternoon when they returned to the cave. "It is one of the most useful of the desert plants. After you dig the root, careful not to pull it out of the ground and rip away the tip of the tuber, you must cut off the tip. It contains a rank and potent poison that will taint the entire tuber if you rip it off by accident."

Tagun grimaced. "It seems hardly worth the trouble."

"It could make a difference between death and survival if you are caught in desert lands," Daglan said. "Once you cut off the tip, don't cut the tuber. Chew it to release the juice, then afterwards, chew it again to get the nourishment."

Tagun shook his head, secretly glad that Daglan had no means to demonstrate the method of harvesting a leather root plant. "You stink like a leather root," was a term of derision Jagga's sons favored. He doubted any of them understood the meaning of the taunt, but had picked it up from older men who had reason to appreciate the insult.

Weeks passed as Tagun learned the skills he would need to use the Sword of Dorn. He learned how to observe and forecast his uncle's movements. The wooden swords Daglan had prepared were destroyed one by one.

One morning Tagun woke up to a calm sense of well being. The strained muscles and bruises that had plagued him when he first began his training were only a memory. Yesterday when he had sparred with Daglan his uncle failed to land a single blow.

He had learned far more than swordplay in the weeks since leaving Jagga's castle. His uncle had taught him about his father and the goals he cherished. Koren had been trying to form an alliance between the great cities of Okishdu when he died. Daglan created a picture of a hero pure and brave, a man worthy of Elinka, but he seemed more of a legend than a man of flesh and blood. Tagun felt proud of having Koren as his father, but he still remembered Jagga's rough fondness and the look on his face when Elinka was dying. Tagun would undertake to destroy the cult with no regret, but it would not be revenge against Jagga that drove him.

He once saw Jagga as a tower of strength, but now he saw the truth. It was Elinka with her gentleness and faith who had been strong almost beyond his comprehension. He gladly accepted the challenge she had left him as her legacy.

A hint of morning grayed the sky at the opening of the cave. The slight rasp of Daglan's breath betrayed that he was still asleep. Tagun rose and left the cave. Within minutes he had relieved himself and washed, then found some tender ota shoots and a few bird's eggs to prepare a simple breakfast.

He had banked the fire the night before and he sliced the ota shoots and braised them in a bit of coney fat before adding the eggs and stirring the mixture as it thickened on the cooking stone. A precious sprinkle of salt from one of Daglan's packets and a few crushed leaves of water weed finished the recipe.

"Well done," Daglan murmured when he left the cave and squatted near the warm fire pit. "A month ago you had no idea of how to make a meal, let alone doing so while leaving me to sleep."

Tagun smiled then finished his preparations by raising his hands and invoking the blessings of Yasa Dom.

They used small wooden blades to lift the tasty mixture to their mouths and Daglan gave a little groan of pleasure. "You used some salt, and I detect the tang of water weed as well. If you don't succeed in becoming king of Janaka you might audition as a chef in some other court."

Tagun chuckled and reached out to scrape up the last fragrant fragment from the stone. "I noticed last night that the swords you carved are nearly gone. One more day of sparring might well disarm the two of us."

"We have other swords," Daglan said. "The wooden swords have served their purpose, but now you are ready to get serious. I would have been a fool to let you use a real sword before you gained some skill. You could have injured yourself and me as well."

After cleaning up after breakfast they strapped on their armor and Daglan removed the bronze swords from their sheaths. "It is time for you to face a real blade."

They made their way to the practice field and took stances opposite each other. Tagun sidled side wise in a circle until it was Daglan who faced the rising sun.

The gleam on the edge of Daglan's blade sent a shiver through Tagun. He had felt the power of Daglan's blows with a wooden sword, but this was an edged blade that could cut through his armor and sever a limb.

Daglan sensed his fear. "I will not strike you with my blade. I will only parry, but you know what could happen if I were your enemy."

Daglan dropped the tip of his sword and they began their practice. Tagun focused on thrusting, but again and again his sword was turned aside. He tried to remember what Daglan had taught him. He did not have weight and reach, but he could use speed and skill to compensate. He began to realize that other than refusing to slash at him, Daglan was not sparing him. His parrying blows were powerful and several times Tagun was nearly spun from his feet and thrown to the ground. But he used the momentum to his advantage and controlled the spins, coming up against his opponent at different angles.

Instead of ending when sweat was rolling down their foreheads and blurring their vision, Daglan continued the practice. Tagun realized what he would have to do to end the ordeal. He finally found an opening and thrust his sword at his uncle's chest. The blade bit through the leather and wood of the breastplate and before Tagun lurched back and rolled on the ground with the force of his withdrawal he felt his tip slide sideways as it met a metal disk.

"You could have killed me," Daglan said as he looked down at the hole in his armor, revealing the metal disk he had placed over his heart. "Well done. I should have planned better, your blade slipped and scored a nasty cut." He dabbed at the welling blood with his fingers.

"I'll bring gunge weed and make a poultice to stop the blood," Tagun said. "Rest here until I return."

"I brought gunge weed when we came down here this morning. I thought this might happen. I only hoped you would have the control to strike true and hit the disk or pull your blow when you struck flesh."

"Your armor didn't protect you," Tagun said.

"I knew it would be inadequate," Daglan replied. "But although I am grateful you stopped, you must realize that you must never do so again. If you are willing to fight a man, you must be willing to finish the fight. Otherwise, you will not be worthy to rule in Janaka."

"I began to wonder if you had forgotten the idea of helping me become king," Tagun said.

"That is all I have been doing. If you could not learn to use the Sword of Dorn, I would have withdrawn my support."

"So what do we do now?" Tagun asked after he had helped fasten the poultice to staunch the flow of blood from Daglan's chest.

"Now we visit your grandmother, Kabrika, and she will judge if I chose wisely when I stayed to foster you after your father died. If she accepts you as the heir, you will learn more about Dorn."

Breaking camp the next morning was the work of minutes. There was nothing left but scattered ashes when they left the cave. Tagun had become familiar with the landscape in the area in the past few weeks. When they got to the cleft in the rock that led to the road Daglan stopped and gave instructions.

"We are near the southwestern border of Janaka. To visit Kabrika we will go east then turn north near the edge of the mountains where the lands of Kumnora begin. We will travel early in the morning and rest until the early afternoon. Jagga's men are a lazy lot. They sleep until mid morning and nap after eating at noon. It would not be wise for us to travel at night where I don't know the lay of the land."

"When will we know when we should stop in the morning," Tagun asked as they headed out on the trail.

"We watch for the smoke that tells us they are cooking their breakfast when we are near their forts, or we see if the sun has cleared the top of the nearest peak. When we can, we will shelter near one of the forts and take note of their activities. Do not speak when they might be awake."

"That could be dangerous," Tagun said with a quick nod.

"For them, not for us," his uncle assured him. "We could dispatch any of the four man groups Jagga sends to the forts. Most of the time we will find our way unencumbered by them. They often sleep most of the day a daze of docil and dass, but if they see us and escape to make report we will be tracked by others not so easily defeated."

"How can Jagga hope to conquer the southern plains with refuse such as that?" Tagun asked.

"Jagga's power lies in the illusion of force and the stealth of his fellow cultists. They have infested the other lands of Okishdu. As far as I have determined, only Tanka, Headman of Tedaka has stayed free of their influence in his court. Before we can reveal who you are to the rulers of Zedekla and Taleeka, the traitors must be revealed. As long as they have influence, the alliance against Jagga is doomed to fail."

Daglan's chest wound mandated a slower pace than they might have taken. Tagun watched his uncle's face and when Daglan's features took on a certain look of determined stoicism Tagun claimed the need to stop and rest on his own account. For three days they continued their journey eastward along the foothills and spent their nights close to the small forts that Jagga had established along the border. The forts were barely more than hovels with a two story watchtower on the side. The slovenly warriors who staffed the forts seldom ventured forth. Tagun was filled with contempt for the few they saw emerge and stagger to a privy or a well. Porga had bragged that Janakan warriors never wore armor, but these border guards wore ribbed breastplates reinforced kilts and leather helmets even for such mundane tasks.

One day when it neared midmorning Tagun broke the rule of silence Daglan had imposed. "I hope we find something to eat soon."

"Stop, show yourselves," a voice ordered.

Four border guards trotted out of the bushes in front of them. In the moment between the order to stop and the appearance of the guards, Daglan drew the sword that rode between his shoulders and Tagun unsheathed his weapon. The leader of the guards came to a halt, then began to laugh.

"Daglan and Tagun, what a prize. Take them," he ordered the other men.

Through the tangled beard and low brow guard Tagun recognized the face of Dugga, Jagga's second son.

"My father will want to see them. They absconded from the palace before he could honor his wife with a funeral."

"Did Jagga send you to the frontier as punishment for your insults to my mother?" Tagun asked as he raised his blade.

The guards approached warily but Dugga jeered at their caution. "They are weaklings. Neither of them knows how to use a sword."

Two of the guards closed on Daglan, the other chose to take on Tagun. Daglan raised the tip of his sword in challenge and Tagun pointed his sword at the chest of the man who approached him.

"Drop your weapons!" Dugga yelled from several feet away.

The other guards realized the futility of his order as the men they had accosted began to defend themselves. Tagun concentrated on his own contest and didn't see what happened to the men who faced Daglan. It was terribly simple to pierce the chest of the guard who was facing him with his sword poised to slash. The man dropped his sword and staggered back, his lips bubbling blood, his eyes wide with surprise. Tagun felt a wave of sickness claw at his throat. But he bit down and turned to face the man who had tormented him for years.

"I will kill you, runt", Dugga shouted. He bounded forward, his sword waving wildly. It was a messy, impulsive charge, and it surprised Tagun. Dugga often boasted about his ability with a sword and Porga had never contested the claims of his younger brother. The reality was almost shocking. Tagun had learned to fight Daglan, but this was another kind of contest. Dugga was driven by anger. There was no skill in his fighting. Time and time again he slashed at Tagun, each time his eyes lit with anticipated triumph, but his clumsy blows were easily parried.

Tagun knew he had to strike a mortal blow, but memories of the years when he was small returned. He knew he shouldn't kill for spite or revenge or he would taint his soul, but Dugga represented all the misery of his youth.

This was the boy who had dumped a pot of urine in his soup, the miscreant who had led the slanders against his mother. The leering face, the jutting jaw, the piggy eyes that mocked him; every feature of Dugga's face was like a memory of a nightmare. At the same time the face was very like his father, Jagga, a man who was guilty of many things, but who had loved Elinka and protected Tagun.

"Finish it," Daglan said from nearby.

Tagun knew he had no choice in the matter. Dugga was intent on his death. With a feeling of sorrow that surprised him, he moved under the other man's attack and sent his blade home past armor, ribs and into the tough little fist sized muscle in the middle of Dugga's chest. Dugga's eye's opened wide and he snarled, struggling to bring up his sword in one last slashing blow, but his muscles failed him and he fell to the ground.

Tagun bent over and emptied the remains of his breakfast over the sand. "I am not fit to be a warrior," he told Daglan when the retching finished. "Dugga has hated me for years, but I regret that I killed him."

"I would think less of you if you rejoiced in his death," Daglan said. "He wore the mark of Orqu with pride. He reveled in the death of your mother, but any human life is the Maker's child. Dugga could have been more if he wanted."

"I don't see your face pale with nausea," Tagun said. "These men would still be alive if I had kept quiet."

"Possibly, but it is likely that we would have run straight into them even if you were silent. I have expected that we would have to face one of the guard squads sooner or later. It may happen again before we reach our goal. Come, help me bury them."'

Tagun wanted to explain that Dugga's resemblance to Jagga had some part in his reaction, but he pondered the problem in his own heart and kept silent.

They located some tools in the nearby fort that they could use as shovels. They soon excavated a wide trench deep enough to hold the four bodies. Daglan put down his shovel and raised his arms in a gesture of invocation.

"Should we bless the graves of such as these?" Tagun asked.

"Graves should be blessed, whatever the crimes of the humans they hold," Daglan answered. "It is our own humanity we honor when we do so."

Tagun could understand the sense of what his uncle said and he raised his hands along with Daglan as the simple words were said. "Bless this ground to receive these shells. If there was any good in their souls, let it return to the Maker."

They found meal and dried meat and some withered fruit in the fort and replenished their water skins at a small well up the hill from the building. "Surely someone will notice their absence and report it to Jagga," Tagun said.

"Dugga would not be at this fort if his father cared what happens to him. The rate of desertion is high along the border."

Daglan and Tagun washed the gore from their blades before restoring them to their sheaths. "Jagga's warriors let their swords grow foul with old blood," Daglan said. "If you are ever wounded by an Orquian's blade, be sure you wash the wound well and use a tincture of oil bush leaves before applying another poultice. Otherwise you could die from infection days after you are wounded."

Tagun nodded. When they camped that night he recorded the encounter with the border guards in his journal and included a note about wound care. He found it ironic that the first blood on his blade had come from Daglan.



Chapter 3 Instruction



They passed other border posts without incident. Two days after their skirmish with Dugga's men they turned north out of the foothills and entered mountains. There were villages near the road with fields overgrown with weeds, doors hung ajar and roofs missing thatch. Even the mines were boarded up and the forges where women should be working were empty.

Near noon on the third day Daglan led the way up a narrow track and they came to fields that were green and well tended. The women tending the fields ran from them. When Tagun and Daglan reached a village it seemed deserted, but well swept walks and painted doors belied the lack of smoke from the chimneys.

Daglan stood before the door of one of the larger houses and turned to Tagun. "We have come to the home of Kabrika. Un-sheath your sword and hold it above your head."

As soon as Tagun took the stance the door opened and an old woman peered out at them. "What do you want here. Our warriors have fled and we are defenseless."

Tagun looked to Daglan but his uncle's face was still and stern, his eyes straight forward. Tagun decided to venture an explanation.

"I am Tagun, son of Koren. I bear the Sword of Dorn."

"Lower your sword to the ground, then show me your palms," the woman muttered, her stance still almost servile, her eyes lowered.

Tagun did as she asked. He held out his hands and she took them in her own. She turned them, then spit on them and rubbed at the skin until it seemed ready to peel away with the force of her fingers.

At last she looked up at him with a keen gaze that held disappointment. "You are a runt, but it seems you have avoided contamination. What do you want of me?"

"I came to learn of Dorn and seek your wisdom," Tagun answered.

She nodded and opened her door wider, inviting both of them to enter with a gesture. A modest meal was ready to eat on the table, but within a few minutes other women came to the door with barbequed meat and matlas, fruit and pickled breadberries. One carried a pitcher full of hot cala and another a jar of ripe nuka juice.

While the other women served the meal Kabrika left the house. Tagun saw her a few minutes later through the open window. She was leading a young man across the road and into another building. Just before entering the door she looked around with an almost covert glance and Tagun wondered what she was doing.

His interest in Kabrika's activities was soon diverted by his enjoyment of the meal. It was the best food Tagun could remember eating. He tried to moderate his appetite, but there was plenty and all of it was delicious. Finally Daglan nudged his knee under the table and gave him a stern look when he glanced up. To Tagun's surprise, Kabrika stood nearby.

"You are not a runt from lack of healthy appetite," she said. Tagun blushed.

"Come, both of you need to bathe," Kabrika said impatiently. "There is a sweat tent and a barrel of water in the yard behind my house. I have clothing and shoes you can use when you are clean, although I will have to find some smaller things to fit the runt."

Tagun could see a twinkle in her eyes and knew that she was goading him with humor. He smiled and stretched. "I may not remain a runt for long under these conditions," he said.

"I find that unlikely," she countered. "If you truly are the son of Koren, you are older than you look, and it is unusual for Janakan men to grow after they reach your age."

Tagun felt deflated, but his small size had saved him from the terror of choosing between death or the cult. Dugga and the other guards had underestimated his threat. A long reach and tall stance had apparent advantages, but it wouldn't do to wish for what he might never have.

Daglan had to show Tagun how to use the sweat tent and the barrel of water. At first he hated the sensation of cold water running over his skin to the floor, then being turned into steam as it dripped on the hot stones heated by the central fire pit. Daglan handed him a cloth and instructed him to rub his skin and remove the dirt and sweat accumulated on their journey. But it was not just the dirt of weeks. The members of Jagga's cult favored filth as a celebration of the demon. Tagun realized that he must have reeked for most of his life. He hadn't enjoyed the bath, but he began to enjoy being clean.

"The border guards should have been able to smell where we were," he said to Daglan after dressing in fresh clothing.

"Orquians prefer filth and their own stench would have obscured any we could produce." Daglan explained. "The men of Algire are known for being a bit fussy about their grooming."

When Kabrika saw them again she nodded with approval. "Ah, I can breath without gagging. Now I will see if you have the wits to learn what I can teach you."

Tagun exchanged a smile with his uncle. It was so like something Daglan would have said.

Kabrika led them to a room that was lit from overhead by clerestory openings covered with translucent stone set in grids of bronze. Filtered light flooded the room, revealing racks of scrolls and shelves holding carved slates and writing materials. Five sturdy chairs with padded seats and back rests surrounded a wide table in the center of the room.

"These scrolls contain the history of our people," Kabrika said. "Most of them were gathered and edited by Dorn. Your mother preserved them and smuggled them from the palace with the aid of faithful servants. It was one of the reasons she didn't flee when Jagga killed your father."

Tagun recalled the ruin in the palace library where neglect and willful sabotage had destroyed most of what was left once this core of precious records had been salvaged. He silently blessed his mother for her courage and foresight in a moment when most would have fled in terror. As Daglan had once told him, she had been more than he had imagined.

Kabrika moved forward and told Tagun to be seated. "I will bring the first of the scrolls you should study. I'll leave you here to read and ponder. I assume you know how to read?"

"He is an able student," Daglan said.

"We will see," she said. "This evening after supper we will gather here and you can tell us what you think you've learned."

Daglan left the room with Kabrika leaving Tagun alone with the scrolls. He was tempted to ignore the scroll Kabrika had placed on the table in front of him and explore the other items in the room. He could see labels on the various scrolls that promised answers to the questions that had tantalized him for years. With a sigh of frustration he restrained his curiosity and unrolled the scroll Kabrika had determined he should read.

The cloth of the scroll was creamy with age but the ink had not faded. The characters were written with a deft and steady hand, no wavering lines or splotches, but they gave a sense of being set down quickly, almost impatiently by the scribe.

"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tharek, the Tyrant of Zedekla, I, Dorn, was born to Falinta, a woman of Margan clan."

Tagun's pulse quickened. Kabrika's words had made him think that Dorn had only edited and gathered these records, but this was the hero's story, by his own hand. Soon Tagun was caught up in the story of how Dorn's mother had fled her home and husband with her infant son and eloped with a member of her own clan, a forbidden alliance. Living in a market town beyond the reach of her family, she bore other children. Dorn, her firstborn, had been sold as a slave to an Orquian priest. The boy was rescued and adopted by the Algiran warrior, Kagun, as he set out on a quest to gain the Sword of the Wizard Smith captured by Tharek. Tagun read on, insensible of the passage of time or the ache in his legs from sitting for a long time without moving.

His eyes were strained with reading in the dimming light when Daglan entered the room with a lamp. "Come. It is time to eat."

Tagun started to stand, then staggered when his numb legs refused to support him. Daglan grabbed Tagun's arm and held him up for a moment until he could walk. "I should have warned you to get up and move around now and then. If I had been your enemy you would have been defenseless."

Supper was a simple meal of matlas wrapped around barbequed meat with fresh fruit to finish. Tagun assumed that it was left over from the lavish lunch they had been served when they first arrived. Clean up after the meal was a simple matter of wiping off the table and rinsing out their cups.

Kabrika led the way back to the room she used as a library. Daglan and Tagun stood while she lit several lamps in sconces around the room and took a seat.

Tagun settled into a seat and waited to be questioned, but neither Kabrika nor Daglan said anything. Finally his grandmother sighed. "Have you nothing to say about what you read today?"

"I am glad Dorn took the time to write about his life," Tagun said. "I almost felt that I was with him when he fled from the Orquians and learned of his true parentage."

"I hope you have developed the habit of keeping a record of your own life," Kabrika said.

Tagun glanced toward Daglan and took the journal from his belt pouch. "I have tried to keep a record of what seemed important, but often I'm too tired to write when the day ends. I usually fall asleep before I even have a chance to think about what happened."

"Dorn didn't know how to read or write until after he met the Tharek, the Tyrant of Zedekla. Tharek taught Dorn to keep a daily record." Daglan said. "You have had the advantage of my tutoring since you were very young."

"Hmm, and where is your journal, Daglan," Kabrika asked the tutor with a raised brow.

Daglan removed the journal he kept concealed beneath his tunic. "I have kept a record daily since I found my sister bound to her throne by Jagga. I knew that someday I might need to provide proof of what I claim for Tagun. If my enemies had ever read what I have written, it could mean my life."

Kabrika nodded and turned to Tagun. "Many have risked and will risk much for you. The least you can do is keep a of record of your life for those who may need your example in the future."

"I'm not a hero such as Dorn," Tagun protested.

"Dorn was not a hero at your age," Kabrika said. "Many heroes are too busy making history to write the story of their doings, and without their own words, they are often seen as more than human."

"I guess the most important thing I learned today from the chronicles of Dorn was that he was once a lonely, ignorant child and everything he accomplished was due in part to help from others," Tagun said. "By writing his own record, Dorn avoided the illusion that he was above ordinary men. I regret that I didn't know him and call him friend."

"In reading his words you come to know him," Kabrika said. "You learn his point of view and the ideals that sustained him through the challenges he faced as he united the clans. Orquians had steadily been gained influence among the border clans, stirring up the greed of those who coveted the fertile plains of Virdana."

Tagun stifled a yawn, not of boredom, but of plain weariness for a day that had exercised his mind as well as his body. Daglan pushed back his chair and stood. "We are wasting lamp oil when there are hours enough in the day to weary us. Where should we sleep tonight Kabrika?"

The old woman nodded and stood up. "You show promise Tagun. You will alternate your studies here with lessons from Daglan. Come now, I will show you to your rooms."

It was an exaggeration to call the tiny chambers rooms. They were more like cells, barely long enough to accommodate a narrow cot with a shelf hung from the wall above the bed to store a pack or other items.

Kabrika glanced around. "Ordinarily a young man of your age would live in the bachelor warriors' lodge until you found a bride, but these are not ordinary times and it will be more convenient for all of us if both of you stay here with me."

Tagun had been sleeping in a cave or under the sky for weeks and he had no quarrel with the quarters she provided. After Daglan and Kabrika left him alone Tagun removed his boots and tunic. He was tempted to fall asleep as soon as he said a prayer, but the lesson of the day had not been wasted and he removed his journal from his belt pouch and recorded his impressions of the day.

He briefly wondered if any others would ever find a reason to read what he had written. Then he considered the date he had noted at the top of the page. Jagga had not kept his own records, and for that reason he had been deceived to accept Tagun as his own child. It was not just incident and a record of the passing scene that mattered. Henceforth Tagun would be able to recall that it was on the third day of the fourth moon of his eighteenth year of life that he had come to the homeland of his fathers and begun to acquaint himself with the history of Janaka's first king.

The following days were mostly spent in studying the scrolls of Dorn and maps of Okishdu and her many lands. In the afternoon Tagun continued sword exercises with Daglan and evenings were taken up with conversations with Kabrika and his tutor. There were breaks from the routine now and then. One of the neighboring families celebrated a wedding by holding a small festival and the day was spent in feasting, games and singing songs about the history of Algire village and its heroes.

Tagun recognized some of the melodies, but the words were different from chants and songs recited to glorify Jagga by his rowdy warriors. One of the maidens invited him to join a dance and he blushed with embarrassment when he stumbled during a turn. He wanted to leave the festival and hide his shame but Daglan dragged him back toward the line of lively maidens.

"Let them practice their flirtation skills on you Tagun. As a member of their clan you are like a brother. No Janakan would think to choose a mate from the same clan."

Tagun knew he would only seem more the fool if he withdrew completely and he let himself be coaxed into another line of youthful dancers. When he stumbled again he was the first to laugh and found the great relief of having other laughing with him. It was a new experience for him, one he valued. Some of the teasing maidens seemed intent on making him blush after the dance had ended.

"We seldom have visitors in Algire, and none so handsome," one girl said. She had been the first to ask him to share the dance and he noticed that her eyes were particularly pretty when she smiled.

Tagun felt his cheeks heat and saw the girls cover their mouths to stifle giggles, but he had learned enough to know the best revenge was to respond in kind.

"I have never seen such pretty maidens," he assured them.

It was sadly true. The captive girls he had seen in Janaka wore an aura of despair that dulled their eyes. He found new reason to pursue the path of destroying the cult.

For a few days afterward his thoughts would turn to the pretty girl who asked him to dance. It seemed a shame that custom forbade him to plan any kind of future that included her. Eventually the fascination faded and he could laugh at himself for being so easily drawn into an infatuation.

As he studied the history of Dorn, Tagun hoped to find some hint of how the orphaned slave had become a king and slowed the progress of the cult among Janakans. As a child Dorn had experienced firsthand the dreadful rituals of the cult. He had helped to frustrate the kidnaping of one of Tharek's daughters. By the time he had returned to Algire village with his adoptive mother and his father he had already become familiar with the evil of the worst of Orqu's minions.

For the first few years after his return to Algire Dorn's life had pursued the course common to Janakan youth of his era. He had practiced to be a warrior and made a pilgrimage to the holy city of Timora with a group of other youths. The turning point had come when he returned and looked to find a bride. The girl he favored was abducted only days before he planned the ritual kidnaping of Janakan courtship. At first Dorn thought she had been taken by a rival, but there was no news of her marriage and in time a necklace Dorn had left where she would find it had been discovered in the trove of captured outlaws. They denied any knowledge of the girl, but they wore the tattoos that belied their claims of innocence. One of them finally confessed that she had been sacrificed to Orqu and the lot of them were executed.

Dorn had turned from thoughts of marriage and starting a family to seeking out other cultists and bringing them to justice. He learned that a number of bridal abductions had been perverted to a worse cause. He visited the clans, warning them to guard their daughters and make certain that the men who came to take them were honest suitors with marriage in mind.

Some claimed that Dorn was interfering with traditional courtship ritual and some warriors tried to stop him, but he persisted and other warriors joined his cause. Three of them were men who had lost sisters to the cultists and another, like Dorn, had lost a sweetheart to abduction. They represented four different clans with extensive connections to a wider set of clans through their mothers and sisters.

Nearly five years passed while Dorn and his allies persisted, often at risk from angry opponents. They found that some men had taken advantage of the efforts of their rivals and taken brides who expected to be abducted by another man. Not only that, but some maidens had been substituted for their more desirable sisters and cousins by a conspiracy of their guardians and parents. Those who had benefitted from the subterfuge were most vocal in protesting the reforms Dorn promoted.

The turning point came when Martana, the daughter of the chief of Feld Clan expected to be abducted by a warrior of Clan Batran. She been taken by a group of cultists, and her hopeful groom and his supporters were murdered as they took the trail to Feld.

The reaction to the crime was immediate and nearly caused a general war. It was Dorn and his cohorts who tracked the culprits and intervened just before the daughter of the chief of Feld was sacrificed. Returned to her village, Martana gave witness against the false friend who had betrayed her to the plotting cultists. Then she did something remarkable and unheard of in Janaka. She announced that she had chosen Dorn to replace her murdered suitor as her husband.

It was a marriage of convenience for both of them. In marrying Martana Dorn gained influence with her grandmother, head of the council of matriarchs and Martana became the apprentice of Shira, who had become one of Janaka's leading smiths.

From what Tagun read in Dorn's scroll, the marriage, had soon become a joy to both of them. Children followed in quick succession, cementing Dorn's status as a warrior worthy of respect.

The council of matriarchs had elected Dorn to be first king of Janaka when he brought a major cell of the cult to justice. They had funded the building of the great fortress palace that had been usurped by Jagga.

Tagun kept careful notes of Dorn's observations on the nature of those who joined the cult. They confirmed his own opinion that while not all criminals were cultists, all cultists had the character of low criminals, seeking advantage over others with sly cunning. They were likely to indulge in drugs and vice. They treated women with disdain. The one exception to this rule was Jagga. Tagun never questioned that the man he had called father had loved Elinka. Even now there were rumors of a tomb of creamy marble being erected on a hillside near the city of Janaka. Some said that funds for the construction of Elinka's tomb were being diverted from the temple of Orqu.

Whenever Tagun thought of Jagga his heart felt torn. He wanted to feel that he was truly Koren's son. Learning first hand about the life of Dorn had made him feel a kinship with Janaka's first king. He hoped to form the same kind of bond with his father. Tagun asked Kabrika if she had any records made by Woren before he died.

She averted her eyes for a moment and shook her head. "Koren was a son to be proud of, but unlike Dorn, there is nothing of his thoughts in writing for you to read. When I rebuked him for his lack of records he said he would wait until he accomplished something worthy of note. Meanwhile he felt he was too busy to keep a journal of his daily tasks. I have done what I could to recount his actions, but I will not presume to guess his thoughts."

Tagun sought out the scroll Kabrika had written about her son, but it seemed dull and lifeless compared to Dorn's account. Although less than a decade separated Tagun from his father, he felt a distance far greater than he felt from Dorn who had lived several centuries before.

After finishing the scrolls that Dorn had written, Tagun read other scrolls Kabrika felt he might find instructive. Without fail, those that most affected him were written by men who lived through the events they wrote about. For centuries the heirs of Dorn had ruled and kept prosperity and order in the mountains Janak had chosen when the clans dispersed from Timora. The border clans continued to rebel, but able kings had acted swiftly to subdue them.

When Tagun finished the scroll written by his grandfather, a warrior who had died relatively young in battle with the cult, Tagun asked Kabrika to tell him more about the years that followed the death of her husband and the ascent of her son, Koren, to the throne.

"I was glad to retire to Algire and become a widow smith once my husband died and Koren was elected in his place," Kabrika said. "Perhaps I would have served your father better if I stayed in the palace to advise him through those first few years. I thought Elinka might do better without my oversight. In truth I was weary of the responsibilities of royalty and yearned to return to the simple tasks of field and hearth."

She paused for a few moments and looked up at Daglan who had silently listened to their conversation. "Perhaps you would have been spared the task of looking after Tagun if I had detected the conspiracy before it could be carried out."

"Regret is s futile emotion," Daglan answered. "I heard a rumor that Jagga became infatuated with my sister when he saw her at Zedekla's court. I dismissed it with disdain. I knew my sister would never play her husband false, and how could such as Jagga ever threaten a man like Koren?"

"Yet both of us knew how determined and cunning the slave seller could be," Kabrika said. "He somehow found a way into every ruling house in Okishdu although his means of making a living was no secret."

Daglan nodded. "Jagga walked a narrow line just inside the law. Every child he sold was barely of age for legal trading. He had documents to prove the venue of his acquisitions from the desperate families who discharged their debt by entering a contract for the service of their kin. I had been set the task of looking into his activities. I knew much of him although I took care that he never made my acquaintance. I should have been able to stop him from his dealings with the cult."

Tagun grew impatient. "Both of you seem intent on taking blame for Koren's murder. I suspect you underestimate Jagga's cunning."

Kabrika glared at him, then a grin broke the stern line of her mouth and she shook her head ruefully. "I continue to make the mistake of thinking of you as a child Tagun. Daglan was right about the futility of regret. It promotes the vain illusion that we can somehow change the past."

"I may be impertinent, but I have a question for you Daglan," Tagun quickly said, deciding to take advantage of his uncle's answering smile.

"I'm sure your question will be impertinent," Daglan said. "I cannot guarantee I'll give an answer."

"After we left the palace, when you revealed that you are my uncle, you claimed to be a warrior of clan Terifil. Lately I have learned than even now a man cannot claim to be a warrior until he has married and become the father of at least one child. My father Koren was a king, but not yet acknowledged as a warrior because he had no children."

"Daglan will not answer what you seem intent on asking," Kabrika said. "Janakan men do not speak of such things. Daglan's wife and children died in an attack on a group of refugees that was fleeing the city for the safety of the hills."

"My decision to seek out Jagga and destroy him was very personal," Daglan said without directly referring to Kabrika's statement. "When I saw my sister bound to the throne I had to end my quest for vengeance and provide her with whatever support I could. Jagga never learned to read and write. He relied on others to keep his accounts. His previous scribe had been killed for an accounting error and I saw my opportunity."

Tagun had felt the burden of his mother's sacrifice, and now the weight of Daglan's choice settled on his heart. Living in close contact with his greatest enemy, pretending subservience to a man he despised for nearly two decades for the cause of freedom from the cult, marked Daglan as a hero in Tagun's mind.

Between daily sword practice with Daglan and the challenging curriculum Kabrika set for him, Tagun took little notice as women began to enter the village one by one. One afternoon instead of practicing, Daglan told him to take his sword to the large building in the center of the village. Tagun had assumed the place was a warehouse, meant to store ore and tools for the traders, but when he entered he found that a circle of benches extended from a central dais near the far wall. Kabrika sat on a stool on the dais with an empty chair next to her. The benches were crowded with women, more than Tagun had ever seen in one place, but then he wasn't accustomed to seeing women. Orquians disdained women and used them only as necessary to satisfy their lusts or blood their altars. Glimpses of captives being led to Orqu's temple, occasional sightings of Jagga's other wives who usually kept to the confines of their harem, a few dispirited servants, and his mother, were all he could remember from his years in the palace.

He felt every eye on him as he walked to the dais and took the seat next to Kabrika at her signal. There were mutters and whispers until Kabrika stood. The women fell silent when she raised her hands and began to invoke a blessing. "We thank the Radiance that he has shown us his favor. We ask him to light our path with his wisdom. We invoke his blessing on Tagun, son of Koren, heir of Dorn, true king of Janaka."

She dropped her hands and turned to Tagun and indicated that he should stand. Tagun stood and heard a few murmurs. It was inevitable that they would realize how short he was when he stood next to his grandmother. Even bent with age she was tall for a woman. The top of his head reached the bridge of her nose.

"Show them your sword," she whispered. Tagun raised the sword and held it above his head.

"You carry the Sword of Dorn, but do you know how to use it?" one of the women said in a grating tone of voice that seemed to mock him.

"I have been taught by Daglan, my mother's brother. Some of you may remember him," Tagun replied.

"You have been taught, but did you learn the first lesson? Are you willing to use the sword against the enemy?" the same woman returned.

"Through my own folly I alerted some border guards to our presence while we were on our journey to Algire Village," Tagun said. "Four guards attacked the two of us. I accounted for two of them."

"Show us your palms," another woman challenged.

Tagun handed his sword to Kabrika and held up his hands with the palms forward. Impulsively he removed his tunic and stripped to his loincloth until he stood before them with most of his skin exposed. It had been a matter of ridicule from his brothers that he had never been tattooed. But now it seemed his decision was foreordained. He proved that he had not concealed a mark of Orqu on any part of his limbs and trunk. His action also revealed that instead of the chubby, unformed limbs of a child, his tunic had concealed the chunky muscles of a fit young man.

He quickly pulled his tunic over his head and belted it firmly around his waist when he caught the smile in the eyes of one of the younger women.

"As you have seen, Tagun is what I have claimed," Kabrika said. "He is a runt, no doubt, but he is a warrior, trained by a warrior. He has a quick mind and a good heart. Do any question that he is the true heir of Dorn?" When no challenge came Kabrika asked another question. "Do you affirm him as the true heir?"

Tagun looked around and saw that the woman who had challenged him was the first to raise her hand in a sign of affirmation. The others quickly joined her.

"Are there any who want to voice their opposition?" Kabrika said. "Raise your hand and speak your mind."

Kabrika's demand was followed by silence. It seemed that if there were any doubters they were shy of speaking up.

"You lack only a few things before we confirm you as king of Janaka," Kabrika said. "You lack a bride and you have never bathed in the waters of Lake Timora. You must make a pilgrimage to the holy city. Before the scourge of Jagga blighted our land our young men would have formed a train of pilgrims to go with you. As it is, you must go alone."

Daglan had not been invited to the council meeting and Tagun wondered what his tutor would say about Kabrika's demand. The matriarch tugged at his tunic and when he looked at her she gestured toward the door with her chin. He had served his purpose and had to leave.

He left the council hall and looked for Daglan, eager to tell him what had happened. He found his uncle waiting in the shadow of Kabrika's sweat tent with a bundle in his arms.

"I am to make a pilgrimage to Timora," Tagun said as soon as he was close enough to give his news in a quiet voice.

"I have your pilgrim robes ready for you to put on as soon as you bathe," Daglan said. "Kabrika will provide your pilgrim staff when she bids you farewell and gives you your final instructions."

"She said I was to go alone," Tagun said.

"I have other duties," Daglan said. "When you have finished your pilgrimage to Timora, found a wife and exposed the cultists who have infested Zedekla and Taleeka, you will return and we will summon your army and defeat the usurper of your throne."

"Kabrika didn't say anything about looking for cultists," Tagun said.

"She was speaking to a large assembly," Daglan said. "There is a risk that there are traitors among them. If those who oppose us knew that you were on an active errand to seek out and reveal our enemies, the opposition would increase. You must not let yourself be captured. Jagga is gathering his forces and his greatest weapon is the discord he is spreading in the lands your father wanted to engage as allies. Only Tedaka and Timora have avoided the stain of the cult. If you cannot find a way to enlist Zedekla and Taleeka in the fight, our cause is lost."

Tagun felt overwhelmed. His only consolation was his memory of all that Dorn had accomplished. "How soon do you expect me to meet all these requirements," he asked.

"When you have done what is required, return. We will be waiting for you with an army ready," Daglan said.

Tagun was too astonished to argue. He divested himself of his tunic and loincloth and entered the sweat tent. He had grown fond of feeling clean. It was unlikely he would manage that state again for a long time. At least he would have the Sword of Dorn at his side for protection against the dangers of the open trail.

He found the white pilgrim robe with a blue belt on a stool outside the sweat tent when he finished bathing. There was no provision for a scabbard on the broad cloth of the belt. A fresh loincloth and soft leather buskins lay where he had put his clothing along with the scabbarded sword. Only his journal and a scribing tool remained where he had put it.

He went in search of Daglan, but his uncle had vanished. His grandmother entered while Tagun was still searching for some hint of Daglan or the sword of Dorn.

"I have a staff for you and a small obsidian knife for cutting your food," she said. "This pack contains a few provisions, but Daglan assured me that you have learned to hunt and gather enough to sustain yourself on your journey."

She left the gather hall and returned with a long wooden pilgrim staff. "Farewell Tagun. Return when you have finished the tasks that will prove your right to be confirmed as Janaka's king."

Kabrika opened the door of her home and Tagun stepped past her. He looked around, somehow expecting a crowd to give him a send-off. The streets were empty. Even the fields were empty. It seemed the entire population of the village had decided to avoid him. He felt like an exile as he started down the street between closed doors and shuttered windows.

He remembered Daglan's warning that there might be traitors. They would try to track his actions and betray or capture him. Before he began his pilgrimage he would try to confuse his trail. It would be known that he was heading south towards Timora, and the main road he had taken with Daglan was the most direct path to the south. As long as he remained in the clan lands of Janaka he would have to avoid human habitations or convenient trails.

Tagun took the trail that led to the main road, but once he was well beyond Algire Village he left the trail and made his way through the rocky valley to the north, careful to step from stone to stone and avoid leaving a track someone could follow. The sun glared back at him from pale rocks, almost as white as his robe.

Near the border of clan Terifil he found a spring where he could slake his thirst. This was new territory that he had never seen, but in his notes from Dorn's writings were descriptions of the lands around Algire village and a map of the surrounding hills.

He made a meal of journey food, careful not to light a fire, and started out again as night fell. Oil brush thrived in the wasteland north of Algire Village, in this season the branches of the brush were filled with tiny pale blossoms. Tagun knew his progress would be difficult to follow if he kept among the bushes even though his nose tickled with the acrid scent rising from the countless blooms.

Part of Tagun's education with Daglan had included reading the night sky to determine his position. When the stars that formed ladle of Withna dropped below the near horizon he knew he was north east of Algire Village and he finally stopped to rest.

Something was nibbling at his ear and Tagun jumped up. A wild bacal raced away, its white tail waving like a small flag as it dodged and leaped through bushes until it joined a herd of its fellows on a nearby hill. It stopped and turned and looked back toward the human it had disturbed. Tagun regretted that he didn't have a bow and arrows. On the other hand, the animal was too large to roast for one meal and he had no way to preserve the meat of such a prize.

Bacals were rare and unlike the heavier corums which the Kumnorans neutered to use as dalas, they were usually found only in the high mountains and scrub lands far from human habitations.

Tagun smiled and waved his hand and the herd skittered away, leaping from rock to rock until they disappeared beyond a ridge. Their presence reassured Tagun that he need not worry about a village near at hand.

Tagun looked up and marked the position of the sun low on the horizon. He had the day ahead of him. He harvested some tiny berries from low lying plants that grew in the shade of the surrounding oil brush. It would be best to take advantage of available food supplies and leave the journey food for later when he left the hills and entered desert lands. He broke his fast and wrote a record of the events of the previous day.

He wondered if he should make up a code. If he were captured and the contents of his journal were discovered, his supporters would be compromised. On the other hand, if he were captured and they suspected who he was, his enemies would already know most of his allies. The other matriarchs knew that Kabrika and Daglan were involved in bringing Tagun forward to claim his heritage. How many of them knew that he had been raised as Jagga's son?

As far as he recalled, there had not been a portrait made of him. He had seen a number of youths in Algire Village who could have been his brothers, although once they became men their would grow their beards and hair until they could be braided and decked with battle tokens.

For now, the most distinctive indication of his identity was his pilgrim robe, and by tradition he must wear it until he reached Timora and was bathed in the holy lake that gave the vale its name. Tagun felt like a moving target in the pristine robe that glowed in the sunlight. His hand itched to grasp the hilt of the sword he no longer carried at his side.

During his months in Algire he had memorized several maps. Timora lay to the south beyond all the other lands of Okishdu. To the southwest were Zedekla and Taleeka. To the southeast were Saadena and Tedaka. Directly east of the mountains lay the steppes of Kumnora where wild tribesmen lived like animals. Daglan had not spoken of Jama, south of Kumnora, but Tagun had heard enough from others in Jagga's court to know it was no place for a pilgrim to spend his will and virtue. Due south lay the farmlands of Virdana where any stranger, even a pilgrim, would be shunned.

The detour added two days to his journey. He was near the border of Kumnora when he turned to the south and made his way back to the foothills, well to the west of where his enemies might expect to find him.







Chapter 4 Pilgrimage





At twilight Tagun came to the major trail and crossed it quickly. It would not do to be seen by Jagga's guards wearing a pilgrim robe. Finally he found a large, dense bush that offered shelter for the night. The robe, woven of soft corum wool, was sufficiently warm to protect him from the chill of the night air and he didn't think it wise to light a fire. The provisions in the pack were well suited for clandestine travel. Matlas baked until they were stiff, breadberries roasted in oil and salted, and dried nuka fruit along with a couple of packets of salt and dried herbs filled the pouch. They were simple rations, but sufficient for several days. Water could become his main concern. Daglan had taught him how to find a water source even in the most arid landscape, but most such sources presented a risk of predators or poison.

For the first few day after he left the mountains Tagun's first concern was avoiding the border posts. He saw a group of Janakan warriors at a distance and knew it would be unwise to get close enough to see if Jagga led them. He had an impulse to circumvent their track and warn any villagers who might fall in their path, but that was not his errand now. He had been warned that villagers would treat him with suspicion and regard anything he said as a ruse to lead them into Jagga's trap.

Regretful, Tagun turned away and took a different course. It led him to the desert south of Kumnora where he was forced to use up the last of his provision after several days without finding water or any sign of the ota roots and wild grains he favored.

Hunger schooled his eyes to notice every patch of green and when he saw the shriveled remnants of a plant he hurried forward. Leather root! He knew it contained nourishment and water enough to sustain him, but the leaves, even withered had the odor of old mush that had soured and turned blue. The roots grew deep and had to be removed entire so he set to work with a sturdy stick.

He wondered if the work it took to unearth the tuber would be worth the gain, but he stubbornly persisted. The root was ugly, swollen and a pallid bluish white with purple spots that looked like aging bruises on the leg of an obese old man. The appearance promised a taste no better than the reeking leaves. Tagun dug and prodded at the resistant earth and felt tempted to curse the tendrils of the root that seemed to cling to every rock and clod. At last he released the grip of the root and grasped the leaves gently to ease it from the ground. It tore loose more quickly than he expected and he lurched backwards, cradling the root in his arms as he fell.

He brushed off what he could of the remaining dirt and tried to remember how to eat the thing. 'First the tip, then the leaves', had been drummed into his head by Daglan, but Tagun had paid scant attention to the lesson, feeling that he would never meet such an exigency.

Don't waste your time, there is likely a brook with water weed and ota root past the rise, the whispered lure echoed his wishes and Tagun paused. He wondered if his hunger and thirst had given rise to the illusion that someone was speaking in his mind.

He remembered the test Daglan had taught him. He considered the emotion he felt when he heeded the voice and detected the lie. "By the name of Yasa Dom, be quiet!"

The yearning to dispose of the leather root faded. "Old enemy, you know that this is what will save my life," Tagun muttered.

His obsidian blade slid through the narrow place where the tip joined the tuber and a rank smell burst forth. He stepped away a few feet, cradling the root and left the stinking tip behind. The wilted vegetation resisted his blade. When Tagun cut the leaves from the woody stem the moldy smell increased .

"The man who first resorted to eating leather root must have been not only starving but mad," Tagun whispered. He held the swollen root and considered what to do next. He wished that he could cut it into portions now that the leaves and root tip were removed but Daglan said that cutting the root wasted the water stored inside it. Tagun ached with thirst. Parched hunger overcame his reluctance to taste the ugly thing.

"Get it over with," he muttered to himself. He took the end of the root between his teeth and began to chew.

Water burst into his mouth and he swallowed it without thinking of the taste. A rock nearby offered shelter from the mounting sun and he settled down to chew. Other than the film of earth that covered the root, it had a faint taste of unripe ota shoots, not unpleasant, just a little acrid. Gooey fibers were the worst of it. He kept on chewing at the dangling root. With each new bite another gush of liquid gratified his parched throat and produced a new length of the iridescent fibers.

The fibers were tough and resisted cutting with his teeth. 'I'm like a Dala with a cud', he muttered as he arranged the spent root to hang from one side of his mouth as he continued biting further into the tuber to release the fresh clear liquid.

He reached the root top and his thirst was sated but his belly still craved more. He held the limp hank of fibers up and considered them. They were as long as his forearm and glistened like an egg yolk, far different from the dried leather root fibers Dagnet used for sewing.

He remembered Dagnet's advice about chewing them again, and shook his head. He was hungry, but the memory of the initial smell held him back. He could live for several days more without sustenance other than water, and he knew that he could get that from another leather root.

Toss them away, they stink.

"No, Liar, but thanks for the clue." Tagun whispered. He knew he shouldn't engage in dialog with the wheedling voice, but it gave a useful hint of what he should avoid.

The first bite of the fibers disgusted him. All the hints of must and mold and soil came to the fore, but there was a rush of something that seemed to go straight from his mouth through his bloodstream to his limbs, easing aches and giving strength.

The next bite had a weaker effect, but it was not nearly as disgusting. A sweet undertone grew more noticeable as he chewed. The last few bites were almost like a near-ripe nuka fruit, tart enough to pucker his mouth but sweet. He felt the urge to look around to find another leather root, but a breeze blew from the direction where he had cut off the tip and leaves and reminded him of his initial encounter with the plant.

He had chewed and sucked the fibers of every vestige of nutrition and he felt ready to discard them. On the other hand, his robe had ripped the night before, and the twine holding his sandals had nearly worn through, encouraging the blisters that were forming on his heels.

He combed the fibers with his fingers. A snarl caught on a small cut and he felt a pinch of pain. A dry thorn branch provided a makeshift comb and he set to work straightening and separating the strands.

He worked until he had discrete fibers that he could spin and braid. They were almost like the zylka thread from Orenon, smooth and a little slick. They had a subtle odor, almost like leather, but with a hint of the docil that the men he had called his brothers liked to chew. He wondered if there was a relationship between the plants. Perhaps the rush of energy and surcease of pain he had felt when he chewed the fibers held a clue. He used only a few of the fibers to spin together into thread. Most of the hank went into making twine for his sandals with enough left over to use for other tasks.

It felt good to mend his robe and secure his sandals so they wouldn't slip. The setting of the sun surprised him. He had spent several hours unearthing the root, chewing it, and using it in a way that made it easier to travel. As the sun dipped toward the horizon it outlined several plants on the nearby knoll, more leather root. Tagun raised his hands to pray. "I come before the Radiance with gratitude for sustenance and knowledge and I pray that there is water just beyond the knoll."

There was no brook or stand of grass beyond that knoll, but the refreshment gained from the leather root sustained Tagun for another day. After spending the night in a shelter fashioned of dry brush, Tagun looked around for another leather root and climbed a small ridge. When he topped the rise Tagun knew he had passed the limits of Janaka's borders. Fertile farms filled the river valley below him. From the high point he plotted a track that would avoid farmhouses and settlements. He marked the location of a marsh that promised the presence of small wild animals he could snare as well as shoots and wild grains. No man could accuse him of theft if he kept clear of the settled areas. He had no reason to expect welcome from other humans in this land.

Before this pilgrimage Tagun had seldom spent much time alone. The hours of solitude forced him to contemplation. He found his spirit responding to the beauty of nature around him. When hunger forced him to snare an animal, he gave due reverence to the sacrifice of a life. When he stripped a few breadberries from a bush he gave a prayer of thanks before popping them into his mouth.

He indulged his newly found fondness for getting clean by tracking streams until he came to a pool or a small cascade. It didn't happen often, but when he washed the dust of travel from his entire body with one brisk immersion he always gave praise with special feeling. As the time went by he began to grow a fuzz on his face and he decided to keep his chin clear of hair with the obsidian blade Kabrika had provided.

Keeping a daily record lost importance when the days passed with little variation. Tagun lost track of time and he realized how easy it must have been for Daglan to confuse Jagga about the time of his birth. How long had it been since he and his uncle had left the cave and gone to Algire Village? He really couldn't recall. Sometimes he tried to reconstruct the events by recalling each morning in order, but so many mornings had been the same that the effort proved fruitless. At last, too late to make an exact accounting, he remembered his pledge to keep a daily record. Regretful that he had lost count of days, he began to write each evening and felt surprised by how much there was to tell.

The landscape changed and hills rose ahead of him marking the border of Tedaka. At last he could break his solitude. One afternoon he saw a group of people in pilgrim robes coming along a track he had started to cross. When they waved to him he decided to join them. If they were on their way to the sacred city, he would ask to go with them.

There were a score of youths, both boys and girls, dressed in pilgrim robes, a couple of older women to act as chaperons and ten men armed with broad double bladed axes to guard the group. No one challenged him as he joined the group and he decided to wait until evening to ask any questions. Meanwhile he listened to the chatter of the young pilgrims.

Their accents were unusual, but he had no difficulty understanding what they said. Some of the girls glanced at him, but he felt shy of walking near them. One of the young women seemed slightly older than the others. For some reason the sight of her grave but lovely face brought a sense of warmth to his chest.

Near sunset they came to a spring where a stone shelter against the wind had been erected. The group scattered, the boys to gather wood, the girls to bring supplies to the fire pit and begin preparations for a simple meal. Tagun had gathered some fruit and roots that morning and he offered them the girl he had noticed earlier.

"Blessings on you brother," she said with a quick smile, flashing a dimple that belied the gravity in her eyes.

He shied away and backed into one of the boys, knocking him off his feet. He extended his hand to help the boy to his feet and found himself pulled down to the ground instead. The boy apparently thought it a jest and he jumped to his feet and offered his hand to Tagun. Tagun didn't accept the extended hand, but stood up quickly without assistance.

"I am sorry my brother. I forgot my manners," the boy said.

"I accept your apology," Tagun said.

"You are Janakan!"

"I am Janakan, and I am a pilgrim," Tagun assured the boy who gaped at him as if he had suddenly sprouted horns. The girl who had accepted his offering gazed at him gravely, but when she saw him looking at her she turned away.

"That's Selendra, I'm Doka." the young man volunteered. "Forgive me brother, I thought that Janakans do not make pilgrimages to Timora,"

"Few Janakans are able to make the trek, but many would if they could," another voice said.

Tagun turned and saw that the leader of the guards had volunteered the information. The man extended his hand and Tagun turned up his palms and showed them. The guard nodded and placed his hand on Tagun's shoulder in a grip of acceptance and fellowship. "Welcome. I admire your courage. This boy who so rudely attacked you is my nephew Doka and I am Tanka of Tedaka."

Tagun recognized the name and nearly gaped. This stocky man in his plain tunic and sturdy scuffed boots was the Headman of Tedaka, a land as rich and powerful as Janaka only aspired to become. The only land other than Timora that had resisted the influence of Orquian rogues. Doka turned to join some other boys and left them for a moment, Tagun decided to reveal his own identity.

"I am Tagun, son of Koren," he said in a low voice meant only for the Headman.

"Ah, that is why you have braved the border guards of Jagga and the scanty hospitality of Virdana's cautious farmers to make a pilgrimage to Timora," Tanka said. "I was a friend of your father."

"I never knew my father," Tagun replied.

"He was a good man and you have the look of him," Tanka said. "You look more like your mother, but there is definitely something of your father in your face."

Tagun wanted to ask more. He had learned a great deal about Dorn from Kabrika's lessons, but he still knew very little about Koren. While he groped for words to ask the questions that welled up in him, Doka returned and grabbed his shoulder. "Come with me Tagun, I will introduce you to the other pilgrims."

Tagun nodded to Tanka then followed Doka who led him toward the campfire where several of the young pilgrims had gathered. Tagun had never had friends. The rowdy rascals he had called his brothers had been cruel and vindictive and without imagination. Daglan had always held the role of teacher, and his grandmother, Kabrika, hardly fit the role of friend.

At first he hardly knew how to deal with Doka's eager desire to befriend him. The boy was a scamp, but he had a quick wit. Although the role of pilgrim required a certain amount of propriety, Doka knew how to strain the limits almost to the breaking point but not beyond. He expected no special consideration from his uncle, although Tagun knew he was the Headman's heir from hints dropped by one of the girls.

Tagun found it impossible to resist Doka's appeal. At their first meal on the trail Doka made sure Tagun had a full plate of food and a seat near the fire. After Tanka pronounced the evening prayer Doka insisted that Tagun accept the extra sleeping mat he carried in his pack.

With the Tedakan men on guard to allay his fears of discovery and attack, Tagun finally felt able to sleep soundly until the wake up signal started the new day. The maiden Selendra, the first to greet him when he shared his fruit and roots, gave him a warm matla with nuka fruit preserves when he returned from the stream where he bathed and refreshed himself. She seemed a little older than the other girls, and much more restrained. The dimple near her mouth flashed briefly in rare smiles, but he found that his eyes followed her graceful figure whenever Doka failed to distract him. Selendra's silky hair and wide dark eyes were lovely, but she intrigued Tagun with her reserve and apparent maturity. Compared to the other girls who had giggled behind their hands and flirted with him openly once Doka had introduced him, Selendra seemed to be a woman.

Each morning when they finished their meal and took to the trail Doka seemed intent on showing Tagun that life on the pilgrim trail could provide many innocent amusements. When his uncle Tanka conferred with the other men at the head of the caravan, Doka gathered a handful of pebbles and engaged the other boys in a contest to hit targets without pausing their stride. He whispered outrageous stories just loud enough that the other pilgrims could hear him. When they laughed, his round face glowed with innocence if Tanka turned reproving eyes on him.

Tagun discovered he had a talent for minor mischief that nearly matched that of Doka. Doka seemed intent on finding ways to tempt Selendra into smiling or laughing. He explained himself to Tagun one evening while they were setting snares in hopes of a catching a few coneys for breakfast.

"Selendra's mother died when she was eight years old. Her father remained a widow for several years and Selendra assumed most of the duties of caring for three younger children until she was nearly a woman. Recently her father remarried and he finally set Selendra free from her tasks to go on a pilgrimage. But she spent her childhood serving others and has a hard time enjoying herself. I'm afraid if she doesn't learn how to look for joy, she will wither away like a moon flower at noon. Her stepmother has a reputation as a shrew. Selendra should marry soon if she doesn't want to become little more than a servant in her father's home."

Doka's explanation put a different face on the antics he pulled that risked his uncle's reproof. Perhaps Tanka was aware of the cause and was a little more indulgent than he might have been if it were mere truancy that inspired the pranks.

Doka and Tagun began to compete to make Selendra's dimple flash with a smile of amusement. Doka often tried to play the fool. He made silly noises or pretended to trip and barely catch himself before falling. In the first few days he caught her by surprise and succeeded in making her laugh, but Selendra seemed to catch on and became more resistant. Tagun's methods were subtle, but more effective. He looked for small bits of beauty along the trail; a tiny flower, a smooth stone with layered colors, a glistening wing from a flying insect.

When he found something worthy of note, he would catch up to Selendra and drop it in her hand before stepping to the side to watch her face. Sometimes she tried to resist his wiles, but inevitably the smile would break through her reserve and her dimple would flash for just a moment.

Often when the daily march ended and the meal was being prepared Tagun sought out Tanka and they talked briefly until the time came for Tanka to say the evening benediction and the pilgrims prepared to sleep. Tagun noticed that Selendra often lingered near enough to overhear the conversations. He could not resent her interest. Somehow he felt she had the right to know the answers to the questions he posed.

With a phrase here, a few words there, a memory of times spent in his youth, the chief built up a picture of Koren. "I remember when he brought your mother to visit Tedaka not long after they married," Tanka said one night. "She was a lovely woman, both clever and sweet, an unusual combination. They told me that they had met a caravan from Orenon led by a merchant named Jagga. He had given Elinka a pearl as a gift. I warned the two of them against taking a gift from any Orenese. A price will always be exacted."

Tanka fell silent but Tagun took the warning to heart as he touched the ring he wore on a thong around his neck. It had been given to him as a sign of pledge, but were there other strings attached by Jagga. One string Tagun knew about was the constant subtle tug on his emotions. He should revile and denounce the man who had murdered his father and made his mother a prisoner to gain a kingdom, but Tagun could not yet free his heart from the memory of Jagga's rough yet found grip on Tagun's arm as they hurried to Elinka's room where she lay dying, or the sound of Jagga's moans of grief as he leaned over the bed where Elinka was asked one last boon.

"Tomorrow we will enter Timora," Tanka announced one evening. "We must keep our eyes open and our ears alert for any sign of marauders. The minions of Jagga are forbidden to enter the sacred vale, but there are reports of attacks on pilgrims on trails leading into the city. The time for foolery has ended. We will enter Timora with propriety and reverence."

Tanka's glance singled out Doka before it passed to the others.

Tagun knew he had little time remaining to question Tanka about his parents. After the meal had ended and the other pilgrims were cleaning their robes and sorting out their sparse possessions, Tagun approached the Headman. He noticed that once again Selendra had drawn near, her hands busy with mending, but her attention focused on him.

"Is it true that only Tedaka and Timora have avoided contamination by Orquians," Tagun said.

Tanka nodded. "Tedakans are brusque people with little patience for flattery or beguiling words. Our founder, Tedak served the prophet, Irilik, and we have a strong tradition of supporting the worship of the Radiance."

"I have learned that Tharek was also a prophet in his day," Tagun countered. "Yet those who told me that Tedaka had kept free of Orquian influence, warned me that both Taleeka and Zedekla are infected with the seeds of the cult. How can that be?"

"King Fortek of Zedekla is a good man," Tanka said. "But since his wife died he has taken the advice of counselors who listen to the Liar. I am not certain that they are members of the cult, but in the past five years Fortek has resisted any suggestion of alliance. On the other hand, Taleeka is ruled by a council and they are a mixed group of worthy and unworthy souls. I don't like to engage in gossip or speculation, so that is all I intend to tell you. Be wary, Tagun. When we are on the trail there is no great risk that your identity will be discovered, but it is vital that you are not returned to Jagga before you can accomplish your tasks. Orquians are banned from the vale, but such as they never heeded such proscriptions. If they know your intent, you are surely marked for death."

Tanka murmured the last few phrases, but Selendra's face grew pale and Tagun wondered if he saw a glitter from tears in her eyes. Surely she had not overheard Tanka's warning. Tanka stood and walked away and Tagun approached Selendra.

"I have heard that the gardens around the Great Shrine are famous for their beauty. Would you be willing to visit them with me tomorrow?"

Her livid cheeks warmed with a blush and her smile rewarded him. "Perhaps in the evening we could visit the gardens," she agreed.

Before Tagun could make a more definite arrangement Doka ran up, breathless with excitement. "Tagun, Selendra, I've been looking for the two of you. A group of us are planning to visit the sacred library tomorrow and I know you would want to be included."

Selendra nodded, but her eyes were focused on Tagun, waiting for his response. "That seems like a good idea Doka. Selendra and I will join the others tomorrow afternoon, but I claim the evening hours for other plans."

Selendra smiled again and left them staring after her. Doka gave a low whistle. "I concede Tagun. You have won the contest. You know better than I how to bring a smile to the mouth of a maiden."

Tagun smiled to himself. Neither of them had ever openly admitted the competition, but it had been as real as any he had ever engaged in. In its way it had been as important in helping him understand the world he lived in as the training Daglan had given him. Selendra was very much like his mother, grave and good and lovely. It had been a joy to bring a dimple to her cheek and a twinkle to her eyes.

Doka whispered, "Take care my friend. It will be years before you should look like that when you look at a woman."

"How old do you think I am?" Tagun asked.

"You are a little shorter than I am," Doka said. "But there is something about the way you walk that leaves me in doubt. I would say we are about the same age. Selendra is several years older than either of us. When she returns to Tedaka, she will find a suitor and marry within a year."

Something in Tagun's chest started to burn. Had he eaten something too spicy that evening? He reached into his pack for a packet of dried herbs that were meant to relieve the discomfort of indigestion. Even after he lay down on his sleeping mat the burn in his chest continued and he stopped trying to sleep. He turned his thoughts away from the painful subject of Selendra's future. He looked up at the sky. It seemed softer than the sky over Janaka. The stars were a little dimmer. The air was relatively warm in the night, but mild in the daytime. Perhaps it had something to do with the distance he had come as he traveled south. His random thoughts wandered more and the burning in his chest subsided as sleep stilled his thoughts.

The next morning the pilgrim band entered the vale of Timora with all the propriety and reverence that could be desired. Doka's looked so angelic and pious that Tagun nearly laughed and Selendra's dimple flashed whenever she glanced toward the face of the trickster.

Tagun had never seen a city other than the heights of Janaka as seen from the palace. He had rarely ventured outside the walls while he lived there. The contrast with Timora shocked him. Jagga had ordered the erection of a crude dark pyramid of rugged stone in honor of Orqu near the city walls of Janaka.

Timora's shrine skillfully wrought of pale stone that glowed in the sun, shone with cleanliness as a tribute to the Radiance, Yasa Dom. From the top of the trail leading into the valley, the still waters of the sacred lake reflected the shrine. Other pale buildings surrounded the shrine, but none seemed to be a palace. No tower looked over the height of the cental steeple. Tagun glanced at Selendra and saw her wondering smile. His heart warmed at the thought that they were sharing the same experience. He had been raised in sordid luxury and loneliness. She had been raised in a large family and overburdened with responsibility, but both of them had this moment of wonder that seemed to heal their lost childhood.

Around the shore of the lake near the city small pavilions provided access to long shallow stairs that led into the water. Priests in white robes and blue shawls stood in the water waiting to receive young pilgrims and perform renewal washings. Most of the pavilions were already occupied by lines of pilgrims waiting for the ritual.

Tanka led them to the lake and a pavilion where no line had formed. A small building not far from the pavilion provided the headman with privacy and in a few minutes he emerged dressed in robes of white with a blue shawl on his shoulders. He stepped into the sacred waters on the shallow steps that led from the porch of the pavilion. Once waist deep in the lake, he turned and waited.

With Selendra in the lead, the pilgrims waded one by one out to Tanka. As each of them took his hands he pronounced the blessing of Renewal Washing and immersed them. Doka and Tagun waited. All the other Tedakans took their turn and returned to the pavilion where they were given fresh robes and sent to change.

"I'll wait to be last," Tagun insisted. He wanted to prolong the moment of anticipation. There had been scant opportunity to bathe on the trail from Tedaka. Not only would he be cleansed from the dust of the journey, but he would be cleansed more deeply. He thought of his life and the things he had done that were less than his standards now demanded. He decided that he was not really responsible for the errors he had committed as a child, but what of other, harsher choices? He reviewed the battle with the border guards. He felt sorrow, but finally decided that he had been guiltless except in the folly of speaking and revealing their presence when Daglan had advised him otherwise.

"Okay, I'm done," Doka said, interrupting Tagun's reverie. "It's your turn. Don't keep my uncle waiting. He's starting to look like a pickled nuka and his lips are turning blue."

Tagun waded out into the water and took Tanka's hand. Sparse words followed a swift immersion but Tagun had never felt cleaner. Tanka accompanied him back to the pavilion. "We will visit the great Shrine this morning. Aa soon as we are dressed we will join the others."

Tagun could see the others waiting for them when they reached the steps of the shrine. Built in the first years after the exodus from Kisdu, nearly a thousand years before, the white granite of the structure remained undimmed. Some of the steps showed shallow depressions where countless feet had trod, but other steps were apparently new replacements. Centuries of careful cleaning and maintenance marked the devotion the shrine evoked.

When they entered the vast prayer hall at the heart of the Shrine Tagun's eyes went to a great alabaster globe that glowed against the inner wall. "It is to remind us of the Radiance," Selendra whispered near his side.

It was not yet Enven, the time of prayer, when the prayer hall would be crowded with those who had come to meditate and pray, but there were many pilgrims kneeling throughout the hall. The Tedakans knelt on prayer mats they obtained from shelves near the entrance to the prayer hall and Tagun joined them, with Selendra between himself and Doka.

He tried to still his mind and meditate, but the presence of Selendra, her faint scent, the sound of her breath--. He caught the direction of his thoughts and schooled his mind. He ventured to pray that he would somehow find a way to spend more time with her. Then Tagun's mind turned to Daglan and the challenge that lay ahead of him. How would he begin the task of seeking out the cultists in the courts of Zedekla and Taleeka? He was just one man, and a small man at that. Suddenly he wondered how he had ever hoped to succeed, but then a sense of peace flowed through him. He held on to the peace and began a prayer of gratitude.

Tanka touched his shoulder and whispered. "It is time to go. The others are waiting for us."

Tagun scrambled to his feet and looked around. He saw Doka and Selendra putting on their sandals near the entrance and picked up his prayer mat before walking over to join the other pilgrims.

Tanka turned to Tagun when they left the Shrine. "I want you to meet with a friend of mine this afternoon after we eat. Do you have any other commitments?"

Tagun had hoped to join Selendra and some of the other pilgrims in a visit to the great library where the original scrolls of the Law and the Compacts were kept, but something in the tone of Tanka's voice let him know this invitation was not merely polite.

"I will join you," he said.

The Tedakan clan hostel in Timora reflected the nature of its clientele. Although the outer walls were made of the same pale stone as other buildings in the city, a step inside the gates revealed wooden arches and floors beautifully fitted and polished to a sheen. Screens and benches, tables and chairs, shelves and cabinets in various colors and patterns of wood grain provided the decorative element. Here and there throughout the entry hall and gather room potted plants and vases filled with blooms softened the contours of the furnishings.

Tables in a central courtyard held a generous quantity and variety of food. Tanka took his place at the head of the table and invoked a blessing on the meal before the pilgrims took their seats around the table. Tagun felt gratified when Selendra took a seat at his right side, or was she sitting there to be next to Doka?

It seemed the competition to bring a smile to her face had been resumed. Doka hardly ate a morsel of the meal as he kept up a steady stream of amusing stories. The pretty girl on his other side seemed enchanted by his tales, but Selendra seemed more interested in eating.

"I wonder how they make this sauce," she said to Tagun.

"It is likely there is a Janakan in the kitchen," he replied. "I taste the heat of shredded ota root."

Doka sensed that he had lost her attention and interrupted the discussion. "Did Tagun tell you we have an appointment this afternoon? My uncle says we won't be going with the others to the sacred library. I'm sure you won't miss me."

Selendra seemed a little disappointed. Tagun wondered if she remembered their appointment to visit the gardens later that evening. Did she show special heed to him as Doka had hinted.

Likely she had the same opinion of him as Doka, nothing more than a boy with years yet before he could offer his heart to a woman. The thought filled him with the same mysterious burning in his chest that had kept him from sleeping peacefully the previous evening. It reminded him a little of the grief he had felt when he saw his mother weakened and ill to death. Certainly nowhere near as intense, but puzzling.

Could he find a way to make Selendra see him as a man, perhaps even a suitor? A suitor? The thought surprised him, but it had a good feeling about it. He must find a wife before returning to Algire Village, and the image of Selendra filled his mind. Would it be fair to court another maiden while he was so distracted?

The pretty girls in Algire, and the other young women in the pilgrim caravan had no real appeal. Was he destined to lose Selendra before he had even had a chance to tell her he was not a callow boy, years yet from being willing or able to marry?

Months ago when Daglan had explained that he must marry before he could be worthy of the throne he had felt too young for such a challenge. Now that he had met Selendra, nothing seemed more desirable than marriage.

Tagun was still trying to think of a way to express his love when Tanka stood and gestured to them. He turned to Selendra to excuse himself, but Doka still chatted with her, making an effusive show of regret that they had to leave.

Tagun only had time to smile and wave at her as Tanka led them from the clan hostel. They walked for some distance across the city from the hostel. Tanka stopped at a door set in a wall on a quiet back street of the city. It opened to reveal a pretty young woman who greeted the Headman with fondness. "Welcome Tanka. It has been years since you came to Timora." She turned to the boys and nodded politely with a warm smile. Doka stood a little straighter and gave the maiden a wide grin, but Tagun merely nodded.

She was very pretty with bright highlights in her curls and a curvaceous figure but Tagun found himself unmoved by attraction. A dimple flashed in her cheek when she smiled with welcome, but somehow it wasn't as charming as Selendra's that had to be coaxed into showing.

"I give you my blessings Falinda. I sent word ahead to your father," Tanka said. "I believe he is expecting me."

"Frovin is in his study as usual," the young woman replied.

As they entered the doorway Tagun's eyes wandered to various furnishing in the entrance hall and courtyard of the house. There was something familiar about some of the patterns and he tried to remember where he had seen them. When they entered Frovin's study Tagun stared. The man was clearly Kumnoran. Tagun had always been told that Kumnorans were illiterate and little better than the cattle they bred and coaxed into teams. He had seen some of the teamsters in Janaka in their patterned varicolored tunics. They had been brutish men with the stain of dass on their wild beards.

"I have brought my nephew Doka to you as a prospective pupil," Tanka said. "This other youth is Tagun from Janaka."

Frovin cleared scrolls and slates from a few benches of and invited the three of them to sit in front of his desk.

"Doka, are you willing to devote yourself to study and learning with no thought of holidays or entertainment?" the sage asked.

Doka's brows rose. "I would be willing to try, but I doubt I could promise to succeed at such a regimen. Perhaps I should warn you that I have a streak of mischief that I haven't been able to tame. My uncle should have chosen my brother as his heir. He is far more serious and studious than I could ever be."

"I met your brother a couple of years ago when he came to Timora on pilgrimage," Frovin said. "I trust that your uncle has made the right choice. Honesty is a great virtue. I am pleased that you recognize your tendency to being light minded. I enjoy festivals and holidays as much as any man. I doubt we will tax your patience while you are here studying for your responsibilities."

Frovin turned to Tagun. "I am delighted that you have found your way to Timora, Tagun. Several days ago I received a message from Kabrika. She expected that sooner or later we would make an acquaintance. She asked me to be your tutor and sent payment for your board and necessities. Are you willing to devote yourself to studying the laws and the compacts of Okishdu and the history of the settled lands?"

Tagun gaped and Doka seemed puzzled. For a moment no one spoke or moved. Then Tagun nodded. His hope for something between himself and Selendra had never been more than a wish, but he mourned the death of the wish as he accepted the challenge.

"Come Tagun and Doka," Tanka said. "We will purchase suitable tunics and supplies and return here tomorrow when you will begin your studies."

After they left the home of the sage, Doka waited until his uncle had moved ahead before questioning Tagun. "I didn't expect that, did you?"

Tagun shook his head, still speechless. It had seemed a happy accident when he had encountered the band of Tedakans after wandering southward, and he hadn't even guessed at the existence of a Kumnoran scholar, let alone that such a being would know his grandmother, but how had Kabrika sent a message. As wandering and random as his journey had been, Tagun had never seen a hint of another on the trail before he met up with the Tedakan pilgrim caravan.

Tanka purchased tunics and supplies for both Doka and Tagun and explained that it was the least he could do for the son of a friend he still mourned. They met the other Tedakan pilgrims while they were still near the center of the city. Doka signaled to Selendra and began to tell of their visit to Frovin. "He treated Tagun as if he knew him, or certainly knew of him. They have a common acquaintance. Who would have guessed it? Tagun seemed as surprised as I that we are meant to stay here in Timora and study."

While Doka chattered, Tagun decided to steal one last glimpse of the girl who had somehow captured his heart before he quite knew it. To his astonishment Selendra gazed back at him with a look that ignited the ashes of his hope. Her eyes seemed to speak, then she lowered her lashes.

"Doka, I am feeling hungry. Could you run ahead and get me a slice of melon or maybe a bunch of grapes?" Selendra said.

Doka quickly complied, dashing away and leaving his two friends alone. They had been walking a little slower than the others in the company and nobody looked back to urge them to hurry as the space widened.

Tagun saw an opening in a hedge ahead and pulled Selendra aside into its shelter. They could see a garden beyond with no bar to entering and enjoying its beauty.

Selendra settled on the low wall of a fountain and turned to Tagun. "I will wait for you."

He didn't ask her how she knew what he wanted. He sat beside her and turned to gaze into her eyes. "Nothing would please me more, but first you must know what and who I am. I am the son of Koren, the murdered king of Janaka. It is my duty to free my people of the scourge of Jagga and the Orquians. Anyone who marries me must risk danger and heartache. And I will never grow taller."

Her dimple showed and deepened, then she laughed. "Tagun, I could tell from the first that you are not a boy. I had already forgotten that you are not quite as tall as I am. Whoever you are, and whatever your duty, I want to share your life. You saw me lingering when you spoke to Tanka. I know enough of recent history to guess who you are before you told me. I was only afraid that I would never have the chance to tell you how I feel. I love you Tagun. I want to share your life."

He took her hand in sign of pledge. "It may be more than a year, but I will come for you when we can marry," he said. "My life will be in peril if the cultists ever guess my errand. We must keep our pledge a secret until I am free to marry you. If my enemies learn that you have my heart and my promise, it would put you in danger."

She nodded and he touched her cheek. He wanted to do more, but he restrained the impulse. The brags and jests of Jagga's rowdy brutes had taught him more than he wanted about lust, but the emotion he felt for Selendra filled him with a tenderness that tempered his passion. He sat beside her and told her a little of what he had come through in his life and the tasks he had been set. She shared her own story and finally she leaned over and touched her lips to his.

He wanted more, but he was the first to back away, gathering her hands in his and closing his eyes to savor her presence. He finally opened his eyes and looked around them. "We had planned to visit a garden together this evening, but this is lovelier than I imagined."

The sound of the fountain behind them drew his gaze and he saw that it was paved with shining stones, one of them as round and perfect as the alabaster lamp that hung in the prayer room of the Great Shrine. Selendra put her hand in the water and touched the stone. They shared a smile before she picked it up and dried it on her tunic. "This is a memory of this moment," she said.

Just then Doka burst into the garden to find them sitting side by side and smiling at a round white pebble.

"I guess the two of you got separated and didn't know how to find the hostel, but this is a nice place to wait," Doka said. "I brought fruit enough for all of us. We'll hardly need to worry about dinner."

"But your uncle will worry if we don't show up at the hostel soon," Selendra reminded him.

Doka pulled a face, but he nodded and extended his hand to help her up from the low wall of the fountain.

The three of them walked back to the campground with Doka in the middle and slightly ahead of the other two. Now and then Tagun and Selendra reached out their hands and touched fingers for just a moment and shared a smile.

From that moment on they hardly spoke to each other. Tanka looked from one of them to the other and shook his head. After the headman gave the evening prayer he took Tagun aside from the others. "Tagun, it is probably just as well that you and Doka are leaving us tomorrow. Anyone with eyes and experience would understand that you are yearning for something you cannot have whenever you look at Selendra. If Jagga somehow discovers your secret, her life will be in danger. Furthermore, I know her stepmother and the woman has plans for the bride price Selendra will bring. It is likely she will be betrothed and married long before you can be ready."

Tagun nodded. He felt certain that Selendra would resist the pressure of an avaricious stepmother. He felt no need to argue with Tanka.

When Selendra said goodbye to Tagun and Doka the next morning she gave each of them a gift. Doka received a silver scribing tool, but the round white pebble she slipped into Tagun's hand had come from the fountain where they had pledged their troth. With a quick turn of her other hand she showed him the striated river rock he had given her several days before and flashed her dimple just for him before turning and joining the others who were planning another trip to the Shrine.

"From the value of her parting gifts it seems that Selendra likes me better after all," Dokas said with genuine sympathy when they were well away from the hostel. "Of course, I could never think of her as anything but a friend."

His remark removed any reserve from their friendship.









Chapter 5 Timora



With the assurance that he had accomplished what had seemed the most difficult of the tasks he had been assigned, Tagun settled easily into the secluded and studious atmosphere that prevailed in the home of Frovin, the sage. He trusted that in time he would find a way to satisfy Daglan's instruction to expose the cultists in the governments of Zedekla and Tedaka, but for now the very thought was somewhat daunting. Evidently Kabrika felt he needed further training, and where better than Timora to study and prepare himself to be a ruler?

He kept close to Frovin's home, wary of discovery by someone who would recognize him as a prince of Janaka, but Doka often seemed restless after long hours of study. One afternoon after the hour of rest and prayer known as Enven, Tagun saw Doka in the central courtyard slashing at a bush with a stick. Tagun put his scroll and scribing tool aside and located his pilgrim staff before joining his friend.

"I assume you are trying to practice your swordsmanship," Tagun said.

"It isn't easy," Doka said. "I'm convinced that my people would be better armed if they learned to carry swords. I have asked the Guardians of Timora to instruct me, but they treated me as an obnoxious child when I approached them. How can I convince my people to use swords if I can't even learn to handle one myself?

"I might be able to help you," Tagun said. "I should practice or my skills will grow rusty."

"I should have known a Janakan could handle a sword," Doka said.

"First of all, you should find your pilgrim staff and we can practice with them. That stick is useless for learning the basics."

Doka ran to find his staff and Tagun took a few experimental thrusts with the long pole. He knew that Mareklans used staffs for defense and Daglan had trained him first with a staff. Doka returned to the courtyard eager to spar, but in his eagerness he lunged forward and nearly threw Tagun from his feet. Tagun deflected the blow and Doka was spun around by the force of momentum and fell in a sprawl.

"How did you do that?" Doka asked.

"Whether you are using a sword or a staff or an ax like your ancestors, you need to understand the limitations and advantages of your weapon. You rushed at me and didn't think what you might do if I countered your blow as I did. I had to learn to compensate for my size and weight when I learned to use a sword. I have the advantage of agility and my weapon is unconventional. When I meet an opponent who has no idea of my skill, they underestimate what I can do."

"You have a sword?" Doka gasped, seizing on the only phrase that excited his interest.

"I inherited a sword, but I had to leave it behind me in Janaka. As you know, pilgrims do not carry weapons."

"Have you ever killed anyone?" Doka asked.

Tagun hesitated. "Killing is not a glorious thing. I was sick to my stomach the first time I had to take a life."

"The first time!" Doka's eyes went wide with a mixture of admiration and apprehension.

"My uncle and I were found by four of Jagga's border guards. We had to fight for our lives. It was the only time I have fough to the death."

"What type of sword is best?" Doka asked.

"I'm not sure that any sword would be better than the double headed axes your people use both for work and defense," Tagun said. "An ax can be wielded or thrown. If you attach a blade to the handle, you can reverse it and use it to thrust."

"I've seen such blades in the armory of my uncle's council hall," Doka said. "They are only used when the town is attacked. Perhaps they should be attached at all times."

"It would hinder the use of the axes for most of the work your people do," Tagun said.

"I've been trying to find books or scrolls that would teach me about arms and armor," Doka said. "but certainly practice is far better than merely reading about such things. Will you teach me?"

"We could practice for an hour after Enven every afternoon," Tagun said. "I'll try to prepare some suitable practice swords. Falinda might have some material we could use for armor."

Falinda provided strips of thick leather and wads of leather root fiber and Tagun showed Doka how to fashion a breastplate, a helmet, and thigh guards that would help avoid bruises. Doka had real skill in working with wood and he produced several shapely wooden swords for their sparring practice.

Tagun gained respect for his tutor Daglan as he tried to school Doka in patience and the rational use of a weapon. Doka learned gradually that his greater reach and weight were useless if he acted impulsively. The Tedakan was persistent and good natured about the harvest of bruises he earned in their first few weeks of practice.

Frovin often watched their practice session. Sometimes he made useful comments that sharpened their skills. One afternoon he came into the courtyard with several lengths of braided leather root with knobs on one end and a loop on the other. "Let me introduce you to a bolika," he said with a grin. Tagun and Doka watched their teacher wield the traditional weapon of a Kumnoran. He spun one of the bolikas around his head and sent the weighted end twirling around the same bush that Doka had been abusing when Tagun first intervened. With a twist of his wrist and a snap of his arm, the sage yanked the bush almost out of the ground.

Doka and Tagun applauded and Falinda rushed into the garden to rebuke her father. "You have nearly ruined my prize breadberry bush. Go find another target."

Tagun stared at Falinda, surprised. Always patient and calm, she had never before so much as raised her voice to her father.

Frovin winked at the boys. "My mistake. I've lived in Timora for so long that I forgot how much Kumnorans value anything green and living, but Falinda often spends summers with her grandparents back on the steppes."

The bush was soon righted and tenderly braced with everyone helping. Falinda smiled and apologized to her father. "I should not have been so rash, but please use something other than my plants for your target practice."

After a few weeks of practice with the bolika both Doka and Tagun earned Frovin's praise. "You can also use several linked bolikas if you want to climb a cliff or draw water from a well," Frovin told them. He demonstrated how it was done. Tagun braided his own bolika from the hank of leather root fibers in his pouch. A couple of stones from the garden served to weight the knob at one end.

Frovin inspected Tagun's work and approved it. "A little crude, but functional, and you will improve with practice. I would like to know how you got the leather root fibers. They are rare in this part of the world."

"You could say I made them myself when I was desperate in the desert," Tagun said with a rueful expression.

Frovin laughed. "Ah, the inimitable taste of leather root."

Doka looked from the sage to his friend and frowned. "I'm missing something."

"The next time we're in the desert together I'll find a leather root plant and show you what you've missed," Tagun promised. Frovin smirked and turned away to cover his mouth with his hand, but his shoulders shook with silent laughter.

The sage composed himself and turned back to Tagun. "Wearing a bladed weapon is frowned on in Timora, but I usually wear a bolika around my waist beneath my sash. It has proved useful now and then.

"I'm surprised you ever had to use it," Tagun said. "I thought thieves and bullies were banned from Timora."

"No city openly accepts those who want to rob and hurt others," Frovin said. "Now and then a rogue wanders into the vale and those of us who live here take responsibility for helping the Peace Guardians maintain order."

Tagun nodded. He had been warned to be wary of discovery by one of Jagga's men. He wrapped his bolika around his waist and arranged his sash to cover it.

One evening when the practice with staff, sword and bolika had ended the two youths were resting near the fountain with a cups of cool water. "I would like to learn to use an ax," Tagun told Doka. "Perhaps you could teach me."

"I only know how to use a small throwing ax," Doka said. "When I am fully grown I will learn to use the great ax of the foresters."

"A throwing ax could be useful," Tagun said. "Would you carve a couple of them for us to use for practice?"

"I should bind some stones to a couple of handles instead of carving the blades," Doka said. "That would give a better feel for their weight."

Doka had real skill with the throwing ax and soon they were spending a good deal of their practice time improving their aim. Like the bolika or a spear, the ax could be used at a distance.

They were finishing their lunch one day when a Tedakan in pilgrim dress came to the home of the sage and asked to see Doka. He delivered a scroll from the his uncle, Tanka. Doka took it to the room he shared with Tagun and read it aloud to his friend.

"Dear Nephew, I am looking forward to your return when your term of study has ended. We have fought Jagga's hordes on the border of Virdana, but our home remains secure. Your friend Selendra sends her affectionate greetings to you and Tagun. She has remained a maiden. I look forward to your return."

Doka scanned the rest of the scroll and stopped reading aloud.

Finally he looked up at Tagun and gave a crooked grin. "My mother is worried that I'm not getting rest and eating enough."

"Perhaps if she knew you had grown several inches she would not be so concerned," Tagun said.

"Maybe you should be the one to eat more," Doka said.

But Tagun hardly heard him. He rubbed his thumb over the silky surface of the round white stone Selendra had given him and smiled. Selendra could not communicate with him openly, but he was glad to know she had resisted her stepmother's efforts. Then Tagun recalled the earlier part of the message and his brow furrowed with worry. The hordes of Jagga had been repelled, but how long would that continue? A vision of Selendra, her hands bound with leather fastened to a train of other captured maidens bound for the massive dark temple of Orqu sprang to his mind.

"I'm missing something again," Doka said. "First you grinned like a ninny, and now you are frowning as if you had learned that your best friend had died."

Tagun shook his head. "Sometimes my imagination is too vivid."

Frovin stepped to the doorway. "Soon the bells will ring for Enven. Put away your scrolls and scribing tools and meet me in the worship hall."

"I want go to the Great Shrine to pray alone today," Tagun said.

"You will hardly be alone in the shrine at Enven," Doka said. "You might as well take me with you."

Tagun looked at Doka and tried to think of a way to reject the offer without insulting his friend. But Frovin cleared his throat. Doka glanced at Frovin and seemed to get the message. "Right, you want to be alone. I'll stay here with Frovin and Falinda. You hardly ever leave the house anyway."

Tagun pulled a hood up over his head and looked both ways before leaving the gate. He had been nervous of being discovered by one of Jagga's minions, but after several months with no indication of cultists in Timora, he felt it would be safe to venture forth if he took care. After years of avoiding notice by his brothers or their servants he should have sufficient skill to reach the the Great Shrine safely.

He had worn his hair cropped short for many years, but since leaving Janaka he had let it grow to his shoulders, more in the fashion of a man of Algire. He was certain his face, now clean of grime, hardened with regular exercise and filled out with a steady diet of nourishing food, would not be immediately recognized by someone who had met him in Janaka.

He joined the throng in the streets that led to the Shrine. Most of them were pilgrims, drawn to the vale to partake of the waters of renewal washing in the lake of Timora, or returning in maturity to study the sacred scrolls.

Tagun's pale student tunic was enough like the weathered white of many of the pilgrim's robes that he hoped he blended into the crowd. He sniffed the air, wary of the stink of a cultist. There was a faint odor of unwashed bodies in the crowd pressed around him, but nothing approaching the reek of filth favored by Orquians.

When he reached the prayer hall of the Great Shrine Tagun lifted a prayer mat from the diminished pile on the shelves inside the entrance and looked around for a space to kneel.

Someone touched his shoulder and Tagun turned to see an old man so ancient his hair seemed like a silver mist on his shiny skull. He wore the white robes and blue stole of a priest.

"Come with me. There is another, less crowded hall where we can pray," the ancient whispered. Tagun looked around. Several shrine servants stared at the old man with awe, but when they saw Tagun looking at them they quickly turned away. He nodded and followed the priest deeper into the Shrine, through a doorway into a room that was small and plain, its only decorations the glowing white globe suspended on one wall and a carved frieze of vines near the tall ceiling. The ancient priest took a prayer mat from a shelf near the entrance and closed the door. Then he knelt on the mat and waited until Tagun followed his example before bowing and shutting his eyes. The hushed whisper of hundreds of pilgrims praying in the great prayer hall filtered into the room, but otherwise Tagun was alone with the old man as they prayed.

Tagun had come to the Shrine to pray for Selendra. He was filled with gratitude for her faithfulness and anxiety for her safety. He had hoped for the anonymity of a crowd of strangers but now he was alone with just one other and it was a trial to still his mind.

Surely this was a Seer, one of the mysterious beings who moved through the land of Okishdu after giving up the office of High Priest and becoming a messenger for deity. Tagun had read of them in the records left by Dorn. Few had seen them. Their messages were rare and their words sparse. How had the Seer known Tagun's name? Why had he sought him out?

Finally Tagun stilled his racing thoughts and began to meditate and pray. His anxiety for Selendra's safety retreated and his gratitude for her faithfulness increased until he felt that he wanted to sing.

"Selendra is worthy to become a queen." The whispered words echoed Tagun's thoughts and he glanced up to meet the smiling eyes of his companion.

"The bells of Enven's end are ringing through the Shrine," the ancient priest said. "I was waiting for you to make an end of your prayer. I am Taklan, and yes, I am a seer. Come, we must meet with Alwrek, the High Priest."

Tagun silently followed Taklan from the room and down a corridor and wondered what a seer would have to do with him.

"I have been interested in you since before you were born," the seer replied aloud.

Tagun tried to quiet his thoughts. The one-sided conversation had begun to unnerve him. They stopped in front of a tall door. Taklan knocked and when no answer came he pushed the door open. The High Priest sat behind a desk piled with documents. Alwrek looked up with a frown that turned to a gratified smile as he recognized the Seer.

"I need your witness when I ordain this youth," Taklan said as the High Priest stood and extended his hand in welcome.

Ordain? Tagun thought. I'm not a candidate for priesthood.

"Wrong, my boy. As the heir of Dorn you will the patriarch of your people. Before Dorn became the first king, the eldest of the Council of Warriors served as High Priest of Janaka, but now the rightful king serves in the office. I would have ordained you when I visited your grandmother in Algire village, but she was uncertain you were worthy. She had another candidate in mind for king."

Tagun recalled seeing Kabrika with a young man just after he arrived in Algire. Could it have been the Seer who carried her message to Frovin?

"Yes, I was no more than an errand boy to your grandmother," Taklan responded to Tagun's thoughts. "She was disappointed when I said that you would be the heir. She thought you were too short."

Alrek smiled at Tagun's confusion. "I take it you are Tagun, Koren's son. Your father was a friend of mine. I can see the resemblance."

"Sit down on that bench," Taklan directed Tagun.

Tagun took the seat and Taklan placed his hands on Tagun's bowed head. "In the holy name of Yasa Dom, I ordain you as a king and patriarch of your people, to succor them and lead them from the darkness of error. Seek the Light and you will be sustained until your task is finished."

For a moment there was silence then Alwrek uttered a quick "Amen".

Tagun opened his eyes just in time to catch a glimpse of Taklan as he left the room.

Alwrek lifted his scribing tool and returned to his accounts. "Is that all?" Tagun asked.

Alwrek glanced up with a look of surprise, then he smiled wryly. "If you know anything of seers you will realize that their appearances are rare and their words are few and sometimes mysterious. I know of only one exception and that was a rebuke that has rung down through the centuries. I have only seen a seer twice since I took office as High Priest here in Timora. Remember what he told you. When sufficient time has passed it will be recorded on the sacred scroll that holds the sayings of the seers. It is a very small scroll."

Alwrek went back to his record keeping and Tagun cleared his throat. "How do I find my way out of the Shrine?"

"When you leave this room turn left and follow the passageway to the end. You will find a door that leads into a garden. Once you leave the garden you should recognize the neighborhood."

Tagun bowed and backed from the room, but he doubted Alwrek saw the gesture. The scrolls once again held all of his attention. He followed the directions but when Tagun exited the Shrine into the garden he stopped and looked around with a sense of familiarity. In the few times he had ventured from Frovin's house he had tried to find the garden where he had confessed his love to Selendra, but so far he had failed. He recognized the fountain first by the distinctive band of carving on the edge of the basin. He sat down on the low wall and touched the surface of the water. Were there really any coincidences in his life since he had left Janaka's castle?

With Selendra as a sample of what fate intended, Tagun felt more than willing to accept the gift, but surely there had been no mystical coercion in her response to him. He pondered the problem for a while. How else could a maiden as desirable as Selendra admire a runt from a corrupt kingdom? Tagun found the thought depressing, but as ever when he was near the Shrine, a sense of peace and reassurance filled him and banished his doubts.

Finally he stood and left the garden, finding that the gap he had entered with Selendra was now screened by a bush that was planted to conceal the opening. Now that he knew where the garden was it would be easy to find it again.

He made his way back to Frovin's house to be greeted at the gate by the entire household. "What kept you so long?" Doka demanded.

"People to see, things to do," Tagun answered with a smile. Frovin winked at him and Falinda merely seemed confused.

"You can do better than that Tagun," Doka said. "What people did you see. What things did you have to do?"

"I met someone who knows my grandmother and Frovin," Tagun said. "I found the garden that Selendra and I discovered back when we first arrived in Timora."

Behind Doka's back, Frovin put a cautionary finger to his lips and Tagun nodded. He would not betray the secret of his meeting with the seer, but clearly Frovin knew what he meant.

After meeting the seer Tagun was eager to read the scroll that recorded their sayings. The next day Doka stayed behind to study one of his scrolls on armament while Doka and Frovin went to the archives that held the scrolls of saints and heroes. Tagun was pleased to see a copy of the scroll of Dorn listed on the inventory. As Alwrek had indicated, the scroll of the seers was not large and it was less than two thirds full with quotes of sayings.

"Is this everything the seers have said since the founding of Okishdu?" Tagun asked Frovin.

"Irilik was the first of the seers, and he was ninety years old when he resigned the High Priesthood of the Radiance to his grandson and began wandering as a seer with Tarsha, his wife. The sayings of Irilik were lost to the library when a thief took the Scroll of Prophecy in the days of Tharek. It is likely it was Marnat, last emperor of Saadena, who had the scroll removed. After Irilik was no longer seen, his great-grandson followed in his stead and he and his wife became the seer and seeress.

"Are the seers always descendants of Irilik?" Tagun asked.

"No, some have been Tedakan, one was a Taleekan, and there has even been a Janakan seer," Frovin answered. "However the Janakan had a mother who was Mareklan, so that makes her son a descendant of Irilik."

Tagun studied the scroll and saw that Alwrek had spoken the truth about the brevity of most of the pronouncements. It was likely Taklan had exchanged more words with Tagun than most people whom the seers had visited. He was a little embarrassed to think that Kabrika had used Taklan as her messenger.

Tagun still pondered the words Taklan had spoken when he left the library. He had made a record of the meeting in his journal, but Tagun wondered when he would finally be free to realize their commission to serve his people as their king. How would he ever find a way to discover the cultists in the courts of Taleeka and Zedekla and bring about the alliance against Jagga?

Suddenly Frovin halted and grunted with disgust. Tagun looked up. A man in pilgrim robes stood in the street not far ahead extending a bowl that he shook at passersby, wheedling donations.

The reek of filth and heavy Orenese perfume betrayed his nature. Tagun recognized the face beneath the shaggy hair as Delgar, one of Jagga's close attendants. Any moment the man might look up and see Tagun with Frovin.

"He is one of Jagga's men," Tagun muttered.

Frovin gripped Tagun's hand. "Get behind me," he whispered. "When I have distracted him, cast your bolika and we will take him prisoner."

Tagun stepped behind Frovin and uncoiled the bolika from around his waist. While he followed close behind his tutor, he started whirling the weighted end of the weapon, building momentum for the moment of attack. He had to be quick and accurate or Delgar could escape and take a report of Tagun's presence in Timora back to Jagga.

"No true pilgrim begs in the public way," Frovin reproached the begging cultist while unwinding a bolika.

"Go away old man," the cultist snarled. He grabbed Frovin by the front of his robe and aimed a kick at his groin.

"Now!" Frovin shouted. He dropped down and left Delgar open to Tagun's attack. The braided line hissed through Tagun's fingers and before the cultist could react the knob hit him in the temple, stunning him. Delgar fell to the ground and Frovin leaped at him with a bolika ready to bind the rogue's hands and arms.

Almost immediately a couple of Peace Guardians rushed to the scene. One of them glanced at Frovin and nodded a quick greeting. The other demanded an explanation of the attack.

"Anser just joined our ranks," the first Guardian explained to Frovin. He turned to the new recruit. "This is Frovin. He is a valued citizen. Help me lift his prisoner and we will take him to the barracks."

Delgar regained consciousness and staggered to his feet. He struggled to loosen the bolika binding him but the two tall Guardians closed in on either side and grasped his arms. A curious crowd gathered and followed the Guardians as they marched the suspect to the jail in the Guardian barracks. Tagun concealed himself behind a group of pilgrims and followed at a distance, alert for other cultists. They seldom traveled alone. He saw two other men who looked suspicious near the edge of the crowd but he didn't recognize either of them.

He moved around and came up close behind them. His sense of smell confirmed what he suspected. He had been able to take Delgar by surprise, but one small man prevailing against two large cultists seemed unlikely. He followed close behind the two men pondering how to alert the Guardians to their presence without warning the cultists that he knew what they were.

The Guardian barracks also served as jail and courthouse. Flowering hedges screened the building but the squared off architecture with high grilled windows hinted at its function as a place of justice. Two Guardians stood at the gate watching the approaching crowd. Like others citizens of Timora they did not carry swords, but the tall bronze staffs they held at loose alert were tipped with fist-sized balls.

The cultists Tagun followed reached under their robes and Tagun saw the tell-tale shapes of short swords hidden by the fabric. He knew he risked his own life, but better that than stay silent and let others suffer. He drew out his bolika and began to twirl it around his head as the cultists closed in on the Guardians escorting Delgar.

Tagun drew his breath and shouted,"Help!"

The cultist turned and saw him. "He's the one who attacked Delgar," one of the cultists yelled as he pulled out his sword and charged at Tagun.

The other cultist backed away, then turned to run, waving his sword to threaten any who impeded his escape.

Tagun flung his bolika at the the attacking cultist who ducked to avoid the weighted knob. Tagun still held the loop at the other end of the bolika and he jerked at it, pulling the knob back and down to hit the other man hard on his shoulder. It was enough to make the man drop his sword, but he scooped it up with his other hand and slashed at Tagun.

Tagun ducked and rolled under the attack, but he knew it would be only seconds before he met the fate the Orquian intended. The streets of Timora were smooth and clear of rocks or sticks but Tagun grasped a handful of dust and gravel and flung it in the cultist's face.

Blinded by the dust, the cultist screamed and slashed wildly,. The edge of his sword cut through the folds of fabric over Tagun's chest. Tagun felt the sting of the blade score his flesh.

He rolled away and tried to stagger to his feet. The cultist's mouth split in a gloating grin that stretched his lips, revealing wedge shaped sharpened teeth. He raised his sword, then toppled sideways as the brass ball of a guardian's staff connected with his skull.

Tagun gasped for breath and felt the burning of the wound on his chest. Frovin hurried over and supported him as they entered the barracks. Tagun caught sight of the cultist who had tried to flee being led toward the holding cells with his two fellows. Delgar turned and frowned as he looked at Tagun with no hint of recognition in his eyes.

Frovin led Tagun into a small room furnished with several cots and shelves stocked with jars of herbs and ointments. Water simmered in a pot on top of a tripod brazier near a corner of the room. "Lay down Tagun, I must treat your wound."

"I doubt it's very bad," Tagun said. "A poultice of gunge weed should suffice to stop the bleeding."

Frovin lifted the slashed and bloodied tunic from Tagun's torso and Tagun clenched his teeth against the stinging as the cloth pulled away from his wound. "It's hardly more than a scratch," Tagun muttered when he looked down at the bleeding line that crossed his chest from his right shoulder to the bottom of his left ribs.

"Gunge weed would stop the bleeding, but this was made by an Orquian sword. It is likely to fester if we don't clean it well," Frovin said. He selected a few herb jars and scattered pinches of the contents into the water on the brazier.

Tagun clenched his teeth and tried to breath slowly while Frovin used the hot astringent infusion to clean the wound. The sage applied the gunge weed poultice and bound it in place with a long band of cloth from the supplies at hand.

"Your tunic is ruined," Frovin said. "I'll borrow something from the Guardians."

Frovin left the infirmary and soon returned with a white tunic marked with thin bands of blue and gold on neck and cuffs. It was too large for Tagun, but he belted it up with his sash, carefully twining his bolika beneath it around his waist.

"You worked that bolika almost like a true Kumnoran," Frovin said.

Tagun smiled. He had never dreamed that someday he would be proud to be compared to a Kumoran.

"What will happen to the Orquians?" he asked Frovin.

"They will be turned over to the guardians of the forest. Some say they are executed but others say they live out their lives far from Okishdu's settled lands," the sage replied.

"Surely they will try to escape," Tagun said.

"None have ever returned," Frovin assured him. "I have heard that the forest guardian use an herb that wipes the memory of villain and they become as children, forgetting all the evil they have done and living in content among their captors."

Tagun shuddered. He wasn't sure if the twinge of pain in his wound or the thought of losing all his memory and becoming like a child bothered him more. "I think I would prefer a quick and certain death, besides if they have an evil nature, won't it reveal itself sooner or later?"

"If so, it will do so in a place where those around them are aware of what they might do, and far away from those who led them into paths of wickedness," Frovin explained.

Before Tagun and Frovin left the Guardian barracks they were called in to meet with the commander of the Peace Guardians. "The prisoners have been examined. All of them wear the mark of Orqu on their palms, your keen observation and quick action is to be commended," he told Tagun. He turned to Frovin. "We have often relied on you in our investigations because you are careful of easy evidence. This young man is a worthy apprentice."

Frovin smiled at Tagun. "I had not thought to include him in my activities before today, but he was the one who alerted me to the presence of the cultists. I felt offence at seeing a pilgrim begging, but Tagun detected the true nature of the villain."

When they returned home Doka and Falinda waited at the gate. Both of them asked questions, but Doka was in awe of the Guardian tunic Tagun was wearing. He wanted to hear every detail of the fray. "I never realized how useful a bolika could be," he said. "It seems I should have gone with you today instead of staying here to study arms and battles."

Tagun considered how the presence of his younger friend might have affected the events of the afternoon. It seemed likely that neither Tagun nor Frovin would have interrupted the begging cultist if it might endanger Doka. Most of the time Tagun thought of Doka as his peer, but now he realized the real difference between the two of them. Doka was still a boy, impulsive and brash.

Later that evening Tagun spoke to Frovin about their visit to the sacred library. "It is a shame that Irilik's scroll of prophecy is lost to us. Everything we think we know about the first prophet is little more than tradition and supposition. We have the Law and Compacts to govern our behavior, but without Irilik's own words to confirm our belief, we risk lapsing into superstition."

"We have the seers," Frovin reminded him. "But you are correct in feeling that the Scroll of Prophecy was a great loss. There is a record of the contents of the scroll, but it was made by my ancestor Fozli from the oral records of our people, and the priests of Timora regard it as little more than a tale for children. It is not accepted as canon."

"I understand the caution, but I am eager to read it," Tagun said.

Doka had been listening and he shook his head. "I don't want to risk the censure of the priests. In Tedaka we keep the scroll of Tedak, Irilik's servant. It is sufficient for me."

The next day Tagun began to study the records of Fozli. He met Frovin in the sage's study for an hour or so after dawn each morning while Falinda and Doka were sleeping. The records from the Kumnorans had been framed in the form of chants and songs and Tagun found it easy to memorize the teachings. Even so, he yearned to read the original. He wondered if it still existed, buried somewhere in the vast ruined palace of Saadena.

Now and then Frovin and Tagun were summoned to the barracks of the Guardians where they acted as investigators. Tagun earned a reputation for looking beyond the obvious and detecting subtle motives. Crime rates were low in Timora but there were still those who were swept into crime by passion or greed.

Many traders were drawn to the city by the lure of profit. One day Frovin and Tagun were asked to sit in on the trial of two disputing merchants. They took their seats near the judges' bench and Tagun looked around the courtroom. A small, sallow Taleekan complained that a Jaman glass merchant had short-changed him on the purchase of scent jars. Since the glass included a portion of cracked and poorly glazed bottles, the three judges were inclined to favor the claims of the Taleekan.

Tagun asked if he could examine the evidence; the several lots of dainty glass jars packed in boxes, and the tin bars offered in payment. He lifted one of the narrow bars to his mouth and bit it. Instead of the characteristic cracking noise pure tin would produce under pressure, Tagun's teeth sunk into the surface of the metal and a shard broke away revealing a mixture of clay and lead beneath a covering of plated tin.

"He tried to cheat me," the Jaman shouted.

"You tried to sell me rejects," the Taleekan responded," his voice rising until he seemed like a petulant child.

The Guardians in the court stepped forward and the two men stopped shouting and glared at each other. The three citizens called to make judgment conferred and returned their verdict. "Both of these men have shown themselves unworthy to trade in Timora. They will be banned from further commercial activities within the precincts of the Vale for five years. If either of them are found in similar crimes within that period, they will be banned from the vale permanently." A clerk recorded the judgement and the traders left the courtroom grumbling sullenly.

Tagun felt surprised by the mild sentence. In his homeland of Janaka the widow smiths relied on accurate measures of tin to add to the copper they mined and smelted into bronze. Traders who offered false measures or contaminated tin were given harsh sentences, if they lived long enough to appear before a court.

Now and then Tagun and Frovin were involved in solving more serious crimes. At first Tagun felt shocked by the number of people who gave weak excuses for breaking the laws and compacts. One morning he and Frovin were called to help sort out a question of legal propriety. An Orenese servant seller had entered the vale with a train of young men dressed in pilgrim robes. Other lands in Okishdu had various laws governing the selling of kin in desperate times. It was intended to be a contract period for seven years or less of service in exchange for money to pay off debts or purchase necessities. Sometimes it was seen as a benefit when the contracted son or daughter was able to learn a useful trade while they served their term of service. No child could be contracted before they reached their twelfth year.

In Timora the laws forbade any citizen to sell a child or other family member into service. The resources of the Shrine were available to any citizen in need and begging and the selling of kin were unnecessary. Furthermore, the laws of Timora decreed that any servant who entered the vale would immediately be free of any further obligation of service.

Tagun studied the line of young men in pilgrim robes who had been brought to the Guardian barracks along with the merchant who claimed their contracts. Seven of them were Virdanans, sturdy farmers with faces and limbs tanned from hours of working in the fields. One of them was slim and tall and pale. His long hair, dressed in ringlets, hinted that he was Jaman. The expression on his face reminded Tagun of the way Doka had looked when they had entered the vale, transparently innocent and almost incredibly virtuous. On the face of the Jaman, it seemed suspicious.

When Frovin and Tagun took their seats near the witness bench the three judges were still being chosen by lot from a group of citizens. The servant seller was young and very nervous, his gaze darting from the two tall Guardians who stood on either side of him to the youths he had brought to Timora.

When the three judges were finally chosen and took their seats the first witness was called. It was one of the Peace Guardians.

"We stopped this man and the pilgrims you see when they entered the vale. One of them reported that they were being held under contract as servants."

The first judge looked at a slate in front of him and raised his brow. "This seems a simple matter. Servants are manumitted as soon as they enter the vale. Why is there any question of what you should have done?"

"The servant seller claims he was duped and mislead," the Guardian replied.

"Surely he understood the laws of Timora," another judge said.

"He claims he was told that the law had been altered recently."

The Jaman pilgrim stepped forward and raised his hand and the first judge nodded, giving him permission to speak.

"Ignorance of the law is no excuse for transgression," the Jaman said.

"But you told me-," the Orenese merchant lurched forward, and was immediately restrained by the guards.

Tagun raised his hand and looked at the judges. They conferred and and one of them gestured to him.

Tagun stood and approached the Jaman. "You seem healthy and well groomed. How did the servant seller come to acquire your contract?"

"My father was opposed to my plans for a pilgrimage," the youth looked around, his eyes wide with apparent outrage. Without his sponsorship I could not afford to take the journey."

Tagun turned to the Virdanans. "Were you sold into servitude by your families?"

One of them shook his head. Tagun gave him an encouraging look. "I know how difficult it can be to make a pilgrimage through your homeland. Your people have been abused by rogues wearing pilgrim robes. They are reluctant to honor the ancient customs of sharing with pilgrims."

"That's it," the Virdanan said. "We come from the eastern border. This Jaman approached us a few months ago while we were at an inn. We told him our difficulty in making a pilgrimage and he offered to help us. Last week he returned to our village with this servant seller. We agreed to work as bearers for six months in return for supplies and clothing."

"An exchange of goods for service?" Tagun asked.

The other Virdanans nodded, but the Jaman quickly objected. "Servitude is unlawful in Timora. I claim my freedom."

Tagun turned and approached Frovin. "You accepted payment for your services as my tutor? Is that true?"

Frovin smiled and nodded. "I certainly sold my service as a tutor."

"Surely you should appeal to this court to have your service ended," Tagun said.

"There is a difference!" the Jaman insisted.

"The eight of you entered a contract for six months of your labor in return for goods and support," one of the judges said. You did this willingly?"

All of the pilgrims nodded, except for the Jaman.

"Have any of you fulfilled the terms of your agreement?" another judge inquired.

They all shook their heads.

Frovin stood. "He who enters the holy lake must do so with an attitude of honesty and good will. Otherwise, it has no effect or purpose to receive the ritual."

"We will confer," the lead judge said. The three citizens retired to another room and the Jaman whispered urgently to the other pilgrims. The servant seller sat and wrung his hands.

When the judges returned to take their place the servant seller stood and waited for their judgement. The Jaman hushed the other pilgrims who seemed unhappy with his words.

"According to the customs of Timora, servitude is discouraged. So it has been for centuries, and yet, as Frovin and his pupil brought to mind, many in the city exchange services for payment. It seems to us that the root difficulty in this case was caused by the Virdanan practice of denying simple hospitality and support to pilgrims as custom requires."

The Virdanan pilgrims nodded but the Jaman began to frown. The servant seller began to look a little less discouraged.

"The simple remedy in the case is reimbursement, since the terms of the service were mild and the goods exchanged were fair."

"But if I could afford to pay for my food and clothing, I wouldn't have needed to sell my services," the Jaman said impatiently.

"You could have delayed your pilgrimage long enough to gather the resources," the second judge said. "Furthermore, you seem to have involved these other decent young men in a scheme to defraud."

The judge addressed the seven Virdanans. "We have a need for several young men to clean the grounds and repair the barracks. We will pay the cost of your contracts as payment for your employment, with enough added to help you make your way back home after a six month period of employment here at the barracks. Meanwhile, you are free to partake of the ritual of renewal washing and you may come and go from the barracks at your will."

"That is no better than being a bond servant!" the Jaman shouted.

"The offer of employment was for these others," the judge explained to the Jaman. "Since you evidently planned to defraud, you deserve a different treatment."

The judge turned to the servant seller. "The court will reimburse you for your expenses for seven of the pilgrims. The Jaman is free from his contract to you since he will not be available for the next six months which he must serve in jail. Your cost for ignoring our custom will be the loss of your investment in the Jaman."

Frovin and Tagun excused themselves and left the barracks while the Jaman was still arguing his sentence. The Virdanans took leave of the servant seller in good will.

"That was a just resolution," Frovin said. "I was unsure of how the judges would rule."

"If written law were sufficient, there would be no need for judges," Tagun said. "The Jaman tried to exploit law and custom. He didn't see that wisdom and insight would overturn his plans. Sometimes I feel I learn as much from watching the workings of justice in cases like these as I do from the study of various treatises on government."

Doka always enjoyed hearing about their latest encounter with law as practiced in Timora. "I'm surprised the Jaman would think he could get away with such an obvious fraud," he said.

"The prejudice against servant selling is strong, and Orenese servant sellers have a reputation for exploiting misfortune," Tagun said. "The Jaman made the mistake of thinking that prejudice would overwhelm justice."

"The folly of youth was much to blame," Frovin said. "The Jaman is young and arrogant and failed to consider that working a fraud is a poor way to fund a pilgrimage. The young servant seller was credulous enough to believe the Jaman who claimed that the law in Timora had changed."

"But the Orenese was fair in his dealings and I am relieved to have met an honest man from that city," Tagun said. "I have yet to meet a Jaman I can respect."

"Don't be too hasty to judge," Frovin said. "Remember how you felt about Kumnorans before we met."

"How did you know?" Tagun asked him, chagrined to realize that Frovin had guessed his prejudice.

"I saw your face when Tanka first introduced us," Frovin said with a wry smile.

"I met the same reception from some when they learned I am Janakan," Tagun admitted.

"Everyone knows you can always trust a Tedakan," Doka said. "We are acknowledged to be the finest men in Okishdu." He struck a heroic pose and batted away the small objects that Frovin and Tagun flung at his head.













Chapter 6 Tangled Web

Early one morning Tagun and Frovin settled in Frovin's study with a plateful of toasted matlas and a pitcher of cala and began to talk about one of the prophecies of Irilik. The bell at the gate rang, disturbing their studies. When Frovin went to the gate he found a Guardian waiting with an urgent summons. Frovin signaled Tagun to join him. Without saying anything about his errand, the Guardian led them through the streets of Timora to a neighborhood near the Shrine.

"Tagun should stay here at the entrance," the Guardian said. "This is no sight for a child."

"He is not a child," Frovin said and drew Tagun after him into the building. From the entrance hall to the gather room and the garden courtyard beyond, the home was furnished with comfort and elegance. A mosaic mural on the wall depicted the story of Tharek and Tagun realized it must the local residence of Zedeklan royalty. He had heard that Balchek, crown prince of Zedekla and his wife and family were visiting Timora, but the house seemed ominously silent. Two stern Guardians stood on either side of an inner door that had been sealed with the sign of the Peace Guardians.

Tagun's stomach lurched at the scent that rose from the room when the door opened to admit them. He steeled himself to follow his mentor. Frovin lifted his lamp to see the room better and gave a low moan of distress. He held out his hand to push Tagun behind him, but it was too late to prevent him from viewing the terrible scene.

The small form of a little boy lay near the door, the body of his father, Prince Balchek, was bound to a chair with dark blood clotting on his tunic, but worst of all, the remnants left by a multiple sacrifice to the demon Orqu were scattered around a makeshift altar in the middle of the room.

Porga and his brothers had delighted in stories of their initiation into the cult. Tagun had tried to close his mind against the images they evoked, and he had sincerely hoped they had exaggerated, but by the evidence in the room lit by Frovin's lamp, they had been describing a scene much like this.

"Jagga's men, or their ilk," Tagun said.

"Orquians," Frovin agreed.

"Who discovered them?" Frovin asked the Guardian.

"Prince Balchek's steward, Pernan, was first on the scene. He ordered us to seal the room then set off for Zedekla to tell King Fortek what happened."

"Send for the High Priest," Frovin said. " I will try to gather evidence, but this is an abomination. The bodies of the prince and his family must be removed and the room cleansed of evil."

"Prince Balchek had a wife and two daughters as well as his small son," Frovin said when they turned back to the room. " Tagun, I want you to survey the room near the prince and his son and see if you find any clues. I will examine the other victims."

Tagun followed Frovin's instruction. He turned his back on the bloody scene in the center of the room and began to look for anything that might have been left behind. He noticed the little dagger that lay near the hand of the boy. Blood clotted on the blade and a bit of fuzz had caught near the hilt but from the way the small body lay, it seemed evident that the boy had attacked the intruders when they entered the chamber and had been killed immediately with a deep wound in his chest. His father had been bound in a chair facing the scene of the sacrifice. Tagun quailed from the thought of what Balchek had been forced to witness. He had died of a wound in his abdomen, but the prince would have lived for several hours before death gave him release from the horror. His mouth had been stuffed with a wad of cloth cut from his own tunic. Tagun avoided disturbing anything as he crossed back and forth with his lamp held high. There was no further evidence he could see.

Frovin was haggard with grief when he joined Tagun near the door. "This is a horror. It seems that the young boy was spared what his father was forced to witness. For that at least we can give thanks. Other than seeing the depths of depravity in the ruin of these lives, I found nothing to indicate a particular suspect."

They questioned the Guardians who had been set to guard the scene. Because of recent raids and attacks, the prince had arranged for a double contingent of guards. Members of his own staff and men from the Guardian Corps were guarding the home.

It was late in the morning when Frovin and Tagun returned to the sage's home. They had no appetite for the breakfast that Falinda had prepared and Doka was clearly perturbed by their unannounced absence.

Frovin called his daughter and his two students into his study in mid afternoon. "Please close the door. You will soon learn that the crown prince of Zedekla and his family were murdered sometime last night or this morning. I was summoned just after dawn to investigate the scene. I took Tagun with me because we were studying together. I could not have anticipated what we would see or I would have spared him."

"What was it?" Doka asked, "What did you see."

"Orquians invaded the Zedeklan residence," Tagun said. "They killed the prince and his son and performed horrible rites on his wife and daughters. The princess and her two daughters-" Tagun couldn't continue. Falinda's eyes widened and her hand flew to cover her mouth.

Doka opened his mouth to ask for more information, then he lowered his eyes and shuddered. "I thought the tales of Orquian rituals were fables meant to scare the timid."

"Doka, it is time for you to know who I am," Tagun said. "I am the son of Koren, true king of Janaka, but Jagga thought I was his son. I was raised in his palace and by the grace of the Radiance, I escaped initiation into the cult. I can tell you that nothing you have heard about the Orquians could be dreadful enough to describe the reality of their depravity."

Falinda did not seem surprised by his confession, but she had begun to weep. "You know what this terrible murder means to us, father."

Frovin nodded. He turned to Tagun and Doka. "Prince Manchek, the younger son of Fortek, studied here with me for several years. He and Falinda had hoped to marry and settle down to a quiet life of scholarship here in Timora."

"You will make a good queen," Doka said.

"I am Kumnoran," Falinda said. "The people of Zedekla might have accepted me as the wife of the younger son, but the tradition of the house of Tharek demands that the king be married to a maiden of Mareklan ancestry."

"Nonsense," Doka protested. "If Manchek loves you, he will marry you, whatever politics and tradition demands."

The others did not try to argue. Frovin nodded to Falinda and she quickly left the room. Tagun muttered a prayer for her. She had kept a little aloof from her father's two pupils, but he admired her. He wondered what she would do now that her hopes had been blighted. Nothing could equal the horror of what had been done to Balchek and his family, but the consequences would ripple and spread and many lives would be changed.

The routine of the household continued as usual for nearly a week. Tagun and Doka sparred in the courtyard each evening, but now it was more than a game as Tagun tried to make sure his friend learned real skill. The end of their time of study was nearing and Doka would return to a land actively e gaged in defense of its borders. Tagun was still unsure of how he would complete his own assignment to reveal the cultists in Taleeka and Zedekla.

Falinda drew Tagun aside one evening and asked him to help her tidy the kitchen after the meal. He usually shared the task with Doka, but the Tedakan was more than willing to leave them alone together while he found more interesting ways to occupy himself. "You must wonder why I sent Doka away," Falinda said while they washed and dried the dishes.

"You wanted to speak to someone who seemed old enough to understand but not as involved in your situation as your father must be," he replied.

She looked at him with a lifted brow and nodded. "Father respected you enough to let you investigate the murder scene. You understand what is involved. I want you to stay near me when we have visitors. I doubt that I can trust myself alone with Manchek. He will come, he must come to ask his release from our betrothal. Stay in the background, but stay."

"The attack on the Zedeklan royal house is a sign that the Orquians are pushing their plans to subvert the alliance," Tagun said. "There are traitors in the Zedeklan royal household and this is the fruit of their scheming. When I started my pilgrimage journey nearly a year ago I was given the task of discovering them. At the time I had no idea of how I would reach Timora or accomplish my other tasks. Perhaps it is meant that I meet Manchek and gain his trust. But where will Manchek find another woman so suited to him as you must be?"

"He must marry a Mareklan," Falinda said. "I have heard that a caravan of Mareklans with women among them entered Timora yesterday. I must tell Manchek about them. Perhaps he will find his bride."

Her voice grew faint with the strain of her emotions and Tagun changed the subject to something more mundane. "Doka has grown out of his tunic again. Could you tell me where I could find a replacement?"

The bells of Enven rang and Frovin and those in his household prepared to spend the hour of prayer and meditation in the small worship room in his home. Few would interrupt a family with their doors shut after Enven began, but not long after Frovin gathered his students and Falinda together, someone pounded on the door. Falinda looked at Tagun and nodded. He excused himself and went to answer the summons.

A tall young man leaned on the door post. His face shone unusually pale and a line of blood ran from a crude bandage across his brow. "I am Manchek. I must speak to Falinda."

"Come into the gather hall," Tagun said. "Are your men nearby?"

Manchek nodded with a grimace of pain. "I've asked them to wait at the corner of the street for me and guard the way. Pernan, my brother's steward, wanted to come with me, but I need privacy to talk with Falinda."

Falinda looked up when Tagun opened the door of the worship room and nodded toward her. She stood and quickly followed him to the gather hall. Tagun sat down on a stool near the door while Falinda moved to Manchek and took his hands. "I know why you have come," she said. "My father investigated the scene of the murders. You will be the next king of Zedekla and you cannot marry me."

Manchek looked toward Tagun.

"He can be trusted," Falinda said. "He was there with my father. He is not the child he appears to be. There is a caravan of Mareklan merchants in the city. They have women among them. Perhaps your intended bride is with them."

Manchek shut his eyes and gripped her hands. He lurched a little and Tagun stood and moved to his side to support him. "I will go with you to the Mareklan Enclave,"Tagun told Manchek.

"Can I rest here until the end of Enven at least? " Manchek asked. "We were attacked on the trail outside the vale and I haven't stopped since then." Falinda nodded and Manchek settled on a padded bench chest. He closed his eyes and sighed. "I remember the days I spent studying here. I remember so much."

"You may rest, but you cannot hold onto those memories or you will never be able to do what you must," Falinda said. She lifted her hand toward him as if to touch him one last time, then she dropped it and grasped it tight with her other hand. "Goodbye Manchek," she muttered so low that Tagun could hardly hear her words.

Tagun and Falinda returned to the worship room and continued their prayers in silence for the rest of the hour. When the bells ending Enven rang Falinda looked at her father and tears glistened at the corners of her eyes.

"Manchek has come to Timora to investigate the deaths of his brother and his family. I told him I knew what must happen. I told him that there are several women among the Mareklans visiting the city. He is resting now, but Tagun will lead him to the Mareklan Enclave."

"I had expected him to arrive earlier today,"Frovin said.

"They were attacked on the trail," Tagun said. "Manchek is wounded. He was limping and I could see a bandage under his helmet."

"Balchek's steward, Pernan, discovered the murders and carried word to Zedekla without any hesitation," Frovin said. "Manchek must have set forth from the city as soon as they received words. They would not have been careless of spies. Someone close to the king is a traitor."

"Perhaps you should speak to Manchek," Tagun suggested. "You have been frustrated in your efforts to interview the men who were guarding the royal residence on the night of the murders. Either the prince's guards or the Guardians of Timora, or both are implicated in the conspiracy."

'I will speak to him later,"Frovin said. "Now you must take him to the Mareklans. It is best if they are the ones to give him support. I love Manchek. I had hoped to have him as my son-in-law. For now it is better if there is some distance between us or I might beg him to renew his troth to Falinda."

He said it with a hint of humor in his tone, but it barely touched the pain in his expression.

Ironically, it was Tagun's lack of height that made him an excellent support for Manchek as they left Frovin's home and walked to the corner where Manchek's men waited.

"Where is Pernan?" Manchek asked the captain.

"He went on ahead to the royal residence. He seemed to be in pain from his wounded arm."

"The rest of you can go to the residence after you escort me to the Mareklan Enclave. I have business there," Manchek said.

The Mareklan Enclave was one of the larger buildings in Timora, taking up the entire block on which it was built. A heavy gate swung open at their approach and Tagun accompanied Manchek to the dining hall where the merchants had assembled. Their appearance at the entrance brought the man at the head of the table to his feet.

"Manchek! You are wounded!"

The prince clutched Tagun's shoulder and tried to stand a little taller. "We were attacked on the trail only an hour ago, Boladen," Manchek said.

"An ambush at the very gates of Timora?" Boladen said. "Where were the Peace Guardians?"

"One of the commanders of the Peace Guardians may be a traitor," Manchek said. "We sent word ahead of us that we were coming. The same villain who murdered my brother made sure our enemies knew our plans. Fortunately, they underestimated the loyalty and valor of my men. Just as we seemed lost, a company of elite guards helped turn the tide. Many of us were injured, but none died."

"Who has done this thing?" Boladen demanded.

"I have come to Timora to find the one who instigated the murders of my brother and his family," Manchek growled. He swayed on his feet and once again Tagun managed to keep him from falling.

"This is not the time to harrass you with questions. You need a healer," Boladen said. "You must stay here with us. Come, let me see to your care and comfort."

"There are others who need it more than I," Manchek said with a gesture at his men.

"They will be served, but come now. Follow me. Hold my arm and I will help you." Boladen looked at Tagun with doubt in his eyes and looked around for someone sturdier to aid him.

"Come Sergon. Help me. The stairs to the men's quarters are steep."

Tagun was quite willing to let the young Mareklan take his place, but Manchek handed Tagun his staff and indicated that he should follow.

The other Zedeklans were led away in a different direction. Tagun looked around and quickly assessed the safety of the enclave. Mareklans were merchants and allegedly non combatants who only used their staffs for defense, but Tagun had heard enough to know that Jagga and his minions hated and feared them. Time after time their attempts to kidnap Mareklan maidens had been frustrated by the skills of the staff fighters.

More than thirty men and women were assembled in the dining hall and while they ranged in age and size, all had a calm confidence in their gazes that he recognized. They could have been mighty warriors if that had been their way.

A young woman stood out from the others. Something almost regal shone in her eyes. 'This is the one,' a voice whispered in Tagun's heart. He noticed that her gaze fixed on Sergon, the young Mareklan who helped Boladen carry Manchek up the stairs. Manchek must engage the interest of this woman soon before she accepted a betrothal from Sergon. There were other girls of Mareklan lineage outside the hidden home of the clan. The isles of Arqua and the village of Rubbleford were both settlements of members of the clan, but they were miles away.

Sergon proceeded up the stairway with his arm around Manchek's ribs while Boladen supported the prince on the other side. They took him to the first room of the many that lined the corridor at the top of the stairs. On trek, Mareklans slept on nothing more than sleeping skins laid on the bare ground and had the sky for ceiling. When they stayed in Timora, they made up for the sparsity of their life on the trail. Here in the enclave, the beds were wide and comfortable.

Manchek sunk into the feather filled mat with a groan of weary relief. A ewer of nop scented water stood near a basin on a table near the bed. "Remove his clothing," Boladen told Sergon as he poured the water into the basin and removed some folded cloths from a shelf under the table.

Sergon took off the helm first and suppressed a gasp of dismay. Beneath Manchek's hairline a deep cut scored from one temple to the bandage that covered his brow. It no longer bled, but the edges were turning an angry red that warned of infection. "Fetch a coal basket," Boladen said as soon as he saw the wound.

"I have a fire strike in my--," Manchek's voice was a whisper, fading without revealing the location of the fire strike. Sergon reached into the Prince's belt pouch and retrieved the star stone rod and the flint that could make fire more quickly than any other tool. It was the work of a moment to start a fire in the tripod nearby.

Tagun stood by waiting for a chance to help. Meanwhile he studied Sergon who seemed almost angry as he carried out the orders of his chief. Could Manchek be in danger from the young man? Certainly the Mareklans must know what could be expected of them in the circumstances the murders of Balchek's family had created.

Boladen began to heat water in a bronze bowl while Sergon continued stripping the prince of the armor and clothing that concealed other wounds.

Manchek swooned, his head dropping to the side. "I've heard it said that Manchek is a dilettante, more interested in history and study than in arms and the art of war," Sergon said. "This is not the body of a bookish man."

"He was trained to be a warrior," Boladen said. "Balchek was a fine man and would have made a good king, but Manchek is in no way deficient. He will need to marry and produce an heir. You know what that means. Kemil may be the only Mareklan maiden in Timora, and she is not betrothed."

Boladen dipped a cloth in a steaming basin of water in which he had steeped a variety of herbs. Tagun could detect the muskiness of anodyne selan and the sharp pungency of oil weed. One would take away the pain, the other protect against the demons of death that turned wounds into festering sores. Boladen gave Sergon one of the cloths he had soaked in the infusion. Working together, they rubbed away the blood and debris from Manchek's limbs and torso and assessed the wounds. None were as deep as the one on Manchek's brow.

Manchek recovered from his swoon and opened his eyes. His first glance went to Tagun who stood in a corner of the room with the staff still in his hands. The prince flinched now and then, but he did not murmur as they cleaned the wounds and Boladen sewed the gash over his eye with a length of zilka thread. Tagun felt himself tensing in sympathy with each stitch. When they had treated all the prince's wounds and covered the gash over his eyes with a poultice of gunge weed covered with a fresh bandage, Manchek tried to sit up.

Boladen put a hand on his chest and kept him down. "You must rest and drink something to replenish your strength."

"I cannot rest," Manchek muttered. "The same man who planned the murder of my brother and his family must have planned the ambush. We need to find out who he is. There is no doubt he enjoys a position of trust. While he remains anonymous, my life, and my father's life are in danger."

"Who would dare to murder Zedekla's rulers?" Sergon asked.

"It is part of the darkness Jagga is spreading," Manchek murmured. "He knows that Zedekla is the wall that keeps him from sweeping over Okishdu. Since Tharek, we have kept Janaka's clans in check. When Dorn began to unite the clans under kings who favored peace it seemed our work was ending, but Jagga murdered Koren and seized the crown."

"You came to Timora to revenge your brother's murder?" Sergon asked.

"I wish my errand were so simple. Unfortunately, my father insists that I must marry a Mareklan maiden as soon as possible. There are women with you on this trek."

"Yes," Boladen answered. "But only Kemil is a maiden. The others are with their husbands."

"Is she betrothed?" Manchek asked. "I would not willingly take her from another, but it is urgent that I have a chance to speak to her if she is heart-free."

"No man has claimed her," Boladen assured the prince. "Though I am certain many would if they had any encouragement from Kemil. She has a regal air about her that has kept her suitors shy."

Manchek sighed and shut his eyes. "I am reluctant to offer my hand where I can not offer my heart."

"You have committed yourself to another?" Sergon asked. Tagun heard the note of hopefulness in the Mareklan's voice.

Manchek was silent for a moment. When he spoke his voice was low and hesitant. "I have spoken to Falinda, the daughter of Frovin, the Kumnoran sage. I released her from our pledge."

"I see your problem," Boladen said. "The prejudice against Kumnorans is belied by both Falinda and her father, but the ignorant take that as an exception that proves the rule. When your brother and his son were killed you became the heir and must marry according to tradition instead of where your heart has chosen."

Manchek lay still and silent for a moment then spoke again. "I must marry as soon as possible to ensure the line of Tharek. If Jagga's plot succeeds, Orqu will replace the Radiance as the god of Okishdu."

"I will bring Kemil to you," Boladen said.

Sergon dropped the cloth he held and left the room. Tagun had the impulse to follow him. He placed the staff of Manchek in the corner near his bed and nodded to the prince. "I will return tomorrow and give you any aid I can. I was at the scene of the murders before the priests removed the bodies."

Manchek nodded briefly and dismissed Tagun with a gesture of thanks.

Tagun followed Sergon at a distance and watched the young man as he paced the entrance hall. He could see the other members of the Mareklan band in the garden of the courtyard. Kemil sat alone glancing up toward the entrance now and then.

Suddenly Sergon seemed to reach a decision and he turned and grabbed his staff and left the enclave. Tagun barely kept up with him as he stalked into the street. "I would be more careful at such a time,"Tagun said.

Sergon whirled and stared. "Who are you little man to tell me what to do?"

"I am Janakan. I am a warrior, and I could have killed you easily."

"The great prince Manchek keeps a Janakan warrior as his pet?" Sergon jeered.

"Don't underestimate me and I will give you the same consideration," Tagun said. "I know very well that you could sweep me from my feet and pound my head to pulp with your staff, but that would not serve you at all."

Sergon gripped his staff as if Tagun had read his thoughts. "What are you to Manchek?"

"I met him this afternoon," Tagun said. "I am studying with Frovin, the Kumnoran sage."

"Ah, you know the girl he loves. He could not have loved her very well and so easily have broken their betrothal," Sergon said.

"Falinda was the first to see what must be done," Tagun said. "I have watched you Sergon. You love the woman Manchek will approach with his offer of betrothal. She loves you. You could have walked into the courtyard tonight and offered her your hand. Why didn't you?"

Sergon stared at Tagun. "You see much. I saw something too. I am not usually a visionary man, although I am the direct heir of Irilik. Tonight, when Manchek stumbled into the dining hall of the enclave supported by what I took at first to be a child, I saw a vision of him standing at the altar of the bridal chapel in the Shrine, and Kemi stood across from him as his bride. I tried to deny it, but when the Radiance offers a truth, you cannot refuse it, even though it tastes of bitterness."

"When Manchek speaks to Kemil tomorrow morning she will reject his suit if she still has hopes of you," Tagun said.

Sergon stared at him, his hand gripping his staff as if he wanted badly to strike and stop the ideas Tagun's words had spawned. Finally the Mareklan looked away. "Then I must not let her continue to have hope, is that your meaning?"

"Perhaps you should speak to Falinda" Tagun said. She will understand your heart break."

"Perhaps you are manipulating the situation for some reason," Sergon challenged. "What is your interest in the matter?"

Tagun hesitated for a moment,then he decided Sergon deserved a full disclosure. "I am the true son of Koren, and the acknowledged son of Jagga, my father's murderer. I am the king of Janaka if I can find the traitors in the ruling houses of Taleeka and Zedekla. If Manchek fails to find a bride, or if the plans of Jagga succeed, there will be no safety for either of us or our kind in Okishdu."

"You are what you say you are," Sergon said after a moment when his gaze seemed distant. "I never thought I was a visionary man, but this is the second time tonight that I have seen a vision. I saw the two of us standing on a field of battle as allies. It makes no sense to me. Mareklans do not engage in battles except to save our lives. Three years ago I was one of only three men left when Jagga's bullies attacked our caravan. We fought for our lives that day and I left several warriors dead. I never want to spill the blood of men again. Take me to Falinda. If she is a wise as you claim, perhaps she will help me make some sense of this coil."

The door to Frovin's house opened as soon as Tagun knocked and he saw Falinda standing in the doorway, her eyes wide and a little puffy from weeping. "Tagun, how is Manchek?" she asked.

"He is resting," Sergon spoke up. "Our trek chief, Boladen, is gifted in the healing arts. Manchek suffered a number of wounds, but none as serious as the one on his brow. He is young and strong. He will recover. I am Sergon. I helped with his treatment."

"Welcome Sergon," Falinda said. My father is in his study. We can speak to each other in the gather hall," Falinda stepped aside to let them into the house then shut the door behind them. While she led them down the corridor to the gather hall Tagun compared her to the young woman Sergon favored. Kemil was slender and regal and her hair and eyes were dark. Falinda was curvaceous and appealing, her hair deep brown with golden highlights in the curls. Her eyes were like dark amber, warm and sympathetic as she turned to them and invited them to sit.

Sergon glanced sideways at Tagun as if inviting him to leave but Falinda shook her head. "I asked Tagun to stay nearby when I am with a visitor."

"I have a serious suggestion for you," Sergon finally ventured after a moment of uneasy silence. "Manchek must marry, and the woman he must marry believes that I will soon ask her to marry me."

"And?" Falinda prompted.

"Kemil is proud," Sergon said. "If she believes that I am betrothed to someone else, she will turn to Manchek without hesitation. Or at least that is what I believe."

"I cannot treat betrothal lightly," Falinda said. "I will agree to act as your betrothed, but not as a sham."

"If we married you would have to join the trek," Sergon explained. "It is not an easy life."

Falinda smiled just a little. "I am Kumnoran, Sergon. I spent years of my childhood on the steppes with my cousins. I have some idea of what it means to brave the wilderness. But now that you have the Vale of Marekla as a retreat, your life is surely not so difficult as you would have me think."

Sergon studied her for a moment, then he extended his hand. "You are more than I had assumed. I cannot offer you my heart, no more than you can offer yours. I do offer you my hand in truth."

"I accept your pledge," Falinda said. "You are a man of great promise Sergon. I believe you underestimate yourself. We will deal well enough together."

Tagun was bemused by the exchange. He could appreciate the depth of courage it had taken for each of them. He could not help but wonder what sacrifices he might be called upon to make before the scourge of the Orquian cult had been excised. He briefly bowed his head and prayed for Selendra, hardly daring to present her name. He could not doubt the devotion he had seen in the eyes of Manchek, Sergon and Kemil, and he knew Falinda had struggled to contain her tears. The murder of Balchek and his family had produced a truly tangled web.

"Could you return to the enclave with me tonight?" Sergon asked Tagun. "I was a fool to venture out into the streets alone. These are dangerous times and I would appreciate your companionship."

"Manchek wants to interview me in the morning. It is just as well if I am there when he wakes up," Tagun said. "Wait here while I gather some of my things."

He hurried away, leaving Sergon and Falinda alone together. He stopped by Frovin's study to explain his errand and packed a few necessities. At the last minute he added his throwing ax and made sure his bolika was free of tangles when he secured it around his waist.

When he returned to the gather hall he heard Falinda giggle briefly at something Sergon said. Tagun was both relieved and disappointed. It seemed that her loss of a beloved dream should have set more heavily on her spirit, but it would be unwise for her to dwell on forbidden hopes, and she was wise.

The streets were nearly empty and it seemed at first that Tagun had been over cautious to bring his ax. They were near the walls of the Mareklan enclave when he heard a sound on the road behind them and whirled to see several hooded men close on their heels.

Sergon reacted immediately, his staff whirling into action. One of the men darted to the side and closed on Tagun while bringing up his sword. Tagun acted automatically, throwing his ax with deadly force against the brow of the swordsman, then turning back with the bolika to entangle another. A lamp flared and the watchman at the gate of the enclave gave a challenge. The three attackers lay on the road.

Sergon held his staff at the throat of one of the men, keeping him in place, but the other two were unresponsive. Tagun reached down and examined their left palms.

"I recognize the man I killed with my axe as one of Jagga's warriors. He bears the mark of the cult. The other must be a hired bully," he said.

"Check behind his ear. Some of them have taken to wearing a more subtle sign," Sergon said..

Tagun checked the neck of the man Sergon had subdued. If Tagun had not been warned, he would have dismissed the mark on his neck beneath the left ear as nothing more than large mole or birthmark of a dark red color.

The one live and and two dead cultists were carried into the enclave by the watchman and several other Mareklans who had been waiting for Sergon to return. Tagun saw Kemil waiting just inside the gate, her face stern and pale. She moved close to Sergon. "It was folly for you to leave the enclave alone."

"I wasn't alone," Sergon said. "As you see, Tagun and I defended ourselves well enough."

"What could possibly draw you away at such an hour?" she asked.

"I was visiting the girl I plan to marry," Sergon said. "She is the daughter of the Kumnoran sage."

"Kumnoran?" Kemil asked, her voice intense and angry. "A Kumnoran sage?"

"You seem unaware that there are Kumnorans who can read and write and think as well as anyone," Sergon said a little rudely. "Falinda is as good a scholar as any in Timora, just ask Tagun."

Sergon grabbed Tagun by the shoulders and drew him closer for an introduction. "This is Tagun, my friend. He accounted for two of those bullies who attacked us. He is studying with Frovin, Falinda's father."

"I am pleased to be introduced to you," Tagun said, aware that Kemil measured him with a sharp glance as if for burial garb. She turned back to Sergon. "Is she beautiful?"

"She is not as tall as you, nor as slender," Sergon finally said. Although his eyes were shadowed, his hands made movements in the air that indicated a curvaceous figure. "Her hair is curly, the color of a leaf of a yown tree after the frost has taken away the green, still glossy, but deep, rich brown." He paused before continuing his description. "She is wise and compassionate. She would make any sacrifice for one she loves."

"I see I am not needed here," Kemil said with an icy tone that quelled further conversation. "It is well past the time for me to get some sleep," She turned and moved away toward the women's quarters. Tagun watched Sergon's face tighten and knew that only severe self control kept him from running after her and trying to revoke his wounding words. His heart was still in Kemil's hands.

The dead cultists were stored in a storage room with the survivor locked in a a small room until he could be turned over to the Guardians. Boladen welcomed Tagun.

"Could you spread the night in Manchek's room?" the trek chief asked. "He seems set to make a good recovery, but I would prefer that someone is near who knows how to handle weapons. The bullies who attacked you probably tracked him here. You have proved that you are loyal, but after what has happened, we can't rely on any of his men."

"What happened to the steward who was injured on the trail?" Tagun asked.

"He chose to stay at the inn arranged during the quarantine of the royal quarters rather than accept our hospitality," Boladen said. "He said he wasn't certain we could provide protection for either him or the prince."

Tagun climbed the stairs to the room where Manchek slept. A plate of savory meat and matlas and a cup of nuka juice was set on a table near the head of a cot that had been brought into the room. He invoked the blessing of the Radiance and began to satisfy the hunger he had only noticed when he saw the food. The eventful night had tired him and he soon fell asleep. He woke several times when Manchek groaned. He checked the prince and found no sign of fever before falling asleep again.

Tagun woke to find Manchek sitting on a bench chest beneath the window studying a scroll. The prince's face was haggard and the area of his forehead near the wound looked bruised, but he smiled at Tagun with good humor. "I woke a few times in the night and found you hovering over me like a nursery maid," he said.

"Should you be out of bed?" Tagun asked.

"Boladen stopped by," Manchek said. "Kemil has asked to see me. While you were gone with Sergon last night I asked her if she could consider marrying me. She couldn't give me an answer then."

Manchek smoothed a ruffled wave over his brow, hiding his bandage and looked up as Boladen showed Kemil into the room. She smiled at him, the brilliance of her dark eyes flashing in the morning light.

Tagun observed from his cot in the corner. He had seen Kemil as attractive, but now the hectic color to her face brought out the elegance of her profile and the gloss of her smooth black hair. Her beauty came as a shock to him and for a moment he felt disloyal to Selendra for noticing Kemil's rosy mouth. He wondered if Manchek felt the same.

"I have come to tell you that I accept your pledge," Kemil told the prince.

Manchek stared at her for a moment, then stood and walked haltingly toward her. She saw his difficulty and stepped forward to meet him. They took each other by the right hand in the formal gesture of pledging. Tagun reached for the round pebble in his belt pouch and thought of taking Selendra's hand with the same gesture. Once again he felt the need to fight back tears.

Boladen looked on with pride in his gaze. Manchek summoned the trek chief closer with a gesture. "Kemil and I must marry as soon as possible, then some way must be found to take us safely to Zedekla."

"What of your plans to discover the identity of the traitor who murdered your brother and his family?" Tagun asked.

"I recommend that we consult with a few trusted men and work out a plan to entrap the villain and his accomplices," Kemil said. "It seems to me our marriage may provide the bait needed to draw him out."

Tagun looked at her with respect. Few maidens would volunteer to put themselves in the way of danger on the eve of their marriage.

"We know that the royal house is not safe for you," Boladen said. "If we could narrow the list of suspects and find a plan that would force the conspirator to betray his hand your errand would be accomplished. Who do you know in Timora who can be trusted?"

"You can trust Frovin," Manchek said. "He investigated the scene before the bodies were removed."

"We can trust Sergon," Kemil said.

"I will send word to Frovin to meet us here for breakfast,"Boladen said.

After the others left the room Tagun helped Manchek dress and supported the prince while he walked slowly down the stairs to the courtyard where a garden surrounded a fountain. Stone tables had been joined together to make a long surface surrounded by benches from the dining hall.

Tagun helped Manchek to the circular stone bench that surrounded the fountain and they waited for the others to arrive while the table was set with serving prongs and various savory dishes. When Kemil entered the courtyard she came over to Manchek and took her seat next to him. She reached for his hand and squeezed it lightly. Perhaps she wanted to reassure him that she did not regret her pledge, but when Sergon entered the courtyard she deliberately avoided looking toward him.

Frovin entered with Falinda and Tagun stepped forward to meet them. "Welcome Frovin and Falinda. Sergon and I had a run-in with Orquians last night. I recognized one of them."

"Did he recognize you?" Frovin said. "I would think the sons of Jagga would be well known to his warriors."

Kemil recoiled against Manchek. "A son of Jagga!"

Manchek tried to reassure her. "Frovin guarantees Tagun's good will to us. He is not quite what he seems."

"Why should I expose myself to the presence of Jagga's breed," Kemil demanded.

"I bear the burden and opportunity of being known as Jagga's youngest son," Tagun admitted. "But I am no real kin to the current king of Janaka. My true father was Koren, descendant of Dorn. My mother was the unhappy object of Jagga's lust for power. He murdered her husband and took the widow for his own."

"I would die rather than marry such as Jagga," Kemil said.

Tagun nodded. "Ordinarily my mother would have taken her own life rather marry such a man, but she carried her dead husband's child. She asked the Radiance that he might be a son, and that someday he would avenge his father. When she was near her lying-in, she begged to return to the village of her birth. Jagga had grown fond of her and he agreed to her request. It was not difficult to conceal the time of my birth."

"Do you think we would believe such a tale?" Kemil challenged. "It is just as likely that you really are Jagga's son. I have heard the rumors that he favors his youngest son above the others. Surely, if there was any room to doubt you were the child of another man, he would not be so generous."

Tagun shook his head. " Jagga favored me. I am small and it was easy for him to believe that I am younger than my age. I look a great deal like my mother who was his favorite. He ignored his other wives when he married my mother. This does not make me popular with the other princes. They have been trying to kill me for years."

"If Tagun were my enemy he could have killed me in the night," Manchek said. "I was alone in his care and all he did was check to make sure that I was comfortable."

"I would have died last night if Tagun had not been at my side," Sergon said. "I am satisfied that he is what he says he is."

"Tagun is a true disciple of the Radiance," Frovin added.

"Frovin vouches for him," Boladen said. "If we can help him to become the king of Janaka, many lives could be saved. All who agree, signify."

Everyone raised their right fist, thumb up. Kemil's hand came up late and listlessly, but she finally assented.









Chapter 7 Evidence



Once the vote had been taken, bowls of savory bread berry paste, various shoots and tubers braised and gleaming with sauces, ripe fruit and a plate of matlas were passed around with bowls of hot cala. Tagun was grateful for the breakfast and the relief from being questioned. Every now and then he looked up and found that Kemil looking at him with bewilderment. If she continued to doubt him it would be a long session.

"I propose that Falinda take notes of our meeting," Boladen said when they had finished eating and the serving platters were removed. Falinda took her place near the supply of writing materials and Boladen called the meeting to order.

"We must act quickly to keep our enemies ignorant of our plans," Frovin said. "Manchek will marry Kemil in the Shrine as soon as we can arrange it, but we have to find a way for them to leave Timora without drawing notice from the traitors."

"We might dress as pilgrims," Kemil volunteered. "Pilgrims will crowd the roads now that the Festival of Founding is coming to an end."

"Perhaps we could pose as Kumnorans," Manchek said. "Zedekla keeps Janaka bound on the west with our network of fishermen and coastal villages. Our army has been effective on the south. This leaves the long border with Kumnora. Lately it seems that most of the raiders and assassination teams have made their way through Kumnora to Jama or Saadena. We must consider a way to gain the help of the leaders of Kumnora. Frovin, you know your people. Is there any way we can appeal to them to help us."

The sage nodded. "Every five years, at the long day, when the sun hardly sets on our northernmost meadows, the families of Kumnora meet at the Quorm. This is the year of the Quorm, but if you plan to appeal to the elders of the families, you must set forth from Timora immediately. Tomorrow morning a caravan of dalas is returning to the Quorm with water skins filled with water from Lake Timora for ritual washing. It would be a good idea for Manchek and Kemil to go with the water caravan, dressed as Kumnorans."

"There are seldom more than five Kumnorans with any water caravan," Boladen said. "What of the threat of thieves?"

Frovin smiled and winked, "In the centuries that my people have carried water skins from Timora to Kumnora, there has never been an attempted theft. Kumnorans believe there is a peculiar virtue to water from Timora's lake. All other clans content themselves with water from their own wells and streams if they cannot come to Timora themselves."

"None would look for the elegant prince of Zedekla under the braided cap and corum hair ruff of a teamster," Sergon said with a smirk.

"I have spent the past several weeks sleeping on a corum skin with nothing but the sky for ceiling," Kemil said. "I am not too dainty to pretend to be a teamster if it will serve the greater purpose, but Manchek is injured. Could he withstand such a trek?"

"We have slings in which the elderly and ill can ride," Frovin said. "You and Manchek will ride most of the way, although I can't guarantee your comfort."

Boladen looked around and asked, "Is it agreed that Manchek and Kemil will form an embassy to the Quorm by riding out with the water caravan tomorrow after their wedding?"

All gave their assent. "We must unmask the traitor," Manchek said. "We could let it be known that we are setting out after our marriage."

"You would endanger Kemil's life," Sergon protested. "The secret of your errand must be ensured."

"I meant that we should lay a false trail," Manchek said. "There are at least two men who are under suspicion of conspiring with the Orquians. If each is given separate, confidential information about the route we plan to take, not the Kumnoran caravan, but two others, then the site at which an ambush is attempted will betray the traitor."

Frovin nodded. "It would be a clever ploy if we could do it, but what force of soldiers could we trust? There is still a possibility that it was not one of the captains of the watch who betrayed the prince and his family, but an entire contingent of those who served on the watch. Even some of the Guardians have been implicated. We cannot trust the news of Manchek's errand to Kumnora with any but those we know are loyal to the royal family."

Sergon turned to Boladen. "You are trek chief and have the authority to decide on new routes for the trek if necessary. A caravan of Mareklans would be as suitable for the purpose of the false embassy as a troop of soldiers. For one thing, their errand would not be obvious to any but those who shared the secret of their alleged purpose."

Boladen nodded. "I doubt any of my people would object to such a change of plans. We could trade at Taleeka and Tedaka after we leave the sacred city. You and Falinda will travel with the Mareklan caravan, otherwise the absence of Kemil will be noted."

Falinda looked up from her scroll, her eyebrows raised in surprise. "We will have to be married for that to happen."

Frovin nodded. "I have already spoken to the High Priest, Alwrek, about the need to perform a marriage between Manchek and Kemil. It should not be much additional trouble for him to marry you to Sergon."

Sergon and Falinda stared at each other, then the maiden gave a tiny nod. Kemil looked from one to the other of them with a slightly puzzled frown, there was no way they could counter Boladen's suggestion without making their betrothal seem a sham.

"It seems that we will be traveling together sooner than we hoped, my dear," Sergon said.

There was a tiny flash of emotion in Kemil's brilliant eyes, then she turned to Manchek and took his hand. "We are about to embark on an adventure. You will need to rest and recover your strength. Are you certain you are up to the stress of travel?"

Manchek nodded. "I should do well enough, particularly if I am carried in a sling."

As soon as the others had dispersed, Tagun and Boladen helped Manchek climb the stairs and return to his room. "I want to send for Pernan, my brother's steward," Manchek said. "He was the first to discover the murders of Balchek and his family. Then I want you to tell the two Guardians who were assigned as captains of the watch to visit me within the next few hours. Summon Shal, and Neragar, the captains of my brother's guard as well. Leave enough time between their visits that they will not encounter one another."

Tagun nodded. "I will stay near while you carry out your interviews. One of those men must be part of the conspiracy against your family. It would be unwise to meet with them alone."

Boladen sent runners to summon the men. Pernan arrived first. He wore a conspicuous bandage on his left arm. Tagun slid behind a screen and observed the steward when he entered Manchek's room with Boladen escorting him.

Pernan's long hair covered his neck and ears, a curious hairstyle compared to other Zedeklans Tagun had met, but perhaps it was usual for his station and rank.

"You look well Manchek," Pernan said. "but surely you would have received better care from your own people. We were given housing in an inn until the quarantine of the royal residence is lifted."

"Mareklans are skilled with herbs," Manchek said. "I have had excellent care."

Pernan drew close and perched on the edge of Manchek's bed. "Perhaps I should have stayed here with you. You cannot be too careful now that we are in the same city where your brother and his family were murdered. I can't quite decide who is more to blame. Shal and Neragar were both in position to let the murderers enter the room. On the other hand, the Guardians also kept watch for a period. Balchak thought that a double guard would be better protection, but it seems that it has only confused the matter."

"If we cannot trust the Guardians we are truly lost," Manchek replied, moving his leg so that Pernan was forced to stand up or slide to the floor.

"Neragar's daughter, Berina is being courted by your cousin, Beladok," Pernan said. "I only learned this after returning to Timora yesterday. If you will pardon me for impugning the honor of your cousin, I do not trust Beladok, and the girl seems beguiled by him."

"Could he have corrupted Neragar through his daughter?" Manchek asked the steward.

"I doubt Neragar was corrupted," Pernan said. "But he might have somehow let Berina know a piece of compromising information. I cannot explain how else we were waylaid on our return to Timora. As far as I am aware, only Shal and Neragar knew my plans."

"I have sent for Shal and Neragar to meet with me," the prince said. "I will speak to the two suspect Guardians after I see my brother's guards."

"I will stay with you while they are questioned," Pernan said.

"I think it is best if I see each of them alone," Manchek insisted.

Boladen stepped forward and escorted Pernan from the room. Moments later Tagun heard someone knock at the door. He held his stone axe ready as he opened the door.

Kemil entered the room carrying a cup and a pitcher. "I knew you would need something to calm and clear your mind and ease your pain," she said as she offered Manchek the cup.

"Thank you." Manchek sipped the cool liquid and gave a sigh of pleasure. Kemil handed him a napkin to wipe his lips and lifted the pitcher in a silent question. He nodded and she poured another cupful.

His raised brows at the taste invited Kemil's explanation. "I sent some runners to fetch some spear leaf cores and I extracted the juice from them. They must be used within a few hours, or they ferment and lose their healing virtues. Fortunately, we passed a stand of spear leaf bushes when we were coming near Timora."

"Thank you, my dear," Manchek said. "I just received disturbing news. It seems that a man I was certain I could trust may be the cause of our problems. My brother's personal guard was one of the men in charge of the watch. His daughter is being courted by one of my cousins, a man who has caused us grief before."

Kemil sat down on a bench-chest nearby and took Manchek's hand between her palms. "I have not heard any details about the death of your brother and his family, but I am curious to know if there was any indication of when they died. If you knew that, it would mean you could determine the guard responsible for admitting the murderers."

Manchek had slouched a little against the headboard of the bed, now he sat upright. "Could I trust you to undertake the task, perhaps with Tagun's help?" he asked. "There might be some clue in their rooms that would indicate the hour when my brother and his family died."

He briefly told her what Pernan had told his father including details that could only have been known if he had surveyed the scene carefully. Tagun was puzzled by the exacting account. In his initial investigation with Frovin it seemed that the steward only stood briefly at the doorsill, but Pernan must have been in the room to know so many details.

"You say that your nephew tried to attack the intruders with a knife, and that the entire family were gathered together?" Kemil asked.

Manchek nodded. "From what we were told, Bandek was the first to die because he intercepted the marauders at the door."

"Then the murders either happened at the beginning of the night before the family had dispersed to their separate chambers, or very early in the morning when they were just awake and gathered to have morning prayers before eating breakfast together," Kemil said.

"If it were the latter, the blood would have been nearly fresh when Pernan entered to receive his instructions from my brother," Manchek replied.

Kemil nodded. "If it had been late in the evening, the blood would have become dark and dry where it was not too thick. I know it must distress you to discuss such matters, but we can narrow our range of suspects considerably if we can get a few more answers from Pernan."

"I think one detail may provide our answer about the time of day the intruders entered," Manchek said. "My brother was wounded in such a way that it took him a long time to die, but apparently he was dead by the time Pernan discovered the crime. That would suggest that everything took place in the evening rather than when morning came."

Kemil's face was pale with strain. She stood and walked around the room, then stopped to stare out of the window. "I am surprised that none of your brother's servants noticed when the children did not come to bed."

"My brother and his wife preferred to do without servants whenever possible. You probably knew Vernila when she was a maiden in Marekla."

Kemil nodded, "Vernila was my second cousin. She always hated pomp and show. Believe me, I will never object to having servants around our children to protect them from our enemies."

"Do not blame her," Manchek cautioned. "The guards should have been sufficient. It is likely that any servants would have been included in the massacre if they stood between the intruders and their grisly errand."

Kemil took a deep breath as if to somehow banish the thought of her own children being exposed to such jeopardy. "I would be interested in observing your interviews with the men who might have been responsible for this abomination. Is there some way you could arrange it?"

Manchek said. "I will go down to the courtyard for my interviews. There is a screen of pierced stone overgrown with vines that you can sit behind."

"Are you adequately guarded if one of them intends you ill?" she asked.

"I have Tagun and his stone axe which has already proved its worth," Manchek said. "Bring your staff. I doubt I could have better protection than the two of you."

"You will need to obtain the schedule of the watch from Pernan," she reminded him.

Tagun followed the two of them as they left the room. Manchek did not lean on Kemil as they descended the stairs that led to the courtyard, but he rested his hand on her shoulder and seemed steady enough with that support plus his grip on the banister. Boladen stood at the bottom of the stairs and he looked up at Manchek with concern. "I thought you were going to try and get some rest."

"I can rest more easily after I conduct my interviews," Manchek assured the trek chief. "Kemil gave me something to drink that helped clear my thoughts. We may be able to clear up the issue of who the traitor is without endangering your caravan."

Boladen moved forward to give the prince support while they made their way to the garden in the courtyard. Manchek settled on a bench not far from the screen. His dark hair concealed the narrow bandage that held the poultice on his wounded brow. To any who did not know the effort it had taken him to move down to the courtyard, he would appear quite well.

Kemil took her place next to Tagun behind the pierced stone screen and they moved a few of the leaves and vines so that they had a view of Manchek and the space around him. Kemil gripped her staff in her hand when the first man entered the courtyard.

"I have an errand for you, Flastor," Manchek told the head of his personal guard. "Tomorrow I will be wed, but it must appear that I have joined a group of pilgrims with my bride. Could you dress some of your men in costumes that would suit my need?"

A moment of silence passed as Flastor considered what he could do. "One of my men is slight and near Kemil in size. We could disguise him easily enough as your bride. We could be ready to leave tomorrow morning."

"Please do so and be aware that your men may be attacked. Take note of those who try to stop you." Shortly after Flastor left the courtyard, another man entered.

"Neragar, I am sorry to see you under such sad circumstances," Manchek said. He pitched his voice loud enough for Kemil and Tagun to hear without difficulty. His visitor followed suit.

"Prince Manchek, I vow that I will avenge your brother's murder," Neragar raised his hand in pledge. "How can I help you."

"You can answer a few questions," Manchek said with a gesture that invited the grizzled warrior nearer. "Tell me, what was the schedule of the watch the night my brother and his family were killed?"

"Shal directed the first watch from sundown until mid-evening when Obregon, the Guardian took over. I was third watch, followed at dawn by the Guardian, Garon."

"Did you think to check and see if the family was safe when you first came on duty?" Manchek asked sternly.

Neragar shook his head. "It was midnight when I arrived to relieve Obregon and his men. The doors leading to the inner chamber were locked and all was quiet. Pernan keeps the keys and as far as I knew, he was sleeping at that hour."

"Pernan had the only set of keys that would open the chamber from outside?" Manchek inquired.

"Your brother had a set of keys. As far as I am aware, Pernan had the only other set of keys."

"Were you called to the scene of the murders?" Manchek asked the guard.

Neragar was a veteran of many campaigns, but tears rose to his eyes and wet his cheeks. "I will never forget the sight of that brave child lying just inside the door. His body was the first thing I saw. His wounds were hours old, and his flesh had taken on the rigor of death, but when the door was opened, a breeze disturbed a lock of his hair and he seemed almost ready to spring up and challenge once again."

"I thought Pernan investigated the chamber before any other entered it," Manchek prompted the guard.

"Pernan just barely opened the door then gave the alarm. I was only a few feet away, just on my way to breakfast and I was the first to enter the room and see the full horror of the crime. Pernan stayed outside the room and shut the door while I explored the scene." Neragar's face crumpled in grief. Then he wiped his face with his hand and forced his features to a sterner cast. "I am sorry. You would think I had seen enough of war to be immune to such a scene, but it was worse than anything I had ever witnessed. There was something so evil in the execution of your nieces and their mother, that I had to leave the room and find a privy."

"Is it possible that Balchek was still alive when you entered the room?" Manchek inquired.

Neragar shook his head. "From the look of the blood from his wound, which had only begun to darken, he lived an hour or so after his family died, but I checked his pulse and there was no longer any sign of life."

"I have heard that your daughter Berina is a favorite with my cousin Beladok," Manchek said with a sudden change of tack.

Neragar's eyes widened in surprise. "Beladok has tried to court her, but she had the good sense to avoid the man. I told her what is said of him. She knew enough of him to know he was up to no good, no matter how he tried to flatter her."

"Is Beladok in Timora now?" Manchek asked.

"He visited Balchek two days before my master was attacked. They argued, but it was behind closed doors and I only heard raised voices. After that, Beladok set out from Timora with a group of pilgrims from Orenon."

"Curious company for a Zedeklan," Manchek mused. "Have you heard anything of Worak, his younger brother?"

"You should ask Pernan about Worak," Neragar said. "The two of them were often seen together by those of my men who waste their time in the warrens of south town back in Zedekla. I seldom listen to gossip, but I am surprised you did not know."

"Neragar, you were tested by my father when you joined the palace guards. Is there any way you know about that a man could defeat the testing room?"

Neragar nodded. "There is a legend that centuries ago, in the days of Tharek, a Janakan found a way to defeat the purpose of the testing room. Tharek set up protocols to insure against such a thing, but having been tested myself, I can guess how it could be done. Each time that I was tested I was asked to read a saying that was posted on the wall opposite the glowing pebble that some say is the Stone of Truth. On the first and second occasion the saying was different, but on the third and fourth occasion, more than two years apart, it was the same. When I dared to ask your father if it was wise to keep the same message posted, he simply gave a cryptic smile."

"So if the message remained unchanged, a man could pretend that he could read it when he had lost the light," Manchek brooded. "This means that all of those who have been tested in the past year or more are suspect."

"If only one man were willing to sell the information that would help others pass the test, the test itself would have no meaning," Neragar agreed.

"Kemil and I are to be married tomorrow morning," Manchek said with a sudden change of topic. "We will leave Timora with a caravan of Marekla merchants. They plan to go by way of Taleeka. Tell no one what I have shared with you. Our lives may depend on your discretion."

Once again Neragar's hand went up in the sign of pledge. "I will keep your secret. Only let me come with you and guard your safety. The Mareklans are willing to defend themselves, but you need a man who knows how to use a sword and is willing to kill in your defense."

"I will consider your offer," Manchek said. "Meanwhile, I want you to look for Worak. I suspect that he is deeply involved in this disaster. He stands next in line after me and his older brother as heir to Zedekla's throne."

Boladen entered and announced that Manchek had another visitor waiting and offered to show Neragar out through another exit. The man accepted the trek chief's offer and left the courtyard with the unmistakable gait of a soldier.

A few moments later another man entered the courtyard. Where Neragar was sturdy and grizzled, this man was tall and lanky and quite young for the responsibility of his position. At first glance Tagun thought he bore a remarkable resemblance to Manchek.

"Welcome Shal," Manchek said. "I understand that you served first watch on the night that my brother and his family were murdered."

"I was intended to serve first watch, but only an hour after I arrived and began to make the circuit with my men, Pernan approached me with a change of orders." Shal said.

"Who relieved you at first watch and did Neragar know of the change of plans?" Manchek asked.

"I was relieved by a Peace Guardian and his men. I didn't recognize him but Pernan vouched for him. I was curious about the substitution and the next morning I arrived at the royal quarters almost as soon as the murders were discovered. Neragar rushed from the room with no explanation just as I entered the corridor."

"Did you see the scene of the crime yourself?" Manchek asked.

Shal shook his head. "Pernan locked the door as soon as Neragar came out. He set me to guard it before setting out to carry the news of the murders to your father. He warned me against speaking to Neragar. Apparently his watch is the likely time of the assassination. I am surprised that he has not been confined."

"From the evidence I have collected, my brother was murdered while you were on watch," Manchek stated.

Shal's face blanched and he stepped backwards. When he had recovered from his shock he raised his hand in pledge. "I swear that I was loyal to your brother. Ask your father, he himself conducted my test of loyalty."

"What did you see in the testing chamber?" Manchek asked.

Shal was silent for a moment then spoke with tones of reverence. "At first I thought there was a tiny hole in the wall that let the midday sun show through, but then I realized it was too bright to be mere sunlight. Your father asked me to read a saying on the opposite wall, but I could not really see to read it," Shal admitted. He closed his eyes as if to recall the scene. "My eyes were filled with tears. I had heard the legend of the Stone of Truth that Irilik used to gather the righteous to leave Kishdu. I had never thought to see it for myself. When your father saw that I was weeping, he said it was enough."

"I have heard that Berina, Neragar's daughter has been seen consorting with my cousin Beladok," Manchek said. "It is possible that Beladok has corrupted your associate."

Shal shook his head. "Berina would have nothing to do with Beladok. I have hoped that in time she and I could marry, but if her father is involved in this disaster, she might blame me for betraying him and my hopes of marrying her have ended."

"Do you question Neragar's integrity?" Manchek inquired.

Shal shrugged his shoulders. "I would have trusted him with my life, but who can say what might corrupt a man? I like him far better than Pernan, but the steward's word seems unimpeachable, and after all, he was wounded along with you when you returned to Timora. The evidence seems to indicate that Neragar is guilty of betrayal."

"What about the guard who relieved you on first watch?" Manchek said. "Pernan never mentioned the change of plans to either me or my father." While Shal considered that information, Manchek seemed to change the subject.

"I want to take you into my confidence. Tomorrow afternoon I will set forth from Timora with my new wife in disguise. We are traveling with what will look like an ordinary group of pilgrims, but they will be a select group of elite guards fully armed. I have a special errand to perform."

"Take me with you," Shal pleaded. "I must regain my honor. It has been destroyed by my failure to protect your brother and his family."

"You can serve me better in another way," Manchek said. "There is a conspiracy against our royal house. While I try to reach our allies and gain their help, someone must stay here and take my place. We are much the same size and build. Do you think that you could play the part of a prince if it meant your life might be threatened?"

"I will gladly give you my support in any way you need," Shal offered with a sign of pledge.

Manchek nodded. "Your role must remain a secret. Wait for my message under the sign of my signet. Meanwhile, return to your quarters and seclude yourself."

A short time after Shal had quit the courtyard, too soon for Manchek to confer with Kemil and Tagun, the first of the suspect Guardians was introduced by Boladen. He was a big man with a broad, open face. "I am Obregon. I understand that you have questions for me."

Manchek took a moment to reply while he studied the man in front of him. Finally he nodded. "I understand that you relieved another Guardian who was brought in to stand the remainder of the first watch on the night my brother and his family were killed."

Obregon shook his head. "I did not recognize the man as a Guardian. It is true he wore a white tunic with blue and gold bands at the neck and cuffs, but his badges were not the same as those we wear. The steward, Pernan, said there had been a change of plans because Shal had taken sick and was relieved of his duties."

"Has Pernan warned you about betraying what took place that night?"

Obregon nodded. "He said there is a conspiracy against the royal house and that I must not discuss the change of guards with others. Of course, you must be held as an exception to his rule. Pernan told me he suspects that Shal is guilty of the murders."

"He said nothing of Neragar?" Manchek asked.

"He stated most emphatically that Neragar is clear of any blame," Obregon stated. "I would not count too heavily on that. Pernan has courted Neragar's daughter, Berina, and he would want to keep her father's good opinion."

Kemila and Tagun exchanged a look of confusion. How many suitors did Berina have?

"What do you think of the idea that Shal is guilty of the crime?" Manchek inquired.

"I would say it is unlikely. I believe he must have been ill that night and not just shamming. I have come to know him fairly well, and I would say he is a loyal man."

Manchek raised his brow. "You seem well-informed about the men who had the duty of guarding my brother."

"I am a Guardian. It is my business to know what might become a danger to the peace of Timora. We are always most attentive to the affairs of the Zedeklans in our midst. As for my defense of Shal, we shared a dormitory when we served Shrine duty several years ago. I have a high regard for his integrity. He is not just a warrior, but a student of the ancient scrolls as well. He was one of the few who cared to study the scrolls prepared by Tharek's Kumnoran friend, Fozli, from the oral record of his people."

Manchek asked another question. "Did you see the bodies of my brother and his family that morning?"

Obregon grimaced for a brief moment, then he cleared his face of disgust. "After the Kumnoran sage, Frovin, and his student, Tagun, examined the scene, I was summoned to help the priests remove the bodies to the Shrine for washing and preparation for the funeral. I will not speak of the atrocities committed on the women. Your brother and his son were not so bad. The evidence I saw would indicate that the child had been dead for most of the night. His father had finally died only a few hours earlier. If I were to choose a suspect, it would be the stranger who replaced Shal."

"Had you ever seen him or any of his men before?" Manchek asked.

"At the Festival of Founding many strangers enter Timora wearing pilgrim's robes. Not all of them are honest supplicants. As Guardians, we try to keep a record of the known miscreants, but I had never seen these men before and there is no record of them at our headquarters. From the looks of them, they could have been Orenese."

"I have heard that my cousin, Beladok, set out from Timora with a company of pilgrims from Orenon several days ago," Manchek said.

"Strange company for a Zedeklan," Obregon said, unwittingly echoing Manchek's own thoughts. "I will continue to look for the men Pernan hired to replace Shal, but if Beladok was seen with Orenese, I suspect our quarry has flown."

"Discuss nothing of our conversation with anyone," Manchek directed Obregon. "I want you to keep an eye out for my brother's steward, Pernan, and share nothing I have discussed with him. My brother trusted him, but I no longer know who to trust."

Obregon nodded and turned away to leave the room. Not long afterward, his fellow Guardian, Garon, was introduced by Boladen. Manchek had only a few questions for the man who stood before him.

"Describe how the murders were discovered."

"It was fairly early in the morning, a hour or so before I was due to dismiss my men and end my turn at watch. Pernan came with documents that needed Balchek's signature. The chambers were locked, but Pernan had a set of keys. As soon as he opened the door, he saw the body of the little prince and gave a shout of alarm. Neragar was passing and he went inside to see what had occurred. Not long afterward he rushed out of the rooms and headed for the privy. Pernan immediately locked the room again and told me to send one of my men to fetch the priests."

"Did Pernan enter the room before he locked the door?" Manchek asked.

"Pernan never ventured past the sill," Garon said. "He said he must set forth immediately to carry word of the murders to your father, King Fortek."

"Have you ever seen Pernan in the company of my cousin, Worak?"

Garon looked down and seemed to search his memory, then he slowly nodded. "It has been several years, but I remember clearly. We were called out to subdue a group of unruly men who had been found gambling in the basement of an inn. There was evidence of wine and drugs. Worak and Pernan were in the common room of the inn, but both of them denied having any knowledge of the gaming in the basement. I am not certain if they were there together or only coincidentally. Since neither of them were actively involved in the crimes that brought our notice, I warned them against keeping evil company and let them go."

"Thank you," Manchek said. "You may go. Tell no one about our conversation."

As soon as the last of his witnesses and suspects quit the courtyard, Manchek staggered to his feet. Almost immediately Kemil and Tagun were next to him offering support.

"You rest. You've over strained yourself," Kemil chided him gently. "I can see you will need a strong dose of selan to strengthen you for our wedding tomorrow."

"You heard every word?" he asked Tagun and Kemil as they helped him up the stairway to his room.

"It seems that your brother's steward, Pernan, is in league with one or both of your cousins," Kemil quickly summarized. "I thought that he was wounded when your men were ambushed yesterday."

Manchek shook his head. "He said that he was wounded on his arm, and he was already wearing a bandage when we rallied our forces after we drove off the attackers. I noticed today that he was wearing the bandage on the other arm. It seems to confirm the evidence that he is deep in the conspiracy against me. Someone must go to Zedekla and warn my father of Pernan's perfidy. Tagun, do you think Frovin would be able to undertake that task. My father will trust Frovin more than any other messenger we might send."

"I will speak to him," Tagun said. "I'm certain he would be willing to help."

"I will go with Tagun and speak to Frovin," Kemil said. "I want Frovin and Tagun to tell me more about what they discovered when they investigated the scene. Perhaps we can go to the scene and see if anything was overlooked."

"You must spare yourself the sight," Manchek muttered. He reached the end of his strength as he tried to struggle up the last two steps. Kemil and Tagun took his weight onto their shoulders and supported him to his room. Kemil straightened his limbs on the bed and removed his boots before pulling up the coverlet.

"I will try to be your eyes," she told him. "You must sleep now. Ease your mind and rest or I will have to prop you up beside me at the altar in the wedding chamber."

Tagun gave the prince a carefully measured dose of selan. When Manchek had closed his eyes and relaxed, Tagun went to find Boladen. "Pernan is our enemy. Do not let him near Manchek while he is asleep. Kemil and I are going out and will need a few men to guard us."

"Sergon and several of the other men are in the dining hall eating their midday meal. They could assist you," the trek chief said.

When Tagun entered the dining hall his mind was filled with the questions that Manchek's interviews had spawned. He looked around and saw Sergon with several other men.

"I need a few of you to accompany Kemil and me on several errands," Tagun said.

Sergon stood. "Do you think it wise to leave the protection of the enclave? Surely Manchek's enemies will guess that he intends to marry Kemil."

"That is why we need your help," Tagun said. "We may be able to determine who the traitor is." He could see the questions in Sergon's eyes but even though he trusted the Mareklan, the success of Manchek's plans depended on discretion.

Sergon summoned a couple of the other men to join them. When the group had gathered in the entry area he looked around. "Kemil, bind your hair back in a queue and wear your hat low over your eyes. You have enough height that no one will suspect you of being a woman at a distance. We don't need all of you. A larger group will be more suspect than just a few."

They set forth from the walled enclave and Tagun studied the people in the street, searching for anyone who seemed to study them with too much attention. It appeared that they were virtually ignored.

"I must speak to Frovin first," Kemil told Sergon. "Afterwards we want to investigate the quarters where Manchek's brother and his family died."

When they reached the sage's home Frovin answered the door. "Please wait here in the gather room, for a few minutes," Tagun told Sergon and his men. He and Kemil followed Frovin to his study. When the door was closed Kemil disclosed the reason for her errand. "Manchek suspects that Pernan is a traitor. Could you describe what you observed when you examined the scene of the murders."

Frovin shut his eyes and grimaced. "I have never witnessed anything so brutal. I cannot speak to you of the details of the scene of the ritual sacrifice. However Tagun examined the prince and his little son. Let him tell you what he saw."

Kemil nodded. "I understand. Manchek wants you to travel to Zedekla as soon as possible and warn King Fortek that Pernan is a traitor and likely responsible for the murders. Tagun should go along."

"I have never liked Pernan, but I thought he was above suspicion," Frovin said.

"Pernan has been keeping company with both of the Prince's cousins," Tagun explained. "That alone is not sufficient reason to suspect him, but when Manchek interviewed the men who had been guarding Balchek and his family, he found that Pernan had substituted a group of men on Shal's watch. From other evidence, it seems that they were responsible for the murders. There is also the troubling fact that Pernan provided Fortek with an exacting account of the scene of the murders without taking the opportunity to examine it himself before he hurried to Zedekla to inform the king."

"Perhaps he heard it from another," Frovin said.

Tagun shook his head. "We have the word of three witnesses that Pernan did not enter the room and those who saw the scene did not speak to him. That is not the only reason for suspicion. He has been spreading counter accusations to throw suspicion on others. If not for Manchek's intervention, none of the captains of the watch would have compared their various experiences on that evening. I am going with Kemil to reexamine the scene. Manchek believes his father will trust your word against Pernan. Doka can come along with us to help if someone tries to stop us."

"Do you think Doka will be helpful?" Frovin said.

"He is young, but he is learning and he has real skill with weapons," Tagun said. "Falinda will be married, and with all of us away, Doka might get up to mischief. We can't forget that he will be the Headman of Tedaka if he proves his worth. It is time for him to learn more of the challenges we face."

"We will leave as soon as I can make preparations," the scribe assured Tagun. "We should be on our way after the wedding tomorrow morning."

With his errand completed, Tagun and Kemil joined the other Mareklans. "We will go to the house where Balchek's and his family were killed," he told them. "I think it would be wise to have a Guardian take us to the scene."

"Can you trust any of them?" Sergon asked Tagun. "I thought there was some doubt of their loyalty."

"As a matter of fact, I would like to have one of the suspect men, either Garon or Obregon, act as our guide," he said.

The Guardian barracks was screened from the street by a wall of moderate height that was planted with attractive vines that only revealed their armament of thorns at close range. By good fortune, Garon was just leaving the compound when Tagun and the Mareklans approached the gate. He stopped and looked toward them expectantly. Kemil took the lead in making their request. "We have been asked by Prince Manchek to investigate the quarters where his brother was slain."

Garon nodded. "I was just going there myself. The Prince asked some questions that have set me thinking. I thought I might find some answers at the scene. I welcome your presence to validate my findings."

"What about Pernan, the steward?" Kemil asked with her voice pitched low to maintain the illusion that she was just another man.

"He is staying in an inn with other royal servants until the quarantine is lifted," Garon replied.

"Are the prince's personal guards, Neragar and Shal, living at the same inn where Pernan has his residence?" Kemil asked, her voice rising in concern. Garon looked at her with an expression of surprise.

"You must realize who I am. Do not betray me," she urged him quietly.

He nodded. "Shal and Neragar have separate residences. Shal is still a reserve member of the Elite Guards of the Prophet and has his quarters in their hostel on the outskirts of the city. He is a Taleekan by birth, a son of one of the ruling councilors. Neragar has a home not far from the royal residence."

"Could you take us to the royal quarters now?" Kemil asked.

Garon set off along the street with Tagun and the Mareklans close behind. On either side of the street the gracious buildings of the holy city rose, half concealed behind arcades and trellised walls. They passed near the Great Shrine and turned down an alleyway behind the central library complex where the sacred scrolls were kept.

The Zedeklan royal compound in Timora was modest in appearance from the outside. Like the headquarters of the Guardians, barbed vines covered the pale stone walls surrounding it. When Garon gave a patterned knock on the door another guardian wearing discreet badges of office on his collar and breastplate opened it. Tagun remembered the description of the leader of the contingent of guards whom Shal had mistaken for a Guardian on the night of the murders.

To another Guardian the symbols of office would seem obvious, but though Tagun had seen them many times, if he had not been alerted by eavesdropping on the interrogation Manchek had conducted, he doubted he would have noticed the difference himself. The two Guardians exchanged countersigns and Tagun and Kemil followed Garon into the royal quarters leaving Sergon and the other Mareklans on guard outside the door.

As they entered the shuttered house, Tagun felt Kemil's hand on his arm. "This place seems haunted by something evil," she murmured.

Tagun nodded. "They should either find other quarters, or they should bring the High Priest in to cleanse and re-dedicate this house."

"It has already been arranged," Garon said. "Tomorrow, after Enven, when most of those in Timora stop to pray, the High Priest, Alwrek, will come here with a chosen group of priests. Alwrek is Manchek's uncle and he is as anxious as any to end this terror."

The oppressive aura grew stronger as they approached the rooms where Balchek's family had been found. Tagun felt gorge rising in his throat and he stopped for a moment to regain his composure. He shut his eyes to pray, "I come before the Radiance and pray for strength to confront the pollution of evil enemies and the wisdom to find and stop those who have befouled this ground."

Kemil and Garon offered their amens to his plea and they moved on. They stopped on the threshold of the room. It had been days since the discovery of the murders and the bodies had long since been carried away, even so, the quarantine had prevented servants from cleaning. A cloying, sickening smell issued from the room as soon as Garon opened the door.

The guardian walked to the wall opposite the door and pulled back the drapes that had concealed the windows when Tagun had seen the room before. The light of mid-day flooded in from the southern window, making the buzzing flies glitter as they fluttered around the room from stain to stain.

Kemil began to examine the area near the door while Tagun moved toward the bench chest and the desk where the largest stains darkened the rug. Garon checked the window sill to make certain that the lattice was still firmly in place.

Kemil found the little dagger that Prince Bandek had tried to use in a vain attempt to turn back the intruders. "There is something caught on one of the bosses of the blade guard," she said.

"I saw that the other day," Tagun said.

Kemil leaned closer and examined the object. "It is a fragment of fringe. It was woven for tunics supplied to the Zedeklan royal house. Only one of the royal stewards or another highly placed servant would have such a garment."

Without disturbing the fragment, she invited both Garon and Tagun to look at it. They knelt, looking as she pointed at the knife, she illustrated how the little weapon and the fibers caught in the boss were fastened to the rug with gore. "I want both of you to witness that this dagger and everything attached to it were undisturbed and it is likely that they have been like this since Bandek dropped his dagger. Prince Manchek believes that Pernan had an active part in the murders. This would seem to prove his theory. Have either of you discovered anything of note?"

Tagun shook his head, but Garon nodded. "There was something dangling out of the window. It could easily have been overlooked at night. It seems to be a fragment of thin leather."

Tagun reached out and took the piece of leather from Garon, then he made a face and quickly put it into a piece of clean cloth that he took from a belt pouch. "I hate to even put my hands on such a thing. It was torn from an Orquian trophy pouch. If we find the man who carries a pouch marked with the design that matches this fragment, we will have the chief architect of this atrocity."

Garon nodded. "I have seen villains banished on less evidence than a few twists of thread and a fragment of leather. If you suspect Pernan, we must arrest him and put him to trial."

Kemil cautioned the Guardian. "We must discover all of those who were responsible. Now that we have a good reason to suspect Pernan, you should put a skilled team on his trail and keep watch on who he meets with and where he goes. Meanwhile, this room should be cleaned and the evidence preserved against the time when we have caught all the perpetrators and bring them to trial."

Garon nodded, but Tagun looked at Kemil with surprise. "I had no idea you knew how to do this sort of thing," he said.

"I am learning," she said gravely. "My life, and those of my family, may someday depend on my ability to sort out truth from falsehood. As I understand it, the kings of Zedekla have relied on a device that determines truth for testing those they trust with great responsibility. These murders prove that evil intent can frustrate even such an implement. I have no doubt it has its uses, but vigilance and wisdom cannot be replaced with mere appliances, whatever their origin."



Chapter 8 Mixed Matches



Kemil turned to Garon. "Before we return to the Mareklan enclave I want to speak to Neragar's daughter, Berina. I have heard several contradictory stories about her romantic inclinations and I am curious to see the woman who has attracted the interest of such diverse individuals."

Garon left orders for the chambers to be cleaned with the Guardians who were keeping the quarantine, then he led Tagun and Kemil from the house. They set forth with the other Mareklans who had been standing guard outside the door. Sergon was clearly curious but his questions brought no satisfying answers.

"Neragar is staying with his parents who live in Timora," Garon explained. "His father was a Guardian before he retired to a life of serving in the Shrine. Most of us thought that Neragar would follow in his father's footsteps, and when he was young he trained to be a guardian. His plans changed when he met a charming Mareklan girl, who happened to be the cousin of Zedekla's queen."

"Then Berina is half Mareklan," Kemil asked.

"More than half. Her father's mother was Mareklan also. It was not uncommon in years past for Mareklans to marry outside of their clan. The women joined the communities and clans of their husbands and the men took their wives back to Marekla. It kept Mareklans from becoming too inbred."

Tagun looked at Kemil and saw that she resented the implication that more recent policies of restricting the marriages of Mareklan women had been deleterious to her clan. She lifted her chin and bit her lips to avoid a reply.

The wide mouthed, narrow face of the girl who opened the door to Garon's knock was a surprise to Tagun who had expected to see a beauty. The light of welcome lit the girl's face with a smile. It transformed her. It was as if her entire soul was showing from merry dark eyes and her generous grin. Tagun could not help but smile back.

"You must be Kemil, the Mareklan girl who is going to marry Manchek!" Berina exclaimed with a cry of welcome.

"From what I understand, you are Manchek's cousin and it is likely that the two of us share several ancestors as well," Kemil said when they were inside the house and Berina had shut the door behind them.

Berina chuckled. It was such a merry sound that Kemil grinned in return. "We could spend hours climbing our mutual family trees no doubt, but I don't think that is the reason for this visit."

"Is there someplace we could converse in private?" Kemil asked Berina with a gesture that included Tagun.

"Come with me into the garden," Berina said, her face suddenly solemn in reaction to the caution in Kemil's expression. "The rest of you will wait here in the gather room and make no effort to eavesdrop on what Kemil has to say to me," she warned the men with a wink and a grin that restored the illusion of beauty to her visage.

Like most of the homes of Timora, the house was built around a central garden. In the middle of the sunny space there was a well surrounded by a low wall suitable for rest and conversation. Berina directed Kemil to sit down beside her with Tagun on the other side then waited expectantly.

"I have learned of at least three men who have tried to court you," Kemil began. "I am curious to know about your cousin, Beladok, and why he would even bother to try to court you since it seems plainly unsuitable."

"Beladok!" Berina laughed and it took a moment for her to recover her composure. "Beladok is a booby. Worak, his brother, has him dancing on a string. On the other hand, we are not really related. My aunt adopted both of her sons. It is likely that if Manchek refused to be his father's heir, or died, Fortek would honor the adoption and choose either Beladok or Worak as his heir."

"If Beladok married you, he would have one of the key requirements to be the heir," Kemil said. "You are almost full-bred Mareklan."

"I assure you, I would never marry Beladok," Berina insisted. "It would be better to be a spinster,"

"What about the steward, Pernan?" Tagun asked.

Berina made a face as if she had just smelled something putrid. "He has tried to make it seem that he is my father's friend and has insinuated himself into family situations, but he is worse than Beladok. I cannot understand how my uncle Fortek trusts him. My heart belongs to Shal, one of my father's colleagues. I have been approached by others, but there has never been a question of any other but Shal in my heart and mind since I was just a girl."

"If Shal were to marry you immediately, would you be willing to share great danger with him?" Kemil inquired.

Berina laughed with delight and clapped her hands. "Yes!"

"Manchek and I are setting forth to take a plea before the Quorm in Kumnora. We need someone to stand as proxy for us and keep our enemies from guessing what we plan. Would your father object to seeing you marry Shal?" Kemil asked.

Berina was not so quick to answer this time. Her face grew pensive. "There is something going on that I do not understand. Shal has not visited us since Balchek and his family were murdered. Pernan has blamed him for allowing the murderers to enter the royal apartment."

"I must send Sergon and Garon on a few errands," Kemil said. "Wait here and examine your heart. I must be sure this is something you desire."

Tagun had come along on the visit to Berina from curiosity, but now he felt the visit had been inspired. He followed Kemil when she stepped inside the gather room and summoned Sergon and Garon with a gesture. "I want the two of you to locate Shal and Neragar and bring them back here before the bells for Enven sound."

"Shal is probably in the hostel where he resides, but I am not quite certain where we might find Neragar," Garon said.

As if in answer to their need, the door from the entry opened and Neragar entered the gather room. He looked around and saw the Guardian. "Garon, is there any further news?"

"I must speak to you," Kemil said.

The room was just a little dim and Neragar was taken by surprise. When he turned to face Kemil his eyes went wide and he started. "Berina! Why are you dressed as a Mareklan?" Then he shook his head and blinked. "You are not Berina. You must be the Mareklan girl Manchek will marry. Where is my daughter?"

"Your daughter is in the garden. Come with me. I must speak to both of you," Kemil said.

Neragar looked toward the men, but Sergon nodded. Garon shrugged his shoulders and denied any responsibility. "Kemil seems to be the one in charge here. I have no idea what she means to tell you."

Kemil nodded toward Sergon. "You have an errand to perform. Please find the man and bring him here as soon as possible."

Tagun followed Kemil and Neragar into the garden. Berina still sat on the wall around the well. When she saw her father she stood and waited for Kemil to speak. Kemil turned to the girl's father. "Neragar, I have spoken to your daughter and I have learned some disturbing information. Apparently you have let Pernan poison you against your friend and colleague, Shal."

"I don't know what to think," Neragar admitted. "I would have trusted Shal with my own life, but he was captain of the watch when the murders took place."

"I am Manchek's agent in this matter," Kemil said. "I have just returned from examining the scene of the murders with Garon and Tagun. We found absolute evidence that Pernan was part of the plot that killed your master and his family. Three reliable witnesses told us that Pernan insinuated a substitute watch during Shal's period of duty. No one but Pernan held a key that would open the royal chambers. Since the murders, the steward has tried to isolate you from Shal who could have cleared himself of Pernan's accusations. Not only has Pernan tried to implicate Shal in the murders, but he tried to make Shal believe that your watch was on duty when they happened."

"Pernan must be arrested," Neragar insisted.

"We must keep him under close observation in order to discover the full extent of the conspiracy against Zedekla's royal house," Kemil countered. "You might be called upon to be among those to keep him under surveillance, but I have something more to ask of you."

"I will do anything you ask," Neragar promised.

"I want you to give your permission for Shal to marry Berina," Kemil said.

"Willingly," Neragar said without a pause. "Before the murders, I was well inclined to the prospect of a wedding. My parents had already begun to make plans. The wedding can take place within a week or so."

"It must take place tomorrow morning," Kemil countered. "As you see, there is a resemblance between Berina and myself. Shal is similar to Manchek. If our enemies believe that we are staying in Timora in seclusion, they are unlikely to try to interfere with the errand Manchek told you about."

Neragar looked toward his daughter. "I would be willing to put my own life in danger to help you, but I cannot answer for the others. Berina, are you willing to forsake all the celebration and the joy that it would bring to your grandparents if you wait to wed?"

Berina smiled her glorious smile and said, "Yes!"

"Now we must wait to see what Shal will say," Kemil said. "I have asked Sergon to fetch him."

"Let me bring you some refreshment while you wait," Berina said. "My grandparents are serving in the Shrine or I would have you meet them. I doubt they will be displeased to see me marry in such haste. After all, it has been years since I told them that Shal was my choice. They knew long before Shal himself suspected."

Neragar cautioned Berina. "I am certain we can trust my parents with the news that you are going to be wed, but they must not tell anyone else. I will speak to them myself and warn them of the danger of indiscretion."

While Berina was away in the kitchen, Sergon brought Shal into the garden where Neragar waited with Kemil and Tagun. At first Shal seemed nervous of his colleague but Neragar hurried forward with his hand extended in welcome. "I have learned that both of us were duped by Pernan. This is Kemil, the intended bride of Manchek. She has something to tell you."

"Shal, I see the reservation in your eyes," Kemil said. "Pernan hopes that blame for the murders will fall on you. For this purpose, he swore you to secrecy about the men he substituted for your watch. We are asking you to help us confuse Manchek's enemies."

Shal nodded, the resistance fading from his face. "You are clearly in the confidence of Manchek."

"Tomorrow morning I will marry Manchek. We cannot keep this secret from Pernan, and he would expect to see a woman with Manchek."

"I would do anything else," Shal protested, "but I hesitate to compromise a woman by pretending to be married."

Berina had entered the garden with a tray of refreshments just in time to hear Shal's protest. "Would you share your self willingly with me if we were married?" she asked.

He whirled and stared at her with hope glowing in his eyes. Then he shook his head. "I could not expose you to the danger."

"I am disappointed in you Shal," Berina said. "I had hoped you thought enough of me to marry me tomorrow and let me share this adventure with you. My father could serve as Manchek's double if he must. I do not fear sharing the risk with him if you are unwilling."

Shal stepped forward and took Berina's hands. "I would rather be the man to share your risk. I only hope I have your love."

"You have had it long before you wanted it," Berina assured him with a grin. "Carry this tray of tidbits into the gather room for the men who are waiting, then return and we will make our plans." She turned to Kemil. "Should any of the others be told what we are planning?"

Kemil shook her head. "Manchek, Tagun and I are the only ones who will know the details. Manchek will decide what should be shared with others. Certainly Pernan should be kept unaware of our exact plans. Come to the Main Shrine an hour after dawn and prepare to start your life with Shal."

Kemil and Tagun joined Sergon and the other Mareklans and took a moment to enjoy the treats that Berina had provided. Tagun silently complimented Shal on his good fortune. Berina was a good cook as well as being very pretty when she smiled. At least it seemed that one of the matches that took place on the morrow would be blessed with love from the beginning.

"Come, we have several other errands to accomplish and it is nearly Enven," Kemil urged Tagun when he seemed a little too comfortable visiting with Berina and Shal. "They need some time alone to make their plans."

When they were in the street again, Kemil turned to Tagun. "We must make arrangements for a litter to come to the Mareklan enclave and convey Manchek to the Shrine."

"I doubt he would feel comfortable with being treated like an invalid," Sergon said.

"I am not just thinking about Manchek's health," she said. "I cannot tell you the reasons for everything I choose to do."

"Are there any other provisions we should make?" Sergon asked her.

"Request the Kumnorans to bring their water caravan up close behind the Shrine," she said.

"It will be there in any case," he said. "The water must be blessed by a priest before they set out for the Quorm."

They passed a stand of litter bearers and Sergon negotiated for a quartet of men to meet them at the Mareklan enclave soon after dawn with a covered double palanquin. Kemil and her companions were almost back to the Mareklan enclave when the bells for Enven began to ring.

Garon parted company with them at the intersection near the Shrine. "I will go to the Guardian compound and send men to keep watch on Pernan."

Sergon and the other two Mareklans said goodbye and left the hall, but Boladen stopped Kemil and Tagun as they approached the stairs that led to Manchek's room. "I checked on Manchek only a few minutes ago. He is sleeping peacefully. Pernan came by not long after you left. He claimed that he was concerned about you, Kemil. I have kept him waiting in the small store room for most of the past hour. Are you willing to see him?"

Kemil hesitated, then she nodded. "Ask him to meet me near the well in the courtyard. Tagun, conceal yourself behind the screen. He is a danger to me as well as Manchek."

Not long after Kemil settled herself on the edge of the well Pernan entered the courtyard. He hurried over with an extended hand. "My lady Kemil, I am not sorry I waited. Was your errand in the city a success?" he asked unctuously.

She occupied her hands with taking off the slope brimmed hat that she wore. The steward wore a fancy tunic and in the clear afternoon light flooding the courtyard Tagun saw a ragged segment near the edge where some of the fringe had been torn away. It was such a tiny detail that Pernan must have missed seeing it when he dressed.

"My errand was successful," Kemil said. "I have many things to do before our wedding tomorrow morning. Unfortunately, it seems that Manchek will not be able to travel as we had planned. Please excuse me. I want to observe Enven alone in prayer and meditation."

She stood and waited for Pernan to leave. He backed away and Boladen showed him out of the enclave. As soon as the steward left Tagun came from behind the screen. "Did you see the edge of his tunic?" he whispered. Kemil nodded with a grim little smile.

Boladen came into the courtyard and looked from one of them to the other. "You seem satisfied, did you learn anything?"

"There is no longer any doubt that Pernan was involved in the murders," Tagun said. "Men have been assigned to keep watch on him. Both the Guardians and Neragar are interested in following his movements."

"There is a glitter in your eyes that warns me you have something more in mind," Boladen said to Kemil.

"You will know soon enough what I have set in motion," Kemil said. "I understand that Enven is set aside for meditation and prayer. I have real need of both. I will be in the enclave chapel until the bells ring to end Enven. Then we must prepare for the weddings that will take place tomorrow morning."

Kemil entered the chapel and left Tagun with Boladen. "She is quite a determined and astute young woman," Tagun said. "The other day when I examined the murder scene I noticed a bit of lint on the knife that little Prince Bandek wielded against the intruders, but Kemil identified it as a fragment of fringe from a special kind of tunic."

"Weaving is one of her three skills," Boladen said. "It may well have been that she made that fringe with her own hands."

"Manchek may not have willingly chosen her, but she will make a remarkable queen," Tagun said.

"Manchek has asked to see you as soon as you returned," Boladen said. "The errand to guard Kemil while she met with Pernan seemed more urgent."

"I have a lot to tell him," Tagun replied.

Manchek was resting when Tagun entered his room but he was not asleep. He sat up and moved from the bed to the window seat he seemed to prefer. "Did you learn anything of worth on your expedition with Kemil?"

"I think Pernan should be taken into custody. Everything we have learned points to him as the one who planned and carried out the assassination of Balchek and his family," Tagun said. "The timing, the false tracks and counter accusations he planted, his exact knowledge of a scene he hardly took time to view, all lead to suspicion. Kemil discovered the most damning piece of evidence. A fragment of the fringe from Pernan's tunic was caught in the dagger that your nephew Bandek used against the intruders. Pernan was waiting to talk to Kemil when we came back to the enclave. She told him that you were being married in the morning, but he would have learned that with little trouble. More important, both of us saw the torn fringe that sealed his guilt."

"I never liked Pernan, but he was vetted by his uncle Malvor, my father's secretary."

"Is it possible that both of them are part of a conspiracy?" Tagun asked the prince. "On good authority I know that Jagga has confederates within the courts of both Zedekla and Taleeka."

"Shal has Taleekan ties," Manchek said. "Perhaps we should ask him to investigate, or have you implicated him in Pernan's plots?"

"Shal seems entirely innocent of blame. Pernan sent a strange group of guards to relieve Shal's watch. Then the steward concocted rumors and lies to cover what he had done. I'm sure Kemil will want to tell you what she accomplished this afternoon. There will be more than two weddings tomorrow morning."

"Where is Kemil?" Manchek asked.

"She wanted to spend Enven in the chapel. I really can't blame her. Her world has been turned on it's head within a matter of days."

"I should take some time for quiet meditation," Manchek said. "I must admit I hesitate to venture down the stairs without someone to help me."

"I think Kemil would prefer to be alone, but you don't need a chapel or a worship hall to address the Radiance," Tagun reminded the prince. There is still some time before Enven ends. I suggest we use it as intended."

Manchek nodded and settled to his knees on the rug that covered the area between the window seat and his bed. Tagun took a similar pose near the door. Many years ago Daglan had taught him to pray. It had always been a quiet prayer in a private area by necessity in a place where evil ruled.

He had seldom had the luxury of kneeling in quiet. Most of his prayers had been desperate pleas for help and protection while he was being stalked by the bullies he thought were his brothers. Since beginning his pilgrimage journey more than a year ago he had learned to luxuriate in sweet communion. Pleas were still part of his prayers, but gratitude had come to play a far greater part. Now he found himself thanking the Radiance for the new friends he had made. Kemil had begun by despising him, but in the space of a few hours they had become allies.

Someone knocked on the door of the room not long after the bells ending enven rang. Manchek took his accustomed place on the window seat while Tagun opened the door and invited Kemil to join them.

"I am eager to hear what you accomplished on your errand to the royal residence," Manchek said.

"I found the dagger that Bandek used against the intruders," she replied. "A fragment of fringe had been caught in the decorative bosses of the blade guard. I recognized it as a piece that I myself had made on a special order from Zedekla's king. Only a few people would wear a tunic from which the fringe was torn. An hour ago when I met Pernan I could see that the tunic he wore has the same fringe and part of it is missing. It is material proof of our suspicions. By the way, I have arranged for yet another couple to join us in the wedding chapel of the Shrine. Berina and Shal are ready to exchange their vows and serve as proxies for the two of us here in Timora."

Manchek shook his head and smiled. "I hope they were willing participants."

Kemil reached out and took his hand. "More than willing. I told both of them the danger that might come, but Berina is impatient of Shal's slow courting. She was happy to volunteer once she understood what we needed. On the other hand, Shal would not want to pretend that any other woman is his wife. And there must be a woman sharing his seclusion. Surely you must see that?"

Manchek slowly nodded. "How will we maintain the illusion that Shal and I are the same person?" he asked.

"I told Pernan that you were too ill to journey as we planned," Kemil explained. "He will expect you to use a litter, and of course the bride will be veiled. The Kumnoran water train will be waiting near the rear of the Shrine where the waters will be blessed by one of the priests before the caravan sets out. While we take our places in the water caravan, Shal and Berina will leave from the front porch of the Shrine in the covered palanquin. We will make certain there are men who will keep Pernan from getting close enough to discover the ruse. You have already noticed that Shal is similar in build to yourself and at a distance, Berina could pass for me."

"If you use a litter when you travel to the Shrine, it will preserve your strength for the climb out of the Vale with the Kumnoran caravan," Tagun said. "But I thought you wanted Shal to investigate the situation in Taleeka. How will he do that if he is supposed to stay here in seclusion?"

"If Shal and several other members of my guard leave the enclave tomorrow afternoon it is unlikely that anyone watching will suspect that he was my stand-in," Manchek said. "He and Berina can join a group of Taleekan pilgrims. There are several in the city at this time. Tagun, Will you make the arrangements, and perhaps you should tell the Guardians that I want them to apprehend Pernan. If he is the main conspirator behind the murders, he must not be left free."

"They know about Pernan," Tagun said, "And I will be at the Shrine with Frovin and Doka tomorrow to attend Falinda's wedding. I assume that all three weddings will take place in close succession?"

"Could you stay here with me one last night?" Manchek asked him. "I want you to return with information about the arrangements that are being made. You could have Frovin bring your pack to the Shrine and set off for Zedekla as soon as the weddings take place."

Tagun bid Manchek and Kemil goodbye and left them alone together. They had been strangers only the day before, but they already seemed to deal very well together. Tagun hoped that Sergon and Falinda would discover a similar compatibility. As for himself, he couldn't imagine being so complacent if Selendra were taken from him.

Tagun found Garon visiting Shal at the Guardian barracks. "Manchek feels that Pernan is too dangerous to leave at large. He would like you to take him into custody without delay."

"I am sorry to say that we have lost track of him," Garon said. "I suspect he must have noticed the men who were following him and realized we suspected him."

"Then we must be even more careful to carry out our plans in secrecy," Tagun said. "How do you plan to come to the Shrine tomorrow, Shal?"

"We will go to the Shrine as guards for Manchek's litter," Shal said. "Berina will be with us in a festive dress suitable to the celebration of a wedding."

"Manchek wants you to return to Taleeka later in the afternoon with a group of pilgrims," Tagun told Shal. "There are traitors in the ruling house of Taleeka. I understand that your father is a councilor. Perhaps you can use his influence to help you find the truth."

Shal frowned and seemed to ponder the problem. "I have heard reports of disturbing changes in Taleeka. My father has been in seclusion for a while. He is an honorable man and feels threatened. I welcome this chance to help him."

Tagun stopped at Frovin's home and checked to see that all was in order there. Doka was excited by the prospect of the journey to Zedekla and full of questions that Tagun refused to answer. "The water caravan has been alerted," Frovin said. "They have arranged for an extra dala that will carry slings."

"Slings? What is the need for slings, and why are the Kumnorans involved with Falinda's wedding?" Doka asked.

"I'll tell you all you need to know in time," Tagun told his friend. "I must return to the Mareklan enclave. I'll see you at the Shrine tomorrow morning."

Tagun wanted to reach the enclave before sunset. While the streets were filled with people it was unlikely that he would be attacked in open daylight. He arrived at the enclave in time for supper and volunteered to take a tray up to Manchek.

Once again Tagun found Manchek relaxing in the window seat that overlooked the courtyard. The prince held a scroll and made notes on a slate as he read. He looked up with a smile. "I had hoped you would get back before dark. I wondered if I would have to break quarantine and go down and fetch my own meal. And here you are with whatever that is that smells so delicious."

"I was told that Kemil had something to do with the seasoning," Tagun said. "If my heart were not already given, I might try to court her myself."

He wished he could recall his words when he saw the look on Manchek's face. But the regret quickly vanished. "I had no idea that you were pledged to someone."

"It is something I don't talk about," Tagun said. "In fact, it was a secret until I told you. She is Tedakan."

"A Tedakan woman and a Janakan man, not the usual match, although I recall that there have been some notable exceptions," Manchek said.

"Darm, Tharek's Janakan friend, married a Tedakan," Tagun said.

"I wish you well in your secret betrothal Tagun," Manchek said. "Perhaps someday I will have the privilege of meeting her."

For a few minutes they both devoted themselves to savoring the delights on the tray. Mareklans were justly famed for the variety and excellence of their spices. There was nothing in the meal as biting hot as a true Janakan barbecue, but Tagun didn't notice the lack. A couple of pale green spear leaf cores were the perfect finish to the meal, refreshing and slightly sweet.

"Has Pernan been apprehended?" Manchek asked when the last morsel of food had been consumed.

"Not yet. He apparently noticed the men who were keeping track of him," Tagun said. "He must know that you suspect him since you haven't been willing to see him since your interview this morning. But I talked with Shal and Frovin. The Kumnorans have made arrangements to have slings on one of their dalas and will give you transport out of Timora after the wedding. Shal and Berina will return to the enclave in the litter as you planned, but later tomorrow they will join a caravan of Taleekan pilgrims. I believe we can safely assume that Pernan is deeply involved in a conspiracy against the Zedeklan royal house. Fortunately, it seems that both the guardians and the royal guards who were responsible for Balchek's safety are free of any blame."

"My father has no knowledge of Pernan's treachery," Manchek said. "It is vital that you reach him with the news. Is everything in order for your departure tomorrow morning?"

Tagun nodded. "We will leave directly from the Shrine. Frovin will close his house until he returns to Timora. It is nearly time for Doka and me to end our studies with the sage. I learned far more than I had ever expected. It is hard to say what was most important to me. It may well be the scrolls that Fozli prepared after Marnat took the scroll of Irilik. Did you ever study it?"

Manchek looked down at the scroll he had been studying and Tagun recognized the script. "Ah, but why are you taking notes rather than copying the scroll?"

"The scroll of Fozli is considered a forgery by most of the priests," Manchek said. "I do not want to challenge them directly, but there is much of value here. I believe the original will be discovered when the time is right. Fozli's scroll seems to hint at such a thing. Perhaps it is hidden even now in some corner of the Saadenan palace." Manchek yawned and put his hand to his head with a slight grimace of pain.

"You should rest now," Tagun said. "Tomorrow will be a challenge for all of us. I'll take the tray down to the kitchen then return to keep you company."

The next morning Tagun kept to the background holding Manchek's staff, but his eyes scanned the crowd that had gathered near the gate of the enclave to watch the bridal couple emerge and make their way to the shrine. Kemil wore one of her Mareklan tunics and held her staff in her hand. Manchek wore the finery expected of a royal prince.. They were an ill-assorted pair when they left the front gate of the enclave surrounded by the other Mareklans. Manchek let Kemil support him as he walked with unsteady steps toward the litter, feigning weakness.

Tagun noticed Pernan among the people who had stopped to watch. He had edged back toward the facade of a building across the way, but his eyes were avid with an expression that looked almost like triumph. He seemed to savor the sight of Zedekla's prince staggering with apparent exhaustion and pain. Tagun turned to summon one of the prince's guards to arrest the steward, but when he turned back, Pernan had vanished in the crowd.

Kemil helped Manchek take his seat beneath the canopy of the covered palanquin. It was big enough for two to ride together, and two would ride in it when the weddings were completed. Meanwhile, Kemil would walk. Tagun walked in back of her watching the crowds with one hand firm on the handle of his ax and the other holding the staff. If he saw Pernan again he wouldn't wait to call for help. He knew that he could stop the murderous traitor easily.

He listened as Kemil received encouragement from the two women who walked on either side of her. They would return to the vale of Marekla with their husbands, but that would never be her lot again. Once she had married Manchek, even her name would change. She would be "Kemila" after the vows were completed.

Lost in a grave contemplation of her future, Kemil seemed to take little notice of the passing scene. "It cannot be as dreadful as your face would tell,"one of the women said.

"Thank you for the reminder," she told her friend. From that point on she braced her shoulders back and walked with a smile on her face and the pride that was due her position as the betrothed of Zedekla's prince.

When they reached the Shrine a crowd had gathered. They represented every clan and city of Okishdu, but most of them were pilgrims dressed in blue and white. A small crowd of Zedeklans clustered together near the stairs. Manchek pulled back the curtains of the litter and waved to them. A chant arose, seemingly spontaneous. It persisted as the litter was carried upward to the porch where Manchek finally dismounted and took Kemil by the hand.

"Long life to Manchek and his bride!" The volume swelled as others joined the chant. Tagun turned back to survey the crowd. He could see Tedakans, Taleekans, and hearty Kumnoran teamsters joining in the shout. It was for this that Manchek and Kemil had given up their dreams. It was almost overwhelming to consider how much rested on the success of their errand to the Quorm and the months and years afterward when the responsibility of rule would come to rest on Manchek's shoulders if they were successful.

Tagun felt some of the weight himself. According to tradition, Manchek would be confirmed in his right to be Zedekla's king when his first born child made its appearance, but Tagun still had several things to accomplish before he could return to Janaka and receive the approval of the Matriarchs.

Alwrek, the High Priest of the Radiance, welcomed Manchek and Kemil. Manchek nodded to Tagun and he joined them. "Come with me. The others are already waiting. "Normally there would be only five people in the wedding chapel at a time, the couple, the priest, and the two witnesses, but because of the circumstances, all three of the couples will be married in close sequence, the better to confuse our enemies."

Manchek and Tagun accompanied Alwrek, but Kemil stepped aside into a robing room with the High Priestess, Genila, Alwrek's wife. When Kemil returned to the bridal chapel she was wore robes and a veil just like Falinda and Berina but although all of them were veiled, there were differences. Falinda was a little shorter and somewhat curvaceous next to Berina's slender height. Alwrek, the High Priest summoned Shal and Berina to stand before him and with the others acting as witnesses, he pronounced the blessings and promises and waited for the responses. At last he promised them that their union would last beyond the bounds of death.

Kemil and Manchek were the next to stand on either side of the altar and join hands. As Tagun listened to the wedding vows they seemed very much the same with different names, but at the end the phrase was different. Instead of promising them a union that would last beyond the bounds of death, Alwrek had married Manchek to Kemil "until death destroys this joining."

The ceremony finished and Kemil's veil was lifted. A faint trace of tears shone on her cheeks, but her smile was wide and welcoming as she looked at her new husband. Next Sergon and Falinda took their places on either side of the altar.

Tagun wondered if either the Manchek or Kemil had noticed the difference in the vows. He listened intently to the words the priest said to Sergon and Falinda and he realized that Alwrek was once again performing a merely mortal union. Tagun vowed that when he wed Selendra he would make certain that the priest would promise them eternal love.

In reality, for all the time that mattered to a young man, it made no practical difference if the vows were mortal rather than eternal. Sergon had taken vows to honor Falinda as his wife. Henceforth he could only consider Kemil as a friend. Now that she was Kemila, Manchek's bride, Tagun prayed that all of them would continue to be friends.

Shal and Manchek stepped into the priest's dressing room while Kemila followed the priestess. Minutes later they emerged. Shal had a remarkable resemblance to the Zedeklan prince once he had assumed Manchek's royal tunic and the turban that glittered with gold threads. He took the hand of his veiled bride, Berina, and they stepped out onto the porch where the double covered palanquin was waiting. A cheer broke out from the crowd below, a rousing welcome for what seemed to be the royal pair.

Back in the Shrine the other brides took time to change their robes. When Tagun and Manchek saw Kemila, they both broke into laughter. She blushed, but turned around to display the full glory of her Kumnoran teamster garb with a wooly hat that fully disguised her face and hair. As for Falinda, she looked almost like a child playing dress-up in Kemil's tunic and broad-brimmed hat, her ripe young figure strained the tunic here and there then fell to well below her knees.

The two couples moved toward the rear exit of the chapel, ready to begin their various adventures. Tagun turned to Frovin and Doka and they handed him a pack. They watched the two couples from the rear porch of the shrine as they went their separate ways. The caravan of Mareklans waited for Sergon and Falinda and the two of them were soon lost in the larger group. Several priests walked among the dalas waiting in the secluded courtyard pronouncing blessings on the water. The teamsters quickly hoisted Manchek and Kemila into slings that rode on opposite sides of a sturdy dala. They other animals with barrels in their slings gathered around them in a herd that successfully concealed the royal couple.

"It is time for us to go," Tagun said.

"First we will pray that all this misdirection has a fruitful ending," Frovin said.

They bowed their heads and when they looked up again, the two caravans had set out in separate directions. It seemed that no one had observed them. Everyone but the Kumnorans and the Mareklans had gathered at the front of the shrine to cheer for what they thought was the royal couple as they departed for the enclave.

Frovin had brought pilgrim robes for the three of them and they were provided with staffs and packs of food. Tagun hefted the staff and moved it around a bit. It was not as finely balanced as the staff he had carried for Manchek, but it would do for minor self defense. The laws of Okishdu provide serious penalties for attacks on pilgrims, but in this time of deceit, the law meant little to the cult. Perhaps the fact that they were apparently two boys and a middle-aged man would protect them from the notice of those who hunted maidens.









Chapter 9 Zedekla



Tagun had wanted to visit the city of Zedekla since reading about it in Dorm's history. He had learned more about the city in his studies with Frovin, but nothing had prepared him for the city's vast extent. The suburbs had long since expanded past the walls built by the founder, Tharek, centuries before. He could see nothing equivalent to the metal studded towers of the Janakan palace which loomed above the city which itself crowned a mountain prominence, but Zedekla had a different kind of power.

Tagun had wondered how a city with no apparent geographic defensive advantage had stood undefeated for so long. He had heard that the kings of Zedekla charged no taxes to their citizens, that the royal house subsisted on nothing more than a levy placed on river traffic. It had seemed a paltry way to support the needs of a ruling house and a powerful army. Now he noted the broad river studded with wharves and warehouses that carried a steady stream of barges and boats loaded with products and raw materials into Zedekla. As a boy raised in the mountains, he had never dreamed of such a scene.

He gave a long low whistle when he finished making a rough calculation of the worth of what he saw. The breeze picked up and sails on the river began to billow. Near the river's meeting with the sea, pennants dancing on towers on top of a cliff drew his gaze.

Then he realized that what he had taken for a cliff was a vast palace, dwarfing the other buildings in the city. He laughed at his mistake.

"What is so amusing?" Doka asked. "I should think that you would be impressed."

"Oh, I am impressed," Tagun answered. "I had simply underestimated the extent of Manchek's inheritance. I wonder if Jagga knows what he faces. With the wealth at his command, King Fortek can hire hordes of mercenaries to defend his land."

"I have no doubt that Jagga and his cohorts understand," Frovin told them. "That is why they use assassination as a weapon. There seems to be no questions that one or both of the subsidiary heirs are part of Jagga's plan to ruin his greatest enemy. Come now, we must hurry before the gates are closed. There are plenty of inns beyond the walls, but I promised to carry Manchek's warning to his father as soon as I could."

Tagun shared a sympathetic grimace with Doka. The thought of finding the first inn they could and settling for the night had great appeal. They had underestimated the scholar's stamina and zeal to reach the city and had barely kept up with his urgent pace for the past four days, snacking on journey bread while they walked and sleeping in coverts near the track when overcome by fatigue instead of looking for an inn at nightfall.

Instead of pressing forward to the palace, Frovin turned aside when he reached the plaza in front of the main shrine. There were other shrines in Zedekla. Accommodating the faithful of the city for their shrine-days and evening ritual was beyond the capacity of even such a building, but the Zedeklans did not practice Enven, the afternoon period of prayer that was held each day in Timora and the great prayer room of the shrine was nearly empty when they entered.

Tagun gazed around at the airy space lit by trellised windows in the upper walls and a glowing white alabaster globe, the lamp of the Radiance, that hung high over the main podium beneath the central spire. Doka brought Tagun back to the purpose of their visit with a nudge as he handed him a prayer mat. Frovin knelt on a mat, his hands upraised and his eyes closed.

The young men followed suit. At first Tagun had trouble calming his spirit and concentrating on his meditation. Thick white stone walls subdued the sounds that filtered in from the street, but the faint rhythm of the sea whispered like a mighty pulse. Gradually Tagun found a center of quiet in his soul and reached to the holiness as Daglan had taught him. First he thought about his reasons to be grateful, including his hidden parentage and the fact that he was here with a kind and scholarly master instead of being swallowed up in the evil cult of Orqu. He was even grateful for being short enough to pass as a child on the edge of adolescence instead of a young man old enough to be a warrior in his native land. There had been many years when he had prayed for more height, or at least a beard that would prove his true age, but now he would be suited to a role that might save Okishdu from the cultists of Orqu. He was almost wary of including Selendra in his prayers, after witnessing the sacrifices Sergon and Manchek had been called to make.

Doka nudged him and Tagun opened his eyes to see that the room had filled as the time for the evening ritual approached. He stood and bent to lift his mat from the floor, but a waiting supplicant indicated he would take it.

It was near sunset when the trio finally found their way to the palace gates that opened on a grand concourse filled with commerce. Frovin approached one of the guards who stood at the gate and explained that he had business with the king.

The guard summoned his captain who studied Frovin and the two youngsters who hovered just beyond him, then he nodded and gestured for them to step beyond him and wait while he called to a passing servant. "Take this scholar and his young companions to the small waiting room in the western corridor and summon the king's secretary to interview them."

Doka's eyes widen with longing when a servant passed carrying a platter of food. "Send to the kitchen for something they can eat," the guard added.

Tagun began to wonder if an impish impulse had inspired the servant to lead them in circles after they had passed a number of stairwells and followed a twisting path without coming to the waiting room. Dull gray mourning banners covered the walls along the corridors as the servant led them deeper into the palace, hiding the scenes of battles and festivals worked in mosaic that might have provided a clue to their progress.

The servant finally stopped and opened a door to a room with a window that flooded the dim corridor with light from the setting sun. As soon as the three travelers had stepped inside, the servant closed the door and dropped a latch. Tagun, who had been drawn to a window that overlooked the sea, whirled and ran toward the door as soon as he heard the telltale click of the bar falling into place. "He locked us in!" he cried.

"I believe it was merely a precautionary gesture," Frovin explained. "With all that has happened, can you blame Zedekla's royals from feeling the need of caution with visitors?"

Tagun returned to gaze out of the window at the sea that began below the walls of the palace and stretched to meet sun-gilded towers of clouds in the west. He was a child of mountains and he knew the grandeur of great storms that filled the sky with forked lightning and rolling thunder, but he could imagine nothing more immense than the scene that lay beyond this western window. Finally he turned away as the line between the sea and the sky merged in the dusk. "I thought someone was sent to bring us something to eat," he said.

"Have patience," Frovin counseled. "Doubtless someone will come soon."

A few moments later it seemed that they would soon be served. The latch lifted but when the door was opened it revealed the long, gaunt figure. "I am Malvor of Obilar, King Fortek's secretary. I understand you want an audience with Fortek," he addressed Frovin, pointedly ignoring the two boys.

"I have come from Timora with my two students on an urgent mission. I have news for the king about his son, Manchek," Frovin replied.

Malvor's eyes widened and his face became a mask of tragedy. "The prince has died, just as I feared. I warned his father that I should be sent with Manchek to find the miscreants who killed his brother."

"Manchek is alive, and married to a Mareklan maiden as his father advised," Frovin hastened to assure the secretary.

"Where is he now?" Malvor asked, his recovery from grief turned into urgency that hinted at barely concealed anger.

"He is on an errand to gain allies," the sage explained.

"I trust he took my nephew in his train?" the secretary probed.

"Your nephew?" Frovin asked.

"Pernan, Prince Balchek's steward," Malvor explained with scant patience for Frovin's ignorance of his family connections.

"I am not certain where your nephew is, but I doubt that he is with Manchek and his bride," the sage admitted. He looked toward his students and made a sign with the hand that was concealed from Malvor's view. "We were told we would be fed."

"What is it you have come to tell the king?" Malvor asked. "Has Manchek discovered anything about the deaths?"

Tagun spoke up from the shadows where he stood with Doka. "It seems that there are traitors among the very men who swore to guard the prince," he said. "At least that's what I heard."

Malvor peered into the dark toward the boys and raised his brows disdainfully. "I am surprised a child like you would hear anything worth telling." He turned back to address Frovin. "Come. I have ordered apartments prepared for you. It is not convenient for the king to interview everyone who comes to seek his audience. When Pernan returns and vouches for you, you will see Fortek."

Three guards dressed in palace livery were revealed when Malvor opened the door. He conferred with them in whispers and hurried away. One of the guards took Frovin by the arm and led him away up the corridor. The other two men grabbed the arms of Tagun and Doka and led them to a narrow passageway that must have been intended for the use of servants. They hustled them out of the palace and into the precinct beyond the wall.

Tagun hoped they wouldn't notice the ax slung under his pilgrim robe as they shoved the two boys through an alleyway and across the plaza of the main shrine, but after they left the plaza the stone ax was jostled free and fell to the ground with a clatter.

One of their captors scooped it up and laughed. "Is this a toy?" With disdain he tossed it into a barrel of rubbish on the corner. Soon they turned into a cross street and stopped to open the door of an old house which was surrounded by others far more opulent. With little chance to protest their imprisonment, Tagun and Doka were thrust inside and the door swung shut and locked against escape.

"I guess this means we won't be fed," Doka muttered after his stomach made a hungry protest.

"I doubt they mean to starve us, but we can't be certain," Tagun told his friend. "As long as Manchek is alive, Malvor must pretend to serve Fortek. Frovin's face is known and his presence might be reported to the king before the secretary can do away with him. We clearly don't merit the same caution. They might intend to hide us here until we perish of thirst or hunger. Come, there may be something in the larder we can eat."

Before they could begin their explorations, they heard someone unlatch the lock and moments later a tray was thrust inside before the door was slammed and quickly locked again. A dish of matlas stuffed with meat and vegetables, cold but still welcome to the hungry travelers, was accompanied with a glass bottle of wine. Doka reached for one of the matlas.

Tagun grabbed his hand and forced him to release the food. "We cannot trust anything they feed us. Why would they provide wine instead of nuka juice or water? Do they mean to fuddle our senses? Or will our hunger lead to something worse?"

"You have an overly suspicious mind," Doka countered. "Would you rather starve than risk poison?"

"I have learned to be cautious," Tagun reminded his friend. "We were about to look for something to eat before we were interrupted by the appearance of this tray. I doubt that there is anything in the larder, but there is likely a well in the courtyard where we can find water to relieve our thirst. There may be the remnants of a orchard there as well."

Doka sent one last yearning look toward the matlas before turning and following Tagun into the courtyard. The sound of running water assured them that they would at least have something to drink and while Doka satisfied his thirst, Tagun fumbled in the dark until he located some overgrown breadberry bushes that still bore a few clusters of the bland fruit. It was not a very savory meal, but it met the need of filling their bellies.

The night sky above was overcast and a sharp wind blew their robes around their knees. Tagun searched along the wall of the garden and tried to climb the vines. He made his way almost to the top when the vine began to pull away under his weight and he nimbly leaped away and rolled on the grass rather than suffer from an awkward fall. Instead of getting up from the ground, he settled into a squat and studied the outlines of the house against the barely lighter sky beyond.

Doka yawned and patted his middle. "We cannot escape. We should find a place inside the house to sleep."

Tagun did not immediately reply. When Doka poked him to get his attention, the Janakan youth started from his reverie. "There will be no sleep for us tonight. I think I know how we can escape. Did you notice the symbol that was carved in the stone of the lintel over the front door?"

Without waiting for Doka's negative reply, he hurried on with his explanation. "This house belonged to Dornak, Tharek's master builder. My ancestor, Dorn, was housed here as a boy. There is a hidden passageway to the palace. We must find it before our captors return."

With his brow screwed up in concentration, Tagun approached the archway that led into the house. There were doors on either side that led to empty rooms. A stairway led upwards, but Tagun ducked into the doorway of another, smaller stairway that led downwards. Doka followed close behind.

The whispering sound of moving water led them to a room on one side of the cellar. It was too dark to see into the room and they had no means of lighting their way. "I believe this is the bathing room," Tagun said as he cautioned Doka from entering. "In better times, and with a set of clothing to change into, I would risk it, even in the darkness, but as I remember, this is not the room we seek."

They moved across the narrow corridor to the other side and felt their way along the walls. At first it seemed the room was empty, but Tagun continued until he felt the battered edges of a low box set against the wall at the back of the room. "Come, help me lift this up," he summoned Doka.

They struggled to lift the box with no result until Tagun finally grasped the bottom corner near the wall with one final, stubborn attempt to shift the inexplicably heavy weight. To his surprise, it easily lifted up and back on a hinge at the front bottom edge. A draft of dank air swept up from below.

The sound of footsteps sounded from the floor above and Tagun grabbed Doka's hand and pulled him into the opening between the box and the wall while he whispered, "We must hurry before we are discovered."

The urgency of his words was emphasized by the flickering light that shown in the corridor beyond the barely opened door behind them. Without hesitation, Doka followed, stumbling down the slippery rock steps inside the gap. Tagun pulled the box back into place behind them and squinted through the narrow gaps between the ancient boards of the box.

Two men with torches held high to light the way entered the storeroom and looked around. One of them approached the box and tried in vain to lift it by grasping the front edge. The man behind him gave a grunt of impatience. "I told you they escaped over the wall in the garden. They were crafty enough to avoid eating the food we left for them, but I doubt we need to worry about them anymore. Malvor is worried that they threaten his schemes, but what can two boys do against the power of the cult?"

"Malvor will not move against Fortek until he is certain of Manchek's death," the man in front of the box replied, confirming Tagun's earlier speculation. "Pernan must have bungled his errand. We cannot rest until Tharek's kin are burned or buried. Jagga grows impatient."

The other man gave a non-committal grunt and the two of them left the room and shut the door. As soon as the sound of their footsteps reached the hall above Tagun grabbed Doka's shoulder and urged him down the stairs that led below the house. They made their way along the passageway. It soon became evident that this was no simple route that would lead them back to the palace. There were forks and turns that soon had them confused.

A dim glow of red ahead of them led them to a narrow grate in the wall. They cautiously sidled up to the edge of the barred opening and stared through. Tagun urged Doka away from the grate as soon as he realized what was going on in the chamber below them.

"It is a chamber of the cult," he muttered in disgust. "I heard rumors that the Orquians are using the ancient pyramid for their rituals. Jagga often bragged of how he uses the freedom of Zedekla to work against the interests of the city's rulers."

They moved away from the grate into the utter darkness of the passageway. After several hours more of fruitless wandering, Doka shivered and slumped against the wall. "We will wander until we die of thirst and hunger," he muttered in despair.

"We should rest here and wait until dawn," Tagun said. Not long ago I happened to look up and noticed stars through a grating overhead. When the sun rises, there should be a least a little light to help us find our way."

Doka gave a muffled grunt of assent and they lay down on an elevated portion of the floor of the passageway where it was not so damp. Huddled in their robes, they were soon asleep in spite of the cold and rocky floor beneath them.

Doka poked at Tagun to wake him. "My stomach is grumbling" he complained. Dim light filtered into the passageway from a grating in the ceiling several feet from where they lay. Tagun cautioned the Tedakan to silence.

"How long have you been awake?" Tagun asked Doka when the last wisp of sleep had cleared his mind.

"I barely opened my own eyes before I tried to wake you," Doka said. "I think I can hear the sound of water running somewhere nearby."

"We may be near the river," Tagun replied after he had listened for a while.

"We can get our bearings and look for our first change to get free of this maze," Doka said with some enthusiasm.

Tagun shook his head. "It is likely that Frovin is at risk as long as he is under Malvor's eye. We must find our way into the palace. I know it can be done. The river runs south of the main part of town. If we keep it to our left, we should be able to find the right passages." With the light from occasional ceiling grates to help relieve the gloom, they made their way along the maze of tunnels.

At length they came to a set of stairs that angled sharply upwards. "This must be the way into the palace," Tagun said. "I noticed that it is built on a rise above the sea."

There were no further openings to light their way as they climbed the stairs, and when they finally reached the top, the door that closed the way seemed as solid as a wall with no latch or pull to open it.. Finally, summoning his courage, Tagun knocked on the door. It was as likely to be opened by one of Malvor's minions as by someone loyal to King Fortek, but he heard Doka muttering a prayer behind him and he joined the other boy in his appeal.

Suddenly the door swung open and the two boys tumbled at the feet of a tall man with an angry face. Tagun scrambled to his feet while Doka addressed the grim stranger with an honorific. "Most Beneficent Ruler, I am Doka, Tanka's nephew. I doubt that you remember me. I was but a child when you visited Tedaka."

The frowning lips turned up in an ironic smile and the King of Zedekla gave a grunt of amusement. "A child? Then I take that you now consider yourself to be a man. Who is this other scamp, and what game brings you to this hidden entrance?"

"We have escaped from your enemies and have come to save your life and rescue Frovin," Doka blurted.

"Frovin? The Kumnoran sage who taught my sons? What do you know of Frovin?"

"He is our teacher," Tagun said. "Manchek sent him to Zedekla to warn you of Pernan, but Malvor took Frovin away and his men locked us up and tried to poison us."

"And who are you to accuse my closest advisor and impugn the honor of a trusted servant," Fortek asked Tagun.

"All you need to know is that Frovin is my teacher and I have the trust of your son, Manchek," Tagun said. "He was wounded by a band of Orquians who somehow knew the route that he would take. Manchek discovered that Pernan was responsible for Balchek's murder. With his own hand the villain killed your grandson, Bandek."

Fortek's face grew pale, and then it flushed with anger. "I will trust what you tell me if Doka will affirm it." The King turned to the Tedakan boy who quickly nodded.

"I will put Malvor in chains and demand that he tell me what has become of Frovin," Fortek said, releasing Doka's arm and turning toward the door that led from the chamber.

"Wait," Tagun cried. "The men who imprisoned us in Dornak's house wore your palace livery. Malvor claims the loyalty of at least a portion of your men. Just after we found the opening to the secret passage in the basement where we were kept, I overheard a couple of them talking. They are sworn to the cult of Orqu. If you let them know that you suspect Malvor, they might openly rebel against you and kill Frovin."

Fortek glanced around as if he thought the very walls had suddenly turned traitor. "At least I would not risk the lives of any of my family. My daughters are safely with their husbands and my one remaining son is in Timora."

"Not Timora," Doka hastened to explain. "Manchek married Kemila, a Mareklan maiden and the two of them are on an errand to gain more allies to your cause. They left Timora immediately after they were married."

"Come with me," Fortek said. I can see your clothing is dirty and you must be very hungry. I will give you a room in the royal quarters and send some of my servants with a meal and a change of clothing."

"It would be better if you let us enter your service in the lowliest of positions," Tagun quickly improvised. "As scullions or boot boys we would have access to every corner of the palace. We could discover where Frovin is being kept and gain evidence of which men you should arrest."

"You are rather wily for one so young," Fortek said with guarded admiration. "Stay here. I will soon return with livery to fit you. If you appear beyond this corridor in pilgrim's robes, your identity would soon be known."

"It's been a long time since we've eaten." Doka said.

The king turned back and nodded. "I will bring clothing and food. Would you prefer some nuka juice or cala to drink?"

"Don't make a fuss for us. Water will do," Doka said. Tagun suppressed a giggle. Doka's attitude was almost regal, but Fortek surprised him. Worried and under stress, the monarch still showed concern about their comfort.

"Are we safe here while we wait?" Doka asked just before Fortek opened the door and left the room.

The king paused and looked back at them. "If any other knows of this chamber, your errand may have come too late. Otherwise, you are safer here than you would be anywhere else in Zedekla."

He turned away to leave the room and Doka took a step toward him and began to open his mouth to ask another question. Tagun grabbed him from behind and stopped his mouth.

"Fool," the Janakan muttered. "If anyone sees him lingering in the doorway while he answers you again, we could be discovered."

Doka closed his mouth and nodded. When the door was closed and latched he turned to Tagun. "I only wanted to ask him for a weapon. Malvor's bullies took your ax. We are surrounded by enemies. I miss the feel of something sharp near my hip."

"Doka, I keep forgetting how young you are," Tagun sighed. "Fortek will provide all that is wise. It may be that wearing blades could be a danger for us. We are to use our eyes and ears and wits. Too often those with weapons fail to take due caution. They have false courage and take risks. I survived life with murderers for most of my childhood. I learned how to duck and hide and wait my chance to escape from danger. You grew up with loving parents who answered your every need."

"I was not pampered as a child", Doka protested. "Tedakans don't believe in sloth or folly."

"I said your every need was met, not every want," Tagun countered. "Do you know why I am short in stature and can pass as a child so easily?"

Doka shook his head. "I assumed your parents were small."

"My father was a large man. My mother was as tall as Manchek's bride, Kemila. My grandmother had the raising of me until I was taken to the palace of Janaka. The old woman knew that Jagga would suspect my parentage if he guessed my age. It is said she fed me less than growth required."

"Surely Jagga would have known when you were born," Doka said.

"Daglan, my tutor, and Jagga's scribe, is my uncle. He deliberately confused the records. Jagga is crafty, but not a scholar. He thought me several years younger than I am by the time my mother died."

"Your grandmother starved you into being a runt?" Doka asked incredulous.

"Not quite a runt," Tagun protested. "A little short, I'll grant you, but not tall enough to be taken for a youth ready to be sworn to Orqu before I left the palace."

"How old are you Tagun?" Doka asked, noticing that there was a blue tinge on the smaller boy's cheeks.

"Old enough to know not to tell you." Tagun said. "Try to forget the things I've told you. I enjoyed the months we've spent together. I never really had a childhood or a friend."

"Umm, we did have fun," Doka admitted. "You have a gift for getting out of trouble. You seem to know how to evade consequences. I'll do what you say."

"If you think you have a good idea, speak up," Tagun told him. "You are being raised to be a Headman of Tedaka. For years you have been trained by one of Okishdu's wisest rulers. Don't underestimate your contributions. I wouldn't have thought to tell Fortek I'm hungry. He's a king and not used to thinking of such things. I'm glad you spoke up."

Doka immediately spoke up. "I think we should try and map the way back to the house where we were imprisoned," he said. "I noticed grooves carved in the walls of the tunnels under the city. I think they may have a meaning."

Tagun grinned. "Thank you. I had forgotten one of the details in Dorn's account of his stay in Zedekla. His father, Kagun, a friend of Tharek, had a stone incised with marks that led him through the tunnels to the palace. Dorn described it in his journal, but Kagun returned the stone to Tharek before returning to Janaka. Perhaps Fortek has inherited the stone."

They heard a noise at the door and Tagun pulled Doka into shelter in an alcove. Moments later Fortek entered the room juggling an awkward burden. The boys rushed forward to relieve him of the trays and sets of clothing that he carried. The King turned and shut the door quickly behind him.

"You have no idea of how difficult it was for me to supply you with what I promised," Fortek said.

"I'll venture everybody you encountered was scandalized to see you carrying a tray and sets of buskins and tunics fit for scullions," Doka said.

"I don't believe that I was followed, but I found it difficult to evade unwanted help," Fortek admitted.

"It goes with the office of being a king I suppose," Tagun said.

Fortek chuckled and stopped, surprised. "I haven't laughed in weeks young man. Thank you. Now, tell me more of what you know of the conspiracy against us."

Tagun made a decision to share his history with Fortek. "First of all, you should know who I am. I am Tagun, true descendant of Dorn son of Kagun, friend of Tharek. Otherwise, I am Jagga's heir."

'Elinka's son?" Fortek asked.

Tagun nodded. "You knew my uncle, Daglan."

"But you would have to be a young man, not a boy, to be the child of the true king of Janaka."

"Look more closely at me Fortek," Tagun replied.

Fortek stared at Tagun, then nodded. "I'm accustomed to my own tall sons. I assumed your size was a reflection of your age. I was misled by the proportions of your head and body. You are what you claim. Did you mother ever tell you that I met her?"

Tagun shook his head. "My mother was usually surrounded by Jagga's minions in her last few years and she taught me what was vital but not much more. I only learned my true parentage after she died."

"You have her eyes," Fortek said. "But now I look at you, I see some resemblance to your father as well. Koren and Elinka visited Timora not long after they were married. It was a time of hope and triumph. Jagga had not yet revealed his treachery. He seemed no more than a wealthy merchant of mixed heritage."

"But my father was killed by Jagga only months after their marriage," Tagun said.

"Your father hoped for an alliance with Zedekla, but my advisors cautioned me against it." Fortek said.

"Was one of them Malvor?" Doka asked.

Fortek nodded. "I am puzzled by his perfidy. I have taken him to the chamber of the Stone of Truth every year to test his honesty. It is tradition to test the closest advisors of the kings of Zedekla annually. How could he have fooled me."

"In the journals of Dorn I learned of Thrak, a Janakan who defeated the test of the Stone," Tagun said. "How often have you changed the words above the Stone?"

Fortek stared. "How do you know about the secrets of the testing chamber?"

Tagun sighed. "Remember Fortek, I am not what I seem. I may well know more than you about the Stone of Truth. Have you read the record Fozli made in Tharek's day?"

Fortek shook his head. "Malvor has been my aide since I was young. He convinced me it was useless."

"Is he your friend?" Tagun asked.

Fortek shook his head. "I respected him because he seemed wise and willing to disregard superstition."

"He is cynical and scheming," Tagun said. "He has nearly brought your family to ruin. I heard his men say he is scheming for the death of Manchek."

Fortek stared at Tagun. "You have turned my world right side up young man. I will not mistake your competence again. I brought weapons for both of you. One is a fine bronze dagger, the other an obsidian knife like those Mareklans favor. Which do you prefer to carry."

Tagun rubbed his cheek and felt the stubble that would ruin his disguise if left untended. "I need to shave. Give me the knife. I'm certain Doka would prefer the dagger."

"I'm fine with the dagger, but meanwhile, I'm hungry," Doka stated.

Fortek uncovered the tray of food and drink and asked a blessing. "I will return in two hours time. Meanwhile, make your preparations. I have found there is a need for scullions in the kitchen. I will make a map for you to find your way. The palace can be daunting, even to those of us who have lived here all our lives.

"Speaking of maps," Tagun said after swallowing a bite of matla. "Tharek gave Kagun a stone that held the key to the tunnels under Zedekla. You surely have a copy."

Fortek seemed surprised. "I have heard that such things were used long ago, but I can't recall seeing one."

"Were you aware of the activities of Orquians in the cellars of the dark pyramid?" Doka asked after swallowing a draught of nuka juice.

"I have heard rumors, but Malvor scoffed at them. He assured me that things were well in hand and only small animals were used by the few cultists who live within the boundaries of the city."

"Another of his lies," Tagun said. "Last night while we were in the passages beneath the city we passed an opening lit by ruddy lamps. I glanced in and saw dark robed men around a human figure on an altar. I didn't want Doka to witness it and diverted his attention from the scene. But unless my eyes deceived me, your advisor is a high priest of the demon and his hands were red with human blood."

Fortek seemed to buckle. He slowly fumbled for the stool and sat down as if his legs were failing.

"What folly have I wrought," he muttered. "When my wife died I was bitter and angry. I was loathe to let it be known that the light of the Stone of Truth was dimming for me. I confided in Malvor who reassured me. He said the light would fade with age and wisdom."

"So it would have been easy enough for him to pervert the use of the testing room to his own purposes." Doka guessed.

"I'm not even certain the stone still shines inside the room," the king admitted.

"You are a good man Fortek," Tagun said. "You could not have raised a son like Manchek otherwise. He is a worthy heir. His wife Kemila is a fitting mate for him. When they return to Zedekla you must present them with a city deserving of them. I have another question. As I understand it, Zedeklan royalty is passed from a king to his heir when the first grandchild is produced. Why was Balchek still the crown prince if he already had a family."

Fortek sighed as if his soul were weighed with lead. "Malvor implied that our tradition was foolish. He convinced me I should remain as king instead of becoming my son's advisor and giving up the throne to him."

"I wonder how soon he would suggest you hand the reins of your rule to one of your adopted nephews if Manchek had died," Tagun said. "I believe that both Beladok and his brother Worak are Malvor's tools."

The king lowered his head to his hands. "Is everyone around me corrupt?" he muttered. Finally he looked up with weary eyes. What can the three of us do against such darkness?"

"There are more than three of us," Doka responded. "Is there any way that we can test the testing room? Used wisely, it can help us separate the villains from your loyal servants."

"I will return tonight," Fortek said. "Rest, dress in the clothing I brought and wait for me. I will demand to have my old friend Frovin brought to me. He will be an asset to our plans."

Tagun shook his head. "Tell Malvor that you have heard that Frovin was seen in the shrine. That should ensure that he is kept safe. If you demand his presence it will alert Malvor. We will find where he is being kept, but until you can be secure of your own men, you must be cautious."

"I see the wisdom of your advice," Fortek said. "I will count on two of you to test the presence of the stone," Fortek said.

"I'm not even certain that I can see the Stone of Truth myself," Tagun said. "I have dwelt too long on the fringes of evil. But Doka will do to test the testing room. He is as honest as a boy can be but he knows the wisdom of silence and will not think it dishonest to withhold the truth from evil men."

"I must go now. As soon as I have made certain that Frovin is safe I will return." The king stood, and there was resolution in his gait as he turned away from them and left the room.

"He is a better man than he believes himself to be," Doka said.

"He is a good man," Tagun agreed. "But he has been foolish in his choices of advisors. Surely the Radiance has guided us. Zedekla is on the brink of ruin."

The boys finished less than half of the food that Fortek provided. The nuka juice was naturally preservative and Tagun poured it liberally over the remaining meat and other perishables.

"I thought only an Orquian destroyed things willfully," Doka chided him.

"It will serve for our lunch. We can eat the matlas and fruit even after several days, but this meat and pudding will go bad in a few hours without the nuka juice."

"I guess I never learned such things," Doka confessed. "I have learned to make a ritual fast, but I have never been really hungry. Surely Fortek will make certain we are fed."

"It is dangerous for him to keep supplying us," Tagun said. "We must fend for ourselves."

"At least we will have plenty to eat as scullions in the kitchen," Doka said.

"If Zedekla were as well regulated as in former days, we would prosper and grow fat as scullions, but where corruption festers, it pervades the entire system," Tagun said. "It is likely that Fortek's servants are in as much disarray as his advisors. The upper servants will make profit from any food that isn't eaten in the court. The lower orders will be forced to live on scraps and offal."

"Do we really want to take positions in the palace?" Doka asked.

"Gossip flows downward," Tagun said. "Courtiers seldom think of what they say in front of servants. Particularly in such a situation. You will find that as long as we are meek and don't ask for second portions, and spend time working the spit or scouring a pot or two, we will be ignored."

They changed into the clothing Fortek had provided. It was neat and clean and rather dull. It nearly matched the color of the stone floor.

'Excellent," Tagun said when he saw Doka in the tunic. "This is better than I hoped. We will be all but invisible."

"What should we do with our robes?" Doka asked.

"We can wad them up and hide them in an alcove," Tagun decided. "It is evident that no other servants enter here. I wonder why Fortek was here when we needed him."

It was the first question Doka asked when the king returned hours later. Fortek paused and finally answered. "I can't really say why I came down here. I was worried and I began to wander. I thought I would find solitude for my thoughts down here where none would find me."

"You were led," Tagun said. "You doubt yourself Fortek, but it was clearly inspiration that brought you to our rescue. Hold to that thought. It will bear you up in the days ahead."

"And beware the voice of the Liar," Doka added.

A glint of amusement lit the eyes of the king. "Come. I always test my closest advisors in the testing room, and I am naming both of you to that high station."

"But you still expect us to work as scullions I trust," Tagun said.

"Of course," Fortek replied. "Gossip flows down, as my father used to say."

Doka exchanged a grin with Tagun. They followed the king from the room and watched him as he twisted a small carving that was part of a frieze along the corridor. The door swung shut and became a part of the stone wall. Tagun noted the subtle pattern that marked the junction of the stones. He would recognize it again.

As it happened they were not far from the testing chamber which was concealed behind a similar panel. As soon as the king opened the door Tagun breathed a sigh of relief. The room was lit by an intensely brilliant point of light as lovely as the lead star in Withna's Ladle. Doka smiled with delight and Fortek gasped with surprise.

'You see it clear," Tagun said. It was not a question.

I have not seen it like this for many years," the king admitted. "When I listened to Malvor's lies and adopted his cynicism, it grew dim."

Tagun examined the setting of the stone. It would seem like any other pebble in the wall to those blind to its power. "I have an idea. It seems apparent that Malvor has perverted the testing room, but he cannot determine which of these pebbles is the true stone. Perhaps we can reverse the test." Tagun had been chewing a bit of nop gum, a habit he had developed long ago to tame his hunger. He took the morsel from his mouth and placed it over the glowing stone. The light vanished. Fortek gasped again and Doka clutched at Tagun's shoulder.

"Hold up your lamp, your majesty," Tagun said.

Even close examination failed to detect which pebble was a lump of gum until Tagun pressed his finger to the surface and left a tiny dent.

"Henceforth, the honest will tell you that there is no light within the testing room. The devious will read the sayings or swoon and weep with pretended joy."

'I will conduct testing tomorrow," Fortek said. "But before I do, I will make sure of Frovin's safety. How will we communicate meanwhile?"

I am confident that the chamber where we met is safe for now," Tagun said. We will meet you there at this hour tomorrow. I have learned the secret of opening the door."

They heard movement in the corridor and Fortek covered his lamp.

A light flared and several men in blue tunics came toward them. Tagun and Doka slid into the shadow of the king.

"Your majesty, what are you doing here at this hour?" one of the guardsmen asked.

"I was just checking the testing room," the king explained. I have decided to conduct a test of all my servants. You can help me start the process."

The king opened the door of the testing room.

"What do you see?"

One man shook his head. "I am not good enough to take the test your majesty. I have a fondness for gambling and I have an impatient temper."

"You cannot see the light?" Fortek asked.

The man shook his head regretfully but his companions stepped forward with a rapt expressions. "It is wonderful. It shines like the sun at noonday," one of them said.

"What a marvel," the third man agreed.

Fortek looked from one to the other. "I can see that there is a great difference between your worthiness." He gestured to the first man.

"Gardo, report to me after your watch and I will tell you what I will require of you. You failed to see the light, but I admire your military record and I hate to lose your services."

The man ducked his head and continued down the corridor. The other guards, clearly convinced that they had carried their ruse, stood erect and proud before the king.

"I have heard that a man came looking for me yesterday," Fortek said. "Perhaps he has been lost in the palace. His is my particular friend. I believe I can count on you to find him and bring me word. I believe in rewarding honesty."

The guards assured the king that they would carry out the errand and went on their way.

"Can you trust them to bring word of Frovin to you?" Tagun whispered when they were alone in darkness once again.

"They expect a rich reward. I will give them what they expect when they deliver the information I requested. Then I will set Gardo to protect my friend."

"I couldn't have come up with a better scheme," Tagun said.

"I am complimented," Fortek said with a smile.

They parted company after Fortek gave them directions to the kitchen.











Chapter 10 Realignment





As Tagun had expected, even before dawn the cooking fires were lit and servants scurried through the kitchen. He and Doka were given orders with gestures and sharp words by simple virtue of the tunics that they wore. Nobody stopped them to inquire of their purpose or presence. They were nameless minions in a mass of others equally as faceless. They walked from place to place with purpose in their steps and took brief turns at many mundane tasks. It was easy to glean gossip from the upper servants who paused to visit with their equals in the kitchen.

They learned of the wanderings of the king who had begun another campaign of testing the night before.

'That fool Gardo confessed that he couldn't see the stone," a butler scoffed to the main chef. "He has been sent to some new task that will not bring him near the inner chambers."

"Has the wording in the chamber changed?" the chef inquired.

"I checked it yesterday when nobody noticed. The king has neglected to change it. It is still the same verse of the poem that was posted months ago."

"Spread the word among our friends," the chef said.

Other gossips mentioned the sage, Frovin. He had been found in one of the inner chambers. Gardo had been set to guard his door.

"I am surprised none of us has found a means to search Forteks' quarters," one of the upper servants said. "Malvor has been concerned for years about the oversight. He has worked so hard to serve Fortek, but even now the king seems to doubt his loyalty."

Within hours Tagun had noticed that some of the servants were less forthcoming with praise of Malvor and some wore looks of fear when his name was mentioned. He soon decided that those who kept their silence were mostly loyal to the king. He found it interesting that they were in the majority among the servants, but the supporters of the secretary were louder and more enthusiastic. They were also given more to petty cruelty and more likely to interrupt the lower servants at their tasks and send them off on other errands, resulting in inefficiency and waste.

He and Doka were able to use the confusion to their own advantage. As he had predicted, meals were scanty and poor for those below the rank of chamber maid. Worst off were the boot boys, mostly children new from the country. They had general access to the private chambers of the members of the court as they gathered boots and sandals to be restored and polished.

It was easy to befriend a number of the boot boys with the offer of some matlas and fresh fruit. At first they were reserved, but soon Tagun's patience was rewarded with tidbits of prime information.

It appeared that the corrupt elements of the court were like a scum that floated near the top. The stringent living conditions of the lower servants soon drove opportunists to some other means of making a living. Not that every upper servant was dishonest, but those who were made the lives of those loyal to the king difficult.

Now and then the servants were called to the testing chamber. When they returned to the kitchen the loyal men and women were cast down and uneasy. The others boasted of their success. Doka pulled Tagun into a narrow closet and expressed his concern.

"I'm afraid a lot of good people have been convinced that they are lacking."

"Yes, but we have exposed the others who lack integrity," Tagun said.

"Is there nothing we can do?" Doka pleaded.

Tagun thought and at first he was bewildered. Then he grinned at Doka. "I have a plan, but Fortek must approve. Meanwhile, we must look busy for a few more hours."

For scullions the day did not end with the preparation of the last meal. Piles of dirty pots and slimy dishes, meat tongs and spoons were heaped in sinks of steaming water waiting to be cleaned and put away.

Although raised with the expectation that someday they would rule lands and cities, neither Tagun nor Doka had been raised in luxury and ease. They made a game of seeing which of them could clear their duties faster. The other scullions caught the spirit of their rivalry and joined in. If anyone had lingered in the kitchen, they would have wondered at the scene. It was Doka who started the chant. It was a surprisingly frank description of one of the more culpable of the upper servants. "She has hair with pins and pearls. She has egg yolk in her curls. When she speaks, she screams and shrieks."

Tagun added a few verses about the butler. "He chews docil on the stairs. He sells palace food at fairs. When he's nigh I want to cry".

The other scullions joined the fun. Their hands were busier as they worked to a rhythm. Now and then one of them stopped to laugh out loud, but the work was soon done and a spirit of revelry instead of dull despair had infected the room.

Tagun had noticed the butler secreting a supply of foodstuffs in a side room earlier in the day when he thought no one would notice. He led the other scullions to the stash and they left quickly with the shares Tagun doled out to them with the assurance that it was not theft to take from a thief who had shortened their rations to collect his graft.

'Nicely done," Doka said after the last urchin had scurried away to their low quarters. "But I thought we were meant to stay inconspicuous. You've made heroes of us. The butler will find his stash is missing and all will feel his fury."

"The butler is one of the first who must go tomorrow," Tagun said. "The third assistant to the butler is a worthy man and loyal to the king. Few realize how vital the position of a butler can be."

"We do not keep servants in Tedaka so I wouldn't know about such things," Doka said with a touch of self righteousness.

"I forgive your ignorance," Tagun said with a straight face.

They were back in their room in plenty of time to clean themselves and rest. Fortek woke them when he entered the room later that night. "I secured Frovin's safety. Gardo is eager to prove himself by taking care of him. This day of testing was encouraging in some ways, but I feel that many good people have begun to doubt themselves unfairly."

"Some of your most loyal supporters are examining their consciences tonight to learn the reason for their failure to see the light," Doka said.

"I have some suggestions for you Fortek," Tagun said. "Your main chef and your butler are corrupt. They pose a danger to you and all your court. You must call them to you early in the morning tomorrow and find a way to dismiss them without alarming their cronies. I have suggestions for their replacements."

Fortek seemed taken aback. "Servants? We should be more concerned about the guards and soldiers."

"Malvor is you servant, as is his nephew Pernan, yet the two of them are guilty of murder and deceit. Those who serve your meals and have access to your clothing could find a way to kill you easily. I would assume that any of your veteran soldiers, those who have served in battles and have proved their loyalty in service, would be reliable enough to stay. As for the palace guard, if most of them were not loyal, you would already be dead."

"I was sad to see how many of the men who served me as soldiers were left despondent by the test today," Fortek said. "How could I tell them they had passed the test and not give away the secret of your innovation?"

"I would like to do something tomorrow that could solve the problem," Tagun said.

Fortek seemed a little wary. "I suspect this has something to do with the Stone of Truth. I don't want it removed from the testing chamber. It was one thing to cover it, but by tradition it is fixed and must not be moved."

"As I understand, the stone was carried around by Tharek in a pouch around his neck for many years," Tagun said. "It has traveled through many lands and never failed or been lost. I only propose to take it as far as the worship hall within the palace. If it is placed in an alabaster lantern, it should glow with a light that will reassure the righteous and well intended, and leave the unworthy in the dark."

Fortek surprised Tagun by immediately accepting the idea. "I hope you can find that piece of gum you placed over the stone last night. I have searched that wall every time I opened the chamber to make another test today, and I could not detect which pebble was a bit of nop gum, and which a stone."

"I have made a list of those most likely to be in league with Malvor among the upper servants," Tagun said. 'I'm sure you have a similar list from the tests that you conducted today. Where the names correspond, you must offer them an invitation to a special ceremony to be held just after dawn tomorrow."

When the lists were compared, most of the names of villains matched. Where there was some question, they decided to err on the side of caution.

"My eyes have been opened to the precarious state of Zedekla," Fortek said. "I am surrounded on every side by those who seek my ruin. I am discouraged by the task we face. Where can we turn for help?"

"First we should secure the palace against the worst villains," Tagun advised. "Evil can bring despair to those who discover their friends are false, but we have learned that most of your servants are loyal and deserving of your trust. We have made a list of the worst. Now we should list those we feel you can rely upon."

Fortek left the room an hour later with a smile on his face. The list of reliable members of the household far outnumbered those who were undoubtedly corrupt. Doka accepted the task of spreading a message of hope and encouragement to those who would support the king when he began his purge.

In the early hours of the morning Tagun and Doka returned to the kitchens. They quickly saw the fruits of their activities the night before. The scullions hurried through their varied tasks with a smile for them whenever they caught their eyes. Their mood soon spread to others of the lower servants. The king's chef was called away and the butler simply failed to appear when the hour came for breakfast. Rumors rose and were confirmed when their assistants returned to the kitchen and announced a change of personnel. Tagun left Doka to gave hints and asked leading questions that encouraged others to believe that things had changed for the better.

Meanwhile, Tagun found his way into the testing chamber and located the still pliable spot of gum that he had used to hide the Stone of Truth. He carefully pried the stone out of the wall and mended the tiny cavity with another wad of gum.

His next goal was the family worship room. Fortek had described where he would find it, but it took some time to evade the upper servants who saw him in the corridors. Finally one of them instructed him to use the servant halls and opened a low door concealed as a panel along the wide corridor. As soon as he was within the narrow hallway Tagun encountered a scullion he recognized from the night before.

"I'm new to the palace as you may have guessed," Tagun said. "I have an errand that concerns the chaplain to the king and I don't know where to find him."

"Follow me," the other boy said. " I'm taking breakfast to the guards outside the king's apartments. The chaplain has his office just down the hall from there."

The halls they followed were narrow and complex and the stairways steep. They came to an area of branching hallways. The entrances on the right side right were barred with formidable bronze grates that had been fastened with heavy bolts with the heads sawed off. "Those are the family apartments," the helpful scullion said. "Zedekla's rulers are wary of their privacy. Malvor has urged the king to have the barriers removed for the convenience of the servants, but he has failed to get his way so far."

"What do you think of Malvor?" Tagun asked.

"I try not to think of him," the other boy said. "You would be wise to stay away from him."

The boy indicated a panel giving access to the main corridors not far ahead of them. "If you take that exit, you will find yourself near the chaplain's office."

Fortunately the chaplain was one of the few men Fortek could trusted. Tagun scratched at the door as he had been instructed as the proper signal from a servant. After waiting for some time, he looked around for some other access to the worship room, but before he found a likely candidate for exploration, the door in front of him swung open and a haggard face looked out at him.

Lines of fatigue etched the chubby face. The chaplain's eyes were swollen and still glistened with tears. "What is needed?" the man asked.

"Are you Fortek's chaplain?" Tagun asked, surprised to note the wrinkled robes the man was wearing.

"I am Donachol, but I wonder if I deserve the office of a chaplain. I have searched my soul and payed all night to find how I have failed."

"I have a message for you from the king. I require your assistance in an urgent task," Tagun said.

"Fortek sent you, for my aid?" the chaplain questioned. "But I failed the test. The testing chamber was dark for the first time. I've am unworthy and so fallen that I can't even see how I have erred."

Tagun saw movement further on along the corridor and he pushed past the chaplain into his room and quickly closed the door. "You did not fail. The test was changed. Those who claim to see the light within the testing room are liars. Those who admitted they saw only darkness yesterday have passed the test."

"Who are you?" Donachol asked. "What errand do claim I must perform?"

Impulsively Tagun reached into the neck pouch where he had concealed the Stone of Truth. He drew it out and lifted it. The priest's eyes widened and glowed back with reflected light. The chaplain gave a sigh of gratitude. "I see it clearly. Thank you."

"Fortek knows that many of his best allies are discouraged after failing yesterday. Like you, they take blame on themselves. They need reassurance. Take me to the worship hall and I will place the stone so that all who have virtue can see it."

"It will separate the worthy from the pretenders," the chaplain affirmed.

"This will not be used to test the loyal," Tagun said. "Fortek means to reassure those, like you, who are suffering from self-doubt. We already know the names of those who work against the king. But this demonstration will separate those who are complete from those with good intentions but some error of character. Fortek himself had grown nearly blind to the glow, but he has always been worthy of your trust, though he was sometimes foolish and misguided by villains. Now he sees the light clearly"

Donachol led Tagun through an arched doorway to the larger room beyond. A frieze of carved spear leaves ran around the lower portion of a domed ceiling supported on tall fluted columns. The alabaster globe symbolic of the Radiance hung in the center of the eastern wall. It glowed with creamy light against the dark wood panels.

"I plan to put the stone into the lamp," Tagun said. "Will you show me how to do it?"

Donachol led him to a narrow stairwell behind the panel and showed him to the platform where the oil for replenishing the lamp was kept. A small portal, hidden from the room below, gave access to the opening on top of the globe.

Tagun quickly assessed the situation. "You will have to place the stone. My arms are too short for the task."

"I had forgotten you are a child," the priest said.

"Not a child, merely short," Tagun said. The chaplain chuckled.

Donachol removed the wick from the delicate glass disk that floated on the surface of the oil within the lamp, leaving it dark. Then he took the stone with reverence from Tagun's palm and placed it on the dish. He reached into the globe and carefully lowered the disk to light the lamp from within.

"We can retrieve it easily enough when Fortek says the task is finished," Donachol

They climbed down the stairs and examined the result from the chamber below. As Tagun had expected, the alabaster of the globe diffused and gentled the bright light, but did nothing to dispel the sense of peaceful yearning that the light inspired in all who truly saw it.

"It is like the full moon, but more lovely," the chaplain said. "But will others recognize what they are seeing."

Those who see it also feel it," Tagun reminded the priest. "Will you tell the king that all has been prepared?"

Tagun returned to the kitchen and joined Doka. They heard the summons as they worked over a vat of pickled breadberries that were on the menu for the midday meal. They followed others who had joined a line that led upwards through the palace. People of every rank and station stood patiently conversing in mild tones. Some looked haggard and more than a little worried. The rumor spread that there was something wonderful and healing in the Worship Hall and all had been invited to see it, each in turn.

There was no compulsion other than curiosity or hope. Some of the upper servants and a number of the courtiers dismissed the invitation. "Fortek has grown desperate," one of them said. Others gave sly hints that there was really nothing to be seen.

"You will be asked into the worship hall and warned to keep anything you see there secret. The joke is, there is nothing to see and really nothing to tell," a maid known for her tattered virtue said when she returned. "Save yourself the effort and the wait."

A few heeded her and others like her and left the queue, but most welcomed a break in their daily tasks. If nothing more, it was a chance to visit and relax, and perhaps receive some mild entertainment. As the hours passed, many came from the top of the palace with glowing smiles and twinkling eyes. When others pressed them to tell when they had seen they shook their heads. The happiest of all of them were those who had been the most despondent earlier that morning.

At last Tagun and Doka reached the head of the line and saw the chaplain standing beside the worship room entrance. "Enter, see what you will and leave the chamber quickly. Tell no one what you see within."

Doka entered the room, and returned with a wide smile for Tagun. Tagun knew what he would see when he entered in his turn, but it still thrilled him to see the glowing globe. When he left the chapel he left his friend and made his way to a chamber that overlooked the chapel where he found Fortek watching the people as they filed through the room below marking symbols on a list of names. "I am heartened," the king admitted. "I was surprised by some who evidently see the light, but I had expected others to do better. We should keep the Stone of Truth in the Worship Hall henceforth."

Tagun watched as others entered the room. Some looked around and frowned, some stopped and stared toward the globe and seemed hesitant to leave. But all who saw the light obeyed the chaplain's orders and moved along to give their place to others.

"I don't believe you should leave it here," Tagun said. "Sooner or later the secret will get out. Meanwhile your chaplain is a trustworthy man. You could assign him several of your best men and make certain that the worship hall is guarded until the stone is returned to the testing room."

"I should keep you near me Tagun," Fortek said. "You never try to flatter me but you are a prudent counselor. What will you do when this conflict is over?"

"I doubt this conflict will ever end, if you mean the struggle between the light and darkness. But I have a desire to serve my people when Jagga's rule has ended."

'Ah, I had almost forgotten who you are," Fortek said.

They didn't speak again while they kept watch on the room below. Hundreds passed through the chamber. Many of them were struck with delight. Some responded with dawning hope, some with confusion, and some with anger. Finally evening fell and the chaplain stepped into the worship room and closed the door. Some had returned in hopes of catching another glimpse of the light, but he had sent them on their way with a kind but firm refusal as Tagun had counseled.

Finally Frovin and his guard were led into the worship room by Fortek while Tagun watched from the frieze above. The sage stopped and stared up at the glowing alabaster globe, then knelt and began to pray. Gardo, the attending guard, stared upward with puzzlement for a moment before he realized what he was seeing and tears began to run down his weathered cheeks. Tagun remembered how the guard had reacted when he failed to see a light within the testing room and his own eyes blurred with tears. He had watched hundreds of other men and women pass through the chamber and see the light without feeling such a keen reaction of sympathy. He recalled that he had been surprised to see the shining pebble several nights before. Perhaps humility was the key that had revealed the light to many. Certainly he could not claim a nearly perfect, guileless character like that of Frovin the sage.

When the worship hall finally emptied Tagun waited in the chaplain's chambers until the priest returned. "We will leave the stone of truth here in the worship room for now but I have asked Fortek to provide good men who will help you guard it.

"Thank you for what you have done Tagun," Donachol said. "I knew Koren. I lost a true friend when your father died. You are very like him."

"Just a little shorter," Tagun said with a smile.

The chaplain clapped his hand on Tagun's shoulder. "Just a little."

When Tagun returned to the room he shared with Doka he found a small desk, a couple of stools, and some mats to augment the bare essentials they had brought with them to the palace.

"Even though I knew what to expect when I reached the worship hall, I was impressed with the way you arranged it," Doka said. "Will the Stone of Truth be kept there? "

"For a time," Tagun said. "The honest people who doubted themselves after their testing in the chamber were reassured. We were able to identify a few others who had seemed questionable but saw the glow and proved themselves."

"It separated out the heart wood from the dry rot," Doka said.

Tagun nodded. "After the chef and butler were replaced by better people there was an air of hopefulness, but with the confirmation of a visit to the worship hall, the mood in the palace is completely different. The discontents and doubters no longer dominate."

Doka had brought provisions from the kitchen and after praying, they settled down to eat.

"It seems we have accomplished what we came for," Tagun said. "We told Fortek that his son's steward led the murders. In the past few days we have unmasked other traitors and changed the mood of the entire court."

"This has been a change from the study of old scrolls," Doka said.

They were preparing to sleep when Fortek entered the room. He looked at the simple furnishings that augmented the sleeping mats and smiled. "You've begun to make a home in here, but you can graduate to better quarters now that you have helped me set my court in order."

"Have you arrested Malvor?" Tagun asked.

"He can't be found," Fortek said. "His chambers have been stripped of his clothing and documents. When I tried to summon him this morning I learned that he had fled during the night."

"Have you searched the dark pyramid?" Doka asked.

"I have only just secured the perimeters of the palace," Fortek said. "We now know who is loyal and tomorrow we'll begin to extend into the city. I welcome your help until Manchek returns."

"When we arrived in Zedekla we were separated from Frovin and confined in a house built by Dornak," Tagun said. "Could we stay there with Frovin and his guard until we can return to Timora?"

"This might help you find your way," Fortek said. "I found it in a cabinet of relics in my study."

He extended his hand and gave Tagun a palm sized stone with a pattern incised on the face.

"This fits Dorn's description of the key stone to the tunnels under the city," Tagun said. "You should keep it. It will help you find the chambers the Orquians have infested. We have scroll cloth and scribing tools with us. We'll make several copies of the stone and you can take it with you when we finish."

"The map to the tunnels under the city could be dangerous in the wrong hands," Doka said. "As I recall, neither Timora or Tedaka have such hidden passages."

"The city of Janaka has at least one hidden passage," Tagun said. "My uncle Daglan and I used it for our escape after my mother died."

"I have heard that Saadena has many corridors and chambers that are no longer remembered by the people who still live there," Fortek said. "Most of the underground passages in Zedekla are remnants of the city that was here when the dark pyramid was built in ancient times long before Irilik led our people to Okishdu."

"Then most of them must link back to the pyramid," Tagun said. "But the entrances to the palace and some of the nearby homes must be more recent. Our jailers didn't seem to know of the exit from the house they chose to keep us in. If I hadn't read the record kept by Dorn, I doubt we could have escaped."

"Tharek discovered the system of passageways and used them for his own purposes," Fortek said. "My father decided to block access to the royal quarters and left me with knowledge of this one room that leads to the warren of tunnels. As far as I know, it is the only link between the palace and the underground passages."

Doka had placed a clean length of scroll cloth on the small desk and was carefully tracing the pattern from the stone. He looked up. "Perhaps this stone was carved by Tharek."

"More likely it was made by his chief builder, Dornak," Fortek said.

Fortek compared the copy with the stone and looked up at Doka. "You have a deft hand. But that should not surprise me. Frovin chooses his pupils carefully, and you were well trained in all the skills you need to follow your uncle as the head man of Tedaka."

"Could we move our quarters tomorrow morning?" Tagun asked.

"I would prefer to wait until we clear out the nest of Orquians from the basements of the pyramid," Fortek said. "Now that I have a core of good men I can count on and a map of the underground passages it should be short work."

"The sacrificial chamber I discovered was a large room and there were at least twenty men," Tagun said. "They will be desperate and fight to the death. Warn your men that they cannot expect to take prisoners."

"It is likely that Malvor knows that you have discovered his real nature and he will leave Zedekla and join forces with Jagga," Doka said. "He is a dangerous enemy either way."

"Both of us have trained with weapons," Tagun said. "We will give you any aid we can as long as the cultists threaten."

Fortek looked at the two youths and for a moment it seemed that he would smile at the offer, but he bowed his head with a gesture of respect. "I am sorry that neither of you will be able to stay in Zedekla and add your talents to Manchek's court when he becomes the king, but there is no question you will be strong allies."

"At the moment your best allies will be the Kumnorans if Manchek can enlist them at the Quorm," Tagun said.

"The Quorm!" Fortek exclaimed. "You said that Manchek was seeking allies but I had not imagined he would try to approach the elders of Kumnora. Frovin would have been far better suited."

"Frovin could not act as your ambassador," Tagun said. "He is a citizen of Timora, not Zedekla, and by birth a Kumnoran. It was his idea that Manchek and Kemila undertake the task. Frovin has an insight into his people. He knew what would be most likely to convince them to enter an alliance."

"But it will be a long, slow journey," Fortek said. "How could Manchek think to make it to Kumnora before the Quorm has ended."

"They are going with a water caravan," Tagun explained. "The teamsters give their animals their heads and follow, catching up with them at night when they stop to graze. They made arrangement for Manchek and Kemila to ride."

"I have never heard than anyone but the hardiest of teamsters dares to ride a dala," Fortek said.

"They had slings to carry the prince and his bride, as if they were water barrels," Doka said. "Manchek was wounded and could not keep up the pace otherwise."

Fortek shut his eyes and sighed. "It is just as well you didn't tell me this when I first met the two of you. I might have sent a troop of soldiers to intercept the water caravan and save my son and his bride the ignominy of being carried like a couple of water barrels. Now I can recognize the urgency of the errand and the wisdom of the method that kept him from further injury."

"When we first came to Zedekla you were prompted to let us into this chamber," Tagun said. "Is there a means of opening the door from the outside without assistance of someone in the palace?"

"I think the clue lies in this map that you are copying," Fortek said.

Doka and Tagun examined the map, both the carved stone and the copy Doka had been making and at last Tagun discovered the clue they had been searching for.

"Here, near the hatch mark that indicates the entrance to the palace there is a curious symbol." Tagun said. "Doka didn't copy it in the map he made."

"I thought it was just a bit of irregularity in the stone," Doka said.

Fortek led the way to the entry from the tunnels and they opeed the door. At first it seemed that Doka had been correct to dismiss the mark but finally Fortek found what had at first seemed a mere piece of faulty carving on the lintel. He stepped inside and closed the door and waited for Tagun and Doka to try opening it without his aid.

Tagun studied the lintel and the slight knob that seemed at first a solid piece of stone. Then he reached up and used all his force to try and depress it. The door swung open silently and The king looked on with a surprised smile. "I never would have guessed that it would be so simple once I knew the secret," Tagun said. "This must remain a secret between the three of us."

Doka and Tagun were enlisted as errand boys and runners for the civil guards who took on the task of ridding the city of Orquians. The kings of Zedekla gained their wealth from tariffs on the shipping on the river and the city was a magnet for enterprising and ambitious people from all Okishdu.

Like the kitchens of the palace, the city had suffered from the corruption introduced by Malvor and his kind. Once Fortek began to rid his own residence of graft and distrust, the influence spread outward. Under supervision of the king, crime was swiftly and fairly punished according to the law. Honest merchants were able to conduct trade without fear of roaming gangs of bullies or covert taxes for 'protection' by a corrupt peace force.

After several weeks of working to expunge the influence of the cultists, Fortek asked Doka and Tagun to meet with him in a small dining room instead of coming to their hidden chamber. They were served a meal then left alone in privacy.

"This process has been wearying," Fortek said. "I found that graft and deceit had nearly ruined Zedekla, but I am encouraged by the response of my people once I called on them. Even the dubious inhabitants in the slums south of the river have turned on the Orquians among them."

"I saw an example yesterday," Tagun said. "Five women who own an inn called on the civil guards to help them evict some tenants who were known as cultists. When we arrived we found their neighbors carting the miscreants through the streets. They administered rough justice to those found with the mark of the demon on their palms. Gamblers, dass dealers and strumpets alike turned on the leeches who used them to support the warriors of Jagga."

"I am wary of their tactics," Fortek said. "But so many of the marked men have been flushed out of the basements of the pyramid, that they strain the capacity of our prisons."

"I think it is safe to say the underground passageways and chambers of the pyramid have been cleared of cultists," Tagun said.

"I'm more than ready to move out of that chamber we moved into weeks ago," Doka said. "Perhaps we can convince Frovin to join us when we move to Dornak's house."

"I could make you at least as comfortable within the palace," Fortek said. "But I understand your desire for something that seems a little more your own for the days remaining in your stay in Zedekla.

Tagun sought out Frovin the next day. He found the sage in the palace library studying a collection of scrolls. "Doka and I would like you to join us when we move into a small house near the shrine."

The sage turned and smiled. "Tagun, you do me honor, but it is time that I return to Timora. You and Doka have proved that you have learned what I meant to teach you. I have already contacted the captain of the elite guards here in the city and made arrangements to join the next pilgrimage train that sets out. Several parents have approached me about teaching their sons and daughters. I am eager to get back to my own cozy home and familiar library. But meanwhile, I will continue to accept Fortek's hospitality."

"Of course," Tagun said with a touch of irony. "I cannot offer anything to compete with the royal library."

"You have the right of it," the sage replied with a wink.

When Tagun left the library he met a messenger from Fortek. "The king requests your presence this afternoon Tagun. Guards on the tower of one of the eastern border outposts have reported the approach of a caravan of dalas."

Tagun was eager to see Manchek and Kemila and learn the outcome of their embassy to the Quorm, but it would be more than a day before the caravan would reach the city. He wondered what Fortek wanted. He found him in his study with Gardo and Frovin. They were looking at a slate covered with names.

Fortek looked up and welcomed Tagun with a weary smile. "We have been almost too successful Tagun. My prison in the palace is full and we have been forced to confine many of the prisoners in old barracks. All of them are guilty of foul crimes. I have resorted to giving ordinary criminals their parole in order to have room for these murderers. Even though the cultists are the worst kind of villain, I cannot bring myself to stage a mass execution. I want Manchek to advise me. Would it be unfair to greet him with this burden?" He looked at both Frovin and Tagun.

"Manchek was always a thoughtful and serious student and he has developed into a wise young man," Frovin said. "Perhaps he could suggest a way of dealing with the prisoners that won't involve a slaughter."

Tagun thought of the scene he had investigated in Timora, a foul pollution of the sacred city that still rose in his memory at odd moments to make him sick with loathing. "Tell me Fortek, what would Malvor have said about executing so many?"

"He would have urged caution and warned that in the mass there was a chance that some innocent would be destroyed," Fortek said. "He often argued against taking the life of those who contravened our laws and I was led to pardon truly villainous offenders with his counsel."

"The duty of a judge and ruler is a heavy burden," Tagun said. "You have the power of taking life with a gesture, and it is wise to proceed with gravity. But if you are over gentle with the vicious, you betray their innocent victims. You heard Pernan describe the scene of Balchek's death. He knew what it looked like because he directed the foul murders of your son and his wife and daughters, and with his own hand he killed your grandson, Bandek. I feel sickened when I remember what I saw in that room. Would you let Pernan live?"

Fortek closed his eyes and gripped the edge of his desk. For a while he was still, his lips pressed between his teeth until Tagun was afraid that they would bleed. Finally the king opened his eyes. "Once again you bring me back to decency when I wavered."

"The Liar often tries to confound the thoughts of honest men with false compassion," Frovin said. "You were under Malvor's influence for a long time. I would suggest that you use his advice as a measure of the Liar's voice. When you are in doubt about the correct course in a matter, just ask yourself what Malvor would have said."

"That's good advice," Gardo muttered. "Malvor made me feel as if I were a prude and a prig when he learned that I had reported some of my fellow officers for bribery and misuse of their offices. I felt confused and uncomfortable because the virtues I had been taught to value were no longer in fashion in the palace."

"I think you should wait until Manchek is here before you carry out the executions," Tagun advised the king. "He will need to feel the sadness any man must feel when so many souls have fallen and it becomes his duty to refuse them life."

"I have another concern," Fortek said. "Although we have excised most of the foul influence that sickened our city, Malvor and Pernan have eluded us. They were privy to the secrets of the palace. I left too many decisions in the hands of one or the other. My treasury has been raided. It is not a ruinous situation, but it may well have caused the collapse of my support of the armies that guard the borders of Janaka if I had ignored it any longer."

"Be grateful you awakened to the threat in time," Frovin said.

"I doubt they have abandoned their object of destroying you and all your family," Tagun said. "If they have siphoned off so much of your wealth they can buy the services of bullies. With Malvor and Pernan at large I fear for the safety of Manchek and Kemila when they return to the city."

Fortek turned to Gardo. "Have extra guards posted at the crossroads of the city along the route that the caravan will take when it enters the gates. Send out a troop of your best men to escort them."

"Is there anything else you want to talk about?" Tagun asked the king.

"Not at this time, but I am sorry that you are only here in Zedekla temporarily."

"If Falinda had not wed another I would not regret if she had chosen you when Manchek was forced to end their pledge," Frovin added.

Tagun felt his face flush in reaction to their praise. "I am sure Falinda will do well with Sergon," Tagun said. "Doka and I are both eager to learn the results of Manchek's errand to the Quorm."

The next morning Tagun and Doka dressed in fine new tunics and ventured forth into the city well before the caravan could be expected. An air of celebration filled the streets. For more than a month the citizens of Zedekla had been engaged in the fight to retain their rights and liberties and the safety of their daughters. Ordinary concerns had been superseded by the urgency of the situation. For too long they had ignored the erosion caused by minions of the cult. There was hardly a citizen of Zedekla who had not been harmed. The remnants of sacrifice when the chief chambers of the cult in the pyramid had been opened before they were cleansed and sealed had been viewed by many.

Tagun purchased hot, fresh matlas from a vendor near the palace gate and Doka added two cups of hot cala and a dish of jellied fruit from another kiosk. They sat on the steps of the shrine to share their breakfast while a nearby musician played a merry tune.

The zole horn rang when they were shaking the last crumbs from their hands. A crowd of people gathered near the gates of the palace and Tagun could see Fortek next to Frovin on the balcony that overlooked the plaza.

"Manchek was fortunate to marry such a lovely woman," Doka said as the young couple came in view and the crowd roared their approval.

Tagun did not disagree, but he knew too well the tangled web that brought the couple together. The deaths of Balchek, his wife, his daughters, and his little son had forced Manchek's decision. Doka had no suspicion of the burden fate had laid on four young hearts. As the caravan drew closer to the palace, Tagun noticed that Manchek was talking to Kemila, gesturing and smiling. She had taken him by the arm and they were close together. It seemed auspicious for their future.

A dark robed figure sidled from a narrow alley and moved past Tagun and Doka. The edge of a sharp edged weapon gleamed as the intruder rushed towards the crowd surrounding Manchek and his bride.

Tagun and Doka jumped up and rushed after the attacker, grabbing his robes to stop him and deflecting the down stroke of his weapon as they knocked him to the ground. In an instant Manchek had his sword at the villain's throat and Kemila had her staff planted firmly on his belly as if they acted with one impulse.

"Pernan!," Manchek exclaimed. "I am surprised to see you here. You must have run out of rogues to carry out your mischief. Has your uncle abandoned you?"

The soldiers who arrived a little late to be of help offered to take the assassin away but he was secured with a sash from his own robe. Then Tagun and Doka took him by his arms and led him along in front of the procession. His hands were bound and his feet were hobbled so he could not run. It slowed the progress of the group toward the palace, but Manchek seemed unwilling to trust the captive to any other than the two friends who had stopped Pernan's attack.

Fortek waited at the palace gates with Frovin. The king received the prince and his bride with a warm embrace for each of them. It was only then that he turned his attention to the prisoner who struggled between Tagun and Doka.

"I will try very hard to avoid rejoicing when you breath your last," Fortek told Pernan.

Fortek could not expect an answer. Tagun had thrust a wad of cloth into the assassin's mouth after disarming and disrobing him.

"We have captured a number of Orquians in the past few days," Fortek told Manchek. "I fear that Malvor has absconded, but those who wear the mark of the cult must be judged and executed before some plot is formed to set them free. I have hesitated to proceed before you returned, but now we must act without delay."

"We encountered a cultist in the elder's council at the Quorm," Kemila said. "It was the oldest son of Kaalar, chief of the council."

"Amiran?"Frovin asked.

"He urged friendship with Jagga when we solicited an alliance with Kumnora," Manchek said "His father found the mark of Orqu on his neck and had him executed. It was a terrible thing to witness, but it turned the tide of opinion in our favor. We have made alliance with the Quorm."

"What are the terms?" Fortek asked him.

"We will speak of our visit later," Manchek said with a glance toward his brother's former steward. "My wife and I have traveled far and we should thank these Kumnorans who have guided us."

Fortek turned to the teamsters and nodded with a sign of gratitude. "There is a place beyond the northern walls of the palace where you can camp and rest your teams. You are welcome in Zedekla . While I reign, you will pay no tariffs on your goods. Take this token as a sign of pledge

Fortek extended a small stone tablet hardly larger than his thumb. The lead teamster smiled broadly and accepted it with a slight bow of his head.

The king turned back to Manchek and Kemila. "I am sorry to place a pall on what should be a time of celebration, but we must attend to the traitors we have captured. For those who wear the sign of the cult, there is no question of their punishment. We will take them to the waste south of the river and hold a trial and execution."

"As long as Malvor evades capture he poses a threat," Manchek said. "I suggest we do it now before the day is over. Kemila and I can wait to see it done before we rest and seek refreshment."

Several sturdy palace guards had relieved Tagun and Doka of their prisoner but the two stayed nearby and waited while the other culprits were assembled. It had been many years since such an action had been taken. Some of the people of the city seemed eager to attend the trial, particularly those from the slums south of the river who had turned on the cultists and exposed them.

Others, happy to have the villains discovered and faced with retribution, were not so fond of the public scene of their trial and execution. Frovin had declined an invitation. "It is not really my concern. I have never cared for such things. I will retire to my chamber and pray for you."

Most of Fortek's trusted guards and soldiers were involved in herding the prisoners over the long bridge and along the track to the waste. Several acres near the sea had been left empty of habitation. Something in the soil resisted vegetation and soured water. A low mound topped with a long bench of stone stood along the edge of the wasteland. Fortek took his place in the center with members of the council of Zedekla on either side. Some former members of the council were among the prisoners. Fortek had not yet chosen their replacements. There was room for Manchek, Kemila, Tagun and Doka with some space left over. The prisoners were brought forward one by one in order of their capture. Some stood sullenly and refused to answer questions. Many of them were Janakans and Tagun searched for a familiar face among them. There were none he recognized. Others tried to argue and explain away their treachery. They promised to repent and some offered to give special information to stay their execution. Some asked for pity on families and children who would lose a father or a son.

Most of those who stood before the king had accepted the mark of Orqu in a blood red tattoo that scarred their left palm. It was known that such a mark was witness to foul practices and murder. None who wore it could be considered innocent. There were a few who had no tattoo on their palm, but closer examination showed that they had received the mark on the skin behind their left ear.

Considering that there were more than fifty men assembled to be judged, the trial took very little time. The death decreed for such crimes was public and certain. Fortek grew pale with strain. Manchek seemed to sense his father's strain and muttered, "If this is too hard for you, I will do it in your stead."

Fortek glanced at Tagun and straightened to the challenge. "Each of these men have ravished innocents and taken human lives. Their heads will be separated from their bodies with a sharp blade and I am required to witness that the task has been completed as I ordered. Tharek made few laws that could not be changed, but this is one of them. I cannot be callous about the deaths of even such as these. I must not glory in the bloodshed nor hide from the sometimes cruel costs of my stewardship."

The execution proceeded when the trial ended. Fifteen men had accepted the duty to carry out the deed. All of them were battle hardened veterans, but none seemed eager for the task. Even the most avid of the slum dwellers grew weary of the carnage and retreated from the death grounds.

Finally only those bound by duty and loyalty remained to see it through. Pernan, as the last to be captured and identified as a member of the cult, was the last to stand before the king and say a final word.

He snarled and looked around then spat toward Fortek. The two guards who held him braced their feet, and as they expected, Pernan made a last vigorous attempt to free himself.

"You are too late to stop the rise of Orqu, Fortek," Pernan screamed. "You might as well stop the tide from rising as contain Janaka and her king. You could have had it easier, acting as a puppet while we pulled the strings, but now you will be degraded and destroyed with no mercy. I will describe our feast after the night of harvest in Timora."

"End it," Fortek ordered.

The blow fell, but Pernan had said enough to leave Fortek shuddering with horror.

He turned his haggard face to Manchek. "It is my fault. I am to blame for what happened to Balchek and his family."

"That's the poison Pernan wanted to plant," Manchek said. "Do not give him the victory. Save your energies for continuing the fight. Come, we must return to the palace."

Fortek stood erect and walked steadily with a grave look on his face. He finally turned to Tagun and spoke. "You must continue to stay in the palace. These past few weeks you have been my eyes and ears as you moved between the city and the palace and spied out the cultists, but too many saw you save my son and his bride for your anonymity to hold."

"Manchek and Kemila risked their comfort, and possibly their lives to go to Kumnora," Tagun said. "Doka is the heir of the Headman of Tedaka and the same argument could be made for him. We cannot hide away behind stone walls. We face a threat that grows stronger every day that Jagga rules."

Silence held for a moment while Fortek considered Tagun's words. Then he nodded.

"I will gladly eat with you tonight and learn what happened at the Quorm," Tagun said. "I was tasked with helping establish the alliance. But the time has come for me to stop the pretense that I am merely a child. Soon I must return to the mountains and make plans to over-set Jagga. My only concern now is the need for Taleeka to join us in our fight."







Chapter 11 Alliance



As if on signal, someone hailed them from the far side of the bridge. The light of the crossing lanterns showed a company of men and women. T to identi The sounds of shouts and whines faded and Daglan scratched at his door. Tagun stood and fetched his baton from the rack near the window.



He was trembling with exertion when Daglan finally called a halt. They identified them as Taleekans by their manner of dress and the fact that Shal and Berina were in their company. To Tagun's surprise he recognized the party of Mareklans that included Sergon and Falinda.

Manchek and Kemila, Tagun and Doka impulsively rushed forward to welcome their friends. "You must tell us what has happened to you since we left Timora," Manchek said.

"You must return the favor," Sergon said. "What happened at the Quorm?"

Fortek recognized a friend among the older members of the group. "Setaal, it has been too many years since we last met."

"I have come as representative of the Councilors of Taleeka. These others are my aides." Setaal swept a hand around to indicate three other Taleekans who bowed to Fortek. "As for the Mareklans, it seems you already know them."

"We have just performed a rather dreary execution," Fortek said. "I yearn to find warmth and good company. Please be my guests this evening. We have many things to settle."

"An execution?" Setaal asked. "We have been cleaning out our house in Taleeka as well. But I will wait to tell the story until we are comfortable and not on the public way. Meanwhile, I must beg your urgent attention to the treaty I have brought." Setaal presented a scroll case with a deep bow.

The group proceeded to the palace and the various new guests were led away to quarters where they could refresh themselves before the evening meal.

"Tagun, could you attend me?" Fortek said. "Come to my study and we will see if the treaty of alliance will serve our people."

Tagun read the treaty to see if it would form a good basis for the Alliance he sought. He waited while Fortek read it through again. "There are some points I question, particularly the clause about authority over the citizens of other lands, but overall the treaty seems equitable and timely."

"I agree," Tagun said. "If you make copies of the treaty Doka and I can present it to his uncle. I am certainly willing to sign it on behalf of my own people."

Fortek sent for Setaal and his companions and before the company assembled in the dining hall the treaty was signed and sealed by witnesses.

Instead of dining in the state dining hall with many servants in constant attendance, Fortek directed that the family dining hall be prepared for his guests. This would not be a feast, but a simple hearty meal around a table holding twenty people. Another advantage of limiting the number waiting the table was the nature of the conversations between the various friends and allies. Most of the servants in the palace had shown that they were relatively honest men and women, but some were known as gossips, trading their inside knowledge of royal doings for popularity.

When Fortek welcomed his guests Manchek and Kemila were standing to his right. In the hour or so permitted Kemila had bathed and dressed in a manner befitting her new status as a royal consort. A gown of gleaming zylka cloth in midnight blue flowed over her slender figure. Her belt, sandals and crown were gold with gems of blue sapphire and sparkling diamond. Tagun tried to avoid staring and poked Doka with his elbow when his mouth fell open.

Kemila smiled and gave them a flickering wink before she turned to accept the compliments of the Taleekans.

As the host, Fortek gave the blessing on the meal and the servants entered with a variety of food and drink. After serving the table, they left serving dishes and pitchers on the wide shelves of cabinets nearby, then quit the room.

The conversation had been casual and random until the servants served the meal. Fortek gave a signal and the doors were shut and locked. For a few minutes most of the guests concentrated on conversing with their table companions and easing their hunger. When the meal had finished, Fortek raised his hands for silence and looked around. "I'm not accustomed to discussing vital interests at a meal, but we have representatives of every ally in the fight against the cult in this room. Today I had a most difficult duty to perform. We executed nearly fifty traitors. There was no doubt of their guilt or the penalty I was required to exact, but the worst of the villains was a man I had trusted for years."

"I faced the same difficulty," Setaal said. "A gang of cultists traced a pilgrim caravan and assaulted them on the road from Timora. One of our great citizens was murdered. Fortunately, Mareklans discovered the attack and joined the fray before more damage could be done, however the gang gathered enforcement and tried again at the end of the trail. I did not apprehend the culprits, but I have imprisoned those who pose a threat to my government."

"It is possible that the caravan was not the target," Tagun said.

Those who knew Tagun looked at him with interest, the Taleekans with suprise.

"It may be that the attack was meant to test the response of Taleeka's army," Tagun said. "Some say that the people of Taleeka would sooner hide than fight. Jagga regards them with contempt. I have heard him brag that they will not support Zedekla when the time comes for a battle, even if a treaty is in force."

"How would a child like you presume to know what Jagga says?" Setaal asked.

"Tagun's father was Koren, late king of Janaka, but he was raised in Jagga's court," Fortek said.

Setaal looked at Tagun and raised his brow. "I am wary of your claims. If we act too soon it would be foolish. We must try to make a treaty with Jagga. Perhaps it is not too much to offer him a section of Virdana in exchange for his cessation of hostilities."

"Jagga and Malvor will not rest while you delay," Tagun said. "I plan to mount a campaign to harry Jagga from the rear."

"How do you hope to accomplish that?" Setaal asked.

"I will be led," Tagun said. He looked around at the others for support and most of them nodded, but Setaal scowled and turned his back on Tagun to speak directly to Fortek.

"We cannot let a boy determine our policy. It is too soon to fight Jagga. We are too weak. What proof do you have that this Janakan brat is who he claims to be."

Fortek looked from Tagun to Setaal and his eyes narrowed. Finally he nodded. "Perhaps we need to pray and reach a greater accord. Follow me to the worship hall."

Setaal stood up with a sigh of resignation and took his place next to Manchek as the group left the dining hall and followed Fortek up the stairs toward the worship hall.

"Your father seems to be a superstitious man," Setaal murmured to Manchek. "Surely he must see that the Janakan brat is a traitor who is urging us to act with undue haste."

Manchek's face was grim and set. "If there are traitors among us, we cannot stand. Tell me, how did you discover the traitors in Taleeka?"

"I have imprisoned any who spoke against my policies," Setaal said. "When I return I plan to follow your father's example and put them to death. Unfortunately most of the council of Taleeka were among the miscreants."

When they reached the door of the worship hall Fortek stood to the side while his chaplain opened the door. Everyone but Setaal stopped and looked toward the bright glow of the lamp of the Radiance.

"I'm surprised you haven't kept the lamp supplied with oil," Setaal said. "Do you expect us to enter a dark room?"

"I see a glorious glow," another of the Taleekans said. His companions nodded and they looked toward their leader with puzzled frowns.

"Show us your palms Setaal," Fortek said.

Manchek and Shal closed in on either side of the Taleekan leader. Setaal reacted with a sudden writhing movement that would have dislodged the two young men if others had not pressed close to constrain him.

Manchek grasped Setaal's hands but his palms were clear of any mark and Setaal gloated. "Release me or prepare for war against Taleeka."

"Lift his hair and examine the skin behind his ears," Tagun said.

Setaal cursed and swung his head like an angry dala, he fell on the floor and tried to scrabble away in the confusion. One of his aides jumped on him and held him fast while another pulled his hair aside. The telltale mark behind his ear could have been mistaken for a birthmark, but the color and shape were clear to those who had seen several like it only hours before.

"You have no right to abuse me!" Setaal screamed.

"By the very treaty you had me sign this evening you allowed me the right to judge any from your land as I would judge my own people," Fortek said. "I can see you hoped that it would give you power over my decisions, but by my law, you are a traitor and deserve death."

Fortek turned to Tagun. "I will make copies of the treaty and I want you to sign it on behalf of Janaka. Take it along to Tanka as soon as you can. It is past time for the Alliance to be formed."

He then addressed the other Taleekans. "After you witness Setaal's fate, return to your land and free the men Setaal imprisoned. We must march against Janaka as soon as our armies are assembled."

He turned and motioned to Manchek and Shal who held Setaal firmly between them. "You know what must be done. I am weary of this task. Go with them Tagun and Doka. You must represent your people. This will be your lot if you accept your stewardship."

The night was still warm, but somehow Tagun felt a chill enter his heart as the small party walked away from the glowing portal of the worship hall and left the palace. When they began to cross the bridge Setaal continued his resistance. He writhed and cursed and called for assistance.

"If anyone is listening, they either wish us well or are too craven to help you," Tagun said.

"It is late and he is disturbing the peace," Shal said. "I suggest we gag him."

"I will not be gagged. I have a right to speak. I am the chief of the Council of Taleeka." Setaal insisted yet again.

Doka stripped off one of his buskins and handed it to Manchek. It made a crude but efficient gag.

After his mouth was stopped, Setaal seemed to realize that he gained nothing by his active resistance. Whether it was pretense or the effect of Doka's well worn buskin in his mouth, he slumped and had to be dragged to the execution ground.

As a Taleekan, Shal assumed the duty of beheading the traitor and it was quickly finished. Tagun recalled the scene in Timora where such fiends as this had ravished and ruined Balchek's wife and daughters and he found that the death came a little too quickly. As soon as the idea entered his mind he realized the error of his thoughts and reined them in. This was not a matter of revenge.

When they returned to the palace, they met Fortek in a hallway near the entrance. He led Tagun to a table in a room where a lamp burned and handed him a scribing tool and several scrolls. "I have prepared two copies of the treaty. Sign here if you agree to the conditions and take them on to Tedaka as soon as you can." After watching Tagun sign the scrolls, the king turned and left the younger men alone.

Tagun turned to Manchek. "Doka and I must leave Zedekla now. I have accomplished all my tasks but one, and I hope that will happen when I reach Tedaka. Tell your father and Frovin that I will always be grateful for their kindness."

"We can't leave now," Doka reminded his friend. "I gave away my buskin."

"I am leaving but if you wish to stay I can't compel you," Tagun said. "Or perhaps you want to return to the execution ground and retrieve your shoe?"

Doka shook his head and Manchek bid the two of them farewell.

Doka followed Tagun into the room where they had left their packs. Tagun looked around at the makeshift furnishings and signed. "If I have one regret it is that we never had a chance to move to Dornak's house."

Even though Doka found another set of buskins that would do just as well, he still grumbled now and then as they left the palace and headed east. "We could have waited until tomorrow morning. What difference will a few hours make. I hate trail food." Finally Tagun stopped and turned to him.

"I thought you understood. We have taken a step on a road that we must follow to its end. You were a child when we met, but that is a luxury that you can no longer afford. When you stood as witness to Setaal's execution you entered into your majority. Otherwise, Fortek would not have sent you. Okishdu needs you Doka."

"In other words, 'Grow up'?" Doka asked with a slight scowl.

"In other words, Grow up!" Tagun said with emphasis.

They continued in silence for a little while before Tagun spoke again. "Doka, I don't know the way to Tedaka from here without your help. Otherwise I would have gone without you."

"I didn't really want to stay much longer," Doka said. "but I was looking forward to sleeping in a real bed one more night. Why did you feel the need to leave so abruptly?"

"It is urgent that we return to Tedaka now," Tagun said. "I felt it strongly tonight when I saw the Stone of Truth again."

"Are you a prophet as well as a king and a warrior?" Doka asked a little timidly.

"I am no prophet," Tagun replied. "but I've learned that the Radiance will lead those who are willing to listen to his voice."

When they had left the lamps of the city well behind them and the moon was high, Tagun began to look for a place where they could rest. This was farmland, the fields neat and regular on every side. Finally he saw a copse of trees in the bend of a stream. The nearest farmhouse was just visible behind an orchard some distance away.

"We will stop and sleep here until dawn," Tagun said.

Doka rolled out his sleeping mat and raised his hands in prayer while Tagun listened to his whispered pleas for guidance and safety. In moments both of them fell asleep.

The next few nights they slept in better comfort. Manchek had paid them for their service in the palace but they had insisted on the wages other servants would receive. It was not much, but it was sufficient to purchase sheltered sleeping space and simple meals at inns along the road between Zedekla and Tedaka.

Wherever they stopped Tagun spread the rumor of impending war. "I have heard that Jagga is on the march," he would say to Doka when they entered a common room at the inn they had chosen for the night.

"You should not listen to the gossip of the military," Doka was primed to say.

In every instance their performance prompted others to question them. Tagun told them only the truth, if a truncated version. "The Zedeklans and Taleekans have made a pact of war. You know what that means for ordinary farmers and the people of small towns like this. My friend and I must go to Tedaka or we would seek the shelter of Zedekla's walls."

A few seemed to dismiss the idea that war would ruin their homes and farms, but most had family or friends who had been the victims of Jagga's raiders and they were eager to learn more. Sometimes they even asked if either of the youths had a suggestion that could help them protect themselves, but Tagun would honestly tell them that in their place he would pack his most precious things and flee the plains.

"You didn't really need me to show you the way," Doka reproved his friend when they saw the wooded hills that marked the boundary of his homeland. "We will be in Tedaka city before sunset tomorrow."

"I didn't know the road was so well marked," Tagun said with a shrug and a grin. "Do you really regret leaving Zedekla when we did?"

"I don't see that it would have hurt to stay a little longer," Doka said. Then he stopped and looked at the contours of the countryside. He lifted his head and inhaled the air as if he were savoring a rare spice. "I never knew my homeland had a distinctive scent," he murmured.

"Some places have a scent, some a stink," Tagun said. "I've heard that the air of Taleeka is nearly toxic with fumes from mining operations. Zedekla smells of the sea, and sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes, when the wind comes from the tidal flats to the south, it's a stink."

"Timora smells of nop trees and blossoming vines," Doka recalled.

Tagun wrinkled his nose as he recalled the odor of Janaka city. It was embodied in the grasp of Jagga when he returned from raiding the border lands and hugged his youngest son. It was the stink of ordure and sweat and cheap Orenese perfume. A smell Tagun hated, but a smell that still had the power to tug at his heart.

That evening they came to a small inn and spent enough to get a private room instead of the usual dormitory shared with other travelers. One benefit of paying more was access to a bathing room where they could wash the soil of travel from their bodies.

Tagun took out the tunic he had saved for his last day on the trail and dressed in clean clothing after he bathed. When he saw Selendra late the next day and presented his open request to make her his bride he would not be trail-worn and dirty.

The food in the dining hall was plentiful and delicious and a pretty serving maid winked at Doka when she served their food. He blushed and turned his gaze to his plate, but when she walked away he looked up to watch her.

Tagun was amused and poked his friend with his elbow. "I guess it's about time you started to notice girls."

"I notice," Doka said. "But this is the first time I've felt like trying to get acquainted."

"Maybe you can come back sometime and get to know her," Tagun said. He doubted Doka would make the effort. A brief infatuation with a pretty face and friendly manner had struck Tagun in Algire Village nearly a year before. It had lasted all of a week.

Tagun wasn't surprised when he left the room for a few minutes and returned to see Doka chatting with the girl. She had a coaxing manner, touching Doka's arm and fluttering her lashes like a practiced flirt.

When they retired to their room later that evening Doka was full of information about his new friend. "Her father owns the inn or she would never stoop to serving. Her sister married well and she hopes she won't be left to serve strangers until she grows too old to capture a husband."

Tagun was startled that the girl would be so frank. "Did you tell her who you are?"

"She would never have believed I was anything more than a common wanderer, dressed like this in worn clothing with my buskins nearly shredded," Doka said. "Maybe if you vouched for me--"

Tagun shook his head. "If she likes you she should like you without the draw of rank. Why would she accept my word that you are anything worth her consideration?"

Doka muttered something under his breath, but he fell quiet. When Tagun said the evening prayer Doka seemed despondent. They kicked off their buskins, took off their tunics and sunk into beds that were fresh with clean bedding.

Tagun woke up at dawn, eager to get an early start but he heard Doka groaning. Tagun touched Doka's forehead and found no hint of fever, but it seemed evident that something was wrong.

"Doka, wake up," Tagun urged.

Doka opened his eyes and shook his head. "I can't go on at this pace any longer. Please, let's stay here for a day until I'm feeling better."

"I could go ahead and leave you here to rest,"Tagun said.

"Don't leave me here alone," Doka said. "What difference would a day make to your plans?"

Tagun could not explain his sense of urgency without telling Doka about his pledge to Selendra. He hated to delay even a few hours, but they had made good time across the plains. It would be cruel to leave Doka behind when he was ill. Doka continued to moan now and then as he got up and dressed.

"I will try and find a healer," Tagun told him. "Perhaps it was something you ate last night, but in that case I would be affected too. As far as I remember we ate the same dishes."

"Don't bother with a healer," Doka said. "I'm already feeling a little better, but just in case I don't feel well enough to travel, we have enough left of our wages to keep this room for one more night. I'll go down and make arrangements with the innkeeper."

Doka teetered across the floor on unsteady legs, grasped the doorway to support himself for a moment and wiped his forehead with his hand. Tagun was puzzled. He had seen many different ailments in his days. Part of his training with Daglan had included the treatment of common maladies and caring for wounds.

For a moment he wondered if Doka were pretending to be ill, but what purpose could that serve? Tagun pulled on his tunic then put on his buskins and sorted through the remedies in his pouch. He entered the dining room and saw Doka at the table with a plate of food in front of him. He was eating heartily enough for someone who had been groaning in pain only minutes before.

Tagun sat next to him and Doka glanced up, dropped his spoon and grabbed at his stomach while he moaned with pain. "Owwoh, I shouldn't have tried to eat. Now I feel worse."

"Is it mostly in your stomach?" Tagun asked him.

"My stomach mostly, but when I move too fast my head hurts too," Doka whined.

"Have you paid for our room yet?" Tagun asked.

"I paid the innkeeper as soon as I left the room," Doka said.

The serving girl appeared and asked Tagun what he wanted to eat. In the daylight she looked somewhat older than she had the night before. Tagun could detect the use of color on her lips and lashes, making her look almost like a Jaman shant. He added ten years to the estimate of her age that he had made the night before when lamplight had blurred the fine lines on her face and added luster to her skin.

"Are you Taleekan?" she asked Tagun.

"Why do you ask?"

"You look something like the merchant who married my sister three days ago," she answered. "But he was sallow as well as being short."

A picture came to Tagun; a small, shallow Taleekan merchant in the Guardian barracks in Timora. A cheat who had paid with bars of foil coated clay he claimed were tin.

"Where did your sister meet her husband," Tagun asked the girl.

The girl scowled with the memory. "He came to the inn a week ago and began to flatter her. She is younger than I am, but she is plain. I tried hard to engage his interest, but he fawned on Berna."

"A week ago, yet they were married just a few days later?" Tagun said.

"He insisted that he had to travel so the arrangement had to be made quickly. With the bride price he offered, and Berna's infatuation, my father was willing enough to sign the betrothal."

"Betrothal? What of the marriage?" Doka asked.

"He got the village chief to marry them," the serving maid explained. "Berna had always hoped for a wedding in the Shrine in Tedaka city, but a girl like her is lucky to be married at all. I just don't understand why he chose Berna instead of me."

Tagun stood and hurried to the innkeeper on his seat inside the door of the inn. "Sir, I understand that your daughter Berna was married to a merchant and left the village a few days ago."

The innkeeper nodded, his face complacent. "I could not deny my daughter's wishes. It was what she wanted."

"Your other daughter mentioned a bride price," Tagun said.

The innkeeper smiled. "He was most generous. Ten barsnof tin, far more than I expected for her."

"That was a generous price," Tagun said, trying to control his anger. Janakans practiced bridal kidnapping in the remote villages, but there was never an exchange of goods more than the trinkets women favor. This matter of expecting a bride price seemed too much like servant selling to him.

Tagun was trying to find a polite way to request a view of the tin when the innkeeper stood up and said, "Follow me. A boy like you has likely never seen such wealth. I plan to add an extra wing to my inn. I never thought Berna would enrich me in this way."

The innkeeper led Tagun to a heavy door with a large lock. It was a simple puzzle lock and quickly opened.

The door swung open and the innkeeper pointed to a pile of tin bars. "The best Taleekan tin, guaranteed pure."

The light from a high window filtered down and lit the small pile. As Tagun had feared, he saw the tell-tale mark of tooth prints near the end of one of the bars. "I'm surprised that the Guardians of Timora didn't confiscate this lot," he muttered to himself.

"Confiscate!" the innkeeper said urgently. "What do you know about these bars?"

"The Taleekan merchant who gave you these bars in exchange for your daughter is a cheat," Tagun said. "He was apprehended in Timora. If you look closely, you will see toothmarks on the end of one of the bars. If you scratch the surface with a knife, you will see the clay and lead that lies beneath the tinned surface."

"Impossible!" the innkeeper insisted. "I am not a ninny to be taken in by counterfeits."

Even as he spoke he drew his knife from the sheath at his sash and pressed it against the surface of one of the bars. The plating flaked away, revealing clay and lead.

To Tagun's surprise the innkeeper burst into tears. "What have I done! Berna, my sweet little Berna."

"You realize what this means?" Tagun asked.

"A servant seller, and not an honest servant seller, but one who preys on innocence," the innkeeper finally said when he had control of his weeping.

"So Berna was innocent and young?" Tagun asked.

"Very sweet and somewhat plain," her father added. "It happened so quickly, but it seemed it was what she wanted."

"Swindlers know how to gull the unwary," Tagun said. "They left three days ago so the trail must be cold by now. I doubt they were going to Taleeka."

"They went eastward," the innkeeper said. "The scoundrel said he had business in Tedaka city, but now I see that is unlikely. What could such a scoundrel want of Berna? The likes of him are more likely to flirt with Marga. I should have been suspicious from the first."

Tagun knew where there might be a market for a young and innocent girl, but he hesitated to tell the innkeeper. Janakan Orquians had filled their lust for victims with captives from the villages they raided, but many along the border with Janaka had fled or sent their daughters away from harm.

He could not ignore this crime, even if it meant his reunion with Selendra must be delayed. "I will do what I can to help you. If the Taleekan is a servant seller it is unlikely he will be content with just one maiden in his grasp. Were there any signs that he had others with him?"

"When he first came into the village there were several men with him. I am uncertain where he came from. There are several roads that meet here near the border of Tedaka. He could just as easily come from the direction of Saadena."

The reality of what had happened to his daughter overcame the innkeeper and his face distorted with grief.

"My friend and I will hurry to Tedaka city and report this to the Headman," Tagun said. "This is a crime and the merchant must be caught and punished. It unlikely that Berna was the only girl he found who had the right requirements for his swindle. He would be looking for a maiden of good character but no marriage prospects and parents who are eager to see her wed. He enters a village, courts a maiden, offers a bride price that only a saint could refuse, then returns after a few days while infatuation and greed produce the effects he needs to work his swindle."

The innkeeper looked toward the bars he had accepted as a bride price and frowned. "I will sell my inn and all I have to get Berna back. No matter what has been done to her, I'll keep and comfort her."

"What I require from you is information. As an innkeeper you doubtless know a lot about the people in the neighboring villages who have purchased your hospitality when they travel. Are there other young girls and women much like Berna in the nearby towns who might be vulnerable?"

The innkeeper slowly nodded. "I will make a list for you. I hope it helps."

"If nothing else, I can warn others of the danger and look for a track as I go to the city," Tagun said. "Did the cheat have some kind of conveyance? It seems likely if he is carrying many of these counterfeit bars."

"He had two handcarts that two of his men pulled. They were big men, near brutes."

"Make the list of potential victims," Tagun said. "I will eat breakfast and set out as soon as you have the list ready."

He returned to the dining hall where Doka was involved in a conversation with Marga. Tagun sat down and finished his meal while he reviewed the information the innkeeper had provided. It had not rained in nearly a week. Handcarts were not common on the roads. He had seen only a few since leaving Taleeka. Weighed down with heavy bars of metal, even if most of it was clay and lead, they should leave a distinct trail. Drying areas of mud would keep an impression if the handcarts had passed over them. It was his best clue so far.

"Tagun, this is Marga, she only just told me her name," Doka said.

"Marga," Tagun acknowledged with a nod. He returned to his planning.

"Doka tells me you have met a lot of important people," Marga said.

Tagun nodded absently.

"Tagun, you are being rude," Doka reproved his friend.

Tagun looked up. "Marga, have you ever before seen the men who were with the merchant who took your sister?"

Marga stared at him with a frown. "It doesn't really concern you."

"It concerns your sister," Tagun said. "Your father was swindled. The bars for the bride price were counterfeit. The man who took Berna was likely a servant seller of the worst kind."

"But what would he want with Berna?" Marga pouted. "She isn't pretty enough to be a shant."

"What do you know of shants?" Tagun asked her.

"I visited my cousins in Jama a few years ago," she admitted with a scowl.

"Did you see the men in Jama, the men with the merchant?" Tagun persisted.

"I think I recognized one or two of them," Marga admitted. "One was a Kumnoran teamster but he lost his team and wagon in a game of chance."

"You let your sister go with such as he without warning your father,?" Tagun asked her.

"She wasn't going with him," Marga protested. "She was going with the merchant. I would have gone as well if he had chosen me."

"He likely guessed what you were," Tagun said. She blushed and Doka looked from one to the other of them and frowned.

"You sister's life is in danger," Tagun said. "If there is anything else you can tell me, do it now."

"I saw another man in one of the handcarts. They were covered with a hoods against bad weather. I thought I recognized him, but I might have been mistaken. What would the Pontic's son be doing in such company?"

"The son of the Pontic of Jama is known as far as Timora for his multitude of vices," Tagun said. "If he is involved in the scheme it could be even worse than I thought. It could mean the Jamans have thrown their lot in with Jagga."

"Who are you?" Marga asked. "Why do you know of such things?"

"He is-," Doka began to explain and Tagun grabbed his hand.

"I am a wandering youth, but I have decided to help your father and return your sister home if I am not too late," Tagun said. He turned to Doka. "Come, we must find the trail of the swindler before it rains and the tracks are destroyed."

"I don't feel well," Doka said.

Tagun stared at his friend. Then he looked at Marga and saw her blush. "Go with him Doka." she said. "I want my sister back again."

"You were pretending to be ill so you could stay here and flirt with Marga?" Tagun guessed. Now it was Doka who blushed.

Tagun was furious with himself for falling for the ruse, but Doka had never lied to him before. Tagun had trusted his friend to test the Stone of Truth when he felt less than worthy himself. He had underestimated Doka's reaction to the flirtation from the night before. He should leave Doka here and go on without him, but if he ran across the merchant and his men he would need help. Doka had acted the fool, but it would not be the first time that a practiced flirt had turned a boy's brain to mush.

"Are you coming with me Doka?" Tagun said. "I really need your help."

Doka nodded. "I'm sorry Tagun. I have been a fool."

The innkeeper approached with a slate containing several names of girls and the towns where they lived. A map was sketched on the bottom. "Marga, fetch some packets of journey food for these men," he said.

While Marga hurried to the kitchen the innkeeper explained the map he had made. "I believe the swindler made a circuit, beginning here and heading eastward into Tedaka. Once he cozened a girl and her family he would leave them and move on to the next town. Then he came around again to pluck the ripened fruit of his seducing words. After that, I'm guessing he'd either head north to Jama, or if he needs more women to fill his roster, he'll head south."

Tagun nodded. "We'll look for his tracks. Your map seems logical. I hope we can reward your work. I give my word that we will do all that we can to bring Berna back to you."

As Doka and Tagun walked away from the inn they searched the trail for a track that might have been made by a handcart.

Tagun dwelt on the mention the innkeeper had made of Tedaka. Surely Selendra would not be tempted by the words of a swindler, but he wondered about her stepmother. From what he had heard from Doka, the woman was a greedy virago.

"What did you mean when you said the merchant rejected Marga because he knew what she was," Doka suddenly asked.

"You may remember that I helped now and then at the Guardian barracks in Timora," Tagun said. "Most of the cases were simple petty crime. Even in the holy city there are those who try to profit from the weaknesses of men and women."

"We have the same problem in Tedaka," Doka admitted. "It is against the law to gamble for winnings or disrupt a home with vice, but there are still those who try to profit from such things."

"Marga has a history written in her face," Tagun said evasively.

"She's pretty and knows how to make a boy feel more like a man, if that's what you mean," Doka said.

Tagun's eyes scanned the road for tracks as he tried to give a reply that would not be too judgmental. "That's quite a skill. It can be taught."

"Just because Marga made me feel attractive you think she has a bad motive," Doka said.

"You are growing up Doka, but you have a ways to go before you get that kind of attention," Tagun said.

"You're only making it sound worse," Doka insisted.

Tagun took his eyes off the road and looked at his friend. "Doka, I grew up amid coarseness and brutality. My so-called brothers bragged of their conquests before their beards were more than fuzz. They despised women and they used them, and sometimes they were used in return. I knew far too much about the worst part of human existence long before I really understood what they were talking about. I envy you your gentle rearing, but it could prove your downfall if you don't take care. This morning you lied to me to get more time with Marga. Do you think you could see the light of the Stone of Truth with such thoughts in your head?"

Doka stared at Tagun. "I didn't think--."

"That was the problem," Tagun said. "You didn't think, you schemed. You wanted nothing more than to spend more time with a woman old enough to be your mother. So you lied."

"You don't always tell the exact truth," Doka said.

"You are still excusing yourself," Tagun said. "Have you ever wondered how men could sink so low that they steal girls and sell them to Orquians for a profit? They always have an excuse."

Doka remained silent after that. Suddenly he yelled. "I've found a track!"

Tagun hurried over to the verge of the road where a drying patch of mud was marked down the center with a smooth streak three fingers wide and deep enough to indicate a heavy load.

"That's it, and it looks more recent than three days," Tagun said. He looked around and saw a small track branching off the main road. He knelt and studied the crushed vegetation of the trail. "This looks as if two handcarts entered, then returned to the road. It could have been made within the last day or so."

Tagun was intent on reaching Tanka as soon as possible and his normal rapid walk became a jogging run. Doka pleaded for him to slow down. They were nearing another village, not large enough for an inn, but a woman stood by a well drawing water. Her expression was a little sour and she was of the age when women are sometimes willing to speak of scandal to strangers.

Tagun approached her. "May I fill my water gourd from your well?" he asked her.

"It's not my well, but you'd better ask the village chief before you take any water," she responded.

"Where can I find the chief?" Tagun asked her.

"Likely he's in his barn counting his profits from selling his daughter," the woman scowled.

"Surely he wouldn't need to sell his daughter," Tagun said. "This is a prosperous looking village. Men have been known to sell their kin, but only in the direst exigency."

"Humph," she grunted before turning away and lifting her full bucket.

The daughter of the chief of the village was one of those girls the innkeeper had listed. Tagun looked around for someone else to question. The one street seemed empty except for some children playing a game of tag.

Their merry shrieks belied the idea that anything was amiss in the town. Tagun gestured to Doka and they walked up to the children.

"Where is your village chief?" he asked the largest child.

"Odum don't know," a small girl next to the boy said. "Chief's house next to that barn."

She pointed with a tiny grubby finger and Tagun nodded and followed her direction. They found the chief digging a hole in the floor of his manger. When Tagun hailed him he looked up with a scowl. A small pile of something angular was concealed by a cloth near his excavation.

"You have a daughter named Kelsa?" Tagun asked.

"She's not here, she got married last night. What is your business with Kelsa?" the chief demanded.

"I assume you are burying a few bars of tin that was paid for her bride price," Tagun ventured.

The chief stood up, his shovel held like a weapon. "What do you know about the bride price."

"If you scrape your tin with a knife you will find it is made of thin plate over lead and clay," Tagun explained. The chief looked from Tagun to Doka who loomed large in the dim enclosure.

"I got your daughter's name from the innkeeper down the road," Tagun said. "He sold his Berna to the same Taleekan."

"Ha! Kelsa's husband isn't Taleekan, he's Jaman. A well born man with much to say for himself," the chief said.

"But you were still swindled," Tagun said. "Check the bars if you think I'm lying."

The chief stared from Tagun to Doka. Finally he lowered his shovel and took out his knife. He pulled back the cover of the small stack of bars just enough to reveal one gleaming corner. As Tagun expected, the blade sliced through the plate, revealing the dross beneath it.

The man stood up and whirled toward them, his knife held at the ready. "What have you done to my tin?"

Tagun backed away slowly. "Did you see which way they went when they left here?"

The man lowered his blade slowly. "You mean what you said. I have been swindled." He threw back his head and began to laugh almost hysterically. Finally he grew quiet, his eyes dull and empty. "Kelsa said she didn't like him and she didn't want to go, but she had no other prospects and my wife insisted."

"Is your wife her mother?" Tagun asked.

"Yes," the man answered. "But she was ashamed of having a spinster for a daughter. She favors our son and she wanted to keep my inheritance for him. She wanted the bride price so she could send the boy off to Zedekla to become a fine gentleman. I was trying to hide it so I would have something for myself."

Doka stared at the man, his eyes wide with astonishment. "You sold your daughter to a Jaman?"

"Just tell me which way they went when they left here," Tagun said.

The man pointed east with a shaking finger. Doka followed Tagun from the barn but he looked around the village as if he couldn't believe the peaceful, prosperous scene. "People don't sell their kin unless they have to," Doka muttered.

"Or unless they think they have a good excuse," Tagun muttered in disgust.

The trail of two handcarts was easy to follow on the road out of the village. Tagun noticed that the tracks of the handcarts turned into a side trail that was barely more than a narrow gap between hedges. "No wonder they are using handcarts," Tagun said. "You couldn't get a dala cart through these narrow trails."

"We need to get help from your uncle," Tagun said. "We now know for certain that these men are collecting maidens. They have to be apprehended as soon as possible. It would be foolish for the two of us to go up against four men."

"You went up against four men when you were with your uncle," Doka said.

"Daglan is a warrior and we were armed with swords," Tagun said.

They increased their pace to a jogging run and late in the afternoon they saw the city of Tedaka on the rise ahead. Tall houses with thick walls formed the perimeter in a facade as sturdy as any fortress. On every street a similar pattern prevailed. In effect, each street became a fall back fortress in case of invasion. The gray stone and thick timbers could have been grim, but every archway and opening bloomed with flowers and blossoming vines.

Scouts must have been alert to their approach and Tanka and a few others met them before they had proceeded past the archway of the gate. When Doka saw his uncle he stopped and slumped down, his hands propped on his knees. He breathed so heavily he couldn't talk.

"It's good to see the two of you," Tanka said. "Have you finished your studies so soon?"

"We bring dire news," Tagun said. "A merchant is gathering girls by gulling their parents with counterfeit dowries. Summon a group of men. We have to find and stop them before they contact the Orquians."

"And there is other news," Doka said as he finally caught his breath. "Tagun brings you an alliance from Zedekla and Taleeka. The cities are united to fight Jagga."

Tanka turned to two of the men following him. "Assemble the council. We have no time to waste."

He lead Tagun and Doka into the imposing residence that was part of the first line of defense for the city. "You need to rest and drink something. I can see you are on the edge of exhaustion."

Tagun was impatient of the delay, but now the Headman was in charge and he had to trust his guidance. Doka leaned back on the bench chest and closed his eyes, too tired to even eat and drink. Tagun drank his fill, then got up and urged Doka to take something. "You need to restore your strength. Thanks for keeping up the pace this afternoon. It is likely we will find those vermin before they can made contact with their clients."

Doka took a cup and drank the water in one long draft. "I'm tired but I want to help the search for those scoundrels," he said.

"It will soon be sunset," Tagun said. "It is likely your uncle will wait until morning to dispatch search teams. You will have plenty of time to sleep and reassure your mother that you suffered no harm from being away from her hearth and home."

Doka smiled. "You are welcome to come home with me. Mother will see it as a challenge to put some meat on your bones."

"It is not a matter of meat, as you well know," Tagun said with a mock scowl. "No matter how much I've eaten these past few months there is no hint of increased height. I'm resigned to being small."

A few minutes later Tanka entered with twelve other men. "We want to meet with you as soon as possible Tagun," the Headman said. "Tell us all you can about the alliance of Taleeka and Zedekla and their plans for war."

Doka stayed seated when Tagun got up to follow Tanka but with a quick gesture of invitation from his uncle, he stood and entered the council room. A long table surrounded by 15 chairs were the only furnishings other than shelves for scrolls, slates and writing materials. Two maps hung on the wall, the only thing resembling decoration, but each so beautifully detailed and colored that they rivaled any work of art.

One was a map of Okishdu, the other a detailed map of the lands of Tedaka. Tagun noticed that it seemed to include each track and village. He recognized the road they had come along that day and even the little trail that led off the bigger road where they had seen the handcart tracks.

After everyone was seated Tanka addressed the council "I have called this meeting because of urgent issues we must address. Both came to my attention when my heir, Doka, returned to Tedaka this evening with his friend Tagun. I will let them tell you what news they bring to us. Tagun, please tell us about the alliance."

Tagun stood. He had seldom been called on to speak like this to a group of men, but he quickly got down to the essentials of his errand. "I have here two copies of a treaty between those lands who wish to join in an alliance against the army led by Jagga. In both Taleeka and Zedekla there were traitors who were working to discourage an alliance. Within the past week the leaders of the conspiracy were unveiled. The crown prince of Zedekla was murdered by a member of the cult, and that led his father, King Fortek, to understand how dangerous his foes could be. The head of the Taleekan Council was detected in his crime. I present this alliance to you from the hand of Fortek. Are you willing to enter into the alliance."

"Finally!" one of the older men around the table grumbled.

"We had feared that it would come too late or not at all," Tanka said. He looked around the table. "Are there any here who wish to speak against this alliance?"

"I would like to hear what it says," the same old man grumbled.

Tagun handed the scroll to Tanka and listened while the Headman read the text of the agreement. It had originally been drafted with the worst of motives; to give the corrupt Taleekan councilor the right to command the Zedeklan army as if he were the king. In effect it created a melded military force that would be most efficient if the signatories to the alliance were of one accord.

"We can only agree to this if war is in the offing," the old man said.

"I think you can be certain that war is in the offing," Tagun said. "Tedaka has stood secure for centuries as a bulwark of strength against the foe, but even now some of your citizens have sold their daughters to a swindler who can have only one use for a collection of innocent young women. I know whereof I speak. Jagga is preparing for a battle with rituals of blood, and it will be the blood of these Tedakan girls."

His announcement produced a tumult of outrage in the council. Tanka called them to order. "Tell us what you know Tagun."

"I am the son of Koren, but Jagga believes me to be his son. I was raised in the castle of Janaka and although I never accepted the cult, I know of its practices. When I have finished here I will go back to my homeland and lead my people against Jagga, but I believe he will first lead his army against Tedaka. I doubt he knows that Fortek has cleansed his palace from the influence of the cult. Jagga counts on Taleeka and Zedekla to remain weak and confused when he sweeps forth from the mountains. We also have a guarantee from the Kumnorans to aid the fight against the cult."

"What about the girls you said are being collected," a middle-aged councilor asked him.

"Early this morning as we took our leave from an inn on the border of your land, the innkeeper revealed that a Taleekan had paid him a handsome bride price for his plain but innocent daughter, married her quickly, and taken her away toward the east with the Taleekan and his confederate, the Jaman Pontic's son. The bride price was paid with counterfeit tin bars. Later today we encountered a man burying another stash of false tin. His daughter had not been willing to go along with her suitor, but the parents did not heed her protests and sent her away. I recognized the description of the Taleekan. He was arrested for trading with counterfeit tin bars in Timora a few months ago. You must assemble teams of men to try and intercept this villain. In the very least, the man is a criminal who has duped the parents of the maidens and made them into servants. It is likely he will assemble at least seven maidens before he sells them to the Orquians as a battle sacrifice."

"In my judgment we should sign the alliance," Tanka said. He looked around the table and all of the men raised their hands in sign of support. "Tomorrow we should send teams of men to search the countryside for the Taleekan swindler and his partner." Once again all hands went up in support of his proposal.

Tanka dismissed the meeting and the councilors stood. Some of them seemed inclined to linger and speak to Tagun or Doka, but Tanka intervened. "These young men have traveled fast and hard to warn us. They need to eat and sleep and be ready to help with the search tomorrow."



Chapter 12 Bride Price



Doka's parents were waiting outside the Headman's house to greet him. Tagun stood back and watched the exchange of hugs and kisses. Doka had an older brother and three sisters, all very friendly. Tagun looked around for a particular person and his finger's gripped a smooth white stone while he looked around.

"This is my friend Tagun," Doka said when his mother stopped fussing and looked toward the other youth. "Can he stay with us tonight?"

Doka's mother turned to Tagun with a cry of welcome and pulled him into a hug. Doka's father was more reserved, but there was a twinkle in his eye and his mouth turned up at the corner with a wry smile when Tagun extricated himself from the embrace.

"Welcome Tagun," he said. "Tanka spoke about your friendship with our son. Our home is yours as long as you are here in Tedaka."

While they walked back toward their home a number of their neighbors approached and offered welcome. Tagun looked in vain for Selendra.

Before he could frame a question Doka spoke up. "I expected to see Selendra here to greet us."

"She married recently," Doka's mother said.

The words hit Tagun like a cudgel. He kept his pace even, but his mind whirled. He hardly heard anything else. Then he took a deep breath and listened when he heard Selendra's name again.

"Selendra returned from pilgrimage a year ago and immediately started receiving offers of betrothal," Doka's mother said. "She had an air about her that drew men like bees to a flower. Her stepmother was eager to tell everyone of the latest conquest. But months passed and the girl accepted no commitments. Finally she was sent to the country into the care of her stepmother's sister. Not long ago we learned that she was finally wed."

Tagun had counted on Selendra's faithful pledge, but what could he expect? He had seen Kemila and Falinda give up dreams of marriage to men they had cherished for months, if not years. He had only known Selendra for a few days on the pilgrim trail. Then he expected her to wait without any word from him. Could he really blame her for finding someone else?

He tried to convince himself that she had no obligation after so much time, but his heart burned much as it had when he had left his mother on her death bed.

The conversation turned to other subjects but Tagun only nodded or shook his head when someone addressed him. He couldn't trust his voice to hold without breaking into a sob. He chastised himself for acting like a child. He had seen Manchek and Sergon pick up the shattered remnants of their hope and show a brave front when their loves were lost.

He heard Doka apologizing for his silence. "Tagun has a lot on his mind. He just needs to eat and rest."

Tagun hardly tasted the meal Doka's mother had prepared. He managed to summon a fragment of sanity to thank her after forcing himself to eat something. "This is a fine meal. Thank you for your offer of hospitality."

Tagun really didn't want to stay with Doka and his family. He wanted to leave Tedaka as soon as possible and take the trail back to Algire village. But what would Kabrika say when he showed up without a bride? He decided he really didn't care. The matriarchs could choose a girl for him. If they needed him to be married, they could provide a maiden. Tagun was beyond even thinking about the prospect. After Doka was asleep, Tagun took out the white stone and considered it. It caught the moonlight coming through the window, glowing as if with inner light. Tagun nearly tossed it out the window, but his hand closed around it, holding fast.

He fell asleep as if into a void. Dreams came, but Selendra's face was in them and he woke, tears wet on his cheeks. Time would surely heal the pain, fill the void. The words of the seer, Taklan returned to him. "Selendra is worthy to become a queen." It was a statement, not a promise. The seer had not said Selendra would be Tagun's queen.

Tagun got out of bed and walked to the window. "Bless her," he prayed. "Help her find happiness."

He returned to bed and slept more easily. When morning came he rose and dressed and went to find Doka who was in the kitchen with his mother. He found a measure of the same courage he had watched Sergon and Manchek exercise. Regret would only waste his energy. He smiled at Doka's mother and accepted a plate of dumplings filled with ground meat and tubers. He could even appreciate the subtle flavor of the dish and gave his compliments.

"I can see you have recovered from your journey," she said. "What do you plan to do today?"

"We must meet with Tanka and the captain of the guards this morning," Doka said before Tagun could speak. "We uncovered a dreadful crime while we were on the road."

Doka's mother wanted more detail, but Tagun signaled Doka with a glance of warning and his friend caught the hint.

"I'll tell you more after we get permission from Tanka," Doka said. "We may be away most of the day. Could you pack some journey food for us?"

The pack of food was almost more than they could carry. Tagun left it up to Doka to sort out a sufficient supply. "Please save the rest of it for later," Doka told his mother as they left the house.

Tanka was consulting with his guard captain when Tagun and Doka arrived at the central square of the city where a group of more than fifty men had assembled. He turned to Tagun. "The map you gave me seems to indicate a pattern of visiting small villages not far from the central roads. We have no way to really know which direction the Taleekan and his party have gone, but it is likely that when his quota is filled, he will go toward the northern border to meet with Jagga's men."

The guard captain nodded. "Since we are uncertain of where they might be, it seems best to send out pairs of two men, one to stay and maintain observation while the other returns to a central reporting place to tell what they found. In that way we can cover most of the likely destinations of the rogues." The guard captain hoisted a large map that all the men could see.

"We will send units of men to Ralta, Tanela and Forsend, here, here and here," the guard captain indicated the three larger villages that were spaced at a near equal distance from the city. "I want volunteers for the search teams."

Tagun and Doka stepped forward along with thirty other men. This left eight men each to stay behind in the chosen towns. Tagun and Doka were assigned to the group leaving for Ralta along with three other teams of searchers.

They reached the town of Ralta near mid-morning under rapid march. The leader of the unit gave each of the teams of searchers a different road to investigate. Doka and Tagun set out after a break to eat and drink.

Now and then they saw the signs of cart tracks on the road, but most seemed days old. It was not significant enough to report. They located another victim of the scam in early afternoon. This time it was a widow who had eagerly accepted the proposal the Taleekan offered. She was counting on the bride price to support her in her aging years and Tagun and Doka left her in tears when they departed from her tiny farmstead after revealing that her only child had been exchanged for nothing more than bars of plated clay.

They found more recent tracks several hours later. "You should return to Ralta and report what we discovered," Tagun said.

"We haven't caught up to our quarry yet," Doka said. "If we haven't found anything by nightfall, we should both return to Ralta in the morning."

The track they followed wandered northeastward. At twilight they saw the roof of several buildings clustered against the fading light of the sky. A larger roof promised the presence of an inn.

"It's too bad you gave the last of our wages to the innkeeper or we could sleep in beds tonight," Tagun said.

"He gave it back to me just before we left," Doka said. "I was going to tell you, but I was so upset by what you said about Marga that I didn't want to talk. Now I can see that you were right about her. I should have been suspicious when she focused on me, but it never happened quite like that before. She made me feel like more like a man than a boy."

Tagun slapped his friend on the shoulder just hard enough to make it a friendly gesture. They hurried toward the shelter of the inn. The sky above them threatened rain.

The inn was old and made of weathered timber. The coming storm gave a chill to the night and the fire in the common room promised comfort. An inviting odor of cooking filled the inn. The common room was open, two stories high. Stairs at one side led up to a walkway around the room. Doors above and below the walkway suggested sleeping rooms. It was likely that sometime in the past the common room had been a courtyard, now roofed over.

The innkeeper sat near the door and looked them over. "Not much room left inside boys. For a nick of copper I'll let you stay in the barn. For another nick of copper I'll let you have some blankets. Your meal is included."

It was a fair offer. Tagun nodded.

Tagun was still wearing his hood up when they entered the common room. He looked around for an empty seat. The faint glitter of metallic threads drew his eyes to two men sitting at a table near the fire. Their backs were turned to the door, but one had his head turned to talk to the other man, baring his profile. It was the Taleekan merchant they had been tracking.

"Be very quiet Doka, try not to draw attention," Tagun hissed. He moved around the room, keeping out of direct sight of the men near the fire. It was easy enough to pretend he was trying to find an empty seat. The room was nearly packed, but it was relatively quiet as the guests applied their attention to the excellent fare. Tagun spotted two seats only a few feet from the men near the fire and settled into one of them. Doka followed his lead and sat next to him with their backs to their quarry.

"We have met our quota," one of the men was saying. Tagun didn't recognize the voice, but he only knew the Jaman Pontic's son by reputation.

"I have enough bars left to buy those goods upriver," the Taleekan responded. "We don't meet our customers until the end of the week."

"What if your ruse is discovered," the Jaman said. "The goods are hard to control. We have been lucky that no one tried to test the bars of tin."

"These people are blinded by greed," the Taleekan chuckled. "It's been almost too easy. It was a good idea to grind up docil in their food. We can relax away from the weather with a room while they spend the night in a leaky barn, too lost to sense to mind the cold."

Tagun banked his anger. A serving man approached with a bowl of stew and Tagun nodded to indicate he wanted to eat. Doka leaned close. "We can't just sit here and eat. What if they leave?"

Tagun moved his hand in a gesture to silence his friend. "Eat. You are going to need your strength later tonight," he whispered.

The Jaman and the Taleekan finished their meal and got up to leave the room. Doka lurched upwards as if to follow them. Tagun tugged him back into his seat and watched to see which door the men opened. If they climbed the stairs it would complicate his plan. They entered a door on the ground floor midway around the room. With the men gone, Tagun could finally speak to Doka.

When I give you a signal, follow me. We should be able to capture those two with our bolikas. Then you dress in the Jaman's clothing and I'll put on the Taleekan's robes."

"I thought we were supposed to report to Ralta," Doka said.

"We don't know where they plan to go from here," Tagun explained. "I have a plan."

Gradually the common room emptied and soon only a few guests lingered over games of droka or listened to a musician with a fylk. Tagun stood and stretched and beckoned to Doka. The innkeeper had left his place by the entry door and disappeared down a hall. It was time to make their move.

The puzzle lock on the door was easy enough to open. Tagun had a knack for such things. They slipped into the room and heard snores from beds near a window. Tagun gestured toward the Jaman and removed the bolika from around his waist. Doka followed his movements, almost in unison as they hit the men on their temples with the weighted ends of the weapons. There was no struggle. Instead of using his bolika to bind the Taleekan, Tagun ripped several lengths of cloth from the edge of a blanket. He tossed a couple of them to Doka and soon the men were bound hand and foot with gags in their mouths in case they woke up.

"This feels sort of wrong," Doka whispered.

"Are we part of an official effort to apprehend these men?" Tagun whispered.

Doka nodded.

"Then we are officers of the law," Tagun explained. "Call it an official detention, unless you want to wait until proper authorities show up."

"We could have approached the innkeeper and asked for help," Doka said.

"We don't know who might be in league with these villains," Tagun explained. "Let's find their clothing and take it with us."

The ornate tunics and headdresses of the swindlers were easy to locate from the smell of Jaman musk. Doka wrinkled his nose. "Nasty. What do you want with these?"

Tagun put his finger to his mouth to warn Doka to silence when a knock came at the door. After a moment the person waiting for an answer walked away.

Tagun wedged a stool against the door to keep it from being opened from the outside. The window was latched from the inside and it was quick work to open it and wiggle through the narrow opening between the panes. After Doka joined him, Tagun spent a moment wedging the window closed with a couple of sticks he found nearby

"They mentioned a leaky barn," Tagun said. "It's likely that's where they've stowed the women."

"What about the men who pulled the handcarts?" Doka asked.

"That's why I took the clothing," Tagun replied. "You are near enough the Jaman's size, and as Marga noticed, I'm very close to the Taleekan's stature. We should be able to fool the men as long as they don't look too closely at our faces. First we have to find that leaky barn."

Doka gave a grunt of disgust when he pulled the Jaman's tunic over his head and wound the headdress high around his neck to hide all but his eyes. The Taleekan's tunic was too small for Tagun, but he slit it along the sides and belted it.

The storm had passed, but the rain had erased any sign of tracks. The moon had risen, lighting the area with a gentle luster. Instead of the small village Tagun had expected to see, there were three outbuildings near the inn. One of them was large and fairly new. The sound of a dala lowing indicated it was occupied by animals. Another building was barely more than a shed. The third, set at some distance from the others, was swaybacked and leaning. Gaps in the roof were black against the silvered shingles.

Tagun and Doka approached the dilapidated structure and peered through gaps in the wall. Moonlight streamed through the roof in random beams, lighting the faces and arms of several women and girls. None of them stirred or shivered in the cool damp air. Loud snores came from a corner of the barn.

Tagun opened the door and raised his voice just enough to reach the back of the building. "It's time to move on. Wake up!'

Two large shapes lurched upward and stood erect. The description of 'brute' was hardly adequate to describe them. "I thought we were planning to stay here all night," one of them said.

"The rain has stopped and I am rested enough to go on," Tagun said in the nasal tones of the Taleekan.

"But the women are still sleeping," one large man protested. "If you expect them to travel, you shouldn't have given them so much docil."

One of the women stirred and sat up. "Please, let me go. I won't tell my father you never intended to marry me."

She coughed and another of the girls stirred and started to shiver. She looked around, her eyes catching the moonlight with an almost eerie glow. "Where is Selendra?"

Tagun blinked. Had he imagined what she said. "Selendra?" he murmured. Was it possible that she was part of this sad collection of intended victims? He remembered his vision of her months before, being led in ropes to the dark temple of Orqu.

"Has she escaped? Why weren't you watching her?" Doka growled with an accurate imitation of the Jaman.

"She seemed peaceful enough," a huge guard said in a Kumnoran drawl. "I watched her fall asleep."

"She's not here now," the other brute said.

"I don't want to interrupt my journey," Doka improvised. "I have plans to meet a man near the village of Rusta. I'll lead these others while you find the girl who escaped."

"I'll join you in Rusta as soon as I can," Tagun replied.

While Doka supervised the brutes and woke the women, Tagun circled the barn looking for clues. Near the back corner a board had been torn away. A fragment of blue fabric was caught on a jagged spear of wood. Tagun touched it. It was nearly dry. The rain had only stopped recently. It was likely that Selendra had escaped only minutes before. His heart, always unsteady when he thought of her, seemed to leap a little.

If she had run away after the rain stopped, her footprints should be clear enough to follow. But she was clever. Perhaps she had found a way to muddle her track. He scanned the ground and saw three footprints heading away to the south. They were aimed at a large copse of trees not far from the inn.

Tagun followed them. Behind him he heard Doka's voice giving orders. "The handcarts are nearly empty. Put the girls who haven't waked yet in the carts. Otherwise I will be late getting to Rusta."

Tagun smiled with admiration for the way Doka had caught the exact inflection of the Jaman's voice. As long as he kept his face covered he had nothing to fear.

The creaking of the handcart wheels was indication that their ruse had succeeded. Tagun left Doka to deal with the rest of the caravan and followed the trail of footprints into the copse. He moved slowly, hoping not to startle her. The trees around him dripped the last remnants of the passing storm from their leaves as he brushed past them and the borrowed tunic was wet when he emerged from the other side of the copse. He turned to see if Doka and the caravan were well away. There was no sign of them on the road.

Tagun turned his attention back to the ground and finally found the recent tracks left by Selendra. He stopped with surprise when he realized that she had headed for the inn.

A moment later she emerged from the door with the innkeeper. "We need help," she was saying. "The Jaman and the Taleekan should be easy enough to handle if you take them by surprise, but the men who are pulling the handcarts are immense. I overheard the Jaman say he was going to Rusta."

"I'll fetch some men," the innkeeper said. He left Selendra alone in the yard of the inn but she held a hand ax as if she were well aware of how to use it.

Tagun started forward, "Selendra!" he exclaimed.

In one smooth motion she turned to face him and flung the ax with a sure aim. He ducked, and the ax, which was aimed at his chest flew at the lower target of his head. He saw the look of startled recognition on her face just before the ax glanced off his skull. Flashing stars against a field of velvet black occluded any further conscious thought.

Awareness returned in a field of pain and glorious hope. He was cradled in Selendra's arms. "Tagun, my dearest! What have I done?"

Her tears bathed his face and he struggled to speak and reassure her. "Selendra-"

It was all he could manage before a wave of pain made him grunt. He fell back and stopped trying to move.

"This is not the man I thought," Selendra said to someone nearby. "He must have come to rescue me, but these are the clothes of the captor."

"We tried to open the door of the room where the Taleekan and the Jaman were lodged," the innkeeper said. "It took two men to force it open. We found them bound and trussed inside."

"Then who led the caravan away?" Selendra asked.

"Doka," Tagun managed to say.

"I'll get a group of men together and go after them," the innkeeper said. "Sooner or later the ruse will be discovered and your friend could be in danger."

Tagun let the others take over the task of capturing the carters and recovering the women. He was happy enough to be lifted from the ground by gentle hands and carried into the inn to a comfortable bed. Selendra tended him. The ax had only grazed him, but the lump on his skull ached and he welcomed the soothing draught of selan to ease the pain.

He fell asleep and now and then he woke just enough to reassure himself that she still lingered near his side. Once when he woke he saw her dozing in the chair next to the bed. Before he would wake her and urge her to find a bed and get some needed rest, he dozed off again.

She was gone when he woke up to sunlight through a window near the bed. He touched the knot on his skull and found it covered with a poultice. The pain had receded to a dull ache.

He sat up and swung his legs out to the floor, preparing to stand up. The pain increased and he fell back onto the bed. "Slowly," he reminded himself. "The errand is over."

Selendra entered the room carrying a tray. "You must rest my dear," she said. "I brought you something for breakfast and some news. The caravan was intercepted and the carters have been taken into custody. Doka explained that a troop of men was waiting in Rusta for a report. The women have been cared for and are being returned to their families."

"What about you?" Tagun asked her. "I was told that you had married, but I never imagined it was this sorry swindle that took your freedom."

"Fremina, my stepmother, has been urging me to accept one of the suitors who approached my father. She threatened me and finally she sent me to her sister in the country with instructions to accept the first offer for my hand. When the Taleekan approached her with an offer of marriage, she drugged me and turned me over to the scoundrel before I could object."

"I felt an urge to hurry to Tedaka days ago," Tagun said. "Doka and I discovered the servant buying scheme while we were still near the border of the land. If I had delayed a day or so, as Doka urged-" he shuddered.

"I doubt the families of most of those girls will be happy to return the bride price they were paid," Selendra said.

"It was a swindle," Tagun said. "I met the Taleekan in Timora months ago. He was purchasing goods with counterfeit bars of tin. Most of the families who have discovered the cheat were sorry for letting greed overcome their honor."

"When you are ready to travel, we should return to Tedaka. I must tell my father how he was betrayed. I know he will find it hard to understand how his wife and sister-in-law could so disdain his sense of doing what is best for me. He never pressed me to accept the suitors."

"I will marry you if you will have me," Tagun offered.

"You have had my pledge and my heart since that day in Timora in the garden," she said with a smile. She took something from her pocket. "When I needed to remember, I had this." She showed him the striated river stone he had given her.

He found the round white stone from the fountain in the belt pouch that was slung from the bed support and pressed it into her hand. "I was told that you had married, and I nearly threw this away, but I couldn't part with it."

The innkeeper visited Tagun after he finished his breakfast. "You could have asked my help last night instead of taking it all on yourself."

"I wasn't certain if you were confederate with the scoundrels," Tagun said. "But I appreciate you help in apprehending their henchmen and rescuing the women."

"What could they have wanted with a group of women like that?" the innkeeper asked.

"They intended to sell them to Orquians. I doubt I need to tell you more," Tagun said.

The innkeeper grimaced. "I cannot comprehend such villainy."

"If their families had not cooperated, they would have failed in any case," Tagun reminded him.

The innkeeper shook his head. "I came to tell you I have found a litter and two bearers willing to convey you to Tedaka. Selendra insists that you should proceed to the capitol as soon as possible."

Tagun held back a groan, but he knew it was the right thing to do. He had to speak to Selendra's father. What price could he offer for her hand? He had no knowledge of the customs of Tedaka when he had taken her hand in pledge.

He pondered the problem now and then after he was settled in the litter and the journey to Tedaka began. Without the need to return to Rusta, the journey to Tedaka would take less than a day. At first the jogging pace of the litter bearers hurt his head, but Selendra gave him a sip of an infusion of selan and he was able to ride in comfort. She kept pace by his side, her hand resting on the edge of the litter near enough for him to grasp.

"How long were you captive," he finally asked her.

"I was the first girl they took," she said. "The first night I wished for death before my supposed husband would claim his privilege as my spouse, but instead I was fed something that dulled my mind and when I woke the next morning I realized that I was still a maiden. My immediate relief was followed by dread of what he intended. My worst fears were confirmed when other women were added to the caravan. He and his cronies kept the group of us out of sight and drugged. I suspected powdered docil root was added to our food. On the last day before you rescued us I fasted. I pretended to eat, but I knew that someone must be warned of what was happening. We had never been secluded so near a place of refuge. When it was late enough that the guards were asleep, I escaped. You know the rest."

Tagun touched the knot on his skull and nodded. "You had effectively rescued yourself even before Doka and I put our plans into effect. In Timora I met a very holy man, a seer. He seemed able to read my thoughts. I was worried about you and he said: 'Selendra is worthy to become a queen.' Not long ago I met a young woman who will be the queen of Zedekla. You are very like her in the ways that count. I will introduce you to Kemila someday."

"You must tell me of your adventures," Selendra said.

Tagun told her about the murder of Balchek and the events that followed. He clutched her hand with possessive force when he told her how the various lovers had been parted by duty and their sense of honor. "Sergon had two visions that he would willingly have dismissed. Instead, he heeded them and acted with their guidance. I sense that someday he will be a holy man."

Sometimes Selendra sighed at his account. Sometimes she laughed. "I certainly never pictured you as a scullion," she said. "But I can easily imagine you and Doka leading the other servants in mischief."

At noon the bearers took a break for an hour to rest. Selendra and Tagun sat beneath the shade of a tree near a sparkling brook and continued their conversation while the bearers napped nearby. Finally Tagun broached the subject he had been avoiding. "I will be accepted as the leader of my people when I return to Algire village. I have accomplished every task I was assigned. But I have nothing but the clothing on my back and the meager contents of my pack. Your father will expect a bride price."

"My father set no price," Selendra said. "It was his wife who bargained with the suitors. All I ever wanted was your heart."

The bearers woke up and they continued the journey. It was evening when the walls of Tedaka city rose before them. Tagun asked the bearers to set down the litter. "I can walk from here."

"The innkeeper paid us to carry you to Tedaka," one of them said.

"He just wants to hear more of your stories," the other chuckled.

"Carry your litter next to us if you wish," Tagun said with a smile. "But I am finished with stories. Now I will find out if I will have my heart's desire."

When they approached the city gates they were met by a small crowd. Doka rushed forward. "Tagun, you have rescued Selendra! You are wounded!"

"She had rescued herself, and as for the knot on my skull, I will tell you the story later," Tagun replied.

"Selendra. It is a scandal that you were sold to those scoundrels," Doka said. "I will marry you and save you from any further shame."

"You are a dear friend Doka," Selendra said. "But I cannot marry you. I have already pledged my heart to someone else."

She turned to Tagun and he took her hand. Doka was surprised, then he punched Tagun's shoulder with enough force to shake his friend. "This is why you felt so urgent to come to Tedaka. I should have suspected something was going on between the two of you almost a year ago. You realize Selendra, that he is rather short."

"Not really," Selendra replied. "He is just tall enough for me to kiss his brow." She demonstrated her meaning and good natured laughter came from every side.

Tagun turned to Tanka. "I wish to marry Selendra as soon as possible. We have been pledged to each other since the day Doka and I joined Frovin's household in Timora."

Tanka nodded. "We will help you plan a wedding within the month. I doubt that there will be a problem, meanwhile, you must be my guest."

"I must meet Selendra's father and request her hand in marriage," Tagun said.

Doka led the way to the modest house while Selendra walked behind with Tagun. Selendra's stepmother, Fremina, met them at the door. Her eyes widened and she stepped back with a gasp of surprise. "Is this the man you married? I thought he was Taleekan?"

"Is my father here?" Selendra asked, her voice calm, but her hand tightened on Tagun's wrist and he knew she barely controlled her anger.

Fremina gazed around at the faces in the small crowd gathered around Selendra. She turned back into the house and shut the door. The sound of a bar dropping into latch hooks gave away her intent.

"Selendra, my dear!" the voice came from an upper window. Tagun looked up and saw a man leaning out. "I feared you might have been a victim of the swindler when I heard what happened to the other women who were betrothed or married in haste this past week."

"Father, I need to talk to you, "Selendra said. "Fremina has barred the door against us."

A few minutes passed as voices were raised inside the house. Finally Selendra's father opened the door. "I'm sorry you had to wait. Please come in."

"This is my father, Falka," Selendra said as she drew Tagun next to her. "Father, this is Tagun. We need to talk to you."

Falka glanced behind himself with a frown and Tanka intervened. "I need to speak to you as well. Perhaps it would be better if you come to my home."

Falka nodded. He walked next to Tagun and Selendra as they walked across the city. "Can you tell me what was done to you?" he asked his daughter. "All I know is what Fremina told me. Five days ago she had a message from her sister. It spoke of a Taleekan who had offered a bride price she couldn't refuse. I was unhappy, but Fremina insisted you had accepted the betrothal of your own free will."

Selendra shook her head. "I was drugged and sold against my will. It was nothing more than a business proposition. The man who purchased me had no interest in making me his wife. Instead, I was intended as a sacrifice to the demon."

Falka turned to Tagun. "Are you the man who rescued her?"

"She rescued herself," Tagun said. "By the time I found the swindlers and took action, Selendra was free of them and on the way to rescuing the other women."

Falka nodded, his face grim and thoughtful. "She should have never had to suffer such indignity. Even if her wit and courage prevailed against the rogues, I should have provided her with protection. I failed you, Selendra."

They said no more until they entered Tanka's house. The Headman glanced at Tagun and nodded. "I will leave you to speak to Falka alone."

Tagun was all too aware of his shabby clothing and lack of stature when he was left alone with Selendra's father. "I can offer you nothing as a bride price for your daughter, but I love her and she has long since pledged herself to me. There were urgent reasons that we kept it secret."

Falka nodded. "I suspected she was hiding something of the kind when she returned from Timora months ago. My wife nagged and pleaded with me to force Selendra to accept one of the men who courted her, but I resisted. I am sorry I was foolish enough to let Fremina send Selendra to her sister. I should have stood my ground. But before I can let you marry Selendra, I must know who you are."

"I am known as Jagga's youngest son," Tagun said.

Falka lurched back with a gasp of shock and grasped a chair as if to lift it as a weapon. Before he could take action, Tagun hurried to assure him. "I am not Orquian. I am not Jagga's son. Koren was my father. When I return to Janaka I will lead a rebellion against the usurper."

"How did you meet my daughter?" Falka asked as he settled into the chair.

"I met her nearly a year ago when I was on pilgrimage to Timora. Before I could claim my heritage as Janaka's true king, I was required to complete several tasks. First of all, I was sent as a solitary pilgrim, required to receive the rite of renewal washing. I must find a worthy bride to be my queen, and I was told to discover the conspiracies of Orquians in the courts of Taleeka and Zedekla. Most of these tasks have been accomplished. If you will consent to let Selendra marry me, my errand will be complete."

"Do you want her only to gain your right to rule?" Falka asked angrily.

"I have loved her since not long after I met her," Tagun assured Falka. "We made our pledge in secret lest my enemies discover my intent and turn their attentions to her."

Falka dropped his head into his hands. Finally he looked up. "It is not the destiny I wanted for her, but how can I argue when my wife conspired to send her into danger. She is of age to make her own decision in the matter, and as far as I can see, there is no reason you cannot marry."

They left the room and found Selendra waiting in the hallway. She saw the smile on Tagun's face and ran to him. Arm in arm they turned to Falka. "Thank you father," Selendra said.

Tanka entered the hallway from a nearby doorway. "I must consult with you Falka."

Tagun was curious about what business the Headman had with his future father-in-law, but he turned back to Selendra and gave her his full attention. "You father has approved our plans to marry."

She hugged him and led him outside where they could see the shining spire of the shrine that glowed like a pearl amid the gray buildings of the town. "From my childhood I have dreamed of marrying someone I loved here in Tedaka's shrine. Perhaps we should visit the custodian and warn him of our plans."

"The custodian?" Tagun asked. "Surely we should find the priest."

"The Headman is the High Priest in Tedaka, and Tanka already knows we plan to marry," Selendra said.

Tagun looked toward the twilight sky and turned to Selendra. "I am feeling a little lightheaded. I'm not quite sure if it is joy, or the knot on my skull."

"Perhaps it is because you haven't had anything to eat since midday," she replied. "I forgot your need for rest and food in my excitement. I can't take you to the house where my stepmother still holds sway. We should return to Tanka's house and accept his offer of hospitality."

They were only a few steps from the door and Tagun was happy to settle onto a bench near the entrance while Selendra knocked. Tanka answered the door with Falka close behind him. Selendra's father seemed somewhat rueful when he greeted Tagun. "I have been properly reproved and I offer my apology to both of you."

"I would think less of you if you hadn't held me up to scrutiny," Tagun said. He wanted to stand out of respect, but he knew he might fall on his face if he tried. "It has been a difficult day for me in some ways, but overall, I have never been happier."

"Where is my husband!" a grating voice came from the street nearby and Fremina stalked out of the dusk. "There you are! What is this I hear of Selendra's plans to marry a ragged wanderer!"

"You were ever keen to hear the latest gossip," Falka said. "This is Tagun, and I have approved his request to marry my daughter. She accepted him."

"She cannot marry!" Fremina said. "Not until he offers you a bride price."

"This is a private matter," Tanka said. "I suggest we go inside to talk."

"What business is it of yours?" Fremina demanded.

Selendra helped Tagun to his feet and they entered the Headman's house with Fremina close behind them. "I demand to know what you are offering." she said to Tagun as soon as Tanka closed the door behind them.

Without responding, Tagun and Selendra followed Tanka into the council room with Falka and Fremina close behind. Tagun settled in a chair and the others except for Fremina took their seats on either side of him.

Tagun looked up at the angry woman, grateful that she was not Selendra's mother. She reminded him of Jagga's oldest wife, showing some signs of former beauty, but course and hard with a mouth bracketed by deep lines of discontent.

Tanka cleared his throat. "Fremina, you have already received a bride price for Selendra. Your sister sold her to a Taleekan merchant."

"It was a swindle," Fremina said. "Everyone in Tedaka has heard of how the scoundrels traded plated clay bars for the daughters of good families."

"You conspired to sell my daughter against her will," Falka said. "I have spoken to Tanka. He tells me that such an action can invalidate the vows I exchanged with you. How can I trust you with my other children?"

"Your brats are lucky I was willing to take you on," Fremina brayed.

"I will accompany you to my house and watch while you remove your clothing," Falka said. "Tanka will send two men along to ensure you take nothing else. Return to your parents. I paid them a bride price that should support you for a while until you find another widower to gull."

Fremina ran at Falka with her hands formed into claws, but Tanka stood and stopped her. "Enough. If you persist, I will have to put you in company with the rogues you dealt with. They already occupy most of the cells in our small jail."

The threat subdued her, but her eyes were full of hate as she swept them over Tagun and Selendra. She turned and stalked from the room, but Falka followed her and a couple of men waiting in the hallway joined them as they left the house.

Tanka turned to Tagun who was clutching the table to support himself. "I'm sorry you were subjected to that scene. I will bring something for you to eat. Once Fremina leaves Falka's home, it will be safe for Selendra to stay there until we hold the wedding."

Selendra stayed by Tagun's side for several hours until one of Tanka's men returned and reported that Fremina had quit his home. He offered to escort Selendra . "Fremina made threats against both you and your father once she returned to the home of her parents. I promised your father that I would stay with you until you are safe."

"It will be good to be at home with my brothers and sisters for a few days," Selendra assured Tagun before leaving with the escort to her father's home. She turned to wave at Tagun when they reached the corner that would hide her from his sight. He had an impulse to leap up and follow her, but a twinge of pain in his head reminded him of the reason another man was leading her home.

Tanka's wife and children seemed somewhat in awe of Tagun. Stories of his adventures in Timora and Zedekla had been widely spread by Doka who enjoyed the reflected admiration for his friend. After Selendra left for her father's house, Tagun spent a few minutes answering their questions, but Tanka intervened. "Tagun will answer your questions in the morning."

Tagun climbed the stairs with Tanka in the lead and was shown to a room beneath the eaves of the house. To his surprise a bathing room was nearby. Clever fittings of valves and pipes brought hot water to a tub that soon filled with steaming water. Tagun eased his aching limbs into the tub and gave a sigh of relief as the heat melted away his tension and fatigue.

His shabby tunic and worn sandals had disappeared when he woke up the next morning. They were replaced with fine clothing of sober Tedakan design. The knot on his head had dwindled to little more than a purple bump and his headache was gone.

Tagun shaved the stubble from his face and trimmed the ragged edges of his hair. A polished mirror of plated glass assured him that he looked a little more like someone who would be welcome by respectable people.

The scent of something delicious drew him downstairs to join the family for breakfast. Tanka's wife smiled at the change in his appearance, but the children seemed a little disappointed.

"Is it true that you stopped an assassin from killing the crown prince of Zedekla," one of the older boys asked.

"Doka helped me," Tagun said.

Other questions followed until Tanka's wife insisted that Tagun needed time to eat. He was glad of the respite, unaccustomed as he was to hero worship. Most of his more significant accomplishments had been performed in quiet moments. He thought of the testing chamber and his first happy discovery that he could see the Stone of Truth. It had reassured him he was worthy to marry Selendra.

She arrived as he was thinking of her. She brought her younger brothers and sisters with her. They too had heard of his exploits thanks to Doka.

Selendra was also hailed as a heroine. The other stolen girls had told how how she comforted and encouraged them while they were captive. Her escape had coincided with the actions of Tagun and Doka, but it was widely felt that even without their help, she would have prevailed in winning freedom from their captors.

After an hour of answering questions, while avoiding mention of the sacred scenes he could not share; the visit of the seer, and his activities in sorting out Fortek's household with the Stone of Truth, Tanka appeared in the doorway and asked the children to leave him alone with Tagun and Selendra.

"We have heard from scouts along the northern border. There are fires in the hills south of Kumnora. We fear that Jagga's army is on the move."

"I must return to Algire village," Tagun said. "The Alliance is in place. I believe Jagga will attack Tedaka first, and then go on to subdue the rest of Okishdu. It is likely he believes that Zedekla and Taleeka are still infected with his cronies who were weakening their governments. I will bring my army to support you, but we cannot reach you before Jagga attacks."

"I thought you would want to leave us as soon as possible and join your people," Tanka said. "I have spoken to the Shrine custodian. We can meet there in the morning for the wedding ceremony. It would be best to keep it quiet to avoid trouble from Fremina."

"I'm in favor of the plan, as long as Tagun feels fit to travel," Selendra said, with an increase of pressure on their linked hands.

"Are you willing to be bound by all the laws and covenants laid down by Irilik a thousand years ago?" Tanka asked the two of them.

Tagun glanced at Selendra and they shared a smile. "We are," they answered.

The rest of the day was spent in preparation for their journey. Selendra's father provided her with a dowry of basic kitchen utensils, the pot, skillet, plates, cups, meat tongs and spoons and ladle all neatly nestled in a compact set that reflected the best of Tedakan craft. Tanka's wife gave the bride two sets of sturdy but attractive clothing and shoes soled with the best hard leather from Kumnoran craft.

On his last night in Tedaka Tagun reluctantly parted with Selendra early in the evening. He met with several of Tanka's captains to discuss their strategy for the coming war but left them early enough to get a good night's sleep. Sweet dreams, unmarred by the threat of coming war, almost won out against the excitement of the impending wedding and Tagun woke and slept, and woke again several times before morning dawned on a day he had hardly dared to dream would come to pass.

It was intended to be a relatively private wedding, but when Tagun approached the shrine with Tanka and his family he saw Selendra's family waiting on the plaza in front of the holy building and caught glimpses of other people standing here and there, half concealed in arches and behind trellised vines. He caught sight of a grinning face peeking from a doorway and recognized one of the men who had borne his litter back to Tedaka. It was a crowd, but a Tedakan crowd, reserved and compliant with the request to keep things quiet.

Selendra joined Tagun in the wedding chamber, her slender figure draped with gleaming white zylka cloth. A crown of bright blossoms secured the veil that hid her face.

Doka and Falka stood witness for the ceremony that joined the couple in marriage. Tagun held Selendra's hands across the alter and listened carefully to the words of the vows. He nodded with satisfaction at the final phrase that promised them a union that would last beyond the bonds of death.

Selendra left the wedding chapel with Tanka's wife and returned minutes later in her sturdy travel dress. Her clothing gave no hint of yhe special nature of this day, their first together as a couple joined in marriage, but her face glowed with happiness and her dimple flashed without restraint. Tagun felt his heart would burst through his ribs with joy. He took her hand and they left the shrine together. No applause met their appearance at the doorway, but a sigh of approval and murmured salutations rose from the hundreds of reticent observers who had gathered discreetly to see them off. fTagun stopped at the top of the stairs and waved enthusiastically. A rumble of laughter followed, then the well-wishers slipped away, expecting no further ceremony.

The scene reminded Tagun of the wedding in Timora when none of the three couples married that day had been able to linger for the usual wedding feast. It seemed a shame to leave the city with no further celebration of the wedding, but he felt the urgency of getting back to Algire Village and bringing an army to help Tedaka. The journey would have to serve them as a bridal journey, but with Selendra by his side he felt a peace and optimism for the future that warmed his heart. They faced dire enemies but surely the worst of it now lay behind them. With the Alliance of the major regions firmly established surely Jagga's army faced defeat.

They returned to Tanka's home for a family meal with Doka's and Falka's children adding to the happy circle. Tagun watched as Selendra hugged her younger brothers and sisters and smiled with content that the evil woman who had burdened their lives after marrying their father had been banished from their home. They had grown old enough to help their father care for them and although they would miss Selendra, all of them expressed their happiness that she had found someone who loved her.

Tanka presented Tagun with a throwing ax and Doka's mother gave Selendra a fine bronze bridal knife that she wore in a sheath behind her back, the traditional gifts for those who married in Tedaka. Tagun hefted the ax in his hand and admired the weight and balance. It would be his only bladed weapon until he returned to Janaka and reclaimed the Sword of Dorn.

"I believe that you will easily withstand a siege until I bring my army to relieve you," Tagun said. "I have seen what Jagga's scouts may have missed. This place was designed to be a fortress at need. Send out word to the outlying villages and tell your people to gather to safety."

"I will see that we are not taken unawares," Tanka promised Tagun. "My scouts watch the borders day and night."