Chapter 1 The Augury



Neragon sorted the packs stacked near the door of the council hall and wondered what news he would hear when the council finished voting on the candidates who would join the trek as initiates tomorrow. He put the lightest packs, loaded with textiles and herbs near the end for the initiates to carry. The heavier packs, containing carvings in stone and metal jewelry stood closer to the door where the stronger and more experienced men would expect to find them.

As the father of one of the prospective initiates he had abstained from the vote of the council. Would they accept Neril? If the council approved her she would be the first woman accepted as an initiate to a Mareklan trek in several years. It seemed unlikely they would accept her even though she had qualified in every way.

He had already resigned himself to a negative report when the door swung open and Sergon met him with a grin. "You have duties that will keep you busy here for several hours. I'll tell Neril the good news if you like."

Neragon nodded and turned away. He had mixed feelings about leading a trek that included his daughter. He could not help but be proud of her, but resentment against her might cause trouble on the trail.

He had no son to carry on his tradition of being a Marekla merchant, although with his recent marriage that could change. He smiled at the thought of beginning a new family after years of being a widower. Neril had been raised by her grandparents while he spent most of his time on trek.

Finally he finished the tasks assigned to him as trek chief. He stretched and yawned then patted his stomach before putting on his cloak and taking the path for home as the sun descended toward the edge of the palisade that cupped the hidden valley of Marekla.

The sound of clashing staffs from the nearby drill ground drew his attention. He paused and watched the sparring with keen attention One of the combatants was a young man, the other Neril.

Each time the other initiate charged with bull-like strength, Neragon felt his chest constrict with fear for his daughter. The tall, stocky youth used his weight and reach to advantage.

Neril danced away from the thrusts and swings of her opponent's staff, dodging in with quicksilver movements to touch his chest and arms with her own ancient weapon, a gift from her grandfather. Whenever she made a hit the voices of the young women watching the match rose in a cheer.



The contest ended suddenly as Neril dodged under her opponent's guard and tangled his staff with her own, tugging it from his hands. She twisted around and brought her staff down in back of his knees, sending him crashing to the ground. While he caught his breath, she extended her hand to help him up.



He swatted away her hand and scrambled to his feet then rushed from the field with his head lowered. His friends met him with gibes and jeers for losing the match, but none took up a staff to make a further challenge.



Neril joined her own friends and they crowded close to hug her. She shook her head and turned to look back at the shamed and angry face of her opponent, Garen.



Neragon felt a stab of sympathy for her. He knew that any victory she had against one of the young men would be discounted as mere luck. Soon even the youth she had just defeated would claim that he had given way to her as a gallant gesture. Neril had truly earned a place among the initiates who would join the trek when it left Marekla in the morning, but Neragon reminded himself that he had the final say about who would take the trail even though the council had approved the list.



Neril would change from her sparring tunic and hurry home to cook the evening meal. Neragon smiled with anticipation of the night ahead. For the past three weeks he had shared his home with his new wife Belil. Her lilting voice, her warmth and playfulness had kept him enchanted.



He could hardly believe his good fortune in marrying a girl not much older than his daughter. He would miss her during the several months it would take to complete the trading expedition.



When he opened the door he met a far different welcome than he had anticipated. Belil's dark eyes were narrowed in anger and her mouth turned down in a scowl. He reached to take her in his arms but she shrugged him away and began to pace up and down in front of the hearth, her angry steps kicking up the embroidered fringe on her long skirt with every pace.



"My younger brother visited me this evening. He said you plan to take your lazy daughter on the trek. That place should go to Blagun. You will not take Neril on trek tomorrow. You will tell the high priest that she cannot go. I need her here to help me."



Neragon shook his head. "The council chose the list of initiates hours ago. Blagun will have his chance with a later trek."



"Then you will sleep alone tonight, and don't look for me to warm your bed when you return from trek," Belil snarled, startling Neragon with her threats.



He hated losing his last night with her and gave in to her demand. "When I go for the blessing I will ask Elkadon to tell Neril that she will have to stay at home," he said.



Belil stopped pacing and smiled triumphantly. "Go now. You will find me a most comfortable wife when you return. Otherwise, you will suffer for shaming us in the sight of all Marekla."



Her demands weighed on Neragon as he left his home and made his way to the Shrine for a blessing from the hands of Elkadon, high priest of Marekla and Neril's maternal grandfather. Belil had seemed such a compliant woman when she had begun to flirt with him after his return from a previous trek.



She had been honey-sweet and quick to cling on the slightest excuse, overcoming his initial resistance to remarriage after so many years of being a widower. During their courtship, she had been affectionate and demure.

The first hint of another face to her nature had come when she demanded that his daughter leave her grandparents' home as soon as the marital vows were exchanged. She had decided that a person to cook and take care of her home was more valuable than bridal privacy. But even with the long list of tasks Belil imposed on her, Neril found time to practice the skills of an initiate.



It had been years since a Mareklan woman had applied to join the trek. Many opposed the presence of a woman among the initiates. Gossip implied that no decent woman would be safe among a group of men. Neragon had been proud when the council ignored the whispered slanders and approved Neril to make the trek, but Belil had the final say. He would have to leave his daughter in the hands of his wife for the months the trek would last.



He could not go against Belil's wishes. After all, a man owed more to his wife than to any other. Soon Neril would marry and make a home of her own. She was young enough to survive a few months of unpleasantness with her step-mother.



She might learn how to flirt and welcome suitors from Belil instead of enduring the hardships of a trek. Her skills as a gold-smith and scribe would not be wasted if she stayed in the Homeplace, and her skill with the staff was not fitting for the matron she would be when children began to come.



He could almost hear Belil's voice prompting his thoughts as the arguments ran through his mind. He had nearly convinced himself that it was only right that Neril should lose her place in the caravan by the time he reached the lane that led upward to the columned porch of the Shrine. He walked up the path with a loping gate that marked him as an experienced trekker.



The sun hovered near the edge of the sheer cliffs surrounding the valley. The alabaster stone of the shrine reflected the light with a soft glow, and the central spire, glazed with gold, burned in the sunlight like a fiery arrow pointing into the sky.



Every city and town in Okishdu held a white shrine, each as distinctive as the clans who built them, but this one in the Homeplace seemed a small replica of the Great Shrine in Timora, the Sacred City. If anything, with its needle-like spire reaching high into the sky, it was more lovely than its ancient counterpart.



Even without his pack and staff, Neragon's grey and brown patterned tunic marked him as a merchant. For more than twenty-five years he had spent most of each year on the hidden trails that Mareklans used to carry precious goods from one city to another in Okishdu.



Few had spent more time away from the valley than Neragon. It had been four years since the council of elders had confirmed him as a trek chief. At last he had been given the responsibility of leading an initiate trek, and he was worried.



He felt the need to ask for guidance and receive a blessing from the high priest, Elkadon, before leading the special caravan. Sergon, one of the elders, would be along on this trek to advise and lead the caravan through the caverns that provided a secret entrance to the valley, but it would be Neragon's task to choose the paths and set the discipline of the other men. If successful, he could be selected as one of the council of elders when he returned.



Elkadon, dressed in the white robe and blue sash of a shrine servant and wearing his shawl of office, stood on the porch waiting for Neragon. On the facade of the Shrine, stretching high above his gray head, the three alcoves of the sacred scrolls were etched by the deep blue shadows of late afternoon. On the right were graven the words of the Scroll of Laws, on the left, the Scroll of Covenants. The central alcove remained empty. Neragon shared the general opinion that the fabled Scroll of Prophecy was only a myth. It was said that four hundred years ago it had disappeared from the sacred library in Timora, but surely the Radiance would have protected it from theft if there ever had been such a document.



Beneath the blank central alcove was a symbol that no other shrine could claim. It was the sigil of the Eye of Adanan. Some whispered that the mystic artifact was housed in the Shrine of Marekla, its use restricted to the high priest of the clan.



As trail chief on an initiate caravan, Neragon must know all he could about the weather for the months ahead. It would affect not only what weather gear they should take on the trek, but the market conditions in the cities they would visit.



Some said the forecasts were important for other reasons, but Neragon was a practical man. He could believe that there were instruments that would foretell the weather, but he was skeptical that the moods of men and their rulers could be seen in any artifact, even if it were something from the hand of Irilik himself. There were many legends and stories about the possibility of prophecy, but Neragon had deep reservations. To him, even the sacred Seers seemed little better than figure heads for the priesthood of the Radiance.



Elkadon gravely raised his hands in blessing. "Welcome Neragon, son of Avaden." The priest's usually merry face grew serious and he studied Neragon for a long moment before continuing. "You require an oracle from the Eye of Adanan. Follow me."



This was the first time Neragon had received guidance from the augury. In his time, Elkadon had been a famous merchant and trekker. Even if nothing could be gained from the mysterious device, the advice of the priest would prove useful.



They passed through the prayer room of the Shrine. The great room stretched up toward the base of the central spire. Soft light permeated the room from high latticed windows. A great globe carved of alabaster hung on the wall above the altar opposite the entrance. At night it would be lit and shine like a moon, a focus for those who came to the shrine to pray or to attend the reading and commentary conducted each evening by Elkadon or his wife, Sericil.



Elkadon led Neragon past the altar and up a spiral staircase. They came to the landing of the lamp where ewers of oil stood ready to refill the bowl of the globe. A reel of wick and a trimming knife stood on a shelf near the aperture through which the floating dishes that suspended the wicks were lit.



A set of double doors carved with braided vines filled the end of the wide landing. When Elkadon opened them, the wide space within was empty except for a deep blue robe embroidered with silver. Elkadon shrugged the dark blue robe over his shrine servant's white and turned to Neragon. "I must ask you to give me your oath. On pain of death you must never reveal the things that I am about to show you."



Startled by the seriousness of the oath, Neragon raised his right hand in the gesture. "I swear on pain of death that I will never reveal what you are about to show me," he said.



Elkadon nodded. Instead of leaving the room by the way they had come, he reached into the back of the robe cupboard and touched a latch that opened another door, revealing steps that continued upward. Five times he paused on narrow landings to open gates of gilded bronze, concealing the operation of the latches from Neragon.



They were high above the prayer room when the priest paused before the last barrier, a bronze door incised with archaic symbols. He put his hand into a narrow opening and bowed his head. A moment passed and the heavy door swung open soundlessly revealing a small room.



A narrow window on the western side of the room faced the sun that hovered on the edge of the palisaded cliffs. The translucent stone had been worked to form a series of delicate arches, the thicker stone surrounded ovals and scallops of alabaster as thin as Jaman glass. A single ray of unobstructed sunlight lit the center of the room and focused on a small case made of crystal joined with a fretwork of gold. It was not much bigger than two hands lightly joined. Inside the crystal case, lines of golden wires held prisms and lenses of gemstone.



Neragon's breath caught when he saw the outlines of the artifact inside the case. His pragmatism fled before the legend come to life. He exhaled with a sigh when the priest knelt and pressed his hand to the front of the case. The crystal panel slid up and away, letting the ray from the setting sun rest fully on the Eye of Adanan.



The jewels caught the sunlight and refracted it around the room in coruscating rays of rainbow light. Neragon's gaze was caught by the strange beauty of the artifact. He hardly noticed when Elkadon withdrew a scroll from the base of the plinth that held the crystal case and hung it on the wall where most of the light from the gems concentrated. There were markers along the edge of the scroll that seemed to indicate times and seasons.



When Neragon looked away from the oracle device, he saw that the scroll represented a map of Okishdu, the principle cities and clan lands marked in symbols. "Put your hands on the top of the case," Elkadon directed.



Neragon reached forward and pressed his fingers to the cool crystal. The pattern of lights on the scrolls altered, becoming different from one another. Some of the lights glowed brighter, others dimmed. Elkadon adjusted the markers on the edge of the scroll, but though the lights flickered and altered, they lit the same parts of the map as before. The colors of dull purple and red predominated.



The priest sighed and bowed his head. "The colors of war and death. It is as I feared."



He then looked up at Neragon and handed him a band of blue cloth embroidered on the edges with silver thread. "Please put this on your hand and touch the top of the case," he said.



Neragon recognized the sash Neril had worn over her white gown when she had been given the ritual of Washing by her grandfather. He clung to it for a moment, filled with foreboding. Finally he wrapped it around his hand and placed it on the top of the crystal case. He glanced at the patterns on the wall. They had changed and shifted. The red had diminished to only a hint near the upper part of the map near the city of Saadena. The purple became a mere wisp, and green and gold predominated until the sun dropped beneath the lip of the horizon and the lights faded.



Elkadon gave a small, weary sigh of resignation and rolled up the scroll. He touched the front of the case and it closed, the artifact visible, but no longer active. "Come. I need to counsel you," the priest said.



They walked down the steep spiral staircase, pausing at the gates until they came through the back of the closet in the lamp room. Elkadon stopped to light the lamp. He worked slowly and deliberately, topping up the oil reservoir and lighting the several floating wicks that lit the globe.



Neragon grew impatient with the delay. "I only want to know what weather we can expect on our trek. Surely you can tell me what I need before I miss my supper." Elkadon nodded and led the way to the base of the stairs.



When they reached the bottom of the staircase, the center of the prayer room glowed soft gold like the heart of a freya flower from the light shed by the globe. Blue gray shadows of dusk filled the valley visible through the open door of the Shrine. Neragon glanced out and saw people on the pathway to the Shrine and gave a grunt of anger. Why had the old man procrastinated so long! Now he would face a wife angry at his delay, whatever news he had for her.



"Come," Elkadon said, leading his former son-in-law into the study room beyond the altar. Neragon sat on the edge of a stone bench while Elkadon slowly took his seat in the arm chair behind a wide desk of carved wood.



Once seated, he tented his hands and cleared his throat as if he had difficulty finding words. Neragon shifted on his precarious seat and Elkadon finally spoke, his words slow and forceful. "You must resist any who would prevent Neril from making this trek with you. But while she is with you, guard her well."



Neragon scowled. Elkadon made no secret of the fact that he favored Neril's plans to make the trek. With his own hands, the high priest had prepared trade goods and advised the girl on what to pack. Both Elkadon and his wife, Sericil, had raised the girl's expectations and led her to make decisions that could only hurt her when they were frustrated. Neragon's cynical thoughts were interrupted when Elkadon spoke again.



"If you take Neril, you will have fair weather and good trading in Timora and Tedaka. She will meet kings and queens, princes and prophets. If you leave her behind--," Elkadon's head bent as if burdened by a heavy weight and he raised his hands to his forehead. Finally he lifted his head and looked full into Neragon's eyes. "You must not leave her behind. There is a destiny placed on her that will be fulfilled even at the cost of the destruction of the Homeplace. If you do not take her now, something will happen that will lead her away, but all of us will suffer. The Vale will be discovered and war will come. Take her on trek, but guard her!"



The grave intensity of Elkadon's gaze made Neragon shudder. He had hoped when he came to seek the augury that it might provide some excuse for him to tell Neril that she could not leave the valley. Now he must stand against every attempt to deny her a place in the caravan. Although the council of Elders and the Assembly ruled in Marekla, it would be folly to ignore such a clear warning from the high priest.



Elkadon waited for Neragon to look at him. "I will take Neril on trek in the morning," Neragon finally acknowledged, his hand raised in the gesture of a pledge.



The priest nodded. "It must be. May you go in peace."



He stood and led Neragon to a small door at the rear of his study. After the door swung shut behind the man his daughter had married more than twenty years before, Elkadon turned and walked back to his desk, his shoulders bowed with the weight of what he had done. His eyes were dimmed by tears and only the firm touch of Sericil's hand on his shoulder made him aware of the presence of his wife. "You have spoken to Neragon?" she asked.



"When he came to seek an augury to help him lead the Initiate trek, the Eye of Adanan confirmed what we already knew," he said.



"Is there no other way?" Sericil asked.



Elkadon shook his head. "We have been shown what must be done. If either of us alone had been given the signs, I could question whether it was anxiety for Neril that had caused the dreams and omens, but now, with the confirmation of the holy augury, I cannot question that Neril must take the risk. If only we could warn her."



Sericil shook her head. "We did what we could to prepare her for the trek. Perhaps if Neril was less than she is, she would not have been chosen. I have always believed that the Radiance is the source of goodness and right, but those who seek the truth must accept it whole, whatever pain comes with it."



In spite of his hunger, Neragon did not hurry home after his interview with Elkadon. His steps lagged while he tried to think of the other implications of the priest's words. The indication that he must prepare for alternative routes stood out.



His plan to proceed to the Festival of Consecration in Timora after spending a few days trading in Taleeka, then on to a circuit of the other major cities had already been approved by the council. Elkadon had specifically mentioned Tedaka, a city he had not scheduled for this trek. As trek chief, he was allowed to make changes in the plan according to conditions encountered on the trail. It would not be the first time he had made a change of plans, but an initiate trek had problems of its own. He had hoped for a safe and certain circuit, blessed by good weather. If good weather was incumbent on taking Neril, then he would stand firm against Belil.



They were counting on the profits made in Timora during festival when crowds of pilgrims gathered to pay tribute to the Radiance. With their earnings they would purchase vouchers for grain and fruit from the factors of Zedekla and Tedaka. The vouchers could be traded for the jewels and metals of Janaka and the pearls and zilka cloth of Orenon.



Mareklans were not ordinary traders carrying wool and wheat and wood on the backs of bovine dalas over well worn roads. Mareklans carried precious, rare goods and traveled swiftly by hidden ways.



The merchants had selected their best goods for the Festival trek. The gold and electrum, gems and pearls that other treks had brought to the valley had been transformed into brooches and bracelets, curved torcs and rings. The goldsmiths of Marekla were justly famed for their artistry and skill. Fine embroidery on silky lengths of Jaman cloth, Tedakan carving, knives of Janakan bronze and the precious herbs and other products that came from the steaming southern forests comprised the varied choices the merchants would offer when they set up their stands in the Shrine city of Timora.



His wife met him with an embrace when he entered their home and flirted as they sat down for the evening meal. Belil had somehow contrived to transform the modest and practical smock of a Mareklan matron into a close fitting garment with gussets and ribbons and a wide embroidered belt that emphasized her lush figure. Night blossoms and nop leaves twined in her coronet of dark braids.



Neril had cooked the meal after returning from the sparring ground and now she served it under her stepmother's critical eye. Sure of her victory, Belil spared the recriminations and criticisms that usually marked her attitude toward her stepdaughter.



Neragon decided he would wait until the morning to reveal the fact that Neril would not be banned from the trek. He hated to spend his last night with a vindictive wife. Soon after their recent marriage, Belil had revealed her willingness to reward him for compliant behavior with an increase of warmth, and a corresponding coldness when he failed her expectations.



His hopes for a comfortable night were soured when a rap at the door announced the arrival of Geran with Belil's younger brother Blagun trailing behind him. Blagun had barely passed the initiatory tests, but only twenty-four merchants and six initiates would go on the trek and he felt he had been displaced by Neril.



"I will take Neril as my wife when we return from the trek," Geran asserted. "Surely this gives me the right to demand that she must stay safe in the vale of Marekla. If you let her leave the Homeplace, there is a risk that she will be abducted as a sacrifice to the demon, Orqu."



Neril put down a pitcher and turned to confront Geran. "I am not promised to you and you have no authority in this matter. There has never been a safer time for a woman to go on trek. The Alliance forbids the Orquian sacrifices throughout Okishdu."



Geran's face hardened when he clenched his jaw. He seemed to bite back angry words but his eyes stayed on her father in expectation. Neragon looked toward his daughter and nodded his head. "There is no formal rule against women taking the trek. Neril has won her place in fair competition. The council has decided, Neril goes with us tomorrow."



Geran and Blagun glared sullenly at Neril as Neragon showed them to the door. Belil's face flushed with anger and she sent a sneering glance at Neril. She waited until Neril left the room with a stack of crockery before rebuking her husband.



"I won't ignore the insult Neril gave Geran. You risk losing him as her suitor if you persist in this foolish notion." She gave no heed to his attempt to speak but poured out a strident flood of rebuke and recrimination.



Neril entered the room and paused, looking from her stepmother to her father. She had stopped trying to answer her stepmother except to bow her head in the customary obeisance a maiden owed the wife of her father.



Neragon would have done almost anything to stop the tirade, but he could not dismiss the weight of Elkadon's words or the evidence of the Eye of Adanan. He locked his lips against giving in to Belil. If Neril stayed in the valley, it would satisfy both Geran and Belil.



He looked from his wife to his daughter. He knew that only a word from him would transform the termagant who railed at him into a dove, willing to make his last night in the Homeplace memorable. He sometimes wondered where Belil had learned so well to please a man.



He blushed with embarrassment at the thought. His vow to Elkadon was irrevocable. He stood a little straighter and spoke with a measured tone. "Neril has earned the right to make this trek."



The slam of the door to his bedchamber, the dropping of the latch, announced his punishment and he felt a sense of relief. Belil would stew in sullen resentment, but tomorrow he would be gone and he would not be required to deal with her moods until months from now when the caravan returned to Marekla.



Chapter 2 Beyond the Palisade





"Stay to the right wall for thirty paces." Sergon's voice echoed off the walls of the cavern. He pitched it to reach the last man in the line of linked Mareklans who followed the elder through the utter darkness of the cave system. Some of them walked with eyes open, and others with their eyes closed. It made no difference. No hint of light relieved the darkness. Their lives hung on the accurate memory of Sergon, one of the few who knew the path through the void



Cold air swirling up from the left and the sound of water falling far below warned Neril of the yawning gulf not far from her feet. She clenched her leading hand more securely around the pack loop of the man who walked an arm's length in front of her and counted out the distance between her position and that of the leader.



When she reached the count of fifty, she edged further to the right until she felt the rough stone of the cave wall brushing the knuckles of the hand that carried her staff. Practicing blind folded for the trek had not fully prepared her for the reality of hours of marching through the caverns that led from Marekla.



Her father had warned her about the fear that could root her feet to the floor of the cave. She closed her mind against the phantom dangers that danced before her light-starved eyes and listened for the voice of the guide above the labored breathing of her companions and the shuffle of boots along the rocky floor.



"Midway rest in fifty paces," Sergon's voice rang out. Before Neril could count to a hundred a spark of light flared briefly, then a torch began to glow. It drew the caravan toward it until all thirty of the Mareklans huddled around the illusory warmth of the small flame. It lit their faces and a few nearby rock structures that reached up from the floor. Neril looked around, seeing only the faintest indication of the craggy walls of the cavern in which they stood. Crystals glittered with faint sparks of golden fire from deep within the vast enclosure.



"There is a pond to your left," Sergon directed. "Refresh yourselves and drink some of the water. Fill your water skins from this spring. It is sweet water such as those on first trek have never tasted."



He held the torch higher and the surface of a wide pool reflected back the fire in shards of moving light. Neril hung back while the other initiates rushed to kneel at the side of the pool to fill their water skins. The younger men dipped their cupped hands into the water and brought them dripping to their lips. They sipped cautiously. Having tasted, they shook the water from their water skins and refilled them. Most of the men clustered in a group near the closest end of the pond.



Neril walked past them until she found a little inlet on the shore of the underground lake where she would not be jostled by the others. Her father had advised her to take only a small amount of water from the valley and her water skin was nearly empty. She untied the thong that closed the top and shook out the last few drops



Sergon and Neragon lit two more torches. Further reaches of the cavern came in view. Neril forgot to fill her water skin as she gaped at the wonders that stretched into the dim void where the light could not penetrate. She turned her head and then her body to see more of the strange and beautiful shapes that glittered with reflected light.



One of the torches was placed behind a swag of colorful translucent stone draped like a band of embroided zilka cloth. It glowed like a lamp. Columns and hanging pillars mimicked the shapes of men and women, animals and trees. Neril's eyes followed a falling drop of water and were caught by a sight that made her gasp.



Only a few strides from her feet, a round stone nest held a clutch of glistening eggs, each the size of a man's fist. Some of the older boys of Marekla delighted in scaring the younger children with stories of terrifying cave beasts. She had always dismissed their tales. She stepped back and searched the shadows for a great serpent or huge lizard.



Sergon came up beside her. "What frightens you?"



She pointed to the nest. He chuckled. "Those eggs will never hatch. The mountain is their mother. See how the water drips from that jagged column that hangs over the nest?" She followed the line of his pointing finger and nodded.



"When it falls on the round stones, it turns them very slightly. I have watched that nest for thirty years whenever we stop here to fill our water skins. The stones are slowly growing larger. I believe that there is rock dissolved in the water and it settles out, sculpting the cavern into images of beasts and men."



He pitched his voice low, for her ears alone, and she understood his caution. It was forbidden to speak of the caves, except when traveling the path that led through them. Neril glanced around, seeking to determine how they had entered the cavern. On every hand her eyes were distracted to beautiful and strange shapes. In many places the great columns that stretched up from the floor and down from the ceiling met to form one shape. In others the water came from arrays of straw-like tubes that bristled from the wall. Paths wove among the monolithic columns creating a maze.



None could leave or enter the sheer-sided vale of Marekla unless they were guided through the caves by one of the elders and she found herself praying that Sergon remembered all of the cues that would lead them to the sun again. Tales were told of men lost in the caverns of Mount Vald, wandering until hunger and thirst took their lives.



For nearly four hundred years the people of Marekla had depended on the labyrinth to guard the safety of the Homeplace. While the passage through the caverns remained a secret, the refuge could not be breached by any force of arms.



Sergon moved away to fill his water skin and Neril knelt and scooped up a handful of the water to taste. As it ran over her tongue and down her throat, she realized for the first time that the water in the vale of Marekla tasted faintly of bad eggs. She splashed the sweet, cool water on her face and dampened the tendrils that had pulled loose from the long braid that cushioned her broad, sloping hat. Then she lowered her water skin under the surface of the pond and filled it.



"Form up, we must leave now," Neragon said in a ringing voice. Some of the initiates had reclined on the floor and they got to their feet with groans of protest. Their voices mingled in complaints when they were startled by a ringing thump of the elder's brasswood staff on the stone of the cave floor.



The murmurs against the orders Neragon gave fell silent. Sergon's flinty gaze caught each of the miscreants for a telling moment of silent rebuke. Reminded that there is no dispute of the chief's orders, the initiates straightened and silently fastened their water skins to their belts. Sergon took his place at the head of the line of trekkers who each carried a pack and one or two staffs. Neragon stood at the side, making certain that each man had his left hand hooked firmly in the pack loop of the man in front of him.



Neril looked to Docanen for the signal to take her place, and gritted her teeth to prepare herself for the darkness that would come when the last man except her father took his place in line. As chief of the trek, it was Neragon's duty to make sure that no sign of their passage remained behind in the cave. Then he would douse the torches which would be hidden until they were needed by the next trek that came through the great cavern.



The darkness seemed more profound when the light blinked out. The path led up and down and turned and twisted until Neril wondered how the elders ever remembered the way. The smell of wet stone mingled with the acrid odor of sweat in the dank cold air.



A pale glow appeared in the corridor ahead. At first Neril thought it an illusion, but a hot, dry breeze, tangy with the scent of sun-heated stone and mountain grass lifted the tendrils of loose hair from her cheeks. The path turned and a wide opening blazed with the gold of late afternoon. She raised her hand from the pack loop to shield her eyes from the glare and stumbled slightly when her heavy pack became unbalanced by the gesture.



A broad hand gripped her elbow and wrenched her upward just as she found her balance. "You should have stayed in Marekla with your stepmother and be properly schooled in the duties of a wife. There is no place for a woman on trek. It is not too late to return." It was Geran who hovered over her with a smirking look of satisfaction at her clumsiness.



His hand grasped her chin and lifted it so that she could not avoid his eyes and the grin that betrayed his glee at catching her in a moment of weakness. She yearned to raise her knee sharply, but her irritation at his smug air hardly warranted the attack response her grandmother had taught her. He held on, his thumb and fingers cruel on her tender skin.



Neril turned her eyes and looked at the other men who were gathering in the mouth of the cave. Most of them avoided her glance but she could feel the weight of their disapproval. It had been nearly five years since a Mareklan woman had made a trek and five more since one had applied to be an initiate. Many scorned her for persisting against the custom of most of her clan



For a moment she was tempted to yield to their silent demand to turn back. Geran gave her head a little shake as if to force her to yield. She reached up and pulled his fingers from her face, her sharp nails leaving crescent shapes on his hand when she flung it away. "I will make this trek," she hissed.



She turned away from Geran's hovering bulk and walked toward her father. Neragon stood outlined by the light, waiting for the others to gather. When she reached his side, she looked out over the wide land that spread below to a line of rugged mountains that rose purple against the sky.



A shudder of delight rippled through her body. All her life she had been shielded by rampart cliffs that bound the sky to a ragged circle above the Mareklan Homeplace. The heat rising from the desert below felt like a warming hearth after the chill of the cave. She exulted in the impact of freedom, hard bought by months of preparation.



Neragon put his hand on her shoulder. She glanced up at his craggy face and saw the doubt in his eyes. He had observed her confrontation with Geran. She sent up a prayer that he would realize that it was not only the hunger for the broad horizon that had steeled her to resist discouragement. It was her desire to share the trek with her father who had spent most of her childhood away from home.



The thought of spending months in his company without the nagging presence of Belil had helped her persist in the training until she was as skilled as any young man in the use of the staff and had become competent in the three crafts required of all who made the trek. Her crafts were needlework, calligraphy, and gold smithing. The master smith, Benon claimed that in time she would replace him as chief jeweler of the Homeplace.



Her friends, Kendil and Revinal, had whispered of joining her. Their parents frowned on the idea of their daughters applying to the council to become initiates, but Neril's grandparents had given her their full support. She suspected that if the two girls had tried to gain a place, they would have easily won places instead of Maldorn and Feton, two of Geran's friends.



Neragon had stood with her when Geran had approached him the previous evening with Blagun who hoped to be her replacement if she resigned, but now that the world lay open at her feet, she could sense her father's uncertainty. This was the last chance for him to reverse his decision. Once their feet were set on the path that led down the mountain it would not be easy to send her back to the valley.



She held her tongue and did not plead with him. He might feel that she was nagging him, and surely her father had enough of nagging from Belil, who had hoped to rule over her in Neragon's absence. There were no servants among the Mareklans except for those whose family duties bound them to unsympathetic elders. She knew too well how lazy and demanding Belil could be.



Neril hardly dared breathe as she watched her father's face. Then he smiled at her and gestured at the pale blue line of hills visible through a break in the nearer mountain ranges. "Those hills surround the sacred Vale of Timora. I have often longed to have you with me when I lay our offerings before the altar of the Great Shrine."



Her heart lifted at his murmured words and she shrugged her pack into a more secure position and rested on her staff. Her companions on the trek adjusted their packs and prepared for the steep path down the mountain. Most of them were known to her through their wives and daughters.



Thalon, the husband of her friend Kelinal, stood a head taller than the trek chief. The breadth of his shoulders was greater than any other Mareklan and he carried the foul weather tent in addition to his own heavy pack.



His size could have been frightening, but the expression on his face was open and mild as he spoke to Sergon, the elder who knew the secret ways used to speed their journey and avoid the bandits that infested the common roads. Sergon murmured a joke and Thalon's laugh rang out like a tenor bell.



Neragon rebuked him. "We take pains to maintain the secrecy of our passage. If there is anyone out there listening, they know where we are." His voice was as quiet as the rasp of a sharpening stone on a knife.



Thalon blushed like a young girl and Neril smiled. He caught her eyes on him and scowled, the gentle face turning into a mask of disapproval. Apparently he was another who resented her for making the trek. Neril turned her eyes away before he could see her dismay. Was simple friendship between men and women as impossible on a trek as it was in the Homeplace?



Sergon stepped out onto the trail and Neril waited until Beldon, Neragon's adjunct, signaled her to join the line of men following the chief. Geran's cronies, Maldorn and Feton, made rude noises as she edged past. She ignored them and started down the steep trail a staff length behind the man in front of her. They would not be linked hand to pack loop now that they were in the open. Each was expected to use his own eyes and wits to avoid a misstep that could send a trekker over the edge of the steep, narrow path.



They observed the rule of silence as the line of men preceded Neragon toward the plain at the base of Mount Vald. Neril heard the cry of a hawk from high above and wondered if it was one of the birds that nested in the rim of the rock palisade that surrounded the vale of Marekla. Watching their flight up and over the barrier had fed her hunger to venture beyond the guardian walls.



A few minutes later she heard the hawk cry nearby and she glanced up from the trail to see the bird plummet to the grassland below, finding its prey. A small stone rolled under her foot and she steeled her muscles to avoid a stumble that could send her plunging through those walking ahead of her, knocking them from the track.



Sweat stood out on her brow as she thought of the shame of causing an accident so soon after the beginning of the trek. She focused on the track to make certain of every step she took, her attention completely given to the task. She glanced up for only a brief instant now and then between footfalls.



Suddenly she heard a grunting exclamation from behind her. Small stones gusted past her ankles. "Beware Neril!" someone shouted. She braced her feet, pushed her staff into the path ahead with the other end against the pack straps crossed at her chest, and caught the weight of a falling man on her back. Her breath gushed from her at the impact. Only the braced staff kept her from lurching off the trail or collapsing. She struggled for breath and locked her muscles.



"It's Thalon. He's too heavy. She can't hold him. They'll both go over!" Geran shouted.



Neril finally drew air into her lungs with a harsh gasp. She gritted her teeth and hung to the staff she had butted into the cross guard of her pack rigging, but she struggled with every breath.



"Here, give me some help to get him up, she's holding for now. Maldorn, if you can't be useful, move out of the way," Docanen warned as he sidled forward along the narrow ledge.



He quickly released Thalon's heavy pack and grasped the big man's arm. When he lifted him off Neril the veins in his forehead pulsed from the effort of keeping his balance above the sheer drop while he supported his friend.



Thalon stood, then gasped and lifted his foot. The pallor of his face, and the tears glittering in his eyes as he favored his ankle, betrayed his pain. He hobbled a few feet further to a wider place in the trail and sat down on a boulder.



"Let me see how badly you've been injured," Neril whispered while the other men shuffled closer and peered at Thalon with muttered agitation.



She knelt in front of Thalon and pulled the boot from his foot, working so gently that his grimace of expected pain gave way to a rueful smile. She probed the ankle while watching his reaction and was satisfied that the injury was not disabling. Support and rest should soon see him healed.



She reached into the belt pouch at her waist and brought out a packet of ointment to rub into the joint. Her grandmother had insisted that she bring emergency supplies of medications and now she was grateful that she had the means to relieve his pain.



Neragon made his way down the trail past the other men and arrived just as she finished wrapping Thalon's ankle with a triangular bandage that sould support the injured tissues. "Well done," he approved.



"He will have to go back. An injured man will delay the trek," Feton muttered.



"He will do his part if he has a day to recover," Neril said as she fit Thalon's supple boot over the bandage.



"I don't want to have the trek ruined by a cripple. It's bad enough that we have to take a woman," Geran growled. Some of the other men nodded at his words. "Sergon should lead him back to Marekla and take Neril with them."



Neragon ignored the others and spoke to Neril. "How badly is he injured? Do you think he can go on?"



Neril hesitated. If Thalon's injury delayed the trek they would not arrive in Timora for the Festival. If she were too conservative, and recommended that he should return to the valley, the trek would lose a valuable member of the team. Thalon carried more than any other man by virtue of his strength and size.



Neril ventured a decision. "I think he will recover if he takes care and we share his load for a few days," Her answer brought loud grumbles from Geran's sycophants.



Neragon's look of stern reproach quieted the youths. He turned back to the injured man. "Thalon, you're a trek veteran, what do you think should be done?"



"Now that my ankle is bound, I feel I can continue, " Thalon answered. "But Neril is right. I'll need some help with my pack for a while."



"We can ill afford to lose you this early in the trek," Neragon said after a brief pause.



He stood and looked along the line of men who waited for his decision. Geran and his cronies looked back with sullen defiance. Neragon turned toward the head of the column where Sergon stood, patiently waiting his decision.



"Sergon will take Thalon's pack, Neril will take Sergon's pack and Thalon will carry Neril's pack." Sergon moved up the trail to make the exchange. Surprise and chagrin marked the faces of the young men when they realized what Neragon was doing. An elder and a girl would take on the greater burden they were ready to reject. The trek continued in silence as Thalon, supporting himself partially on his staff, hobbled down the path with Docanen near at hand ready to help if the large man faltered.



The setting sun gilded the rocks of the mountain and sent long blue shadows over the plateau when they reached the base of Mount Vald. They made their way across a sloping field of large stones that could trap a careless foot or start a slide. Neragon slowed the pace to accommodate Thalon. The sky lost color and the first stars began to appear before they reached firmer footing and walked over sandy loam dotted with shaggy mounds of oil bush.



They were still too close to the lower slopes of the peak for Neragon's ease of mind, but continuing after nightfall would increase the chance of further injuries. He gave the signal to make camp. The merchants circled and dropped their packs, then stood to stretch and roll muscles knotted with hours of tension. Most of them had duties to perform before the evening meal could be cooked and served. A group of men moved off into the brush to gather dead oil bush for a hot, smokeless fire to heat the food others were preparing.



After resting her staff and pack against a rock, Neril quickly checked her equipment. Her grandfather had emphasized the importance of the nightly drill. Since most of the things she carried might be needed at any time, she followed his instructions to the letter. The coiled bolika that she wore at her waist was a tough line of braided leather root fiber, looped at one end and weighted at the other. She had learned to use it to scale cliffs and tie down tents in windy weather.



She checked the line for frayed or weakened strands. The edge of her knife was still sharp, her staff showed no signs of cracks or splinters, and there were no holes in her pack, water skin or belt pouches.



It took only a few minutes to complete the drill. Then she turned to Thalon who had settled wearily to the sandy ground nearby. "How do you feel?" she asked.



"Tired and sore, but I'm grateful for your quick thinking. I should know better than to lift my eyes from the trail when we leave the Homeplace. After I stumbled, I felt certain I would sweep you, and all the others in front of me over the edge." He looked toward the little knot of men surrounding Geran. "I was one of those who didn't think a woman belonged on trek. I have changed my mind."



Neril smiled at him and stood up. "I'll get some food and hot water to make a medicinal tea. It will ease the pain and help you sleep."



She hurried toward the cookfire, her step almost a skip as she felt the lift of Thalon's approval. Then she passed near Geran and caught a glimpse of his face. He glowered at her with possessive rage. Her temper rose and she was tempted to tell him how much she resented his continued efforts to assert a claim on her. The look on his face reminded her that her father had nearly yielded to Belil who had already entered negotiations with Geran's mother.



Geran's widowed mother, Gidkil was a shrew like Belil. Even if Neril had liked Geran, the thought of becoming a mere servant in his mother's house would have cooled her affection. She had always avoided Gidkil and her unruly brood. Geran and his brothers had been bullies from the time they were children, taking cruel delight in tormenting those who were younger and weaker.



When Geran returned from his first trek full of stories of his cunning and bravery, he had courted Belil but she had found widowed Neragon more attractive. Other girls had hung on Geran's words, but Neril, now wearing the longer skirts and ribbon-bound hair of a marriageable maiden, had continued to avoid him. She was more interested in studying the scrolls in the Shrine with Ablon, a shy scholar, or sharing jokes with jolly Kemoron, the smith's assistant, who had taught her the techniques of gold-smithing.



Perhaps it was her lack of interest that had set her apart and made Geran decide to win her by fair means or false. Ablon had told her that Geran had stood in the midst of evening gathering at the bachelor's hall and rung the gong that announced a challenge. "I warn any man who would look upon or speak to Neril, daughter of Neragon. She will be my bride. Any who challenge my claim should step forward now."



A few days later after Ablon had spent the morning studying in the shrine with Neril, he had fallen from the window ledge of the second story room of the bachelor hall where he often perched to study by the light of the setting sun. His leg had been broken in a way that would bar him from ever making the trek.



Neril suspected that he had been ambushed but Ablon refused to tell her who had pushed him. Afterwards none of the other bachelors dared approach her. Even Kemoron had begun to avoid her, claiming that she had progressed beyond the point where he could help her. Without proof, she could not accuse Geran of the attack but she resented the cowardly tactics of her would-be suitor.



When she discovered that Geran had entered into conspiracy with her stepmother to force her father to arrange a betrothal, Neril had doubled her efforts to qualify for the trek. Away from the influence of Belil, Neragon might see the need for quelling Geran's pretensions.



A confrontation with Geran would only make her seem as much a shrew as Gidkil and Belil. Neril would not be lured into making a fool of herself by giving him a public reprimand, and he was always surrounded by a few of his cronies. She felt the weight of Geran's sullen stare following her while she finished preparing Thalon's meal.



When she handed Thalon the cup and plate, a grimace of pain flashed over his face. "Drink the medicine first, it has a pungent taste, but it will ease the pain," she assured him. "I brought matlas stuffed with onions and meat and a handful of dried nuka fruit to take away the bitterness."



"Well done, Neril," someone said. She glanced up to see Sergon settling into a squat nearby. "Neragon made a wise decision when he redistributed the packs. The stewards back in Marekla forget that my gray hair hasn't robbed me of strength. I made my first trek while my beard was no more than a patch of down. I'm no older than most of the trek chiefs but they gave me a pack more suitable for an elderly man. When the day comes that I can't carry my fair share on trek, I'll retire to Timora."



"Timora?" Neril raised her brow in surprise and chuckled. "I can't imagine Marekla without you. What would my grandfather say if he knew his apprentice high priest was thinking of deserting the fold?"



"I'm not joking," the elder scowled, a wink softening his fierce expression. "I have a villa near the western wall in Timora only a few streets away from the Great Shrine. Perhaps I'll show you my home while we're there." He lifted the scowl with a smirk when he reached over and snatched a dried nuka from the plate Neril had given Thalon. He chewed the tart morsel for a moment while the others continued their meal.



His mobile face reflected a varied stream of thought, but his eyes were serious when he spoke again. "As long as I live, I hope to be of service to my people, and I won't be if I'm bound up in the Homeplace, treated like a living fossil."



"Are you prepared to meet my challenge?" a harsh voice demanded. They looked up to see Geran striding toward them, his cronies lurking in his wake.



Neril stood to confront the bully. "Which of us do you challenge, and why?"



"It's not your business Neril. These men know what I mean," he said, raising his staff in challenge.



"I'll meet you, you young fool!" Sergon replied. He turned to Neril. "My staff is with my pack. May I use yours?" She handed him the staff her grandfather had given her and he stood to face Geran, the staff held before him in a posture of defense.



"Sit down old man," Geran said with a sneer at the battered staff. "I don't care if Neril speaks to a dried husk like you. I only want to ensure that Thalon doesn't get any ideas about replacing his old wife." Geran shook his fist and his friends snickered.



"You issued a challenge. I accepted," Sergon said. "Are you too much of a coward to fight a man who isn't crippled?"



Geran hesitated, then made a slight bow of acceptance. The wiry elder led the way to a bare area near the edge of the camp and marked the bounds. The other Mareklans surrounded the combatants and began to make small wagers on the sparring match.



"I'm afraid he'll be hurt!" Neril said as she helped Thalon to his feet so that they could witness the fray.



"Sergon will be gentle with him. After all, he's just a boy," Thalon muttered ironically.



"I meant--" she stopped her explanation when they reached the sparring ground just in time to see Geran raise his staff and rush Sergon. He apparently expected to end the contest quickly as his weight and strength overcame the older man. Perhaps he had thought to take the elder by surprise, but Sergon whirled, his borrowed staff moving so fast it seemed a blur of reflected firelight.



There was a cracking sound and Geran hopped back, his eyes bewildered. His staff had snapped in two between his hands. He scowled and raised his hand to catch another staff from one of his followers, kicking the pieces of the broken staff away from his feet as he faced Sergon again.



Neragon came to stand next to his daughter. She glanced at his face, expecting anger. Instead, he wore a smile. "It is past time for that young bully to be given a lesson," he muttered as his eyes followed Geran and Sergon who were circling the cleared space, each waiting for the other to make a move.



Geran suddenly attacked when the older man started coughing and lurched backward to recover his balance. A cry of warning rose in Neril's throat but she choked it back when she realized that Sergon's coughing fit had been a ruse. His staff came up as if by accident and the watchers were hard pressed to follow his movements when he countered Geran's charge. The blows of the elder's borrowed staff seemed to patter like hail around the shoulders and legs of the younger man, meant more to chastise than to wound.



Angry at the unexpected skill of his opponent, Geran aimed an illegal blow. The watching Mareklans gasped with dismay when they saw his staff descend heavily toward Sergon's silvered head. Sergon whirled away with the agility of a dancer, bringing his staff up and shattering the staff Geran wielded.



"Enough," Neragon commanded. He moved forward and put his hand on Geran's shoulder to restrain him from taking another staff. "Are you a fool Geran? How many staffs will you see broken before you realize that the blows that destroyed your staffs could as easily have been aimed to take your life? We have no more to spare."



"I demand another chance." Geran growled.



"You think to defeat a hero of the Ambush at Janaka? " Neragon asked incredulously.



Geran sneered. "Everyone knows that the Ambush is only a legend. What has that to do with our fight?"



"Can it be that you don't know that Sergon is one of three men who survived the Ambush? They were all that were left of the twenty men of the trek, but a force of fifty Janakans armed with spears and swords failed to take them. Sergon and his two companions returned to Marekla with the news that King Jagga of Janaka sent members of his guard against a Mareklan caravan."



"I thought it was just a story that old men tell to children to impress them," Geran muttered.



"We do not teach lies for history Geran," Neragon reproved him. "Sergon is one of our heroes. You've been too busy bragging about your own puny exploits to think that a genuine hero might remain silent. Don't waste any more staffs. You may continue this contest barehanded if you wish."



Sergon removed his tunic in preparation for continuing the contest. Beneath his sparse graying beard, ropy muscles that looked as hard as wood patterned his bare chest. The arms he lifted to sparring posture rippled with subtle power reflected in the lines of his bronzed thighs and calves. Geran hesitated, then shook his head. "I don't want to hurt an old man. I'll withdraw my challenge."



"Then I make a challenge on behalf of Neril," Sergon said. "If there are any here, other than Neragon, who think they have the right to decide who she can speak to, and where she can go, let them meet me now in combat."



Geran hesitated, his face sullen. His cronies urged him to take up the challenge. Instead he dropped his arms to his side. "Neril is free to do as she desires. I'm certain that she'll soon realize the choice she must make." He backed away and joined his grumbling friends. Neragon signed for them to find more fuel for the campfire.



Sergon pulled his tunic over his head and cinched his waist with a wirra hide belt hung with pouches and decorated with gold embroidery. Thalon hobbled back to his pack with Neril and sat down with a weary grunt.



"I'm surprised he didn't realize Sergon is a hero of the Ambush," Neril said.



"It is as your father said," Thalon said. "Geran is too full of his own dreams of glory to acknowledge the achievements of others. Sergon is a hero, but every trek veteran could tell of exploits that would make the adventures of Geran seem like child's play."



"Thalon was just such a youth as Geran," Sergon said with a chuckle as he sat down and picked up his cup. "I can remember his second trek. I was the trek chief and I nearly sent him back into the valley before we made first camp."



"Was I really so bad?" Thalon asked plaintively.



"Worse!" the old man laughed. "You swaggered so much that I feared for your footing on the path. Can you remember how you learned humility?"



Thalon gave a rueful chuckle, "I'll never forget. We went into the jungles that year. I laughed at the small forest people and maligned their nakedness. You warned me to observe their bounds and I thought you were a coward. I took several of my friends with me one night to explore in a direction that had been forbidden by the men of the forest."



"You were brave to risk the jungle," Neril said.



"We were fools to disobey our elders," he replied. "We found a vast ruined city. Its broken walls were covered with vines and trees. As we explored, we dug open a room containing jade and turquoise masks inlaid with gold. It seemed the answer to our most avid dreams of wealth. We knew they would bring a great price in Zedekla and we cast aside our trade goods and filled our packs with booty."



"When we tried to leave the ruins, a line of tiny, naked men confronted us. Their elder stepped forward and signaled us to empty our packs. I laughed and ordered my men to ignore him. The forest people lifted hollow reeds to their lips and I felt a sting at my throat. I woke several days later back in camp."



"How were you rescued?" Neril asked.



"Sergon told me that our lives were spared only because he shared ritual brotherhood with the chief in a ceremony on his first trek. He had also traded half our profits to redeem us from the tribe."



Sergon nodded. "I found you more amenable to suggestion after that adventure."



Neril waited for him to say more but instead, a comfortable silence ensued while her companions gazed into the embers of the camp fire and silently reviewed the dangers and joys of past treks.



Finally Sergon looked up and Neril followed his gaze toward the camp. The elder watched the efforts of Feton and Maldorn to start another fire. Maldorn worked zealously with a fire bow until Feton realized that it would be easier to fetch a burning brand from the cook fire.



Unfortunately for his plan, he chose a piece of oil weed that burned hot and fast, so fast that it scorched his hands before he reached his goal. He dropped it on his foot and seared his boot. He howled and hopped, landing on the burning fragment with his other foot.



Sergon's lips stayed straight but his eyes were merry with amusement. It was a wonder that Feton had passed the requirements for trekking but perhaps the stewards had seen the value of his absurdity. The laughter at his performance visibly relieved the tensions the fight had instigated.



Finally Feton limped away to seek solace from his friends and Sergon turned his eyes back to Neril. Seeming to sense that she was waiting to speak, he nodded.



"I've heard that the people of the forests are little better than animals," she said, pursuing the subject of their earlier discussion. "Why do they live in huts made of leaves when there are stone cities filled with treasures?"



"I've learned to avoid quick judgments of the choices other people make," Sergon said. "We've lived in Okishdu for nearly a thousand years since Irilik led our ancestors away from Algunagada's tyranny, but before we lived here, other people built cities and roads. There were still a few signs of their settlements and worship places when our people spread across the land. The great black pyramid in Zedekla is ages old. The builders have disappeared. Are the forest men their descendants? Is there a curse on the ruins? Who can say? Most Mareklans don't even remember our own origins. The young are rarely taught about events that happened before we wandered deeper into a cave on Mount Vald and found the Homeplace hundreds of years ago."



He seemed ready to continue his story but Neragon gave the signal that it was time for the evening ritual. Neril stood and shouldered her pack. "I pray the Radiance gives you rest and healing Thalon, and blesses you for your help against Geran, Sergon."



She carried her pack to the cluster of seven men surrounding Neragon. The trek council made way for her with gestures that assured her they had accepted her presence in the trek. Geran and his friends had drawn apart on the far side of their campfire. They glared at the trek chief with sullen resentment.



"Neril will stand first watch with me," her father said. "I'm concerned that the initiates who favor Geran might cause trouble if they stand watch with each other. The five of them will be split between the watches for the rest of the trek so that more experienced men can keep an eye on them."



"Docanen, Beldon, and Tolaren will be captains of the watch. I'd considered making Geran an officer of the watch, but he'll have to prove himself before I take that step." Neragon's fingers flashed through subtle signs to ask for confirmation of his decision. The council members gave a short chopping motion with their right hands. Neril knew many of the hand signals, those that would be necessary during the trek when silence ruled, but there were others that only time and increased responsibility would teach her.



All the Mareklans stood and faced toward Timora as the Evening Ritual marked the beginning of the first watch. Sergon covered his head with a blue stole and invoked the blessing of the Radiance. He removed the covering from his head after pronouncing the prayer and showed Neril where she should place her pack next to the larger pack her father had carried for Thalon. The corum wool cape she wore would shield her against the chill of night as it had shaded her against the heat of the sun.



While she walked to her watch post at the northern end of the camp, she rubbed her thumb over the engraved patterns on the staff her grandfather had given her at her initiation ceremony. They were similar to the embroidery on Sergon's belt. She wondered if it was simply decoration or another of the arcane means by which the elders found their way through seemingly trackless wilderness.



She took up her post and studied her surroundings. The night grew still. Only the faint hiss of wind through oil bush disturbed the silence. She noted the barely discernible rustling of tiny night creatures as they accepted her quiet presence.



The moon lay concealed behind Mount Vald which loomed above. Neril wondered if her grandparents, resting in its hidden valley, thought of her. She had expected them to object when she announced her decision to join the trek, but they had helped her prepare trade goods for her pack and her grandmother had opened a nop wood chest and given her a beautiful new trek cape in the same pattern as her grandfather's faded cape.



Neril lifted the ancient staff her grandfather had given her and ran the tips of her fingers over the patterns. She had thought of the antique staff more as a ritual artifact than a fighting weapon, but though Sergon's skill as a fighter was unquestionable, the staff had easily broken the newer, larger staffs of his opponent and played a part in his quick defeat of Geran.



The sound of the nocturnal creatures ceased and a chill of premonition interrupted Neril's musings. She assumed a defensive stance, the staff held loosely before her as her senses probed the dark for the subtle sound or scent that had sent the night dwellers to earth.



A faint scuffing noise to her right and the crack of a twig behind her sent her into action. She ignored the sheathed knife at her waist and the coiled bolika that Kumnorans could use to bring down a wild corum bull. Her weapon was the staff.



While whistling the warning signal, she began to spin. Her staff slid along her grasp with the force of her spin and she held to the knob at one end as the other whirled around her. She felt the impact of the staff and the howl of angry surprise from the man who had sneaked up behind her.



She jumped to her left while ducking low, her staff sweeping only inches above the ground. There was a thump and a howl. She felt the brush of fabric cross her cheek as the second man fell forward past her crouching form. The impact of his body thudded on the ground where she had been standing a moment before.



She thought she saw another man lurking behind the sparse cover of a desert shrub. She used her staff to vault toward the third intruder, her heels angled to hit him hard in the shoulders. How many more were there? Were these the dread priests of Orqu who sought unceasingly for the entrance to Marekla? Had the noise and light of the camp, so close to the base of Mount Vald betrayed the trek? The thoughts ran through her mind as the third man fell heavily and gave a howl of pain.



Neril's last move had brought her skidding to the ground. She hastily regained her feet, took the coiled bolika from her waist and snapped it to its full length. She held the staff on her right hand and approached the first of the attackers who was beginning to sit up. Before she could flick the bolika around him, a flare of light illuminated the scene. Her father had raced to her side as soon as he noticed the commotion of the attack and had lit a torch of oil brush.



Geran scrambled to his feet with his hand clamped against his upper arm. Maldorn and Feton moaned on the ground where they had fallen. Neril shock relief that it wasn't priests of Orqu who had attacked her turned to anger when she realized that it was fellow Mareklans who had attempted the ambush.



"We just wanted to talk to you, why did you attack us?" Geran grumbled.



"Why did you sneak up on me? You know the signals. If you wanted to talk, you could have given me some warning," she replied.



"I gave orders for everyone else to sleep while we stood first watch," Neragon growled. "Geran, take your cronies back to the fire and wait there while I wake the members of the trek council and decide how to punish your disobedience."



As the young men stumbled and limped back toward the dim glow of the campfire Neragon turned to his daughter. "Are you hurt?"



"My haunch is a little tender where I landed on it, but I'm sure the three of them feel worse," Neril said. "I caught Feton with my staff and landed on Maldorn with my heels. Geran jumped for me but I tripped him up. I'm sure the ground made a harsher landing than my body. I don't believe they just wanted to talk. I think they wanted to disgrace me, make me look like I had fallen asleep at my post."



Neragon lifted his torch to light the area and looked around. Then he knelt and picked up an object from the ground where Geran had fallen. "This is a twig of numb thorn. I hope it wasn't intended for you. If you had fallen asleep on watch, they could have urged that you were dangerous to the trek. The punishment for assaulting a fellow Mareklan in stealth could be death. I don't think this warrants such an extreme, but perhaps I should send them back to Marekla tomorrow."



Neril could sense his indecision. The Festival trek was the most important of the year and the responsibility of leading a large group of initiates in addition to a full complement of seasoned merchants had already proved a strain.



"I think their defeat by a mere girl may be punishment enough, " Neril counseled. "It will be a heavy blow to Geran's pride. If you send them back, Sergon is the only one who could guide them through the caves. We would have to leave him behind or be further delayed. Now that you know what they are capable of doing, you can watch them. Some of the other young men admire Geran, but only Maldorn and Feton are likely to cause problems."



Neragon considered her advice, then made a decision. "I will fine them. It will hurt them in their profits. I'll tell the other members of the council what happened. I think they'll agree with my suggestions. Do you feel you can finish the watch?"



"Yes. When they first attacked, I thought we had been found by the Orquians. Now that I know my fear was unfounded, I can wait for my replacement. It will not be long."



"You have done well. I believe Geran and his influence over the other initiates would have given reason for me to worry even if you were not part of the trek. " Neragon squeezed her shoulder. The gesture of affection filled Neril with hope that they could reach an understanding about Geran's plans for her future.



Neril settled down to watch again. The moon sailed slowly from behind the great bulk of the mountain that cupped Marekla in its caldera. The attack would be remembered. Perhaps it would be best to let Neragon form his own judgements about Geran. Her father already had doubts about Belil's choices for his daughter. Geran himself would be the one to provide any evidence needed to contravene Belil's plans for their betrothal.



The stars seemed like a scatter of glittering dust across the vast sky. The howl of a wolf rang across the wasteland. An answering call sounded from nearby. Neril shivered at the thought of the wild animal so close, though she had been taught that they seldom attacked men. This was also part of the freedom of the trek, this edge of danger.



In the Homeplace, all wild animals had been eliminated long before her birth. Only the hunting birds that nested in the rim of the cliffs remained to threaten the corum lambs. They seldom came into the valley. Usually they sailed over the rim to find prey among the small animals of the wasteland rather than risk the stones and arrows of the shepherds.



Neril yawned and thought longingly of the soft mat her grandmother had stuffed with fragrant grass for her bed at home. When her watch ended, she would have only the sparse comfort of a sleeping skin spread on rocky sand.

Chapter 3 Innovation





The call of a cave owl signaled Neril that her watch was over. She smiled when she saw Sergon's gray hair gleaming in the faint light of the stars when he came to relieve her watch. "I hear you had a problem with Geran and his friends," he said.



"Nothing I couldn't handle," she said with a smile. "They should learn to move quietly when they intend an ambush."



"You were a match for the three of them," Sergon told her. "Thalon will have plenty of time to heal. Neragon and the council decided to stay here while Geran and his friends recover from the encounter. It will mean we must take a route that leads through mountains and marsh instead of the gentler trail through Taleeka, but we will approach the vale from the south pass and that is a sight worth working for."



She was relieved that Thalon would be spared the worry of having the trek delayed for his sake alone and her own hip would benefit from the rest as well. She gave a blessing gesture to Sergon and moved quietly behind a mound of oil bush. She lifted her tunic to and applied some of the same ointment she had used on Thalon's ankle to the tender place on her hip.



She had resisted at first when her Grandmother had recommended that she carry a supply of prepared medicines with her. All the trekkers carried a rudimentary kit containing dried herbs and mineral salts that could be ground with oils or boiled for infusions. It had seemed to be a waste of precious space.



"Don't forget my child, I know what it is like to trek the wilds of Okishdu. Believe me, before the first day has ended you might need these things close at hand and will not have the time to seek out grinding stones and light fires to brew tinctures."



The memory of her grandmother's amused smile brought another prayer to her lips. She raised her arms in supplication and asked the Radiance to bless her grandparents who had done so much for her. A yawn made a mumble of her final words.



She entered the camp and found her resting place near her father. He had spread a pile of brush under her sleeping skin. She smiled at the thoughtful gesture and quickly shed her boots and belt. She stretched out and spread her cape over her against the chill and wriggled to find the most comfortable place to sleep, she seemed to feel each nerve and muscle slacken with content. She felt certain she had never been so weary as after this day of trekking.



The trek through Mount Vald had been more rigorous than she expected. Although part of initiate training included hiking sessions in the nearer parts of the caves, there was no way for the newly initiated to become fully accustomed to the long hours in the absolute darkness where any misstep could claim a life. Then had come the physical and emotional trials of Thalon's fall and the attack by Geran and his cronies.



But there had been good things, better that she had envisioned when she first yearned to take the trek. How could she anticipate that she would make friends with two of Marekla's greatest men. Thalon and Sergon did not value her for her father's sake. She had earned their respect. The glow of those fledgling friendships went with her as she nestled in the cozy warmth of her cape and welcomed sleep.



The scent of frying matlas woke her to a pale yellow dawn. She put on her boots and took her belt and kit with her as she sought privacy to refresh herself for another day. The pungent smell of desert herbs scented the cool morning air. She walked to a dry wash with narrow walls that promised concealment. After relieving herself she opened the packet of scented sand that had been a gift from her grandmother on the eve of the trek.



Water was too precious to waste on bathing while they lingered in the wasteland. The silken feel of the fine sand as she rubbed it over her skin was as pleasant as the delicate scent her grandmother had compounded of night blossom petals. Neril finished her grooming and belted her tunic. When she started back toward the camp, a small whirlwind danced through the desert, kicking up puffs of sand and rustling the small leaves of the oil bush. Following its frisking progress with her eyes, Neril noticed a spill of fine sand further along in the bottom of the wash. She leaned over and felt it with her fingers. It had much the same texture as the scented sand in her kit.



Her eyes lit with the thought of a gift she could make for her father and her new friends. She returned to the camp and unrolled a leather bucket from her pack. It had been treated to carry water but it would serve as well for sand. She used her fist to work out the wrinkles and restore the shape of the bucket while she went about finding something to eat.



"What do you want with the bucket, child?" her father asked when he handed her a warm matla and a cup of cala. Even though he was the leader of the trek and had taken the first watch, he had accepted the duty of helping prepare breakfast. It was a badge of honor among Mareklans to help with small tasks even when they were weary.



"Sergon told me we would be staying in this camp for a few days. I'm preparing a surprise for you," Neril replied after draining the cup.



"Stay alert," he warned. "There are snakes and other wild animals in the area."



"I heard the call of the wolf last night and Geran and his friends may still think I can be taken unawares. I'll be careful," she assured him. She picked up a spoon from the ring of stones that supported the cala kettle. "I'll return the spoon in time for midday meal." Then she headed for the dry wash where she had seen the sand.



While she walked through the fragrant shrubs, she gathered the oily leaves that gave them their astringent odor and stored them in a gathering net. She stood at the edge of the wash and looked for any sign of snakes. There were tiny tracks of a hopping rat and the marks of a locust. The telltale ridges of a snake track held tiny wind drifts and she guessed it was several days old.



She scrambled over the edge of the dry creek bed and located the deposit of fine sand she had seen earlier. Her wide-brimmed journey hat shaded her from the sun as it climbed the sky. Glancing around to see if there were a sheltered place to work, she saw an overhanging ledge that provided a narrow strip of shade that glowed blue against the hot orange of the sun-heated rock. She carried the bucket filled with sand to the shade where smooth stones were piled against the bank and selected two that would suit her errand.



A large flat stone that lay well within the shade would serve as her table. T

She found the pestle stone she needed halfway buried under smaller stones. It was so suited to her purpose that she knew a moment of regret that she couldn't expect to keep it. The tools and personal necessities she carried in the pouches on her belt had been chosen with an eye to balancing value and weight. She would soon be overloaded if she picked up every useful stone. A swig from her water skin marked the end of her preparations.



She sprinkled the leaves she had gathered over the top of the flat rock and began to crush them with the pestle. A pungent wave of scent rose from the crushed leaves she quickly scooped them into the bucket and mixed them with sand to buffer the stong odor.



A rattle of warning sent chills up her back and she shuddered with reaction to the sound she had hoped never to hear. Her neck seemed to creak aloud as she slowly turned her head.

Beady black eyes set on either side of a wedge-shaped head stared at her from the top of a long coiled body. A narrow forked tongue flickered in and out tasting the air. Her hand tightened on the stone she had used to grind the leaves and she slipped her knife from her belt with her other hand. As the snake struck, she pushed the stone at its head and heard the grating sound when its fangs met rock. She slashed at the curve just behind the head of the reptile as it recoiled to strike again.



The snake dropped to the sand and wriggled aimlessly, its blood oozing out on the sand until the thrashing died to a reflexive twitching. Neril had never before killed anything larger than an insect and she felt repulsed by the spill of blood and the dull eyes of the dead animal. Then she noticed the markings, similar to the pattern of the Marekla cloth of her cloak. The skin of the reptile tempted her to touch it and the silky, dry a feel of the scaly surface surprised her.



She quashed her revulsion and began to skin the snake. She had learned to cure corum skins with sand and oil and she was hopeful that by scraping the skin until no trace of flesh remained, she would be able to use it whole.



Several hours later the heat of the sun beating down on her head alerted her that it was time to return to camp. The ledge no longer sheltered her. She took several final stitches and stood. Her joints ached from her cramped position while she worked, and she stretched before she gathered up the materials in the bucket and made her way back to camp.



Her father stood talking to Sergon and Thalon, he frowned when he saw Neril. "I was ready to send out a search team to find you. You promised to return before the noon meal."



"I'm sorry I caused you worry," Neril apologized. "I got lost in what I was doing. I hope you like the things I have made." She set the bucket down and showed him three sand filled pouches.



Each was a seamless section of snake skin, sewn shut at the bottom and tied at the top. Thalon opened the tie that closed the pouch she had given him. The odor of desert shrubs tempted him to dip his fingers into the scented sand inside. Sergon and Neragon followed his example. They seemed puzzled by the purpose of the gift.



"Grandmother gave me scented sand to use as a cleanser when there isn't enough water to bathe," Neril explained. "I thought you would like something similar, but smelling of herbs instead of flowers. I was going to make bags from the edges of my sleeping skin, but I killed a snake this morning. I thought the patterned skin would make a handsome package for the scented sand."



"You saw a snake this morning?" her father growled.



"She killed a snake this morning." Sergon said. "The snake is the one you should worry about." He turned from Neragon to Neril and gave a small bow. "I'm impressed with your gift Neril, and I'm sure your father will realize the significance of your product once he stops fretting about your safety." He pronounced the word "product" with emphasis that was not lost on the other men.



Thalon smiled with delight and rubbed some of the scented sand into his wrist. He nodded when he saw the way it removed the skim of soil from his skin. "I've often wondered why men didn't use scented sand. Could you make more?"



"The snake skin is long enough to make several more pouches and I have plenty of sand to fill them," Neril assured him. She lifted her bucket to show him the coiled length of brown and tan patterned skin that rested on the remaining sand. "I'm sure that hunters could find more snakes and there is a virtually inexhaustible supply of herbs and sand."



"May I help you make more of your scented sand pouches?" Thalon asked. "I've been unhappy about wasting time while we wait here."



"I could gather more herbs and sand if you tell me where to find them," Sergon volunteered.



"I guess that leaves me to organize a hunt for more snakes," Neragon said with a grimace of distaste. Then he smiled at her and her heart lifted. "This new product will be well worth the preparation time. Since we must camp, it's good that we can produce something for trade. We will have to limit our production to the weight limits, but these seem relatively small for the likely value."



As the morning passed, other members of the trek traded for the packets of scented sand and complimented Neril on her ingenuity. Most of the men joined the effort to make them after seeking Neril's permission to use her idea. Thalon used a fancy braided cord to close the little bags and suggested they would fetch a premium price in lowland cities.



Geran laughed at the idea. "Who would pay good coins for the smell of weeds?"



"Lowlanders will think the scent is exotic and rare." Thalon replied, "Price alone often determines the value of luxury goods. You should have learned by now that the first principle of trade is to buy or produce at low cost and sell at the higher price insured by rarity. Where you see weeds ground in dirt, others will see an exotic substance fit for the skins of royalty. As for the skin of the serpent, it has an established value. We use a similar oil for preserving corum leather. This could be a new way to preserve snake skin. The oil in the scented sand should keep the skin supple."



Geran locked his teeth in a grimace and stalked away to sulk. Feton and Maldorn, prevented from seeking his company by fiat of the council, eventually joined in the production of the pouches. As the day passed, they began to ignore Neril's status as Geran's intended and began to hover near her. One or the other always seemed to be around. Geran's surly presence had warned away the amorous courtesies of other young men for more than a year. At first she enjoyed the attention his errant friends offered her.



"Would you like another cup of nuka juice?" Feton asked her as soon as she finished the cup Maldorn had brought a few minutes before. She shook her head and concentrated on cutting another section of snake skin. Now that her efforts would be judged by the more stringent requirements of the marketplace, she felt the weight of making her best attempt. Ironically, the first three pouches had turned out well because she had made them from an impulse of friendship and love.



"I'll get more cord from Thalon," Maldorn offered, but Feton jumped up first and the two began to wrestle each other to run the errand. Feton's foot shot out in an attempt to trip his rival, but instead it knocked over a bucket of scented sand that Thalon had prepared. Neril gave them both a look of disgust and they stopped fighting.



"Please, go hunt snakes," she hissed as she tried to salvage the batch of sand. Blushing and wordless, they backed away and left her with a shambling haste that threatened more damage to their healing limbs. They limped into the narrow mouth of a nearby canyon. A few hours later they returned with a snake that was almost twice as big as the one Neril had killed. Sergon took them with him after a glance from Neril and soon they were the center of an admiring circle as they described their adventure.



With more snake skins available, Neril used the last of the cured skin from the snake she had killed to make a pair of gloves. Her hands snagged thread when she sewed the sand packets. Her grandmother had urged her to take gloves from home, but she hadn't seen the need.



She cut the snake skin so that the pattern went from the base of her fingers up to her wrist. Her fingers above the second knuckle were left free. Happy with the fit, she rolled the mitts together and put them in her belt pouch to use when it was her turn to fetch wood and build the fire.



The distraction of hunting snakes and preparing the packets of scented sand could not completely ease the edge of tension everyone felt at the unplanned delay. Their water skins only held enough for a few days in the waste. They eked out the supply with juice from a spiny plant that stored a supply of watery sap. Neril did not enjoy the taste but she knew it would be unwise to complain. After two days, everyone felt relief when Neragon announced they should prepare to leave camp the next day.



Neragon, his councilors, and Sergon withdrew outside the camp to discuss the route they should take. Neragon looked around the circle of men. He could defer to Sergon, but to do so this early in the trek would cause the others to question his fitness to lead. He was under pressure to make up lost time. He cleared his throat and put forth his plan. "If we take detours that will shorten the trek, it would be at the expense of trade with Taleeka. The Councilors are tolerant, but we could strain their good will if we bypass Taleeka."



Beldon shook his head. "I doubt that they will be offended. They were visited only two months ago by Gandon's caravan when he was returning from a year trek. I am more concerned about the small towns and villages. I carry seed for a new strain of mekla. It could make the difference between hunger and plenty for some of Taleeka's dependent villages."



"I think you have little choice," Docanen said. "If we do not arrive in Timora for the Day of Consecration, we risk more than if we bypass Taleeka. Beldon will find plenty of Taleekan pilgrims in Timora. They can purchase the mekla seed and carry it home with them."



Neragon glanced toward Sergon but the Elder had lowered his gaze to the ground. After a momentary flash of irritation that there would be no contribution from the man who best knew the conditions of the detour, he realized that it must be so. Anything the Elder said would carry heavy weight. The words of Elkadon on the day before they left Marekla returned to him. The high priest had implied that they would not be trading in Taleeka. The paths they would use if they avoided the longer, more profitable route for this trek to Timora were seldom used. As a trek chief, he had knowledge of secret landmarks, but in many cases, he would need to depend on the greater knowledge of Sergon. To the uninitiated, there were often no obvious markings to show the way as they headed toward the southern mountains.



"We will take the southeast passage," Neragon announced. He looked toward Sergon and saw the tiny nod of the Elder's head. "Spread the word. We break camp at dawn." After the others stood and made their way back to the camp, Sergon lingered and spoke quietly to the trek chief.



When the line of trekkers set out the next morning, Sergon walked beside Neragon but he said nothing. Those who knew that Neragon had no first hand knowledge of the trail believed he was forced to rely on maps he had studied as they began to trek southeast towards the mountains. They were impressed when he lead them unerringly to a spring where they replenished their water skins several hours after leaving their desert camp.



None could guess that he had kept his eyes on Sergon's staff which wavered from upright whenever he was not on track. The secret signal was only required twice. He was grateful to the Elder for arranging the subtle means of maintaining the confidence of the other men. Doubt in the trek chief's competence would make the strenuous trek even more difficult.



The mountains still seemed distant after two days of travel over a rough landscape of lava beds. The next morning they made better progress and after noon the sere air of the wasteland gave way to the fragrance of upland forests. Fish flashed silver in cold streams that tumbled through rocky beds. The track began to climb almost as steeply as the trail on the shoulders of Mount Vald that led from the Homeplace.



Neril looked forward to the evening when she could find a private place to bathe. She knew the mountain water would be chilly, but scented sand could not replace the tingling freshness of skin washed with water and soap. If all she could find was a broad place in the stream, she vowed she would somehow make shift to wash herself.



When Neragon gave the signal to make camp, Sergon caught Neril's eye and she watched him gesture. For a moment the message escaped her understanding, then he repeated it again and she smiled. She followed his directions and slipped away up a narrow ravine where she found a small water fall above a pool that beckoned with limpid depths. Sergon had winked at her as she left her place in line and she knew he would guard access to her retreat.



She stripped off her tunic and loincloth and washed them clean then spread them on the sun heated surfaces of large stones near the pool before giving in to the lure of the water. All of her bathing in Marekla had taken place in the warm spring pools of the women's bath house. This water shocked her with cold when she dived in. Her teeth chattered with chill when she surfaced but soon her body seemed to accept the chill and she dove again and again. It was a consciousness of her father's worry that ended her play. She dressed in a fresh loin cloth and tunic and noticed that the tunic and clout she had washed earlier were nearly dry.



Neragon glanced up with a frown when she hurried into camp but he smiled when he saw the damp tips of her dark hair. A fire crackled in the dusk and she drew near until her face felt hot and her limbs stopped shivering.



Sergon had lured some fat trout from their hiding places under the rocks of the stream and set then to grill on sticks over the fire. Docanen shared out the flat loaves of matla between the merchants and each added their choice of herbs to the hot water Neragon poured into their cups. Neril savored the tender flesh of the fish while she listened to the others talk.



"I've heard legends about the history of our people before we found the Homeplace, but who can claim to know the truth?" Thalon asked using language and gestures that warned Neril that the question was rhetorical.



Sergon squatted back on his heels in a posture that promised a story. "For centuries after they were settled by the seven sons of Janak, the northern mountains were divided between separate clans who lived in fortified villages. Men died young in the constant wars. Matriarchs ruled most of the families. Women raised their children and carved terraced farms from the shoulders of the mountains. Widows mined the ore and cast the weapons that were used in the endless feuds between clans. Peace reigned only at the beginning of the new moon when the markets were held at the crossroads."



"In those days, Mareklans had no Homeplace. We managed the Janakan markets and sent caravans to gather select goods to trade for the tools and blades made by the widow smiths. Among Janakans, women were inviolate. While men battled on the contest fields outside the village boundaries, their women gathered crops, tended flocks and manned the mines and forges."



"Why couldn't they settle their differences and enjoy the fruits of peace?" Neril asked. Thalon grinned at her and she realized with a blush that she had interrupted Sergon's narrative.



The old man glanced at her and raised his eyebrows before continuing. She waited for an answer to her question but he didn't interrupt the flow of his story. "The Janakans were clever at finding crop land. They hewed terraced fields from the mountains. But with all they did, they had barely enough to feed themselves. They battled for every spare inch of territory and waged endless vendettas. All their ritual and art were dedicated to celebrating either battle or death. The men of the clans danced in a frenzy to gain courage for battle. Each warrior competed for the most impressive display of feathers and battle tokens. Even the legions of Saadena gave a wide berth to the savage clans of Janaka."



Neril narrowed her eyes against the heat of the campfire glowing in the darkness. It seemed the writhing flames became the painted, feathered bodies of Janakan warriors. She wasn't sure if it was a breeze or the thought of endless blood lust that raised the hairs of her arms and made her shiver.



"You describe it so well. Were you there?" Geran asked derisively. His friends laughed at his crude attempt at wit.



Sergon didn't acknowledge the interruption, but took a sip of nuka juice and looked around. The eyes of his companions assured him that the rudeness of the younger man had been noted but that the story should continue.



"The earth shook and the face of the world changed. The rivers that once flowed together at Saadena were divided. The empire of the children of Saaden, ruled by the fire-haired sons of Elianin was destroyed. Janakan clans began to raid the plains that had been protected by the imperial legions. Then Tharek, a hero of the blood of Irilik, led the people of Zedekla, Tedaka, Taleeka and the other cities and tribes and they defeated the hordes that would have plundered the lowlands. Thus came the kings of Zedekla, the sons of Tharek to their hegemony."



The gathering call for evening ritual sounded and the spell of the story teller broke. Neril stood and stretched before joining the others in the ritual. Sergon, as elder, put the prayer stole over his head and bowed toward the southwest as he led the ritual prayer.



"Through the Gate of Yasa Dom we seek the Radiance.



As children of Irilik we seek the guidance of heaven.



As wanderers from our home, we seek surcease."



It was a short and simple set of phrases. She had heard her grandfather give the prayer every evening since she could remember, but as Sergon spoke, she heard the words with more than casual notice. The story told by Sergon tantalized her with the echoes of names and places she had seldom heard other than as legends. She had read some of them in the prefaces to the scrolls of the Law and the Promise that were engraved into the wall of the Shrine, but most of the history she had been taught extended no further back than the founding of the Homeplace.



She took first watch on a small ledge that overlooked the pass, and pondered the words of Sergon. He had referred to the sons of Janak and Saaden, not to mention the sons of Elianin . Did all the people of Okishdu, whatever their patrimonial tribe, call themselves children of Irilik, the first Prophet? She had always assumed it was a general phrase. She had been as ignorant as any young Mareklan of the distant history of her people.



Childhood stories and ritual phrases from other ceremonies floated in her memory like bits of corum wool, waiting to be spun into a greater whole. She had always dismissed stories of people with red hair and golden eyes as fables, even as she had doubted the existence of painted, feathered men in other tales. She looked forward to hearing more from Sergon as the evenings around the campfire inspired the elder to spin his narrative.



When she heard the signal of the next watch, she hoped it would be Sergon who came to relieve her. She had questions she felt only he might answer. Instead, Docanen climbed toward her out of the night. She tried to keep her regret out of her voice as she gave her brief report.



When she reached her sleeping skin, she lay awake longer than usual after saying a prayer for her grandparents. Initially she had defied the conventional attitudes of others to come on trek so that she could spend time with her father away from the nagging presence of Belil. That goal had been realized and she enjoyed Neragon's pride in her accomplishments. Now she saw that there were many things she had taken for granted in the snug, smug shelter of the Homeplace.



Soon she would be meeting people who were not Mareklan. Their journey promised to take them through the cities that she had only known as part of fables and poems. Were the towers of Zedekla and Timora truly mounted with glinting jewels? Did the men of Janaka, now at peace, still paint their bodies and dance in a frenzy around their campfires? Did men with hair the color of fire still rule in the ancient imperial city of Saadena that now lay in ruins? Images crowded her imagination but as fatigue finally overcame her, one image accompanied her into her dreams; a young man with hair of fire and eyes of burning gold smiled with lordly pride against a background of fallen towers.



The next day she followed the other Mareklans across a broad sloping plateau where wild ruminants stared fearlessly at the column of men and returned to peaceful grazing. The ground was nearly level and her thoughts were engaged in trying to remember the dreams that had troubled her sleep. They resisted her attempt to capture more than a glimpse of tangled images that threatened even as they promised. Something about the feel of the dreams let her know that she had experienced a foresight, but at last she gave up her efforts to make sense of them.



She never spoke to others of the warnings and instructions that sometimes came with her dreams. Sometimes they had helped her avoid danger, but it was difficult to cull the real from the hoped for or dreaded.



She had dreamed of Geran; nightmares of his mother, Gidkil, in a rage, beating her and demanding service while her son ignored the insult to his bride. Did that mean she was fated to marry the bully in spite of her own desires and fears?



On the other hand, she had never had such clear and urgent dreams as now floated near her conscious mind bearing the face of a fire-haired Saadenan prince with golden eyes. Was it the stories and her own vivid imagination that had given birth to the dreams, or had they only provided a setting for dreams that she hadn't remembered from other nights?



Neril shuddered and began to say a simple prayer of gratitude for the day. She focused on the beauty that surrounded her, the feel of clean skin and hair, the warmth of knowing that Sergon had shared the precious secret of the waterfall which surely would have been ruined if others had known of the pool and had spoiled the water with their soup of soiled flesh. She grimaced at the selfishness of that thought. The men had each found a way to change clothing and bathe but without the entire immersion she had enjoyed thanks to Sergon's generosity.



The merchants climbed the slopes easily all day and through the early night hours, pausing briefly to take short meals when their legs seemed ready to fail. Neragon pushed on, taking advantage of the fine weather.



They held no evening gathering, only a brief repeat of the ritual, then rest. Neril felt disappointment that there would be no repeat of the previous evening when she had been tantalized by a new understanding of history. Once again she dreamed of the fire haired prince but visions of Geran loomed like an evil thread through the weave of the dream. She woke to the feel of moisture on her cheeks and brushed away the evidence of tears.



The first part of the next day took them through steep passes that led to another rolling plateau. A herd of sprightly bacals raced before them before veering off their track with a flicker of white tails. The pace held steady over the upland meadows and they camped at the edge of the plateau late that evening. Neril walked to the small pass they would take the following morning and looked down. Far below, a river curved in lazy loops, golden in the glow of the westering sun.



She had looked forward all day to the evening around the campfire. She settled with a bit of mending and waited for one of the men to make the rhetorical request that would lead Sergon to resume his tale, but Neragon began to explain his revised plans for the trek. "After we visit Timora, we will proceed to Zedekla on the pilgrimage road. Under the Peace of Tagun, both Tedakans and Zedeklans can trade with Janaka, but they prefer that we act as mediators. I plan to camp west of Jama and a few of us will make necessary trades, then we'll go north to Janaka."

"Take advantage of our time in Timora to purchase interesting trinkets for the Zedeklans. I think the sand packets will sell well. Zedeklans are fascinated by anything new and unique." He glanced up at the overcast sky. "We will erect the rain shelter tonight. Beldon and Geran will help Thalon with the tie down."



Sergon maintained silence until the signal was given for the night ritual. The names of the watch were announced and Neril realized she had been rotated off duty. Sergon would serve first watch. She lay quietly on her sleeping skin, trying in vain to slow her racing thoughts. Finally she sat up and made her way to the opening of the pass where she had stood earlier for a view of the valley below. She whistled the watch call and saw the elder's silvered head swing toward her.



"Sleep escapes me," she whispered when he gave her the sign to approach. "Some of the things you said the other night surprised me. I was waiting for you continue this evening. Why did you keep silent?" she asked.



"The other evening I was sowing. I saw your eyes and knew I had planted a few seeds. But you heard Geran and his friends. He ridicules my stories and insulates himself against learning anything that threatens his conventional understanding. He is not alone. Only a few among the people of Marekla care to remember the past. They mouth the rituals and garner a few scriptures, which they use to justify the errors they make."



"You are a cynic!" Neril exclaimed with surprise at his words.



Sergon shook his head, "Do you think your grandfather is a cynic?"



"No, he is a scholar, but he seldom said anything to me about his studies. He seemed to want to tell me more during these past weeks, but I was too busy winning a place in the trek to spend time listening to him," she admitted.



"Then I will stand in his stead. He gave you a named staff. That was my first cue that you are more than a rebellious girl who defied the customs of her community. I know you have specific questions, but I think it would be best for you to learn more before you ask for further information. I spoke of the division of the rivers that once flowed together to form the Comor. The Or river found a northern course to the sea. A great marsh formed along its new course. The Com found outlet to the sea near a fishing village called Zedekla. Refugees from the disaster that destroyed the empire and diverted the rivers, found their way to the village. Soon it had swollen into a city."



He caught the question in Neril's eyes and nodded that she might ask it. "I thought that Zedekla was as ancient as any of the other cities of Okishdu."



"The site of Zedekla may be one of the most ancient sites on the land, but the city we know is young. The dark pyramid was there before the Radiance led Irilik across the waters and it may be there yet when our own cities have become dust. The city of Zedekla began a little more than four hundred years ago when the river returned to an ancient bed. At first it was a place of corruption and turmoil as various gangs battled for control of the port and the river. Before long they would have fallen to the Janakans. Tharek, a Mareklan, seized control of Zedekla and named himself tyrant. He taxed and bullied the Zedeklans into raising an army to meet the threat of Janaka. Some rebelled against his rule, but his justice was swift and sure. Finally, having ensured the safety of the lowlands, he retired. Shirak, the oldest son of Tharek was chosen king after his father resigned as tyrant. The kings of Zedekla are his descendants."



"But the other night you said the Mareklans lived among the Janakans," Neril reminded him.



"After Tharek organized the other cities against them, the Janakans turned against the Mareklans. We fled the hills of Janaka and became nomads. In those days, Mareklan caravans were composed of families. Even the youngest who could walk were expected to carry small packs. We had enclaves in several cities, but we were a people with no home. We might have degenerated into separate tribes, our loyalties given to the cities where we established our main camps. The demon god, Orqu, changed our lives."



Neril was puzzled. Most of those who had objected to having her join the trek had done so with threats of the demon, but her grandfather had told her Orqu was a contrivance of evil men, having no reality in fact. "How could an imaginary being change anything?" she asked.



Sergon frowned. "I think it is unwise to say that Orqu is not real. He is an invention, created by ambitious and evil men to gain power, but the demon is an expression of true evil. There is a darkness that opposes the Radiance. Do not underestimate the danger Orqu represents. There are some among the priests of Orqu who have a twisted talent that mocks and imitates the true sight of those who serve the Radiance. They are tools of the liar and his minions, the verem, the maggots of chaos who nibbles at the edges of the world and rage at the Radiance."



Neril shivered at the dread name of true evil. Her grandfather, Elkadon, thought it unwise to even think on the nature of the fallen, pointing out that the verem were mentioned only twice in the Scrolls of Law and Promise. "Bask in the Radiance," had been his watchword.



Sergon saw the way she hugged her hands around her arms and chafed them against a chill that did not come from any natural breeze. They sat silent while the elder concentrated on his whittling.



Neril knew she might be overstepping the bounds he allowed because of their friendship, but her curiosity drove her to ask yet another question.



"How did Orqu change us?"



"Garacat, high priest of Orqu in Saadena in the time of Marnat, lusted after a Mareklan maiden. When her family refused his offer of marriage, he kidnaped her. She wounded him with a hidden knife, and in anger, he sacrificed her to blood the altar of Orqu in Saadena. Since that day, priests of Orqu have hunted Mareklan maidens. They prefer to use them as victims at bloody rituals when they found a new altar or hold a significant ceremony."

"My grandfather told me that such sacrifices are against the law in all the cities of the alliance," Neril whispered. Her body shook with another chill of fear as Sergon's words called up awful visions.



"Laws can be made, but it is difficult to enforce them when their objects work in secret. Orquians laid claim to the ancient pyramid in Zedekla and have raised their altars wherever greed and pride give them place. Many of our maidens were kidnaped and killed by Orquians before we found the Homeplace." Sergon looked around at her and she saw that his face had drawn into a grave expression.



"Beware, Neril. If you have any reason for suspicion, give the gathering signal immediately," he warned. He had been carving as he spoke. The twig in his hand had been transformed into a small image by his skill at carving. He gave her the tiny wooden figure of the prophet Irilik in silence.



Finally he looked up at the dense clouds and gave a sigh. "I think the rain will hold off, but without stars to give us our bearing, I must rely on magic. It is a strange magic, giving me no hint of its source in either good or evil. I use it only when I must."



He took a small vial from his belt pouch and extracted a thin piece of silvery blue metal. A tiny hole in the center was threaded on a narrow cord. Sergon held the end of the cord and the tiny narrow blade swung back and forth until he stilled it with his other hand. When it came to rest, Sergon reached down with his finger and made marks on the earth beneath it.



"Why do you call it magic?" she asked.



"Watch." He flicked the narrow blade and it turned, but it turned back to the same position as before. "It always points the way to the ladle of Withna, the guide star. No matter how often you push the point away, it will return."



"Is there a spirit in the metal?" she asked. She reached out and touched the narrow glimmer to test it. She detected nothing ominous about the device.



"It is called a Star Point. When Algire, the Wizard Smith, finished making the six blue swords from the rock that came from the sky and killed all the other men of his family, he made needles for his mother. They clung together in strange patterns when she removed them from their case and she was afraid. In time she traded most of them to a Mareklan and we discovered their magic."



She sensed that Sergon had shared a secret with her that she must keep from others. The knowledge of lands and signs that enabled a man to lead a trek were hard bought and sacred. She stood and returned to the camp with a gesture of thanks. Once again she had trouble falling asleep. For a few minutes she pondered the strange magic of the star point, but her mind returned to Sergon's warning about the priests of Orqu. She had told herself there was nothing to fear from the cult of Orqu. Now, a man she had reason to respect and trust had revived fears she thought she had left behind with childhood.



The southern face of the mountain range they crossed the next day was steep and rocky. The trail turned back on itself again and again as it descended down the face of the mountain. Tall conifers shielded the track, but those whose branches brushed the shoulders of the Mareklans had their roots far below on the mountainside. As noon approached, Neragon called a halt in a clearing.



Curious to see what lay ahead, Neril followed the path several paces, expecting to see yet another cutback. Her breath caught in her throat when Neragon thrust out his hand to stop her and she caught a glimpse of what lay beyond. The track ended abruptly between two sturdy trees whose gnarled branches reached over the edge of a cliff. Neril stepped back. Then she knelt and crawled cautiously to the edge of the track. Twenty man heights below the track resumed, cutting through a thicket of berry bushes.



Neril put her hand on her coiled bolika and gulped down the bile that rose to her throat. Of all the exercises that the initiates had practiced, the one she liked the least had been bolika practice. The sturdy line was useful for a number of things, but for the Mareklans, it had one main use. It made the ascent and descent of seemingly impassable mountains possible. It was seldom used, but now she faced her fear. She could go no further without using the bolika.



She knew how to cast the weighted end of the line into a cleft and pull herself up a few man heights, but the use of the combined bolikas to make a steep descent had frightened her from the first time she had tried it. She had been reassured to learn from her teacher that such descents were rare. In fact, he said, there were only two places in all the trails known to the Mareklans where they were still used. Apparently this was one of them.



She returned to the clearing and joined the others. Docanen and her father were going around the circle of men asking for their bolikas. The veterans seemed unsurprised.



Sergon examined each of the bolikas for frays or weak places. He discarded several and chided the men who had carried them. "Someday your life might hang by the strength of your bolika. Purchase new ones in Timora. Kumnorans will be there with herds and hides and other products of the steppes. I want each of you to check with me after you make your purchase."



Thalon was in charge of making the connected line. He passed the knobbed end of each bolika that had passed Sergon's scrutiny through the looped end of another and tightened the loop. The entire assemblage was doubled and draped over one of the sturdier branches of the trees that overhung the cliff. While the others watched, Thalon started down the doubled line. If it held his weight, it would support the others. A cheer went up when he reached the bottom of the cliff and released the line.



Neril tried to still her fear as one after another of the Mareklans preceded her. She knew she would be the tenth person to make the descent. Would the bolikas have reached the limit of their strength by the time her turn arrived? Would fear make her hands sweat and cause her to lose her grip? She rubbed her palms together and felt the moisture between them. Panic almost made her rush to her father and beg to be lowered as if she were a piece of cargo. Then she remembered the mitts she had made from the scraps of snake skin.



One man remained to go down the line before her turn. She found the mitts in her belt pouch and pulled them over her hands. She ran them over her arms and realized with a jolt of relief that the nap of the pattern lay opposite the direction she would be going when she went down the cliff.



She said a fervent prayer of thanks that she had thought to make the mitts and hoped that the stitches on the mitts would hold. Then she stepped forward to take her place at the top of the cliff. Neragon and Sergon helped her find her balance. They held the doubled line steady as she stepped over the edge and began to lower herself down the line. Her hands began to ache with the stress of holding to the line and she knew it was because fear still held her in its grasp. Her hands slipped a little just before the junction of two bolikas but held at the joint. Instead of burning her palms as it would have if she had not worn the mitts, the sliding sped her descent. Without stopping to think of the effect of her decision on her father, she loosened her grip and slid down the line toward the next junction where she slowed, then stopped her descent for a moment before trying the same maneuver again.



After two more slides, she was at the base of the cliff where Thalon stepped forward to rebuke her. "What were you doing? Your hands could have been torn to shreds by that trick. Didn't you hear your father cry out when you first slipped?"



"I'm sorry," she said. "I was losing my grip and fear made my hands clumsy. I was wearing these mitts and decided to take advantage of the protection they gave me to complete the descent as soon as I could. While I was training, one of the other initiates broke his leg when his bolika gave way. I have fought my fear of using the lines ever since."



"You could have told us of your fear," he said. "There are ways of rigging the lines so that you could be lowered safely."



"Yes, but what would Geran and the others have said if I had revealed my fear and delayed the trek by asking for special rigging?" she challenged.



"I will speak to your father and explain your reasoning while you gather berries to brighten our evening meal. In return, make me a pair of those mitts. My wife often chides me for having hands of flint and splinters after a trek."



Neril hurried away to perform the errand. She doubted Thalon would be able to fully assure her father. She only hoped that when Neragon talked to her, he would do so in private where Geran and his cronies could not gloat over her chastening.



When she returned with a leather bucket full of berries, she was surprised to see a smile of welcome on her father's face. "Once again you have made a small but significant contribution to our trek," he said. "Sergon and Thalon have convinced me that all of us should wear mitts when we make a descent. If we could learn to slide down the line as you did, our strength would be spared and time would be saved."



Neril sent a look of gratitude toward her friends. "I am sorry that I acted without warning you," she told her father. "But in truth, I did not know I was going to do it until my hands grew tired and I feared I would lose my grip."



"All of us fear something. It is nothing to be ashamed of," he assured her. "The important thing is to face our fears and find a way around them, if we can."



She nodded. Further explanations would only remind him of how he had felt when he first saw her begin to slip down the rope. He had no need to explain that his greatest fear involved something happening to her. He had been the ultimate judge of her fitness for the trek. If she failed, it would be his failure as well. She carried the bucket of berries to the cook fire where Docanen helped her make them into a fragrant filling for the matlas that were a staple of their diet.



They made camp at the base of the cliff after retrieving the bolika line and separating it into the separate lines that each wore in coils suspended from their belts. When Sergon covered his head and raised his hands to pray, Neril's silent prayers of gratitude were added to the formal invocations of the elder.



The long rest they had from making early camp restored their energy. They rose before the sun and took the trail before dawn. The rising sun revealed a gentler track. The steepest slopes of the mountains lay behind them.



The descent from the mountains took another day, with Neragon again pushing the pace. They made camp after sunset, their only refreshment coming from scented sand that most had learned to use for cleansing the sweat of travel from their skin.



For the first part of the following day they walked through meadows where fleet bacals grazed then leaped and chased each other. The air seemed to thicken as they entered marsh land. Biting insects hovered like a cloud over a dank swamp. Ground high enough to support them without sinking into the muck seemed to form a maze, but once again as he had in the cavern, Neragon followed while Sergon led the way, finding his path unerringly.



At the end of their first day in the marsh, they made camp on a narrow hummock of higher ground where the hum of insects filled the air. Thalon looked around him. "I had expected to be a mass of bites by now. Something seems to be keeping the bugs away."



Just then Geran dropped his pack on the ground and began to scratch urgently at the swelling bumps that covered his face and neck. "You must be too stupid for pain," he scowled. "If I'd known we were taking this trail, I would have brought a marsh net." His face was swollen with welts where he had scratched the bites.



Sergon chuckled softly and gestured Neril and Thalon to come closer. "I've noticed that the scented sand we've been using seems to keep the insects at bay. Everyone is protected but Geran. Should we take pity on him?"



Neril nodded. "I would not have even my worst enemy suffer like that." She walked over to the glowering youth and handed him one of the packets he had ridiculed. "If you use the sand, it will keep the bugs from biting." He scowled at her at first. Then he looked over and saw Thalon and Sergon watching. He tossed the packet at her feet.



"Don't try to fool me with your stories," he sneered before he turned his back on her. She shook her head at his stubborn reply to her offer of help and shrugged before leaning over to retrieve the packet.



The next day Geran finally accepted some of the sand from Feton who remained blissfully untouched by the stinging flies that pestered his friend. Neril hid her smile when she saw him rubbing it over his face and arms while he tried to hide behind a large palm bush.



Near sunset, they came to a broad, lazy river that ran with a barely discernible current through tall reeds. Sergon built a fire some distance from the camp and added green weeds that gave off a dense smoke as they burned. The column rose straight into the air. Sergon quickly doused the flame so that the dark column stood above them before slowly bending to the west and dispersing as it rose. No one dared question the procedure, but it seemed to contradict the usual practice of making smokeless fires and concealing their trail.



The next morning there were five long boats made of bundled reeds beached at the edge of the river near their camp. A pile of wide hats like the journey hats worn by the Mareklans on trek stood on the ground near the prow of one of the boats. Neril searched for some clue of how they had come to be there, but all she found was one partial footprint in the mud near one of the boats. It was easy enough to deduce that Sergon's column of smoke had been a signal to a hidden ally in the marsh.



Neragon passed out the hats that had been left by the boats to those whose headgear was becoming frayed. Then everyone got into the boats, six to a vessel with one veteran of marsh treks at either end of each boat. They used long poles to propel the boats through the shallow water of the river.



After she stowed her staff and pack as she had been directed, Neril hung onto the sides of the boat with clenched fingers. The crossing was uneventful until just before they landed. Neril had relaxed her grip on the sides of the boat once it became evident that the placid water offered no threat of swamping. She lifted one hand to rub an itch on her nose and the boat began to rock. She grabbed frantically at the sides of the slim vessel and heard a mocking laugh from behind her. She did not need to look to see who had tried to scare her.



"Fool," Docanen's voice rebuked Geran for his childish prank. The disturbance had changed the course of the boat and they were forced to disembark some distance downstream of the other boats and share the burden of towing the boat upstream.



Nothing more was said about the incident. Neragon and Sergon looked to Thalon for an explanation since he had manned the pole in the errant vessel, but the big man shrugged. They left the boats tied to reeds with some bundled goods and their worn hats in the center boat.



As they continued to find their way through the swamp, the murmur of running water tantalized Neril. After briefly considering the scummy surface, she decided it would be best to continue to use the sand for cleaning away the dirt of her travel. Neragon had warned her against bathing in the stagnant water where hidden parasites bred. However much she rubbed her skin with the scented sand, she never felt clean in the sultry air that stank of rotting vegetation.



Early the next day Feton wandered from the path Sergon marked. He became mired in quicksand. Maldorn rescued him by grasping his pack and tugging him out of the mire before it reached his chest. He reeked with the odor of the swamp.



"It will be hours before we can take a break," Neragon told the luckless youth. "You will have to wait until then to clean yourself. Meanwhile, walk at the rear so the wind will carry away some of the stench." Feton nodded dolefully and the others tried not to laugh at the squishing sound of his boots as he followed in line with exaggerated care not to stray from the path again.



The steps of all the Mareklans dragged as they made their way through the final section of the swamp. At noon Sergon stopped to take his bearings and led them toward the northwest. Their energy returned when they realized the track led to higher ground where the sweltering air of the swamp gave way to a pleasant breeze delicately scented with blossoms. The way grew steep, but it seemed easier to climb than it was to wander in the seemingly trackless swamp. They had climbed high above the miasma of the marsh when they approached a camp site near sundown.



Sergon lifted aside a pile of vines without disturbing their roots and revealed the stone ring of a fire pit. The sound of falling water drew Neril. She followed a faint path through the dense foliage and found a pool foaming with the effervescence of a soda spring. A narrow waterfall sent a plume of rainbow spray over the small vale.



Neril heard the others following her. As soon as Feton saw the pool he began to tear at his sodden, stinking clothing. Neril blushed at the sight of his narrow chest as he stripped to his loincloth. She turned away and returned to the camp site. She would have to wait to bathe until after the evening meal.



Neragon had seen the longing look she gave the pool before Feton had arrived. The other men took their turn washing their bodies and soiled clothing. The evening meal was informal and it wasn't until Sergon performed the ritual that the last of the men returned from the pool.



Neragon sought out Neril and assigned her first watch at the pool. It would give her the opportunity to bathe when no one was near to interrupt. While she waited in the darkness, her senses alert to the sounds around her, she thought about the past few days. Now even Geran kept his eyes open for colorful reptiles whose skins could be cured with scented sand. He seemed to have a knack for finding and killing snakes and lizards.



Neril's thoughts were interrupted by a hissing sound near her feet. She glanced down and saw a beautiful strip of color glowing in the moonlight. She recognized the banded viper and froze in place. She knew if she reached for her knife, it might sense her motion and attack.



Perhaps it would pass by if she stayed completely still. She held her breath as she watched the snake glide past her booted toes. The delicate head of the reptile lifted. Its forked tongue slid out and tasted the air near her foot, then it recoiled, preparing to strike. It was too late to do anything but scream and hope she would be found before the deadly venom killed her. She filled her lungs for a piercing yell.



Before she could let out a scream a knife flew through the air from behind her and impaled the serpent. Her breath rushed out in a gasp of surprise and relief and she stumbled backward, away from the deadly beauty that writhed at her feet. She tripped and fell into Geran's arms as he stepped into the clearing. His arm closed around her and kept her from falling. She did not fight against his clasp, but leaned back against his chest for a moment while she caught her breath. He tightened his arm and she straightened, fearful that he might take advantage of her temporary weakness. He turned her in his arms and easily held her fast with one arm while he used his other hand to tip her face upward.



She stiffened and bared her teeth in a grimace of affronted anger. If he dared to take advantage of her, she would make certain the other merchants would be waked by her screams. For a moment they stared into each other's eyes. Then she heard the laughter rumbling in his broad chest as he released her. She blushed and took several steps away from him.



"I'm sorry I didn't signal, but just as I was ready to whistle, I saw the snake. It is a beauty isn't it." He leaned down and grasped the dead viper, holding it up for closer inspection.



"You deserve my gratitude," Neril said with a shudder.



He smiled, then winked before he turned his back and returned to the camp. Neril felt warmth pass over her like a drenching of warm water when she considered how close she had come to death. She lifted her face to the night sky and uttered a prayer of gratitude. Most of her thanks was for her narrow escape from the deadly venom of the serpent, but she was also grateful that Geran hadn't pressed his advantage during her momentary weakness. Perhaps they could be friends after all.



The hour grew late and the enticing odor of night blossoms grew more intense. Moonlight brought forth blossoms on the vines that draped the nearby trees. The flowers glowed in pale purity all around her. Thalon gave the signal that her watch had ended and stepped out of the darkness. "Your father suggested you might want to use the pool by the water fall now that the others are sleeping. Geran is dreaming of the profits his viper skin will bring. He acted quickly, if the story he tells is true."



"He saved my life," Neril admitted. "I was preparing a scream that could have reached Timora when I saw his knife sink into the viper's spine." Thalon nodded and took watch position, his staff held loosely, his eyes and ears alert.



Neril made her way to the camp and gathered her kit and a fresh tunic. She picked up a leather bucket to use in washing her hair and took a torch with her. The path was faint through the blossom-laden glade but she soon came to the pool. It sparkled, flashing back the gold of the torch and the silver of moonlight. The white sand that surrounded the pool felt like fine meal under her bare feet. She realized she had the means to repay Geran in some small measure for saving her life.



The passage of water through the pool had long since cleansed it of any trace of the others who had bathed earlier. Although not as warm as the hot spring pools she was familiar with in Marekla, it was far more comfortable than the icy pool she had first bathed in during their passage through the mountains. She was tempted to linger in the water but there was too much to do to prepare for entering the Vale of Timora. She was also conscious that where one snake had been killed, its mate might linger.



After bathing and dressing in clean clothing, Neril gathered sand in the bucket. She stopped among the night blossoms after examining each shadowed niche with her torch to make sure it was safe. She harvested the blooms until she had filled the bucket to the top with the fragrant petals, working quickly to gather them at the apex of their fragrance before dawn closed them again. While she walked back to the camp, she stirred the sand and petals with one hand. She smiled in anticipation of the morning while she took off her boots and belt and lay down on her sleeping skin.



The next day Geran had skinned the viper and was preparing to fill it with sand when Neril approached him. "The oil weed mixture is suitable for men, but I think women would prefer a different fragrance and the colors of that viper skin would please a lady." She smiled while she handed him the bucket filled with blossom scented sand. The sand from the pool shone creamy white instead of tan.



Geran grinned as he accepted the bucket. "I guess I'll have to get my friends busy sewing sections of this skin into pouches," he said.



Sergon had followed Neril when she approached Geran. "I hope you ask a proper price for your product Neril," he prompted.



"He saved my life last night. I think he deserves the gift," Neril said. She heard the warning in Sergon's voice but watched Geran cut the tube-like viper skin into sections so that she wouldn't have to confront the look in her mentor's eyes. She was aware that it might be foolish to do anything to encourage her former suitor in thinking she had forgotten his behavior at the beginning of the trek. On the other hand, it would be ungracious to ignore what he had done for her when he killed the viper. If only she could convey to Sergon that her gratitude was at least in part that Geran had not pursued the advantage he held during the first brief moments after he had saved her life. She heard the older man give a small sign of frustration before he spoke again.



"We are only a few hours' trek from Timora," Sergon told them. "Tomorrow is the Day of Consecration that begins the Festival of Founding."



"I thought we were too late to attend the festival," Feton said.



"We made better time than expected, even with the delay at the beginning of the trek," Sergon said. "It is a tradition for us to enter the valley of Timora in the morning of the first day of festival. We'll join the procession of Offering at the main shrine. Take your time and do a good job with these pouches. One of them would make a fitting gift for the High Priestess."



"I'll help you sew them," Neril offered. She settled down by Geran's side and took out her packet of punches and needles. Thalon stopped by with a skein of braided twine to add to their enterprise. By the time the midday meal was served, there was a neat line of colorful, fragrant pouches on the grassy ground in front of them.



Sergon examined the delicate stitches Neril had used to edge the leather. "Give the first packet to the high priestess of the shrine and you will be assured that every noble lady in Timora will seek you out."



"Who would pay for the skin of a viper they can find in nearby woods?" Feton asked.



Thalon laughed, "Are you willing to hunt these vipers for their skins and not charge whatever you could get? The blossoms are rare and bloom only at night."



"I think Geran should give the offering as a sign of our gratitude to the Radiance. It won't hurt if the gift piques the interest of potential customers," Neragon added.



Geran smiled as he selected the best of the packets and placed it in Neril's hands. "I may not agree with Thalon that these are worthy of the noble pilgrims of Timora, but you must accept this one."



Neril glanced into his face as he made the offer and found something almost likable in the smile he gave her. Then she caught the speculative look on her father's face and feared she had made a sad mistake in offering even the slightest friendship to Geran. She had hoped to spend some time alone with her father during the trek but since the first night his responsibilities and the need for swift passage had kept them apart. Could he so easily forget the insult, the real harm, that Geran had offered her at the beginning of the trek? Would he revert to thinking the betrothal Belil had suggested was a good thing after all?



The others searched their packs to select gifts worthy of the Offering. They spent the rest of the day repairing and polishing equipment. They had reserved their best tunics for the procession. The smell of boot oil and buffing powder pervaded the camp as members of the caravan polished signs of wear and soil from their boots and staffs. Feton's face fell as he viewed his foot gear. They were scorched from his dance with the burning branches on the first night and stinking with the residue of muck from his misadventure in the swamp. Sergon produced a nearly new pair of boots from his pack and handed them to the woeful youth.



"I wish I could purchase them, but I will have to make do with what I have," Feton said regretfully as he caressed the supple leather of the boots.



"Consider it just payment for the entertainment you have offered all of us," Sergon replied, pressing the boots back into Feton's hands. The befuddled expression on the youth's face betrayed his bewilderment at the elder's words.



After the evening meal Neril tried to sleep. Although she had served as night watch and felt the weary weight of a confusing day, she lay awake on her sleeping skin pondering what lay ahead. She knew only the faces of the people who lived in the cliff-bound valley of Marekla. For the first time in her life, she would meet strangers.



She had heard stories about those who lived beyond the valley, wooly haired Kumnorans, sleek Orenese. Would there be tall men from Saadena with golden eyes and hair like fire? She was certain the small size of the jungle dwellers had been exaggerated, but she knew there would be much to astound and surprise her. Finally she slept, only to be shaken awake by her father before sunrise.

"Hurry, we leave for Timora within the hour to join the procession," he told her. When she hesitated, he squeezed her shoulder sympathetically. "I was filled with fear before I entered a city on my first trek. You will not appreciate the true worth of the trek until you have visited Timora. Although most who come to Timora are pilgrims, the kings and queens of Zedekla retire to the shrine city when their heirs become parents and ascend the throne. They live simple lives dedicated to study and worship, but they will always be regarded as leaders. Many who seek power come to Timora hoping to establish their interests with the Zedeklan royal house. They are our best customers. With the gold we earn in Timora, we buy other goods for trade in other cities. Put aside your fear and prepare yourself."



They left the camp in darkness and continued to climb toward the sacred city that lay cupped in a mountain valley. As dawn lit the sky they left the hidden trail and began to travel along the high road to Timora. There were no stones or vines to trip an unwary foot. Neril gazed around her. She found that her most colorful dreams of Timora could not match the reality when they topped a rise and saw the valley spread below them.



Chapter 4 Vale of Prophecy





Verdant mountains cradled the vale of Timora and the sacred lake that gleamed impossibly blue, like a great turquoise in a setting of malachite and amethyst. Orchards and gardens climbed the foothills of the valley. Along the west shore of the lake the sacred city glowed like a drift of pearls in the dawn. As they drew closer, Neril could make out pastel shades in the glow that lit the ranks of pale buildings. Some of the towers glittered as if covered with gems. Sergon caught the direction of her gaze and chuckled, "Quartz and mica, but effective at a distance." He seemed to have the knack of reading her mind, but his friendly attitude gave no offense.



Neril glanced toward the Pavilions of Renewal set in glades at the edge of the cerulean lake, their broad steps leading into the sacred waters. For a moment she regretted that she hadn't waited until coming to Timora to undergo the ritual washing that initiated her adulthood. But if she had waited, her grandfather would not have been the man to bring her forth from the waters. The memory of his Renewal prayer for her stilled her regret.



When the Mareklans neared the outskirts of the city pilgrims in white robes belted or draped with shades of blue began to surround the caravan. Everyone bore an offering, some simple, some glittering with jewels and precious metals. Although everyone but the Mareklans wore blue and white, their robes were as diverse as the men and women who wore them. Some were stark and simple. Others were cut with cunning artifice. A gaunt man with a hawk nose and a beard of oiled ringlets led a bevy of women with their faces veiled in scarves of varying shades from the bright, light blue of noon sky to the blue green of nop trees.



"An Orenese Watcher with his harem," Sergon murmured when he saw the direction of Neril's distracted gaze. Neril knew she was staring like a child, but all she had heard of the wondrous variety of mankind was being proved by the pilgrims moving along the road. She searched in vain for anyone with the fiery hair and golden eyes of the man who haunted her dreams.



The sounds of flutes, zole horns and drums grew louder and Neril's heart seemed to beat in time with the rhythm of worship songs. By tradition and often necessity, the members of a trek seldom spoke, and then only in low voices, but as a people, the Mareklans enjoyed songs and chants. Now that they were free to join in the hymns and psalms of the festival, they did so with ardor.



Neragon's rumbling bass and Thalon's pure tenor blended and bracketed the other voices. Neril harmonized with them in a soprano counterpoint while they marched along the high road leading into the city. Walls of pale stone echoed back their songs. The bright colors of fruits and flowers flickered through the delicate tracery of carved lattices. On all sides the people crowding the way rejoiced.



Although the street was full of pilgrims, no one jostled for place. The pilgrims seemed eager to give way to others and Neril smiled when she saw two men stopped at a cross street, each insisting that the other should go first. She strode toward the main shrine that rose ahead as white as a drift of snow in the full light of morning.



The filigree gates, three times the height of a man, were covered with blossoming vines that scented the air and insured that the gates were always open. The other pilgrims stepped back and gave way to the group of Marekla merchants as they began to ascend the broad steps that led from the outer wall to the offering porch shielding the inner sanctum of the shrine.



The shrine in the Homeplace had found its pattern in this ancient building. High above the gilded bronze doors of the Shrine, three niches contained carved scrolls, two of them inscribed with words, the center one blank, but there was something lacking. Neril made brief note of the lack of an Eye of Adanan carved beneath the central scroll.



Statues of heroes and saints lined the sides of the steps leading to the altars of consecration where the High Priestess and High Priest of the Radiance stood to receive the offerings of the pilgrims. Shrine attendants stood nearby to take the gifts once they were accepted.



Geran and Neril approached the altar together. Each carried a packet of scented sand as a personal gift to the priest and priestess as well as a gift of gold as an offering for the shrine. Neril handed her gifts to the High Priest and felt his kindly smile in the center of her heart. "What is this gift you bring?" he asked. She hadn't expected the question and stammered as she searched for an answer.



Geran spoke for both of them. "We bring scented sand in the skin of serpents we killed in self-defense while we were in the wilderness. Please accept our humble gifts." The pretentiousness of his words made Neril blush but the Priestess smiled benignly.



"This is a new thing to us," the High Priest said after he opened the packet of sand and compared it with the packet Geran had given the Priestess. Neril heard the whispered comments of other pilgrims as they watched the faces of the couple light with enjoyment as they enjoyed the tang of oil weed and the beguiling scent of night blossoms.



"You have done well. We accept your gifts and will use them in gratitude," the High Priestess announced. Her eyes seemed to seek Neril's gaze and she smiled.



The next pair of Mareklans moved forward and Neril followed a shrine attendant from the place of the altar to join her father. His face wore a smile of approval. "Sidona is not easy to please. She ensured your success with her praise. We will go to the Mareklan enclave later. Now we must go to the market and establish our stand. I have a feeling that we should select the customers for your new product with care. It would not do to cheapen it with over selling."



"I am surprised that such a simple product would be so well-received," Neril said as she followed her father down a long flight of shallow steps that led away from the shrine and into a busy avenue. At first she did not think he would answer her as he made his way through the crowd that filled the street between the Shrine and the market square. He dropped back to walk beside her and finally replied.



"The scented sand your grandmother prepared for you is a traditional product of Marekla, but before you mixed oil weed with the sand, it was limited to use by women. As far as the outside world knows, your creation is unique. In time, others will copy the idea, but for now we are the only source. That gives it value. Even after others begin to make scented sand in serpent skin pouches, your creations will have the value of originality. Many products we trade have that quality. Dorika of Tedaka carves his art in wood that any man could obtain, but his carvings bring their weight in gems in the city of Zedekla. Originality and craftsmanship will always have high value."



Neril nodded, "Those who remain behind in the Homeplace can add this product to the others they provide for trade. We will need to carry oil weed and serpent skins into the valley but there are plenty of night blossoms and sand. Better yet, the packets can be prepared by those on trek when they are near a source of sand and scent."



Neragon chuckled and clapped her on the shoulder with fatherly approval. "We are always looking for such ideas. You have proved your worth to the caravan. I'm proud of you,"



Neril could hardly see the crowds of pilgrims as her eyes blurred with sweet tears of happiness for her father's praise. For this alone she could count the trek a success.



The other Mareklans had gathered around them as they neared their goal. Neril's eyes widened when they entered the large square that set aside for the market. Hundreds of small stalls competed for space along the arcaded walls of larger buildings. Heaps of colorful produce displayed fruit, vegetables, and flowers to advantage. Her attention was distracted when squawking fowls in a large cage of woven reed bobbed past on the back of an old woman.



A line of laden dalas blocked the way. Neragon looked for the herdsman and located the squat figure of a Kumnoran teamster dressed in the skins of a verget purchasing a matla at a street booth. He yelled a short, strange word and the teamster turned and called back a reply. They exchanged a gesture and laughed in a way that reassured Neril that no insult had been taken. The teamster shoved the lead dala aside to let the merchants pass.



Booths and small shops displayed a variety of goods ranging from Jaman glass and Taleekan tinware to Orenese pearls and zilka cloth. One of the shops was manned by three small men with bones inserted through their nostrils above wide smiles. They tended cages of exotic animals that Neril yearned to examine. One of the most appealing had a body the size of a corum lamb but it was as spindly as a spider with only four limbs and a long curled tail. It had a tiny face set in a triangle of fringed white hair.



Neril looked into the large, appealing eyes and had the impulse to buy the animal and free it. Then she saw a wealthy man saunter by with one of the animals perched on his shoulder. He was feeding it sweetmeats and cooing to it fondly. It seemed quite willing to stay where it was with no sign of restraint.



She was reminded that she had no idea of the needs and habits of these strange beasts. Perhaps they were so far removed from their native homes that freedom would doom them to starvation. It might be better for them to find a home with someone who could care for them.



Neril heard giggles and whispers and turned to see three women with ornate brass and crystal earrings hanging to their shoulders. They wore flamboyant face paint that emphasized their large dark eyes and full lips. Their pilgrim robes were draped to enhance their voluptuous bodies. Neril blushed under their brazen stares. Then she held her head high and pretended that she hadn't noticed them.



"Jamans!" Sergon whispered with the hint of a sneer in his voice that reassured her that to be ridiculed by such was not an insult to a decent maiden.



Thalon beckoned to them from a choice location near the entrance to the market. Neragon pressed forward through the throng with Neril and the others in his wake. She had practiced setting up a market stand before leaving the Homeplace. It had been easier without the jostling of the crowd to distract her.



The Mareklans spread cloaks over a framework of linked staffs reinforced with bolikas to provide shade. Each merchant set up a folding stand close to his staff and cloak. At any moment the framework could be instantly dismantled and an opponent would face a force of arms. It seemed an unnecessary precaution in the peaceful atmosphere of the market of Timora. When she mentioned her misgivings to Sergon, he assured Neril it was a practical arrangement.



"We've earned the reputation of having the fiercest defense in Okishdu," he reminded her. "When we use our secret paths, we seldom encounter opposition. In the markets we're more vulnerable to attack by the occasional bands of bullies who are foolish enough to test our mettle. We have encountered such even here in Timora. Keep your eyes wide open while you're on duty. At the first sign of trouble, give the signal."



On her father's advice, she displayed only one packet of scented sand. She unpacked ranks of tiny figures representing farmers, foresters and soldiers, each as big as her little finger. Her grandfather called them his mud men. Even after he had baked them hard they were the color of clay. She also displayed a collection of tiny dolls cunningly made of bits of leather and yarn. They were perfect replicas of the men and women of Marekla, complete with traditional cloaks and staffs. She completed her display with a few of the tapestries and embroidered panels she had helped her grandmother prepare in the months before the trek began. Soon children surrounded Neril's stand.



The yearning in their faces almost overcame her merchant instincts but each was accompanied by a mother or maid who seemed happy enough to pay the price once they had examined the excellent workmanship that would keep the clever toys from vanishing under the exigencies of child's play. When each was satisfied with a carefully chosen prize, it seemed that two more children would appear to take the place of one who had inveigled the purchase of one of the tiny toys. Her father and Docanen looked her way and nodded their approval of her early success. Often the women who paid for the toys lingered to choose a piece of needlework for themselves. Some looked yearningly at the precious packet of scented sand but none would venture to ask the price of such a luxury without consulting a husband.



Beggars stayed clear of the Mareklans. There was an understanding between the beggar's guild and the merchants that honest beggars would receive a tithe of the taking. Neril had reserved some of her toys to go with the payment and was glad of her decision when she saw the hankering in the gazes of several ragged children who watched from the sidelines as luckier children chose their treasures from her display.



Suddenly the crowd of children gave way, pulled aside by their parents. Neril looked up to see a young boy with a woman a little too old to be his mother approaching her stand. They were simply dressed, but the quality of the cloth of their robes and tunics and the respect offered them by the other customers hinted at their status.



"I want all the soldiers," the child demanded pointing his finger at a small troop of spear men which had been examined by many but reluctantly set aside in favor of less expensive groupings.



"Don't be greedy Tomak," the woman chided the child. "Choose the one you like best and I will pay for it."



"But Grandmother, someday I will be king of Zedekla and all Zedeklan soldiers are mine by right," the child argued.



"You will not be king if you don't learn humility, Tomak. Make your choice quickly or you will not have anything," the woman reproved him.



"May I purchase the general?" the child asked with a smile that revealed a dimple; his imperious mood giving way to charm that made Neril smile in return.



"I'm sorry, but the soldiers can't be separated. I'll sell them as a troop or not at all," she replied.



The child turned to his grandparent in silent appeal. His bright eyes shone with his expectation that she must relent.



"Very well, what is the price of the entire troop?" the woman asked. Neril knew she could name a high price and receive it. After all, the child was heir of the wealthiest and most powerful family in Okishdu, but her grandfather had told her the price he expected and she knew he would not approve greed anymore than Prince Tomak's grandmother.



"My grandfather made these soldiers and he told me they were worth a Zedeklan ena," Neril told the child. "There is a condition attached to their purchase. You must care for the soldiers and make certain that they are not lost or broken when you play with them. If you give me your promise, I will let your grandmother buy them for you."



"I promise. I broke my favorite cup one day and even though the smith fixed it, after that, it always leaked. I know I have to be careful with the soldiers. If they break, I'll mend them," the child promised with solemn eyes.



The woman smiled her approval of Neril's words. She paid the ena and Neril began to pack the tiny troop in fleece, returning them to the wooden box decorated with carved and painted scenes of famous battles.



"I must pay you extra for the box. It's a beautiful piece of craftsmanship," the former queen insisted.



"No, the box is part of the set," Neril said.



"Then let me buy something else to make up the difference. I heard there is a new product this year. May I see your scented sand? I may want to purchase some for my husband," the woman said.



Neril handed her the snake skin pouch and the queen mother lifted it to her nose. "Ah, you have captured the scent of the high hills. I must have this for Manchek. How much are you asking?"



"I have not yet set a price. Take it as a gift," Neril insisted.



"You are too generous. I will only take it if you accept three enas," Tomak's grandmother reached into the wirra hide pouch at her belt and removed the price she had offered.



"I will accept your price, but only if you will let me include this small gift for the boy," Neril said as she picked up two of the sewn dolls. They were a man and a woman dressed in the capes and staffs of Mareklan merchants.



"Please Grandmother, don't argue anymore," the child pleaded when he saw the shadow of reluctance cross her face. Neril and the woman smiled and stopped dickering.



"We would like you to visit us," the woman said as she accepted the package from Neril. "I am Kemila, mother of Farek, King of Zedekla. We live near the second shrine in the house with the blue door. Come for the evening meal tomorrow and bring several of your friends." Her tone conveyed the effect of a royal command. Retirement had not dulled the imperious edge of her manner.



Thalon grinned as the royal pair departed. "Three enas is much more than I estimated we could ask for the scented sand. By letting the former queen set the price, you avoided the appearance of greed."



Other customers crowded back around the stands once the royals left. Soon all the items that Neril had set out for display were purchased.



Her father beckoned to her when she began to unpack more items.. "Leave the rest of your merchandise for another day. I can promise that there will be no slacking of interest in what you have to sell. It has been several years since a woman joined the trek. I think we may have made a mistake to leave it this long. I never thought of packing the tiny dolls and figurines in the spare corners of my pack. Go with Sergon and see the city before the bells ring for Enven."



"Father, we have been invited for dinner at the home of the queen-mother, Kemila, tomorrow evening. Do you think she meant the invitation?" Neril asked.



"Of course she did," he replied. "There are close ties between the royal house of Zedekla and Mareklan merchants. They will expect ten of us to attend the meal. Choose your companions with care or you could cause problems in the caravan."



This was yet another surprise for her in a day filled with new experiences. She recalled Sergon's stories of the tyrant Tharek who had founded the royal family of Zedekla. Now that she considered it, Kemila could have been her mother's sister, they were so alike in manner and appearance. Surely the relationship was no secret. Then why had she never learned of it from her teachers.



She was distracted from the questions raised by the encounter when she followed Sergon out of the marketplace and found yet more food for thought and wonder in the crowded streets. She gazed around at the sights of Timora and listened to Sergon's stories about the famous and infamous who had made the ancient city their home. As the oldest city in Okishdu, Timora had been settled by the people of Irilik after they fled Kisdu and the evil Algunagada, but there was no sign of ruin or decay. Only the ancient espaliered trees that lifted braided arms in ornate patterns against the walls of the gardens gave a hint of how long man had tempered nature in the valley.



"This villa was used for years by the Janakan pilgrims when they ventured along the pilgrimage road. Now there are too many of them for one villa to serve and they've leased it to the Jamans," Sergon said as he stopped in front of a building studded with metallic reliefs in colors ranging from the red of polished copper to verdigris bronze with gold and silver inlays. Neril glanced up, but he saw the vague expression in her eyes and shook his head. "Perhaps you would rather have one of the younger men show you around Timora," he offered.



Neril shook her head. "I have been trying to think about my problem and listen to you at the same time," she apologized. "I am sure there could be no better guide to the city, but I can't do justice to your tour. Your stories deserve my full attention. Could you show me where we will spend the night?"



"I feared I was boring you," Sergon said ruefully,



"You could never bore me, but save your tales for a day when I can give them my full attention. Now I must choose who will go with me to dine at the home of Kemila and Manchek. Father warned me to be careful lest I give offense to either our hosts or the other members of the caravan."



"It is a burden I am certain you will handle with the same grace you have met the other challenges of the trek," Sergon said. "You have flown higher than any of us thought to see you go. For all your father's words about the relationship of the Zedeklan royal house and our clan, it has been several years since we were invited to visit. The policy that keeps our women safeguarded in the vale is not well regarded by Tharek's heirs. Fortunately your father has no reason to fear that young prince Tomak is old enough to seek a bride. If that were so, nothing would bring him to let you within the walls of Manchek's home. It will be years yet before there is any cause for concern."



His words puzzled her but she set the riddle aside for other, more urgent concerns. As she followed him, she tried to decide who would accompany her to the home of Zedekla's former rulers. Her father, Sergon and Thalon would be part of the group. If she included all the men who served on the trek council, she would have to leave out either Sergon or Thalon, her closest friends. She began to understand her father's concern when he had warned her about the choice.



Sergon led her to a large walled compound on a quiet street. It was a few turns beyond the sacred library where the writings of the prophets and seers of past ages could be consulted by scholarly pilgrims. Three bell ropes hung from the arch of the gate and Sergon pulled them in a patterned sequence that Neril tried to remember.



As they waited for someone to respond to the signal, Sergon told her more about the clan house. "Mareklans have maintained an enclave in Timora for generations. There are storehouses for merchandise and separate rooms that provide the comfort of beds and privacy so rare while on trek. Once there was a large staff. Now a retired merchant and his wife stay here and act as stewards."



"How deal ye?" asked the old man who opened the gate as he gave a hand sign.



"We deal with goodly profit," Sergon replied as he returned a countersign. An old woman behind the steward stared slack-jawed at Neril. "Could you stop gawking at us Clotil and show my young friend to a room," Sergon said with a smile. "I know it's been several years since you saw a Mareklan woman on trek, but I can assure you, Neril is no phantom from your youth."



Clotil blushed in embarrassment and hurried forward. "Indeed, I believed I mistook my eyes and thought she was an illusion. There are few Mareklan women beyond the protective cliffs of the Homeplace. I have yearned to return for many years. This old man of mine must linger here and I am bound to stay with him." The old woman continued to mutter and complain while she led Neril through the courtyard and into a cavernous entrance hall that could easily hold all the members of the caravan with their packs and staffs if they had chosen to come with Neril and Sergon. The walls were of the pale granite so commonly used in the buildings of Timora, but a frieze of carving two man heights on the wall featured a sinuous motif of leaves and vines that reminded Neril of the carvings on her staff.



Several tall doors opened off the entrance hall. Clotil opened one of them to reveal a long empty corridor leading to a set of stairs. Everything was immaculate, but there was something in the air of the corridors that spoke of emptiness and disuse. "These are the women's quarters. I try to keep them clean, but I never expected they would be used. Take your choice of the rooms. There is an especially fine one that I just provided with clean linen near the top of the stairs. There are bathing rooms for both men and women in the rear. I will leave you now. I must hurry and prepare for the others to arrive."



After several weeks of living communally in the camp, Neril looked forward to solitude as she rested and made the choice of her companions for Kemila's dinner. She found the room Clotil recommended and saw with pleasure that a large window covered with a carved grill offered a view over the garden at the rear of the compound. Clotil's mention of the bathing room piqued her interest. She gathered a towel and clean clothing and went to find the bath.



The bathing room was modeled after the communal bathing pools in the Homeplace, or perhaps it was the original model for those pools. The Homeplace had been founded relatively recently compared to Timora. She idly wondered how long the Mareklan enclave had existed in the sacred city as she floated alone in the dim warmth of the spring heated pool. Steam rose into the air around her, obscuring the high vault of the ceiling where a mosaic of green malachite and blue lapis rippled with the reflections of the water.



The muted ringing of shrine bells broke the silence. Her father had warned her that there would be no trading during Enven. Throughout the city people would finish their business and return home for the period of rest and prayer. It was mandated partly by the climate, and partly by the devotional patterns established in ages past. The shrines that gave the city its purpose would be filled with praying pilgrims until the shrine bells rang again.



Neril stood and waded to the edge of the bathing pool. The gentle, spring-fed current streamed past her as she reached the stone steps that led to the dressing room. She dried herself with the scented towels Clotil had provided and dressed in a clean tunic and the looser undergarment more appropriate to the city. She hesitated over braiding her hair. She had worn it braided since beginning the trek, letting it dry as it would. Now she toweled it dry, letting it hang in a dark wave down her back.



She considered her boots. They still reflected the extra care and cleaning she had given them the night before when they were preparing to enter Timora, but the smooth stone felt so cool beneath her feet that she was reluctant to put her boots on for the brief trip to her room. Her bare feet were silent on the stone floor as she walked through the empty halls of the women's residence and climbed the broad stairs that led to her quarters.



Pale light flooding her room in relief from the dim corridors and she went to the window to look out over the surrounding gardens. The glittering golden spires set at the top of the main shrine reached above nearer buildings. The material reminder of the Radiance filled her with reverence and she raised her hands and bowed her head to give thanks and lay her concern before the being who made all life possible.



"My request seems petty and unworthy of bringing before the throne of the One who created all. Please light my mind with knowledge to choose wisely," she prayed. She stood for a long time waiting for an answer. Her concentration faltered and she heard the murmur of other voices raised in prayer. She ended her prayer and turned to sit on the bed. A soapstone tablet and a stylus lay on the table next to the bed. She picked them up and gave one last look at the glitter of the shrine spires before she began to write her list; Neragon, both as her father and trek chief, Sergon as elder and friend, Thalon, as friend, herself, of course. That left six places and more than three times that many members of the trek. Each would covet the chance to meet the elite members of Timoran society in a setting untainted by haggling and trade.



Docanen, Beldon and Tolaren, the captains of the watch, had become closer friends than others. She wrote their names on the list. That left three vacancies. Suddenly she had a thought that must be the inspiration she had prayed for. Quickly she wrote the names Geran, Maldorn and Feton. The three young men had least reason to expect she would place their names on any favored list. It was meant as a signal that she was willing to forget past wrongs.



A sense of peace accompanied the decision and she felt it as a sign she had done the right thing. Relieved of worry, she relaxed onto the clean linen of the bed and soon fell asleep. She dreamed of the small sky of the Homeplace. The natural palisade seemed to withdraw, the valley widen, and it seemed to be the action of her grandparents who had welcomed her into their home after her father remarried. A confused series of impressions followed and she dreamed she was fighting demons and snakes who became harmless little clay figures at the touch of her staff.



When she tried to see more clearly, it seemed that Geran was reduced to harmless fired clay. The scene changed to a strange dead city whose crumbled buildings emitted a numbing musk. Once more she saw the handsome face of a prince with golden eyes and fire-bright hair. Other confused images followed. Finally she saw a small face that filled her with joy. It seemed to be her child. The shuffling people who crept around the city of death stood and cast off their rags to reveal glowing white robes. They surrounded her, lifting her up on their shoulders and carrying her toward a Shrine.



A great shining enfolded her. She knew that nothing could harm her in the midst of the light. She floated up into the light in an ecstasy of welcome and love when the scene faded and she woke to find herself staring at the glow of the window that lit her room.



Had it been a vision? There had been threat and strangeness, but the ineffable sense of love and caring remained. She decided the dream had a significance she would only realize as time went by.



The voices of the other Marekla merchants laughing and talking rose from the garden below. Enven had ended and it was time to visit and rejoice over the success they had enjoyed on their first day of trading in Timora.



After washing her hands and face in the basin provided, Neril put on her boots and belt. She coiled her straight dark hair at the back of her head and fastened it with two carved wooden pins her father had made for her coming-of-age gift. Then she picked up the soapstone tablet on which she had inscribed the names of those who would accompany her to the meal with Zedekla's retired rulers. Her boots made a soft scuffing sound on the steps as she entered the garden, alerting the others that she had joined them.



"Hail, Heroine of Marekla!" Sergon said with a deep bow. Neril blushed and he laughed as he rose. "Have you any idea of the coup you made this morning?" he asked.



"I saw her dickering with the Zedeklan queen mother as cool as any veteran," Docanen volunteered.



"Not only did she sell toys that could fit in a pocket for the price some might pay for jewels, she let the queen set the price for scented sand and ensured all of us a profit," Thalon added.



"Not all of us," Beldon admitted ruefully. "I thought you were wasting your time catching serpents and stuffing little bags with sand. Five wealthy women approached my stand before Enven. None of them would believe that I did not have scented sand to sell. They suspect we are holding back most of the supply. Could I trade for some of your packets Geran?"



"I've accumulated many cured empty skins, but I can't spare any of my scented sand," Geran replied. "Ask Neril where she found the sand she gave me yesterday."



"I noticed you have a vial of Janakan rose attar, Beldon," Thalon said. "I'll exchange skins for scents and both of us will benefit. I think the rose scent would go well with the blossom scented sand and introduce more variety."



"Don't forget we have other items to trade," Neragon warned. "If we let greed for high profits overcome our good sense we will soon exhaust the market for the new product but our other goods will remain unsold."



"I like Thalon's idea," Docanen observed. "We can set a limit on how much of the scented sand any of us will sell, but if we introduce a greater variety it will expand the market. I can easily imagine that our wealthiest patrons would be willing to purchase a complete selection of whatever we offer."



A spirited discussion on the merits of selling more sand or putting the other products to the fore began. "The events in the marketplace this morning should remind you that customers who come to buy one product often purchase another as well," Sergon pointed out. "I think it would be best if each of us had some assorted packets of scented sand available in our stands but limit the amount we sell."



Docanen nodded and absentmindedly reached for the fragrant narrow leaves of a nop tree that shaded the garden. He crushed a few in his hand. "My mother used to pound the leaves of nop trees to yield a fragrant oil. She added it to the soap she made. I think I'll make some nop scented sand for myself as well as to sell."



Neril smiled ruefully. "I never dreamed my use of a dead snake and some oil weed would result in a commercial crisis. I found the white sand near the waterfall at the camp last night. There are plenty of night blossoms growing there as well. I will leave the rest of you to dig sand and catch snakes and dream up new scents. I will concentrate on making more of the dolls like the one I gave the prince. Now that the prince owns a complete set of warriors, parents who may have resisted the pleas of their children will want to purchase the toys in imitation of royalty."



"You learn quickly," Sergon responded with a wink.



"Am I not a Mareklan?" she responded with playful reproof. "Women of Marekla may be secluded in the Homeplace, but for generations before that, we traded alongside our men. Any child in Marekla is born knowing how to make a profit." Many of the men nodded in agreement but she could see that there were still those who found it hard to accept her claim.



"A merchant from Zedekla approached me about selling selan," Neragon said. "He says they are willing to pay premium prices for the medicine. It's been several years since Mareklans visited Saadena, but I think we should go there after we visit Tedaka. We can find buyers in both Janaka and Zedekla. The forest tribes have many products they are eager to trade for selan but our stores of the drug in Marekla have fallen low. It is a long and grueling journey to the old imperial capital. There are serpents and scorpions and little water can be found. How do you vote?"



"Serpents?" Geran exclaimed with an avid expression. The others laughed and voted to visit Saadena. Only Sergon seemed sobered by the mention of the proposed side trip. Neril decided to seek him out after the evening meal and find out why he looked so grim. Meanwhile, she would tell them of the royal request.



"As some of you know, Kemila, the former queen of Zedekla, invited me to the evening meal tomorrow at her home," Neril said. "I wish I could take all of you, but I was told that only ten people would be welcome. I've thought about it, and I made this list."



The garden grew quiet. Geran didn't lift his eyes when she raised the soapstone and began to read the list. His face remained hidden but she read his dejection in the slump of his shoulders. "I have selected Neragon, Sergon, Thalon, Beldon, Docanen," she paused for a moment and took a breath before saying the final names: "Toleran, Geran, Feton and Maldorn," she said.



"But that's only nine people," Feton said as he counted his fingers.



"I mean to go myself, of course," Neril replied with a smile. He gave a choked exclamation as he suddenly realized that his name had been among those chosen. Geran and Maldorn both gaped in disbelief.



Geran closed his mouth with an almost audible snap. A dark look came over his face as if he thought that he had been ridiculed and she would soon announce her true choice of companions. He stood and stalked over to Neril to examine the soapstone tablet on which she had inscribed the names, seeming certain he would find that she had trifled with him.



He examined the list and then flushed. He ducked his head for a moment and she turned away to talk to someone else. Those who had been excluded from the visit seemed not to resent the choices she had made. Instead they teased those who had been chosen to eat with royalty. They offered to teach them table manners and gave exaggerated accounts of the inedible delicacies they might be forced to eat. "I promise to bring you anything on my plate that wiggles or stares back at me," Neril replied.



Docanen stood and brought the discussion to a close by reaching for his staff and tapping it on the stone floor that surrounded the fountain in the center of the garden. It gave forth a sweet, almost ringing noise with each beat. He began to chant. Thalon joined in with his clear sweet tenor as he took up the rhythm with his own staff. Three other men stood and began to circle the fountain. Sergon took Neril by the hand and led her to the edge of the circle. "It is time you were taught the steps to the exiga. Follow me," he skipped and twirled and feinted with his staff while the other men beat time.



Neril stood for a moment and watched the repeating pattern of Sergon's steps and let the rhythm of the pounding staffs set her pace. It was a dance reserved for merchants, performed when they were celebrating a good day in the marketplace. She had heard of it but had never thought to perform it. It mimicked the moves of staff sparring and yet there was a leaping in her heart when she joined in the steps and began to circle the fountain. The emotions called forth by the dance were more subtle than the rush of energy that accompanied a well-fought sparring match. One by one other men joined the circle.



At first the pounding staffs beat with the same pulse as a heart at rest but they gradually beat faster and the steps to the dance moved more swiftly. The dancers whirled and leaped, their staffs seemed to flicker in the light, tapping against each other in counterpoint to the pounding of the singers' staffs.



Faster and faster they danced, the words of the chant slipping from meaning to shouts of joyous laughter when first one and then another of the dancers stumbled and backed away from the frenzied circle that leaped about the fountain. Perhaps because she was young and lithe and Sergon was old and much practiced, they were the last ones left when the dance shuddered to a stop with a final great thump of the singer's staffs and a roar of laughter from all. They staggered from the pavement and received the back slapping approval of the other merchants. Their merriment was interrupted by the sound of the gong that announced the evening meal.



"You continue to surprise me, Neril," Sergon said as the two of them walked together toward the dining hall. "I mockingly called you a heroine when we were in the garden together, but you were generous to forgive Geran and his friends. I hope you will not regret your choice."



"I cannot claim credit for the idea," she said. "I was confused about the choice of guests, but I prayed to the Radiance and my confusion ended. After all, Geran saved my life yesterday when he killed the viper. That cancels out all the things he has done to me."



"Yes, and you promptly made him a gift of scented sand to fill the viper skin. He will return from this trek with great credit and more reason than ever to think himself worthy of taking you to wife. Is that what you want?"



Neril shook her head. "I hope he can accept me as a friend and companion instead of pressing his suit. There are other girls who would be overjoyed to receive his attentions. I hope he has begun to accept the way I feel."



"Perhaps you are wiser in your way than I am," Sergon said as they neared the table. "We have months ahead of us to find out which of us sees this issue more clearly." Then he turned aside to find his place and they were separated by the seating arrangements made by the steward and his wife.



Neril was seated between Maldorn and Feton near the foot of the table while Sergon presided at the head of the table. In times past there were often more than two trek chiefs present at the table and custom had decreed that the head of the table would rest on seniority. Sergon was flanked by Neragon and Docanen. It was evident that he enjoyed the meal and carried on an amusing conversation.



The youths who flanked Neril were shy of speaking to Geran's intended bride while he was present. They glanced at Geran guiltily each time they spoke to her. The meal passed in near silence for Neril with only an occasional request that she pass the salt or oil. She could hear the tones of Sergon's voice entertaining those at the head of the table with one of his stories. The room was low and the walls lined with patterned felt to buffer the sound of many people eating. Only a few of Sergon's words reached her. It was a frustrating experience as she heard the others chuckle at the stories she couldn't hear. She consoled herself by remembering the dance and its merry aftermath. Surely they had accepted her as one of them now. The petty resentment that had hung over the earlier part of the trek like a bad odor would no longer trouble them.



When they finished eating the men headed for the men's bath. Neril experienced a wave of weariness as she made her way alone to her room in the women's quarters. She considered Sergon's warning that Geran might persist in his courtship and frowned. Perhaps if he truly had a change of heart and was willing to let her have some freedom she could consider his espousal. On the other hand, she felt that there had to be something more to a good marriage than the tentative feelings of friendship she now felt for her suitor.



She sat up late into the night making more of the tiny dolls that had been popular with the children of the pilgrims. She admitted to herself that her late hours were more a result of nervous anticipation of the visit with the retired royals than of the nap she had taken. Her sleep during the day had not been very restful. The dream during Enven had been as ominous as it had been uplifting.



The call of a night bird lifted in a silvery trill over the garden. She felt a whisper of the reassurance that had come at the end of her dream. If the dream had been prophetic, it must mean that she had much pain and struggle ahead of her, but the conclusion seemed to promise that all would be well at the end.



She grew drowsy. When she felt a sharp pain in her finger, she realized she had dozed and stuck the needle in her flesh. After she packed away her sewing, she covered the lamp with a shade of pierced stone that would provide light enough if she woke in the night. A brief prayer was all she managed before lifting herself onto the bed and falling asleep.



She woke to the sound of a mournful cry. It echoed over the city from the wild forest that edged the verdant orchards. Something fierce howled in the night. A shiver ran over her skin at the reminder that even after centuries of culture and art, the jungle lay close at hand. Within a day's journey of Timora, the mountains that cradled the valley plunged downward to the steaming forests that ran southward to the sea.



She could see a faint hint of light along the crests of the eastern mountains. She uncovered the lamp that still glowed dimly and extended the wick to light her way to the bath. When she reached the corridor at the foot of the stairs, she heard hushed voices in the entrance hall and cautiously opened the connecting door a crack. Several men, including Thalon and Geran, were entering the house carrying buckets filled with sand, blossoms, and nop leaves. They must have spent most of the night on their enterprise and she was grateful they had not asked her to join them. They failed to notice her as she softly closed the door again and went to the bathing room.



There were baths fed by hot springs in the valley of Marekla and Neril was accustomed to the pleasures of bathing in the steaming water. The bathhouses had always been crowded. It was an unaccustomed luxury to have a pool completely to herself.



Two springs fed the pool. Neril explored the sensation of standing first near the source of the hot water, then near the chilly spring that moderated the temperature where the two streams blended at the center of the pool. The water was only waist high and when she tried to swim she ended up floating after several minutes of rapid paddling.



With the currents of warm and cool water swirling gently around her, she felt weightless as she floated in perfect relaxation just beneath the surface of the water. Only her face extended as she slowly breathed in and out. The faintest sounds seemed to echo under the vaulted ceiling of the chamber. She became aware of raised voices calling her name and arguing.



"I tell you she has been taken by the priests of Orqu. I warned you his might happen if we brought her with us," Geran's belligerent tones rose above the rest.



"Just because she was not in her room when the steward's wife went to wake her does not mean something terrible has happened," Thalon responded.



"Has anyone looked in the garden?" Docanen asked.



Neril quickly waded out of the pool and hastily pulled a tunic over her head. She appeared in the hallway with her hair still wet on her shoulders. "I was in the bathing room, and I would like to finish what I began," she said to the group of men who stood yelling at each other. Her clear young voice caught their attention and they turned to stare at her.



"I told them you were here someplace," Sergon assured her.



"Geran is upset because he saw a few scruffy priests of Orqu begging along the road to Timora. I told him they are unlikely to storm the enclave."



"If those dogs of the demon dare to beg from pilgrims, I think they would dare anything," the younger man protested.



"Excuse me from your argument. I need to finish my bath," Neril said as a chill from the early morning air on her damp hair shook her. After returning to the bathing room, she dried herself thoroughly and put on her boots and belt. When she finally entered the dining hall to eat breakfast, she found that her brief disappearance had been forgotten and a now familiar topic held the attention of the merchants.



"Rose scented sand cannot be put in the skins that are cured with oil-weed, but nop scented sand takes on an intriguing undertone when combined with an oil-weed packet," Thalon pronounced. He handed around several reptile skin pouches to demonstrate his meaning.



"I blended some rose scented sand with the sand Neril prepared from night blossoms the other day. Spice bark also goes well with the floral scents," Beldon said.



They seemed too busy discussing the subtleties of scents to return to the subject of the threat posed by the priests of Orqu. Neril ate her breakfast in silence and prepared to return to the market.



Chapter 5 Shadow and Shining





Only twelve Marekla merchants opened their stands in the market that morning while the others rested from their midnight labors. Many pilgrims had also chosen to rest after the celebrations that had taken place both publicly and privately during the Day of Consecration. Even so, Neril found there were plenty of patrons for her products. She made a quick lunch of matlas purchased from a street vendor. As the beginning of Enven approached she grew short of goods in her display. She searched her pack to find a few more embroidered panels when a whining voice caught her attention.



"Have you any scented sand to donate to the Temple of Orqu?" the voice said. Neril glanced up and saw a pale man dressed in a dingy pilgrim robe that barely concealed his ragged tunic of gray and purple. Fear closed her throat as she confronted her most basic fear. From earliest childhood, she had been told of the unspeakable rites of Orqu, where Mareklan maidens were sacrificed and consumed in bloody rituals. She controlled her panic and shook her head. "I have nothing for you. Mareklans do not deal with your kind."



"We have uses for Marekla maidens," the man said with an evil grin before slinking away to become lost in the crowd. Neril glanced around and saw that the other merchants were all busy working with customers. None of them seemed to have noticed the grim intrusion of the Orquian. For a moment she considered giving the distress signal that would send them out into the crowd to search for the man who had approached her with his vile insinuation.



Then she thought of the reaction Geran would have when he heard what had happened and decided to keep her own counsel. She would be particularly careful from now on to make sure that she was never alone where she might be accosted. The devotee of the demon god had asked for scented sand but the rank odor of his body showed that he followed the common practice of the Orquians and never bathed.



Neril quickly packed the few items that remained on her display stand and retrieved her staff and cloak, relieved to feel the sturdy strength of her staff in her hand. She reminded herself that she had easily defeated three trained opponents with her staff only a week before. Geran and his cronies had thought to take her by surprise, but the Orquians would also try to ambush her. She decided to speak to Sergon about the threat she had received. She felt certain he would ensure her safety without arousing Geran.



The other merchants saw her packing up her stand and followed her example. They were well on their way back to the enclave when the bells for Enven rang. The streets quickly filled with people seeking home or shrine and Neril caught the scent of filth and looked around to catch a glimpse of a dingy robed Orquian. This was a younger man, but he was some distance away and didn't seem to take any notice of her. She was worried about seeing two in the space of a few minutes but she knew they traveled in groups and she was part of a sturdy band of armed men. She searched the crowd as they returned to the refuge of the enclave.



Neragon looked up with a guilty start when Neril entered the dining hall. He sat with the other men who had stayed away from the market that morning. Five bags of serpent leather stood open in front of him and he was sifting and blending scented sand. "I thought you said we should give more attention to our other goods," she teased him.



"Of course we have to keep a balance, but smell this blend of nop and crushed rose petals in a skin cured with blossom scented sand. Here's another, savor weed and spice bark blended and packed in skin cured with oil-weed."



Other men asked her to smell their favorites but she demurred. "I think it would be better to choose four or five blends and stick to them for your commercial sales. You can indulge in making other blends for gifts and personal use."



"She's right, you know," Thalon said with a sigh as he surveyed the six separate blends he had worked with. "We can save our innovations for later trips. That will preserve their novelty. I think most of us have been working with what works out to five different scents. We've varied the amounts, but our materials are limited. Could you tell us which you like best, Neril?"



She was grateful for the small task that would turn her mind from worry about the Orquians. "Could you set your samples here on the table while I turn my back? I would not want anyone to accuse me of favoritism in my choice," she gently chaffed them.



She turned away while they set up a line of the scented packets, then, when her father told her it was alright to turn around she treated the task with an air of serious consideration that nearly brought on a case of giggles. To think of making such a fuss over such a trivial issue when fears of death and abduction roiled in the back of her mind seemed ridiculous. Nevertheless, the men had dubbed her the expert because she had originated the idea.



She sniffed each sample several times and then set several of them aside for further consideration. Thalon was right. There were subtle differences between the samples, but there were only two general classes of scent; those made with the sweeter notes of rose and blossom essence and those with savor spice and an oil weed base. As her father and most of the other men had discovered, the scent of nop blended with either.



Spice bark complemented the floral scents. After sniffing and thinking for a period long enough to convince the others that she had given suitable attention to their request, she indicated her six choices and explained why she had chosen them.



"Night blossom is rare and has an odor that enhances other scents. It also works well as a leather curing agent. Oil weed has the same qualities. Few in the lowlands will ever smell oil weed in the wild. Nop, rose, and the spices can only be used as blends. We can recycle the scented sand to cure leather for blends. Once the leather is cured with oil weed it can be used for nop or savor spice scented sand. Night blossom cured leather must be reserved for the floral and spice bark blends."



Neril spoke calmly but she had difficulty restraining a smile when she saw the solemn attention she received from her father and the other men. They would have reached the same conclusions on their own eventually but her origination of the idea for the product had made her the expert on the subject.



"You should reserve the most colorful and dangerous reptile skins for the pure scents and use more common skins as well as tooled and painted leather for the blends," she added.



"You have a genius for the market," Sergon said with a wink. The other men nodded. Sergon stood and gestured for Neril to follow him.



"What frightened you before you came back to the enclave?" he asked when they were in the hallway beyond the hearing of the others. She didn't question his insight but was grateful he had observed her discomfort. It would have been awkward to ask him to accompany her in private while they were with the others.



"I saw two priests of Orqu this morning. One of them approached me at my stand. He asked for a donation of scented sand. When I refused, he said that he had 'uses' for a Marekla maiden. I'm certain I should take precautions, but I don't want to alarm Geran."



Sergon scowled. "I'm surprised that one of them was bold enough to approach you. It would be more in character if they abducted you without warning. You should have given the signal as soon as the man approached you. A united front could have given him a scare that would keep him and other skulkers from trying anything. Since you didn't give the alarm he may think you are so frightened that they have a chance of taking you. Remember, a show of strength when threatened never goes amiss."



Neril shivered at the thought of the risk she had taken by delaying the warning. . "If everyone has to start worrying about guarding me it would be better if I hadn't come on trek," she said.



"You sound like Geran," Sergon said. "Marekla merchants must always be on guard. Thieves and ruffians are greedy for the precious goods we carry and even the legal authorities sometimes turn against us when there is corruption and greed in the government of a city. You've heard the stories of attacks both on the caravans and in markets. The Orquians pose no threat to us unless they gather in greater numbers. I'll speak to your father and the other council members. We may have to cut short our stay in Timora, but thanks to you, we'll have a better profit from our shorter stay because of the popularity of your product. Unless you see another of the demon's dogs, let me worry about the Orquians and you spend your thoughts on more pleasant concerns. Wait here while I get your father. He can set special guards to ensure that no one attempts to enter the enclave while we visit the Royal residence."



Neril gasped at the reminder. She had nearly forgotten the upcoming visit to the retired royals in her anxiety over the Orquians. She had nothing to wear but her best tunic. She hadn't anticipated needing formal clothing and her mind had been so involved with making a list of fellow guests that she hadn't spared any attention to her appearance. When Sergon returned with her father and several other men, he saw her distraught expression.



"I told you not to worry about the skulking demon priests," he reminded her.



"I'll leave that worry to you,"she said with tears brightening her eyes. "When you reminded me that we are expected as guests I realized I have nothing fit to wear to the dinner tonight. I can't go in a travel-stained tunic. It would be disrespectful."



Neragon seemed stunned that she was more worried about her appearance than she was about the threat of abduction. "Your grandmother insisted I bring a special packet for you. I'll get it out of my pack."



Neril remembered that her grandmother had tried to get her to pack one of her gowns for the trek. She had refused, thinking there would be no need for such frivolities. Apparently Sericil had gone behind her back. When Neragon returned with the package she recognized the embroidered scarf that had been used to wrap it.



She left the men to discuss their concerns for her safety and went to the bathing room. This time there were no interruptions as Neril enjoyed the luxury of the pool. She washed her hair twice and scented her comb with a few drops from the vial of night blossom oil her grandmother had folded into the bundle containing her coming of age dress and a new pair of sandals. She hung the dress at the end of the pool where the steaming water from the hot spring filled the air with warm mist. When she finished her other preparations, she was pleased to see that the steam had gentled the fold lines from the fabric.



A mirror of polished brass stood at the end of the dressing room and she was satisfied with what she saw. She stood a little taller with the knowledge that her appearance would be acceptable.



The men of the party were waiting for her in the entrance hall when Enven ended and it was time to make their way to their dinner appointment. Neragon gazed up at his daughter as she slowly descended the stairs. There were tears in his eyes as he remembered the beloved wife of his youth.



The fine twined white wool of Neril's dress seemed to float around her slender feet, clad in gilt sandals. Her hair tumbled in dark curls over the the bodice of her gown and the scarf of embroidered zylka cloth around her shoulders. A single oval turquoise set in a pendant of her own design was her only jewelry. Night blossom scent surrounded her when she reached for her father's hand.



Geran stepped forward to take her hand but Neragon did not yield the privilege. "Seeing you like this, dressed like a princess and prepared to meet the highest society of Timora, helps me realize how much you would have missed if I had listened to Belil and left you at home."



All of the merchants carried their staffs as they walked through the streets toward the house with the blue door. Sergon and Thalon were especially alert as they assumed the fore and aft positions in the array of men surrounding Neril and her father. A casual observer might think her a princess surrounded by a guard of honor as they approached the street of walled villas where the retired royalty of Zedekla lived in deceptive simplicity. Their coming was observed well ahead of their arrival and the blue door swung open as they approached. A tall, gray haired man with noble bearing stood in the entrance with Kemila. The royal couple were dressed with elegant simplicity, Manchek in a long robe of dark gray corum wool woven in a subtle pattern that Neril recognized as of Mareklan make. Kemila's dress was similar in fashion to Neril's, but soft gray blue, fitting her age. The queen also wore a pendant very like Neril's, but of lapis with a natural design of white veins of calcite and studded with golden gleams of pyrite. Neril smiled when she recognized her own handiwork.



"We welcome you and your companions to our home, Neril of Marekla," Manchek said. He gestured for the group of Mareklans to enter. For a moment Neril was worried that there were too many of them. Then she looked beyond her hosts and saw that the large room behind the entrance hall was nearly filled with people. This was no small private affair. All eyes were turned to see the latest arrivals. Neril felt a quaking sense of fright that was eased when she looked at the face of her royal host and saw admiration warming his eyes.



"She is here, Neril is here," Tomak shouted as he charged through the crowd to hug Neril around her knees. "I didn't break the soldiers. I've been very, very careful not to drop them," he said when he finally released his grip and was caught up by his grandmother.



"I am happy to hear that you kept your promise," Neril replied. The prince wriggled out of Kemila's arms and hurried over to stand by Neril again.



"I will show you where the food is," he said, taking her hand and propelling her through the crowded room beyond the entrance hall. She barely had time to notice the simple elegance of the large hall before he led her into an even larger room where long tables radiated from a central pillar. "This is your seat right here between my grandfather and me. They let me stay up late because I promised to be good," Tomak assured her earnestly.



Neril suppressed a chuckle and solemnly thanked her tiny, self-appointed guide. "I am happy they let you stay up so we can visit with each other. I think we should go back to your grandparents now. I want you to meet my father."



Prince Tomak accepted her suggestion and they turned to find that the Marekla merchants had begun to mingle with the other guests in the reception hall. Geran stared toward her with a sullen expression. His display of pique puzzled her until she caught the focus of his gaze, the hands that linked her to her little host. His jealousy of the prince, a child who could have been her own if she had married when she first came of age amused her .



She stood on tiptoes until she located her father in the crowd. He was happily engaged in conversation with some men she suspected of being Zedeklan factors from the elegance of their distinctive robes. She led the prince to meet him. "Prince Tomak, this is my father, Neragon, trek chief of our caravan."



Neragon gravely bowed as he reached down to take the hand of the prince and showed him every sign of courtesy due his rank. The Zedeklan factors smiled their approval. Neril looked around for others to introduce and saw a familiar silvered head entertaining a group of people with his wit. She led Tomak to meet Sergon. As soon as they approached the elder, he turned to the prince with a grin. "So you are the general of all the clay warriors. I hope you will learn to lead men as well."



He reached his hand into his tunic and she was delighted to see that Sergon had come prepared with a cunning toy. It was a tiny jointed snake. When he handed it to Tomak it mimicked the movement of a real serpent when the prince held it by the tail and waved it. The boy's eyes lit with mischief and Neril was certain that many of his female relatives would fall victim to the practical joke before he tired of it.



"Put the snake away now," Sergon counseled the prince. "I see your grandmother coming. Kemila never liked reptiles. I don't think she will appreciate your toy." Tomak grinned at the elder and quickly concealed the toy in the pocket of his tunic.



Two elderly people accompanied Kemila as she walked toward them. Only the sparse white beard of the man and his slightly greater height distinguished them from each other. Both were dressed in the white robes of shrine workers. Their nearly translucent skin appeared to glow with an inner light. When the queen mother introduced the Marekla merchants to them, they seemed slow to respond, nodding but not speaking. Neril thought that their extreme age had dulled their minds. Then Kemila took her hand and turned to the couple.



"This is my special guest Neril," she said. The eyes that had seemed dim and intent on some inner concern suddenly seemed full of extraordinary awareness. They focused on her with such intent that she felt they saw into her very soul.



"Yes," the old woman breathed in a voice that was so low and quiet that it was almost a whisper. It pierced Neril as no sound she had ever heard. "Neril, the Radiance has shown us your path and your peril. Have courage and doubt not, for even in the vale of death you will serve Him. Through the daughter of Irilik, and the son of Elianin, the lost words will be restored. The blade of Neril will sever the grasp of the oppressor." The words seemed to inscribe themselves on Neril's heart like a puzzle begging to be solved.



The woman smiled at her so sweetly and compassionately that Neril could not make an answer. The same bittersweet fear and longing that had imbued her dream the day before washed over her as she looked steadily back into the eyes of the ancient woman.



The mood was broken by an abrupt interruption as Geran pushed himself into the group around Neril.



"Who are these people? What have they to do with Neril?" he demanded. Sergon laid a hand on the young man's arm and held him back.



"They are the Seers of Timora, but long ago they were the king and queen of Zedekla," Sergon murmured.



Geran fell silent but his nervous glance at Neril told her he resented the cryptic message he had heard the woman deliver. Considering his headstrong and aggressive behavior in the face of such a benign and holy couple, she was relieved that he had not been told about the Orquian's threat in the marketplace.



She overheard the Seer talking to her father. "In five days Timora will no longer be safe for you. Prepare for your journey." Neragon father did not question the seer but nodded his assent. It was unusual for the Seers of Timora to give personal advice. Only the most serious situations called for their intervention. None but Neril seemed to have overheard the whispered words to Neragon. The Seer was looked at her with an expression of love and compassion in his eyes that echoed the feelings she had received from his wife's cryptic message.



For a moment she stood silent, held in an aura of wonder and fear while the seers glided away like wraiths from the midst of the colorful throng. Neril felt relieved when the sound of a gong broke her thrall. It signaled that the meal was ready. Tomak, made his presence known by tugging on her hand and leading her back toward the dining hall.



The elderly seers were not among the guests who sat for the meal. When Kemila saw Neril searching the crowd she leaned over to speak quietly. "The Seers never eat in public assemblies like this. They came to meet you tonight but I doubt that any of us will see them again."



Neril's thoughts were not allowed to linger on the portent of Kemila's words. Tomak, convinced she was his special guest, dominated her attention. "My father is the King and he had to stay home in Zedekla with my mother and the baby. We have a very big house, but there are too many people who try to tell me what to do. When I brought the pot boy's dog into my room the maid told my father and I wasn't allowed to play with the kitchen kids for a week. When I tried to get Tharek oc Baroka, my father's sword, down from the wall, a servant told my mother, and I had to wash pots like a scullion for three days."



"I am sure you will learn how to use a sword when you are bigger," Neril encouraged him.



"When I am bigger, I will be King of Zedekla and you can come and live with me. Maybe you should be the queen." Tomak stood on his chair and leaned over Neril to ask a question of Manchek in a piercing voice that caught the attention of everyone at the table. "Grandfather, can Neril be the queen when I am king?" There were indulgent chuckles from every side.



There was a twinkle in Manchek's eyes even while he used a gruff voice to answer: "If you do not sit down right now, I will tell your aunt Kirila to take you up to your room. Why would a young woman as nicely behaved as Neril want to marry a scamp like you?"



"Neril can't be your queen," another voice said. Neril looked up to see Geran looming over them. "She must return to the Homeplace and marry a Mareklan."



"I'm sure any plans Prince Tomak has won't interfere with your future," Neril said in a tight voice. The child had been unmannerly, but he was only four years old and excited by the late hours and the company. Geran had no excuse for his lack of propriety. He blushed and retreated to his seat next to a Jaman trader's daughter.



"I don't like him very much," Tomak whispered.



"He killed a viper that was going to bite me the other day," Neril generously revealed, hoping to blunt the edge of Geran's impulsive rudeness.



Tomak's eyes grew round with awe. "Did he shoot it with an arrow?"



"No, he threw a knife that hit the snake in the spine. I would have died if he hadn't acted quickly. Sometimes he bothers me, but he's my friend," she hedged She took up her spoon and ate some of the delicious soup that had been cooling in front of her while the Prince chattered.



He sat quietly thinking while she continued her meal. Then he got up from the table and walked to where Geran was beginning to warm to the flattering attention of his pretty table mate. "I will give you a medal when I am King," Tomak said as he reached up and patted Geran's arm. "You are very brave."



Kirila, a plump woman with a motherly air, quickly made her way to the center table and leaned down to whisper something to the prince. He nodded and returned to Neril. "I have to go to my room now Neril. Please come visit me when you are in Zedekla. Goodnight, Grandfather and Grandmother," Tomak gave a little bow and held his hand out to Kirila who led him away.



Although Manchek and the others at the table were attentive, Neril missed the precocious chatter of the little prince. She smiled when she thought of his invitation to be his queen. Geran would have ample reason for his foolish jealousy if Tomak had been fifteen years older, she mused.



Kemila leaned near enough to have a private word with her. "I am happy that you were allowed to leave the Homeplace. It has been many years since I made my first trek and met Manchek, but I've never quite resigned myself to being forbidden visits from my sisters and nieces."



"You are Mareklan?" Neril asked. "Why have I never hear of you? Surely it is a proud thing that one of us should be queen of Zedekla."



Kemila shook her head. "I am a mischievous old woman to tell you these things. My name is the royal form of Kemil. It is forbidden knowledge among Mareklan women that the heir of Zedekla always chooses a Mareklan maiden for his wife. My son Farek married a girl of the Mareklan enclave on the isles of Arqua. I don't know what Tomak will do for a bride."



"If I had a daughter I would be proud to marry her to such a fine prince," Neril said impulsively, but once said, the words seemed to echo in her soul. If she had a daughter her child would be unlikely to ever leave the shelter of Marekla's natural ramparts. It seemed even more of a shame that her own trek might be the last any maiden would make, especially now that the threat of the Orquian scum lingered over their trek like a foul smog. She recalled Sergon's cryptic reference to the marriage traditions of Zedeklan royalty. Since the beginning of the trek and the stories that Sergon had told her, she had begun to suspect that the Mareklan history she had been taught had been selectively edited.



Now she realized why it had been done. Surely the lure of a royal marriage would have seduced many of her friends into making the trek if they had known. She wondered what other misinformation and deletions had been worked on the version of history taught to the young women of Marekla to keep them content within the natural fortress of the Homeplace. Her own ambitions had nothing to do with contracting a royal marriage, but the thought that her future daughters would never be able to make such a choice was a potent disappointment.



The meal ended with a simple dish of fruit and cake. In keeping with the status of the hosts however, the fruit was made of flavored, colored ice, a phenomenal luxury in the humid climate of Timora. "I think our chef is a magician," Kemila acknowledged when her guests begged the secret. "He often surprises us."



Sergon winked at Neril, "I could make ice fruit but it takes a long time and much patience. I learned the secret in Janaka many years ago from King Tagun himself. Perhaps I should give up trekking and take up my retirement now. There may be a profit here for another 'magician'." His bantering words brought their usual reward of laughter and led others to spin tales to entertain the company.



Kemila and Manchek finally stood to mark that the meal had ended. They moved to the anteroom and began to take leave of their guests. It was time to return to the enclave, but Geran could not be found. Feton returned from the walled garden pulling on the tunic of a red-faced Geran. I found him hugging a Jaman girl," he confided to Maldorn."



Neril overheard him and felt a moment of revulsion. For all his protestations of intent to marry her, Geran had quickly found diversion. She noticed lip paint on his neck and shuddered.



The moonlit streets were empty of other people when the company of Mareklans made their way back to the enclave. Neragon conferred with Sergon. Neril, walking next to them overheard their murmured conversation. "The words of the Seers weigh on my mind. I wonder how much time we have before it becomes imperative to leave Timora."



"It will require at least two more days of trading for us to accumulate enough gold to purchase vouchers from the Zedeklan grain brokers," Sergon said. "It is just was well we avoid carrying sums of money on trek. Rural thieves are usually not interested in antiques, artifacts and vouchers."



"The vouchers are important, but I won't endanger Neril," Neragon said. He walked silently for a while then turned to Sergon. "We will leave in the middle of the night after two or three more days depending on the level of threat. I will not do anything that might threaten Neril. It's a good thing the prince is far to young to seek a wife. From all accounts the current queen is a healthy woman who has already provided her husband with two potential heirs, but it reminded me that there is more than one way a Mareklan father could lose a daughter to the world outside the Homeplace."



"What did the Seer tell you that has you so upset?" Sergon asked him.



"He said we only had a few days left in Timora, You heard what the Seeress told Neril. I couldn't make much sense of it what she said, but it didn't sound good."



"We know that there are Orquians hanging around, and now you have the confirmation that you need to leave Timora soon. You could confuse our foes by hinting at different destinations. Geran and his cronies would be most likely to inform enemies of their plans by talking unwisely. They could be used to lay a false trail."



When Neril entered the dining hall the next morning, she saw her father talking to Geran. "I think we should head directly for Janaka when we leave Timora next week. We can pass through Zedekla and take advantage of the summer fair on our way. The Zedeklan ladies will have heard of our new products by then and our profits will be ensured."



"What about Saadena and your plans to acquire selan?" Geran asked.



"We'll have Zedeklan luxuries and Janakan jewels to trade for selan if we visit Saadena near the end of our trek," Neragon told Geran with a confiding air.



Neragon had been white-lipped with anger the night before when Geran had intruded on the conversation between Neril and the young prince but now he treatim him almost like a son. It would seem he had quickly forgiven Geran's rudeness. Surely her father could not be so easily swayed by fear for her safety into approving a betrothal. She stepped back behind a pillar of the door and waited until Geran and Feton had left the dining hall by another entrance.



She quickly ate her breakfast and left the table with only a few words to the others who lingered there. Her father hardly seemed to notice her until she stood and prepared to leave the enclave. He followed her into the entrance hall where she adjusted her pack.



"Neril, make sure Sergon or Thalon are always present when you leave the enclave, and try to sell as much as you can over the next few days," he murmured. His words to her were in sharp contrast to the advice he had given Geran and his friends.



"I am confused," she told him. "You gave Geran the idea that he should accumulate trade goods. What is happening?"



"I cannot tell you now. Just do as I say," he hesitated a moment. "I don't share all my secrets with Geran, but he will be part of our family eventually. You must accept that."



She almost gaped in surprise. Surely Geran had put himself beyond the pale when he had tried to ambush her with numb thorn. On the other hand, she had made light of the attack and had tried to avoid quarreling with Geran for the sake of peace. Before she could argue, Neragon left the hall.



The day of rest had restored the pilgrims who had stayed away from the market the previous day. When the bells of the main Shrine rang the beginning of Enven, Neril had depleted her pack of all but the items reserved for the last days of the festival. Sergon and Thalon sold as much as they could. The jingle of silver and gold in their hidden wallets told of their success when they returned to the enclave.



The other merchants also had a busy morning. Neragon counted the gold and silver and issued credit chits to those who were privy to his plans. The others, anticipating a stop at Zedekla's summer fair after talking to Geran, planned to exchange their earnings for new inventory from the jewelers and craftsmen of Timora. Neril guessed they would be disappointed to find that the practical Tedakans were next on the route. She had never visited the city, but she knew the reputation for thrift and industry enjoyed by Tedakans. They made a poor market for the luxuries and trinkets that appealed to Zedeklans.



For the first time since arriving in Timora, the merchants returned to the market after Enven and enjoyed several more hours of successful trading. When Neril ran short of dolls, Sergon provided her with a supply of jointed wooden animals. They sold quickly even though none of them were as well made or cleverly painted as the snake he had given Prince Tomak.



All the merchants found plenty of customers eager to buy packets of scented sand. The cheaper blends were purchased by pilgrims. The more expensive, pure essences of nop, rose and spice were popular with the elite of Timora and other cities.



"I still can't understand why the Timorans are willing to pay so much for something made from sand and weeds," Geran said when the traders gathered for a late meal in the dining hall. "The pilgrims can use it for dry baths when they take the road home. But there is plenty of water from both warm and cool springs in Timora, and Zedekla offers both river and sea bathing, yet it is the conceit of their wealthy citizens to purchase the bulk of our product."



"Necessity and utility are seldom measures of value among the wealthy," Sergon reminded him. "I doubt that any of them would care to bathe in the scented sand unless they realized how wasteful that would be. Then, it might become common practice among the rich to stand at the edges of their pools of water and rub themselves clean with sand."



Geran scowled. "You speak nonsense old man."



"And you are a fool," Docanen interjected. "Tell me why blue lattice stone beads are so sought after that we never have enough to satisfy the market."



"Because they are beautiful and rare," Geran replied.



"Lattice stone is used for paving in the islands where we buy it," Docanen said. "The Tedakans produce blue pottery beads that are as hard as lattice stone and prettier. We trade them for lattice stone beads on a ten for one basis. The use customers make of a product is no concern of yours unless it's a dangerous substance like dass or docil, which is only used by addicts of the dreams they produce, and we do not deal in either."



"The hour is late and I'm weary of this controversy," Thalon said after covering a yawn. He stood and the others followed his example. Geran was still not satisfied with the explanation he had received. As Neril climbed the stairs to her room she heard his voice raised in further argument. Clotil, the steward's wife, caught up to her and handed her a pile of clean linens.



"Your young man is jealous of your success," she said and she tilted her head in the direction of the noisy protests. "It hurts his pride to see you so popular and well regarded. If you wish a happy marriage, it would be better if you avoided challenging his self esteem."



"I have no intention of marrying Geran," Neril said with a frown.



"What choice do you have? I've listened to the men talking and all agree that you will marry your suitor when you finish your trek. If you are not willing to humble yourself, your marriage will be painful," Clotil insisted.



Neril did not linger over her bath and prayed for sleep to come quickly. The thought of marrying Geran had become even more repugnant after his performance over Tomak's childish proposal. Her hope that they could be friends seemed doomed. She pounded her pillow after tossing from side to side and tried to recall the warnings of the Seers.



Their words were elusive and she fell asleep in pursuit of the memory. She woke feeling weary and her head ached. The bright glow of the new morning hurt her eyes.



Geran glared at her when she appeared in the dining hall for breakfast. "Do you think I'm a fool because I can't understand why we sell people things they don't need?" he demanded.



"I'm not the cause of your problem Geran, whatever you may choose to believe," she snapped irritably. She felt no pity for him and affection was impossible to summon. Others sensed her mood and avoided speaking to her.



"Is anyone ready to join me and Sergon in going to the market this morning?" Thalon asked from the arched opening of the dining hall.



"I'm ready," Neril answered, eager to leave Geran's sullen presence. When she was on the street her mood improved. The air of Timora's vale was freshened by a combination of sweet air from the lake and the scent of growth from orchards and gardens. It seemed to elevate her spirits. She wondered if it was the cause for the founding of the holy city. Was it more than a physical phenomenon that brightened her outlook?



She felt sorry that she had indulged in a petty exchange with Geran, but she did not linger in regret. If her father intended to heed the warning of the Seer, they would have only a few more days in Timora and she would make the best of the time that remained. She had not yet had a chance to explore the various shrines and the sacred library.



When they reached the market, she was surprised to find a greater crowd than the previous day. "Many pilgrims are beginning their journeys home today," Sergon explained. "They want to purchase mementos of their pilgrimage as gifts for those who couldn't come. Today we'll sell gems and medals inscribed with a likeness of Irilik, first Prophet of the Radiance. Do you have a plentiful supply on hand?"



Neril nodded. In fact she had been advised to save the products of her gold and silver smithing for the final days of the festival. Her grandfather had carved likenesses of the Prophet in precious stones and she had set them in gold and electrum filigree medallions. The stones were in a rainbow of colors that made a charming display. Her grandmother, not to be outdone, had worked small embroidered panels with the image of the main Shrine. She had used the smaller but similar Shrine in Marekla as her model. Neril had prepared tiny dolls dressed as pilgrims in white and blue. She kept the price of the dolls low enough that even the poorest pilgrim could find a few coins for the purchase. Her grandfather had stated his price for the carved gems and advised her grandmother on the value of her panels. His assessment proved accurate and a steady stream of customers came to her stand. Some tried to dicker with the price of the gems and Neril just smiled. "You know that no other merchant offers the same quality for this price. If it makes you happy to bargain, I have a few packets of scented sand left and I will bargain with you over them."



Some accepted her challenge, but most were content to accept the price she set. Neril was as fond of bargaining as any merchant, but it was an art best practiced when business was a little slow. The steady press of customers forestalled quibbling. Two of the Jaman girls who had ridiculed her when she first entered Timora stopped by her stand. One of them removed a long gilt earring and dangled it so the sun glittered from the facets of the inset glass. "I'll wager this earring against a packet of blossom sand that you don't know the name of my city," she purred.



"I've been warned about Jamans and their wagers," Neril laughed. The girl pouted and dropped the earring onto Neril's stand. She picked it up and handed it back. "Never try to trick a Mareklan," she warned with a smile. "I didn't agree to the wager." The Jamans laughed with good nature and purchased some dolls.



Neril sold all the engraved gems and all but one of the embroidered panels. She saw a woman eying the last panel and impulsively packed it away with her last two packages of scented sand. Then she began to dismantle her stand.



"Are you finished already?" Docanen asked. "I could give you some of my merchandise if yours has run thin."



"Sergon promised to show me the libraries of Timora when we first arrived. I may never have another trek," she explained as she looked around for the elder.



"Just make certain you don't wander away on your own," Docanen warned.



"I wouldn't," she assured him. "I was raised on horror stories of Orqu just like the rest of Marekla's maidens. I'm the only one in my generation who had the dubious opportunity to meet one of the demon's priests."



"When did that happen?" he asked with alarm.



"The day before yesterday, here in the market-place. While your back was turned, one of them asked me to donate scented sand to the temple of Orqu. I thought my father told you," Neril answered.



"He only said he wanted us to keep you in our sight at all times. If the priests of Orqu know you are here, they will try to abduct you. Now I understand the plans your father made. I've probably said too much already," he said with sudden caution, glancing around to make sure there were no lingering listeners.



Sergon walked through the crowd and joined them. The pack on his back and the staff in his hand showed that he had noticed Neril's preparations and was reay to end the morning trading session. "I promised you a tour and I don't think we have much time left," he said with a gesture to Thalon who followed him.



"I'll join you. Wait while I pack up," Docanen said.



"I'll purchase some stuffed matlas and nuka juice for our lunch while you finish," Thalon volunteered. Soon the quartet of Marekla merchants were merrily making their way through the streets of the sacred city. No one could have guessed that at least three of them were aware of every passing stranger and walked with the momentary expectation of defending the maiden who walked in their midst listening wide eyed to Sergon's tales.



There seemed to be a story to be told for every crossroad and monument and Sergon knew them all as well as hilarious variations that kept the others laughing and belied the alertness that kept them scanning the crowd.



They visited the Sacred Library where the original Scrolls of Irilik were displayed in cases made of rock crystal panels joined by narrow fretwork of gold. The transparent covers allowed the precious artifacts to be viewed and copied while protecting them from moisture and vermin. There were three long tables protected by the crystal cases, but only two of them held scrolls. Neril leaned close to examine the ancient script that had been written by the hand of the First Prophet. The style of writing had changed enough in a thousand years that she couldn't readily decipher the words but the image of the symbols seemed engraved in her memory. "It is fortunate that the scrolls of the Law and the Promise are so well preserved, but I wonder if they'll ever find the scroll of the History of Irilik," she mused.



"I doubt it," Thalon said. "It has been centuries since the scroll was lost. Some say there never was another scroll, that it should better be called the scroll of Myth. Fortunately the other scrolls have been copied and distributed to shrines throughout Okishdu. The wisdom they contain will remain even if the original scrolls are somehow destroyed."



Beyond the hall where the scrolls were displayed, crowds of pilgrims and Shrine workers were examining other books and tablets. "I wish we had time to look at the Chronicles," Sergon said. Then he looked at Neril. "Has anyone explained the Chronicles to you?"



She shook her head. "I've found there are a number of gaps in my knowledge. It seems that a Mareklan maiden receives a different version of history from what the boys are taught."



"It was for your own good," Docanen earnestly explained. "If Marekla's maidens knew that pilgrims are encouraged to come to Timora to study the secular and sacred histories of Okisdu and enjoy the Festival of Offering, they might not be so content to stay safely guarded at home when we make the trek."



Sergon made a face that showed what he thought of the policy of keeping Neril's peers in ignorance. He raised his hand and gestured, "To the right are the rooms that house the secular chronicles of Okishdu, the stories of wars and kings and genealogies. On the other side is the Hall of Sacred Memories. The scrolls kept there tell of the Working of the Radiance and record the miracles and sacrifices of the blessed Saints and the prophecies of the Seers."



Neril looked toward the rooms where she might find the answers to the puzzle she felt at the words of the Seeress. "I would like to spend some time there. Could you show me where the writings of the Seers are kept?" Neril asked.



"It is only a small scroll and very cryptic,"Sergon said. Generstions have passed with no intervention from the seers. The last I know of for certain involved my friend Tagun, king of Janaka and that took place when I was young."



It is best we leave now before we are pursued." Docanen cautioned.



Neril reluctantly followed the others out of the library, but her mind remained with the mystery of the empty scroll case. Why did the sight of that emptiness tug at her soul and awake the sensations of fear and hope that resonated with the words of the Seeress. Some called the missing Scroll of History "The Lost Scroll." Had it been destroyed or was it waiting somewhere in an obscure library until it could be found and restored.



She tried to keep her feelings of regret from spoiling the high spirits of the others as they continued their exploration of Timora but she could hardly recall the sights they showed her after they left the library. At length they came to a narrow street in a humble neighborhood. Neril glanced around nervously at the shadowed alleys and looming walls. The warning of Docanen had infected her. She thought she saw a couple of shadowed figures take cover in the alley behind them when she turned to look over her shoulder. She moved closer to the men who had named themselves her friends and glanced back again.



Chapter 6 Games





Sergon stopped at a sturdy gate in the weathered wall and worked the lock. Then he opened the gate and gestured them to follow him into the courtyard that lay beyond. As soon as all of them were within the wall he locked the gate behind them. The happy cry of a child greeted them and when a smiling infant toddled toward them, Sergon bent and scooped him into his arms.



"This is my grandchild, Anser," he said with a fond smile when he turned to show the child to his companions.



"I thought you were a bachelor!" Thalon exclaimed.



"I married a woman of Timora in my youth." Sergon said. "My wife, Falinda, died in childbirth years ago, but my daughter Dresla refused to return to Marekla with me. She and her husband live here. Only a few know that I have a family."



The young matron who came to the door of Sergon's villa was pretty and plump with another pregnancy. She welcomed them and seemed intrigued with Neril. "I thought the women of Marekla were never allowed to leave the valley. If I had known I would be allowed to be part of a trek, I wouldn't have stayed in Timora."



"Then you would never have met Anget," Sergon reminded her.



She laughed and nodded, "I am a happy married wife and mother now, but how I would love to have traveled over the trails with my father."



Neril smiled. "I'm sure you made the right choice Dresla. Most of the girls who grow up in the Homeplace must accept their lot. I was stubborn and insisted in coming on trek."



"Yes, and the dogs of the demon have sniffed her out and we are in retreat before them," Docanen told Dresla. "This venture of Neril's has proven the wisdom of keeping our maidens safe at home."



Neril flinched at the tone of his words. If Docanen, her friend, could say such a thing, what must the other members of the trek think of the danger that her presence had brought on them. Before she could make any reply, the bells of Enven sounded and Dresla led them into the house. The humble entrance belied the luxury it concealed. The entrance hall was graciously proportioned and decorated with a selection of antique weapons.



"This is our armory," Sergon said as he gestured to the collection of arms. "Anget is a member of the Peace Guardians and Dresla is trained in the use of sword and staff. If any intruders ventured beyond the gate, they would find that these antiques are still deadly."



Three arched doorways opened from the entrance hall. Immediately ahead, the opening revealed a garden surrounding a fountain. Neril glimpsed a large storage area through a slightly open door before Dresla pushed it shut. "I was just completing the inventory you asked for, father. Normally I make certain the store room is locked."



She led them into the room opposite. It was richly decorated with textiles and crafts from the Homeplace. A carved panel depicting Mount Vald from the southern pass hung over the hearth. Neril recognized Sergon's handiwork.



Dresla took her child from her father and suggested that the others be seated. "I trust my father will take care of you now. Please excuse me while I make my devotions."



"Of course," Sergon said. He hugged his daughter and tickled the dimpled chin of his grandson. A merry giggle trailed behind Dresla and Anser when she carried him from the room.



"I imagine I'll have to get into the practice of praying for a couple of hours every afternoon when I retire to Timora," Sergon said ruefully to his companions.



"Just think of it as talking to a good friend and I'm certain you'll begin to enjoy it," Thalon said with a smile.



"I never thought of it that way." Sergon raised his shaggy eyebrows in pleased surprise. He gestured toward the door. "Let me show you the other rooms in my villa. Few suspect what lies beyond my humble facade."



The garden was extensive. There were fruit trees espaliered against the walls and vines running over arched trellises. Vegetables grew in boxes and rows that blended with ornamental bushes and flowers around the pavement surrounding a central fountain.



A balcony around the second story of the house provided shade for carved benches and stools set around cubes of stone that served as tables. Opposite the entrance hall, a small doorway was nearly hidden behind a flowering bush.



Neril and the others followed Sergon through the rooms of his house admiring the well appointed kitchen and workrooms and the comfortable bedrooms. When they came to a small chapel Sergon led them inside to show them the fine woodwork of the altar and the delicate alabaster globe that was the nearly universal symbol of the Radiance.



When they returned to the shadowed coolness of the common room Thalon spoke to Sergon. "I've been your friend for years, but I never suspected the existence of this house. When you talked about your retirement villa in Timora, I pictured one of those little houses out in the countryside. This place rivals the home of Manchek and Kemila. It could withstand a siege,"



Docanen seemed puzzled as he looked around. "What happened to your daughter and her child? I think you must have shown us every room in your house and I didn't see any sign of them."



"Dresla and her family have a house of their own that opens onto a much better neighborhood. When I acquired this property I purchased another house with a rear wall that adjoins the wall of my garden. When Dresla married, it was her dower gift to Anget."



"I've always thought of you as carefree and nearly rootless," Thalon admitted. "It's hard to imagine you as the owner of all this."



"I saw there was a need for secret refuges for the Marekla caravans when I was in the Ambush at Janaka. Over the years I've helped organize houses like this in all the major cities of the alliance. You would never have suspected the existence of this house if there hadn't been a need. Neril, you must stay here with Docanen and Thalon until I come for you in a day or so. A runner arrived at the enclave this morning with the news that Orquian priests have disguised themselves as pilgrims and are infiltrating Timora."



"Why did you bring us here?" Thalon asked.



"Orquians are watching the enclave. Neragon sent a message to me and asked me to seclude Neril. I'm sorry I had to mislead you, but I hope you'll be comfortable here while you wait. I pray you will be safe."



Neril nodded, "Tell my father I understand the need for his caution. Are you certain we weren't followed when we came here? I thought I saw someone behind us."



"Anget and a few of his men tracked us and made certain no one followed us into this district. I'm surprised you noticed them. I'll have to let them know they aren't as clever as they think they are," Sergon said with a wry smile.



"I'm sorry my insistence on joining the trek has caused so much trouble," Neril said. "We've cut short our time in Timora and face the risk of confronting the Orquians."



"There is danger, but your idea for scented sand has enriched us," Docanen told her. "I dined with royalty and saw the sacred Seers. I can't regret that you came with us Neril, even though this news confirms my fear that it was a risk we should not have taken," Thalon nodded, but Sergon shook his head.



"We can't let our fear continue to drive us. This venture should be viewed as an opportunity to identify our enemies. The cultists of Orqu operate in secret. Only a few appear in the robes that mark their allegiance. We believe they will attack the enclave, Anget and his men will take note of those who join the assault. We've hired mercenaries to wear Mareklan capes and have armed them with staffs. Clotil and her husband will visit their son in the countryside for a few days. When the Orquians lay siege to the enclave and do battle with our hired soldiers, we will be well on our way to Tedaka."



Thalon smiled when he heard the plan. "I wish I could be there to bash a few heads, but I agree that wisdom dictates another course. Geran and his friends will be disappointed when they hear about the change of plans."



"I heard Beldon telling Geran that there's a nest of exotic snakes a few hours from the city. Beldon will lead them there tonight," Docanen said. "They'll be happily ignorant of any change of plans until they clear away a nuisance for the farmers in the area. Beldon overheard Geran talking to an Orquian spy who made a gift of a few matlas to him yesterday. He gave them the information that we were headed for Zedekla. Beldon will guide Geran and the others to meet us on the trail to Tedaka."



Sergon nodded. He tied to reassure Neril once more. "The cult of Orqu is like a festering sore. Your presence has precipitated action that will cauterize the infection of the cult in the regions around Timora. The Peace Guardians will know the faces of those who secretly yearn for the world promised by the priests of Orqu. Where there is lust and jealousy and foolish pride, the seeds of the cult find welcome. I would like to try to beat sense into a few of the cultists, but violence is no cure for the heresy of Orqu's cult. Tharek the Tyrant decreed that any cult or belief would be allowed in Zedekla as long as the adherents obey civil law. The pattern he set in his code of laws has been followed in most of the cities of Okishdu. We are less tolerant here in the sacred city."



"There are many things that Tharek did that I find questionable," Docanen said.



"I felt the same way in my youth," Sergon said. "Now I recognize the wisdom of Zedekla's tyrant. When the temples and altars of dubious cults were built in the heart of Zedekla, the guardians of peace were better able to detect illegal practices. Deviations of ritual and practice are common. Jamans appeal to their totems and their dead hero Karaka for the luck that rules their lives. The Watchers of Orenon believe that Algunagada is a divinity who will come from the land of Kishdu and lead them home to lives of ease and pleasure. Even so, both Jamans and Orenese make pilgrimages to Timora and bring thank offerings to the Shrine.



"That may be," Thalon said, "but the tolerance of other cults found among the Zedeklans has no place in Tedaka or Timora. Tedakans are too practical to waste building material on superstition. Timora has always been dedicated to the one and true religion since its founding by the first prophet."



"I am puzzled that several Orquians have been bold enough to wear the robes that mark them for what they are," Sergon said. "It could mean they have added enough malcontents to their numbers that they feel they can act with impunity. It is well past time that they were drawn out and their members identified."



Neril stood and looked around. The open door of the chapel beckoned her. "I think I'll follow Dresla's example and spend the rest of Enven in prayer," she told the others.



Neril bid Sergon farewell with a look and gesture before leaving the others and seeking the small chapel. She shut the door and knelt before the altar under the glowing lamp that symbolized the Radiance. With her hands crossed at her bosom and her head bowed, she searched her mind for words to express the sorrow of her soul.



She had persisted in joining the caravan against opposition. Now the months' long trek would be cut short. It seemed all who had tried to dissuade her had been right, there was no place for her outside the valley of Marekla. It was a bitter admission. Thalon and Docanen had been reassuring, but Neril was certain that others in the caravan would not be so kind. Geran would use the attack of the Orquians to justify his continued attempt to dominate her and there would be more support for his suit. She had tasted enough of the wonder of the world beyond the Vale of Marekla to infect her with discontent at the sheltered existence she would lead when they returned from the trek.



She considered the remembered words of the Seer. The sense of a shining presence begin to fill her mind and heart. Her decision to come on trek must have some meaning beyond the willfulness of a girl who refused to acknowledge her limitations. Time ceased to matter and peace and reassurance radiated through her. The faint ringing of the bells that ended Enven brought her back to consciousness of her surroundings. Her knees ached from kneeling so long. "Thank you," she murmured, then slowly stood and stretched.



Thalon and Docanen were playing a game of droka when she returned to the garden. She watched them for a few minutes while each tried to outwit the other. They moved their tokens on the stylized map of Okisdu made of jasper and onyx set into the low wall around the fountain. She left them to their apparently endless game and went to the kitchen to prepare a meal.



A linen cloth covered a stack of fresh matlas on the table in the center of the room. She found a crock of breadberry paste and a plate of smoked fish in the slate lined cool chest. Several bunches of grapes hung from hooks near the window overlooking the garden. There was plenty to prepare a simple but substantial meal.



She finished putting the meal on the table and went to tell Thalon and Docanen that they should come and eat with her. She found them still head to head over the playing board.



"I might forget my strategy if I quit the game now," Thalon said.



Docanen laughed as he put his blue counter on Thalon's green one and supplanted it for five points. "Perhaps that would save you. I have you now."



Thalon pushed two of his pieces forward, blocking the intrusion. Docanen groaned.



"Now I know why the Mareklan council bans droka boards from treks," Neril said. "The two of you have been here for hours. Sergon's workrooms are well provided with materials and tools but neither of you has done anything productive."



"I'm too worried to think productively," Thalon grumbled as he watched Docanen move his pieces. Neril laughed and returned to the meal she had prepared. A droka match between two equal opponents could go on for days as the score crept back and forth. Mareklan wives hated the game. After a trek, the merchants spent most of their time hunkered over playing boards with their friends until their five day rest period ended. Then they were required by custom to put the boards aside and join the life of the community, caring for their homes and flocks and preparing products for another trek.



She poured a cup of nuka juice and was enjoying its astringent tang when Thalon and Docanen entered the room. They grinned sheepishly at Neril before drawing back the stools at the table and preparing to share the meal.



"I always forget how involved I get when I start playing that infernal game," Thalon admitted as he wrapped a matla around a piece of smoked fish.



"I've heard that the first droka game was a gift from a fiend to one of our unwary ancestors," Docanen said with a rueful grin.



"I'm certain that you'll find both of us bent over that board until you insist we take our night's rest," Thalon added.



"I wouldn't think of interrupting your game," Neril said with an arch smile. "I'll let you know when Sergon sends the message that we should join the others. Then I'll hire some porters to carry your exhausted bodies to the meeting place."



"She's a cruel woman," Thalon laughed. "Even my gentle Kelinal is willing to yell at me to save me from the demon game."



"She's been hardened by her experience on the trek, just as Geran feared," Docanen teased. "What kind of wife will she be if she's unwilling to make sacrifices to save her husband from the thrall of droka. My dear wife Pellil emptied a pot of washing water over my head when I lost myself in a game last year."



"I remember," Thalon grimaced, "I was the one you were playing and she splashed both of us."



Neril laughed with them but there was truth in what they said. The wine and dass and docil root that tempted others were foreign to Marekla culture. The need to stay alert both on the trail and in the market-place militated against the use of intoxicants. Droka offered some of the same escape, but the game also put a fine edge on the skills of strategy and bargaining that were essential for Mareklan merchants.



Neril finished her meal and stood up. "I'd like to learn more about the game. The two of you are masters. Would you give me a few pointers?"



Docanen noticed the amusement she was trying to conceal. He recalled something he had heard about her grandfather. "I think Thalon would be a better teacher. I'll watch you play and help if you find yourself losing too quickly," he said. He stood to the side with a smile on his face while Thalon and Neril took their places on the edge of the fountain.



Droka was not primarily a game of gambling, but it was usual to put up a small stake as incentive for the winner. Neril took a carved wooden pin from her hair and put it in the prize slot. Thalon took an obsidian knife with a hilt of worked horn and leather from its scabbard at his waist and put it beside the pin. "Are you sure you're willing to wager the knife?" Docanen asked.



Thalon smiled and pulled a packet of soft leather from a pocket in his tunic. "I'll wager the knife and this set of replacement blades as well. My brother crafted these for me before my first trek. Metal knives are easier to use, but there is nothing sharper than obsidian."



Neril shook her head. "Not the knife. Wager something less important."



"Your hair pin was carved by your father. It is as precious to you as the knife is to me," Thalon insisted.



"Then I'll wager both pins," Neril said, removing the second pin and shaking out her curls. Thalon began the game a little carelessly, willing to yield points while his young opponent learned the rules. Soon he began to fight for every token in earnest. He had never played with such intense concentration and skill. He saw his field of influence shrink until he realized he could not recoup his losses. The gaming pieces seemed to dance in his vision and he leaned back and wiped his eyes. Then he saw that the flickering of a lamp had caused the illusion. He gazed around at the darkened garden.



"I yield. How late is it?" he asked.



"You've been playing for five hours," Docanen said. "I've heard stories about Neril's grandfather but I didn't believe them until I saw the way she plays."



"No one else is willing to play against him anymore," she explained. "He trained me to play with him and he wanted a worthy opponent. I deceived you Thalon, take your knife. It wasn't a fair contest."



"Now you insult me," Thalon said with mock ferocity. "Honor demands that you accept my knife." Then he laughed and gave her the scabbard as well. They heard a metallic click and turned to see Sergon entering the garden through the small door set in the rear wall. He raised his brows in surprise to see the three of them still awake, then he noticed the scabbard in Neril's hands and grinned.



"I see Thalon has learned to be wary of maidens who learn to play droka from old men," he said.



"I hope you didn't come to gloat over my defeat," Thalon answered.



"I didn't know if she learned all her grandfather's tricks, but you should note that I didn't try to play a game with her," Sergon said. "It is just as well I found you awake. Neragon sent me to report that the net is beginning to close. Our people are all safely away from the enclave. Most of them have gone to the countryside in groups of four or five. Neragon and Toleran, and several peace guardians, dressed as porters, conveyed the gold we earned to the Zedeklan grain brokers in exchange for vouchers. They'll spend the night in the village of Plin, a few miles to the north."



"Are we the only Mareklans left in the city?" Docanen asked.



Sergon nodded. "The enclave is filled with a troop of Peace Guardians and two squads of Janakan mercenaries dressed as Mareklans. Anget has a spy among the Orquians. He sent a message that they plan to come in force against the building tomorrow night."



"How can we leave the city? " Thalon asked. "We'll be identified by our staffs and capes."



"Tomorrow afternoon, an old Zedeklan pilgrim will be carried out of the city on a litter by two of her faithful servants. Her young maid will walk beside the conveyance with the large fan that keeps the elder cool on a long journey. I have everything we need to create this small procession. Now go and get some rest. We'll need clear heads in the morning. Anget has guards posted so we can dispense with a watch." Sergon picked up the carved hair pins that Neril had forgotten to retrieve from the wager slot and examined them in the light of the lantern. "I wonder how these will look in my hair."



"I don't think they complement your beard," Thalon replied with a grin.



"Of course, it is rare for an elderly widow to have a beard as nice as mine," Sergon warbled in a falsetto. The others were still smiling at his jest when they went to their rooms.



The next morning, after eating a hearty breakfast provided by Dresla, the four companions entered Sergon's main workroom. Thalon and Docanen went to work improvising a litter from four staffs including one Sergon brought from his armory. They were selecting wood for crosspieces and arguing over the best way to attach the pieces while Sergon led Neril to another, smaller workroom.



Fibers, fabrics and feathers of all colors surrounded her when she stepped through the door. "Oh, how my grandmother would love this," she whispered when she felt the delicate web of a bolt of lace between her fingers. While the others continued to work on the litter, Sergon and Neril contrived several costumes. The tunics of Thalon, Neril and Docanen would serve well enough for two porters and a servant but sandals would replace their distinctive boots. The conical hats that they usually wore were stacked with their capes while Neril worked at fashioning felt hats with drooping brims that would help conceal their features.



"Why didn't you leave my staff with the others?" Neril asked when she finished with the hats. She walked to the corner where she had propped the staff and unconsciously traced the incised pattern with the ball of her thumb.



"Your staff must be ready for instant use. If only one of our staffs can be used to fight off attack, it should be the staff you bear. In my youth I might have been a match for you, but few others would be." His compliment brought a flush to her cheeks.



"Can you tell me what makes a named staff so important?" she asked.



Sergon thought for a moment then stood and closed the door between the workrooms. "Once all the staffs carried by Mareklans were made of brasswood like this one. We harvested the wood from groves of brasswood bushes on Mount Vald. The wood is tough enough to break most swords and can only be destroyed by a hot fire."



"I've never heard of brasswood. Why isn't it still used for staffs?" Neril asked.



"Many years ago a band of Orquians burned the brasswood groves. But others finished what they had begun. When they found that the Orenese had gained a monopoly on brass wood, they went into the mountains and cut the few remaining trees to avoid paying the tariff."



"But surely there were some seeds left on the ground. If this happened so long ago there should be plenty of the trees by now," Neril said.



"The council of Marekla made a law that no new staffs would be made of brasswood. Those staffs that already existed, including the contents of the Orenese trader's storehouse, were each given a name and distributed to the most able men and women. Fewer than a hundred of the named staffs still exist. Your grandfather had the right to bestow his staff where he would, but there were many who thought him a fool when he selected you. I was one of those who doubted his wisdom, but he chose well."



Sergon gave her a long, grave look. "Elkadon is not the only one who recognized your worth. The Seers seldom speak. Their words to you were both a blessing and a challenge."



He bowed his head and clenched his hands on the stone of the bench. Then reached into his tunic and opened a secret pocket sewn near his waist. For a moment he hesitated, then nodded and turned back to Neril with a metal ball of curious workmanship in his right hand. "I have no Mareklan sons to inherit this. It is called 'the Lantern of Irilik' but the light it carried is no longer found among our people. I want you to have it."



Neril took the ball in her hands and examined it. It must be hollow from the weight of it. Small geometric gems gleamed on the etched surface. A tiny stud moved under her finger when she turned the ball in her hand. The under layer slid aside to reveal that the ball was pierced and could be used as a lamp if there were something inside of it to shine through the delicate metal lattice. She held it toward Sergon. "I can see this is a precious artifact. Are you sure you want me to have it?"



He nodded gravely. She secured it in a belt pouch and searched for words to express her thanks. It wasn't the ball itself that inspired her gratitude, so much as the trust he expressed with the gift. Perhaps he would someday explain the significance of the markings.



Sergon leaped up from his seat beside her and changed the subject with a grin. "I'm sure you've seen the high-born Zedeklan pilgrims in their litters surrounded by servants. One servant always carries a huge fan to keep away insects and provide a breeze when the air is still. Decorate your staff with feathers and anything else you think will make a convincing fan for a Zedeklan dowager." Sergon lifted his nose and gave her an arch stare that left her giggling when he left the room.



After an hour Neril stood back and considered her creation. She had wrapped her staff with strips of alternating green and red leather with rings of brass at the joints. A crescent of iridescent blue-green plumes sprouted from the top. Three rows of longer feathers of white, red and brilliant yellow backed the green plumes. "I'm afraid I overdid it," she admitted ruefully when Sergon entered the room.



"Not at all. Your fan tells me that I must conduct myself as the wife of a petty official. In Zedekla, distance from the throne can be gaged by ostentation."



Neril nodded. "I noted how Kemila and Manchek were dressed. When Thalon and Docanen finish with the litter I'll decorate it with a few yards of embroidered cloth and fringed braid."



A few minutes later Dresla called them to come to lunch in the garden. Thalon and Docanen carried the litter out of the workroom. Neril admired their handiwork. It was an elegant conveyance, well balanced and sturdy.



After they ate, the two men watched while Neril concealed the lean beauty of their construction under layers of gaudy cloth. She carried her fan into the garden and took a pose next to the litter. Dresla joined the others in laughter when Neril looked down her shapely nose as a superior servant might do.



"Fetch our packs and other gear and conceal them in the litter," Sergon directed. "You should all try to get a few hours of sleep. We'll have to stay in character until we are well away from the city. It could be tiring."



Neril decided she would take advantage of the small but luxurious bathing room on the ground floor of the villa before they took the trail to Tedaka. Scented sand may have become a luxury in Timora, but she preferred immersion to the neck in warm water and the rich foaming of soap to a gritty sand bath. She didn't linger long in the spring fed pool but soon sought the comfort of the bedroom. Sleeping skins on piles of leaves were good enough for the trail, but she enjoyed the feel of cool linens on a mattress of down and feathers while she could.



Bells signaling the end of Enven woke her. She stopped at the chapel for a prayer before joining the others in the garden. She found Docanen and Thalon laughing helplessly. They were slumped onto the bench near the droka board pounding their knees.



An old woman dressed in the blue and white of a pilgrim stood in the center of the garden glaring at them with aristocratic offense. Neril took a closer look at the crone and joined the others in their laughter, her soft chuckle echoing their howls of amusement.



"I see nothing amusing," Sergon chided in a falsetto drawl. "I must begin my journey home this afternoon and my servants are too unruly to carry my litter. What shall I do?"



Neril was still chuckling as she fetched the sandals and drooping hats she and the others would wear. She picked up the gaudy fan from its resting place in the corner of the workroom and balanced it in her hand. A few minutes later, Dresla led them through her garden and the elegant house beyond after closing the small garden door to Sergon's villa. Dresla's eyes returned to her father's painted face again and again. Neril heard her break into peals of laughter as soon as she had closed her gate after them.



They joined the crowds of pilgrims making their way through the eastern gate of Timora that led toward the uplands. Many pilgrims turned aside to find lodging when evening approached but the disguised Mareklans kept up a steady pace. The road stretched ahead of them leading toward the mountains. The staff with its crown of feathers began to weigh heavy in Neril's hands and the sandals chafed her feet. The sound of snoring issued from the litter. "We ought to trade places for a while," Docanen groaned.



The road began to curve around the base of a hill. A group of rough looking men dressed in shabby pilgrim robes jogged into view. They all carried clubs and axes. In the midst of them they carried the litters of three men wearing the dark gray and purple robes of Orqu's priesthood. Neril quickly made count of the ruffians. Even with the superior height of Thalon and the fighting skills of her companions the mob of men looming before them would present a challenge if they decided to rob Sergon and his 'servants.'



She tried to conceal her fear but her eyes scanned the landscape and made note of possible hiding places. She had been taught that retreat in the face of impossible odds brought no shame. She had been drilled with the motto "Live to fight again," along with the tactics of defense. Her companions were seasoned fighters and if the mob decided to rob them, they would have the advantage of surprise.



She almost smiled when she thought of Sergon with his skirts hiked high and his painted face in the grimace of a warrior. She waited for him to give some word or gesture that would initiate defense but he seemed to snooze, a falsetto snore giving lie to the tension she could feel radiating from his body.



One of the porters carrying the priests glanced at the litter and muttered a few words to the others near him. Their steps faltered and Neril saw a few of them lift their clubs. One of the priests screamed a rebuke: "We hunt Marekla meat for Orqu. Leave this piddling prey for others." His words caught the attention of the few who had looked toward the seemingly defenseless band of Zedeklans and they jogged past in ragged order, their attention focused again on the road to Timora.



"They won't arrive in Timora in time to take part in the assault on the enclave if we follow them and bash a few heads," Thalon muttered after the rabble disappeared behind the shoulder of a hillock.



"It might give us temporary satisfaction, but the Peace Guardians would be deprived of putting their names on a list of malefactors," Sergon said. "Remember the words of Dubalen, the founder of the Homeplace, 'You don't have to win, just bring the goods in.' We must meet the others at the cache near Rubble Ford in three days, and Neril might end up as their prize if we challenged them. It is just as well they didn't try to rob us."



Sergon yawned before settling back into the comfort of his seat on the litter. Neril breathed a long sigh of relief. The ripe aroma of the unwashed horde lingered in the air, reminding her of the filthy craven who had approached her in the marketplace. She prayed that they would meet no more of the dogs of the demon. They used the name for themselves although Neril found it a sad insult to any true canine she had ever seen. She thought of the wolf she had heard on her first night out of the vale of Marekla and knew she would far rather deal with a wild animal than face another of the twisted humans attracted to the cult of Orqu.





Zadak was bothered by the appearance of the Zedeklan entourage. As he jogged along under the pole that supported the litter carrying Irivul, chief priest of Orqu, he pondered the features of the woman who rode in the litter. There was something familiar about the painted old hag. He reviewed his memory of Zedeklan court officials and their wives that he had met when he was a boy, but none fit the picture.



A flash of a bearded face imposed itself on the painted face of the dowager and Zadak nearly stumbled as he lost pace with the other litter bearers. The crone was Sergon, in a devilishly clever disguise. Zadak summoned another to take his place under the weight of the litter and moved to jog by Irivul's side. "You are on a fool's errand. The servant girl in the caravan we passed is the Mareklan maiden you are seeking."



"What evidence do you have?" Irivul demanded.



"I know the Mareklan Sergon. He is the dowager in the litter," Zadak answered.



Irivul scowled at him. "If you have lost your appetite for a clash with the Mareklans I will send you back to continue preparations for the blood feast, but do not spin such a tale to me. I know of Sergon and he is not a man who would willingly put on paint and wear skirts to avoid a battle. Master Ordlum said our scouts would find a Mareklan maiden in the marketplace at Timora, and so it was. He said we would find our way into the enclave and have it to ourselves, and so it shall be."



"I will take Doplik and his brothers with me to follow those false pilgrims. You shall have the head of Sergon and the maiden to prove my claim," Zadak vowed.



"You are either a fool or a coward. I care not what you do with yourself, but Doplik and his brothers are part of my personal body guard. I cannot spare them," Irivul insisted.



"They are my men. If they choose to stay with you, I will leave them behind, but if I am right and the girl is even now escaping your plot, what will you offer to have her alive and ready for a blood feast?" Zadak asked.



"I do not bargain about such things. As a follower of Orqu you are bound by oath to share your captive with the others of the cult," Irivul warned Zadak. "If I find you have captured the girl and not shared her blood with your oath brothers, then your own head will carry a price.".



Zadak breathed hard from trying to talk to the priest while maintaining a rapid pace. He did not point out that he had never actually taken the oath to Orqu. He dropped back into the mob and signaled to Doplik. Within minutes his crony and his five brothers had separated themselves from the others and joined Zadak in a small group that jogged along behind the larger body of thugs and villains as they continued down the pilgrim road.



"I have been trying to convince Irivul that our quarry is escaping us. The face of that old crone we passed on the trail wore a beard when last I saw it. That face haunts my nightmares. It is my old enemy Sergon and the others were also Mareklans, including the maiden. Where there are Mareklans, there is treasure. I suspect that they may be carrying vouchers for grain and fruit. Will you join me in backtracking the trail, or will you continue on to Timora with the others?" Zadak asked breathlessly.



"These Orquians are stupid and reek with filth." Doplik said. "I stayed with them because you stayed with them. It is not the demon god they worship that keeps me in their service. It is the gold they pay,".



"But what of the holy oath I took?" Bildug, the youngest of Doplik's brothers asked. "We forfeit our lives if we forsake the cult and its leaders." He nervously touched the crude ring on his finger that bore the awful image of the demon. Although a sudden spurt of growth had given him the advantage of height and breadth over his brothers, he was still a boy, easily caught by the superstition of the cult.



"Fool!" Doplik scoffed. "You are the only one who took the oath. We will be outlaws with a price on our head if we join them in the assault on the enclave at Timora. If our quarry is leaving Timora in disguise, that means our plot is discovered. Anget is a wily adversary. It is best to follow Zadak." His brothers had slowed and lost sight of the priests' litters as they argued. Doplik and his other brothers turned and joined Zadak as he darted from the track and concealed himself in foliage.



Bildug hesitated, then cursed and followed his brothers. It would be late at night before they caught up to the old women and her servants but there would be booty on such a proud pilgrim, even if her companions were not Mareklans.



The sun settled lower toward the horizon. Neril glanced behind her and saw that they were alone on the road that stretched behind them. She whistled a signal and Sergon stopped snoring and leaned forward. "Should we turn here and make camp for the night?" Neril asked. "Our little caravan might be remembered too well if we continue along the main way after dark."



Thalon, who carried the front of the litter, did not wait for Sergon's answer. He nodded and turned into a narrow opening in the hedge that lined the pilgrimage road. It led into a game trail. After they had gone a little way along, Neril glanced back and saw that the road was no longer visible. "Shall we continue and see where this trail leads?" she asked.



Docanen and Thalon lowered the litter and Sergon stepped out of his canopied chair and looked around. "I think I recognize that large tree on the hillside to the north. You may have stumbled on the beginning of one of our detours. Dismantle the litter and dispose of our disguises while I explore," he said.



He struggled out of the long gown that had been the basis of his disguise and rubbed his face clean of paint. He felt his chin for the reassuring grit of stubble before taking up his staff and exploring ahead.



Thalon glanced at Neril and saw that she was folding the gaudy cloth that had swathed the litter. "We should bury that here and leave no sign of our disguise."



"I sold most of the contents of my pack in Timora," Neril said. "I'll keep the cloth and see if there is a market for it. Please hand me the dress Sergon discarded."



Thalon nodded at Docanen. "I've heard it said that it was a mistake to bring this maiden on trek, but once again she has proved her worth. She saw a possibility for profit where I could only see a piece of trash."



"Those of us who were privy to Neragon's plans didn't bother to renew our merchandise. The wood we used in the litter is seasoned fruitwood. I'll use it to make carvings that might appeal to the Tedakans," Docanen said.



"If Neril gets the cloth and you get the wood, I'll claim the feathers," Thalon said as he stripped the decorations from Neril's staff.



When Sergon returned a little later he glanced around the empty clearing.



"You did an impeccable job of burying the evidence of our disguises. How did you work so quickly?" he asked.



"We buried the evidence in our packs. What did you discover about the trail?" Thalon asked.



"That large tree ahead is the marker for the start of the detour, but this isn't the trail. We'll have to return to the main road and go a little further."



They turned back to the road and waited behind the hedge while Thalon made certain the way was clear. Then they moved swiftly behind Sergon until he turned from the road at another break in the hedge. This trail seemed as narrow as the other they had taken, but instead of becoming smaller, it widened. Neril noticed that white stones marked the course at intervals until they came to scrub land that inclined upward to a ridge.



Although the track continued on, Sergon turned at two stones at one side of the path. One was huge, most of its bulk hidden in the earth. The other was long and narrow, the white line of its crest jutting only inches above the soil. Neril realized it was a marker for the trail when Sergon led them off the track in a line parallel with the narrow stone. It indicated that they should leave the track and head toward the setting sun.







"There has been no trace of the caravan we passed," Bildug whined. "We are chasing phantoms while the other servants of Irivul loot the storerooms of the Mareklans in Timora."



"If the pilgrims were what they appeared to be, we would have overtaken them by now," Doplik told his brother. Zadak let the argument proceed without really hearing what the brothers were saying. He had been certain that it had been Sergon hiding behind the paint of a Zedeklan dowager. If they had been headed to Zedekla or Taleeka, they would have kept to the pilgrim road. There were other cities in the direction they took, but the impassable rapids of the Opeta River stood between. Some said the Mareklans knew of a secret ford that let them cross the river and proceed on a straight track to Tedaka or Saadena. If the tales were true, the merchants would avoid the many miles that a detour entailed.



Zadak picked up a stick and drew a map in the sandy soil of the camp. He recalled the maps of Okishdu he had learned when he was still a prince with hopes of becoming the king of Zedekla. There were three possible destination for the Mareklans in the direction they had been traveling. If they went south, they would eventually reach the tropical forests where only the foolish would follow. If they went east, they would come to Orenon. He doubted that would be a destination for Mareklans until after the pearl harvest. To the northeast lay Tedaka and then Saadena. He had heard rumors that Queen Challan of Saadena was hoarding the drug selan. It would mean a shortage that the Merchants might be asked to alleviate.



At last Zadak looked up and noticed the surly expressions of Doplik and Bildug. Their four brothers were gathered around the two of them taking sides and making bets. Bildug dared to contradict his older brother because he had grown to be the brawniest of the six men. Rather than interfere with the brawl, Zadak decided to wait until Doplik thrashed his upstart younger brother.



It would be a contest of brute strength against seasoned skill at brawling. At first when the brawl began it seemed a nearly even contest, but eventually Bildug began to tire and Doplik did not spare him, using every dirty trick he knew until his younger brother lay unconscious. When Bildug had been hauled away to a nearby stream to be revived, Zadak finally spoke, "It is past time you showed that young dolt his place. We have a hard march ahead of us and his complaints are tedious."



"Have you decided where we will find our quarry?" Doplik asked.



"They are on their way to Saadena by way of Tedaka. Their shortcuts will make their journey swift, but they will linger to trade in Tedaka. If we continue on this route until we reach the fork for the Janakan road and then head east along the old Imperial Way we could ambush them when they leave Tedaka."



Doplik nodded. He knew he could rely on Zadak's knowledge of the face of Okishdu. It was a mystery to him that the younger man was so well educated and yet made a life for himself as a thief and a vagabond. Surely such knowledge could have earned him a soft life in one of the great cities. "If this ambush works for us, we will have more than enough gold to charm the women of Jama. If you are wrong, beware. My brothers will take the cost of what they think they lost out of your hide."



Chapter 7 Spearleaf





Sergon led his small party of Mareklans to the top of a rise where they entered a belt of broad-leaf forest growing on the northern side of a ridge. Hardly any vegetation grew on the floor of the forest. Neril could see the scars of a recent fire on the trunks of the surrounding trees. They moved swiftly toward the floor of the valley and entered a region of scrub land that rose gradually to a plateau. Their pace slowed as they walked through the waist high growth of a woody plant. "Touch nothing," Sergon ordered. The growth sprouted glossy pointed leaves with sharp notched edges. Neril heard a rustling noise at her left and glanced aside to see a wild bacal flitting away from their trail. The sharp edge of a spear-like leaf scraped her leg just above her knee. She felt a burning sensation that gradually spread until she was forced to admit she couldn't go on. "Sergon, I've been hurt," she gasped. The old man turned and saw her ashen face.



"How long ago did it happen?" he asked as made his way back to her.



"Just a few minutes," she whimpered, ashamed of her lack of courage.



"Give me your knife and lift your tunic so I can see the wound," he ordered her. She followed his orders and bit her lip while he used the razor keen edge of the knife to peel the blistered skin from her injury. She felt immediate relief from the stinging pain when Sergon applied a plaster of ointment mixed with grey powder from his medicine bag.



"Never let a spearleaf injury go unattended. You could have been crippled. I should have warned you," Sergon said. "I forgot that the dangers of Spearleaf are among the things that are left out of the education of Mareklan women."



"I should have been more careful," Neril said. "I saw that you were going more slowly and should have guessed that you wanted to avoid the leaves."



"If we had time I'd show you the scars I bear from my encounters with spearleaf and other dangers. Our way is guarded by such hazards. In the swamps of the Or we wear fine netting to keep off the biting insects that discourage others. Where land is gentle and free of natural enemies, man spreads his farms and villages."



Sergon's treatment had removed the pain but they had been traveling for several hours and Neril felt weary. When Sergon looked toward the thin edge of sun that glowed on the western horizon and suggested it was time to make camp she gave a sigh of relief.



"How can we camp here with spearleaf on all sides?" she asked.



"There's a stand of grease bush on the next rise. The old branches make excellent fuel." He led them toward the grey-green mass of the bush. Several feet from the bush the ground was bare of other vegetation. "The roots poison the soil wherever the plant grows," Sergon demonstrated as he used his staff to push aside the narrow branches of the bush and led them into the denuded center. The odor of the bush was unpleasantly strong but the clearing could easily accommodate a larger camp than they would make.



A fire pit lay concealed beneath a pile of gray branches fit for fuel. As the sky deepened from lapis to black, Thalon started a low fire to banish the eerie desolation of the sterile circle. Sergon left for a few minutes and returned bearing several spear shaped leaves in a net.



Neril watched while he slit the glossy skin of a plump leaf and peeled away the toxic outer layer. He handed the pale green center to Docanen who began to eat with relish. As he picked up another leaf and began to repeat the process, Thalon had already peeled a second leaf. Neril accepted the hand-sized peeled leaf and cautiously nibbled. It had a subtle, fresh flavor and she quickly finished her portion.



"Eat as many as you like, there are more where these came from," Sergon said with a grin after he finished his second leaf.



"These are delicious," Neril commented. "I'm surprised they aren't gathered for food and sold in the city."



"The leaf must be peeled and eaten as soon as it is cut from the bush or the poison seeps into the core. The only way to enjoy fresh spearleaf core is to risk the sting. As both of us can testify, that is a risk not many would take. But there is little risk if you know how to harvest the leaves. The notches along the edges conceal tiny needles that eject their poison when they are disturbed. The woody stems of the leaves won't hurt you when you grasp them to break them from the plant. If you hold the leaf between your thumb and fingers without touching the edge," he demonstrated the method as he spoke, "you can slit the peel and remove it along with the stinging poison. Many have tried to cultivate spearleaf after enjoying its leaves, but the plants have deep roots that bring the water they need in arid lands. When the roots are broken, the plants die."



Neril followed Sergon's instructions and peeled several leaves for herself. They continued to eat the refreshing, slightly sweet cores until they were sated. Having learned the secret of its succulent center, Neril knew she would never go hungry where spearleaf could be found. But she would never foget the pain of its sting. It seemed that many good things in life were purchased with sacrifice or pain. She remembered her grandmother's counsel when she spoke of the mysteries of womanhood. "Childbirth is an pinnacle of pain followed by the glory of knowing the mind of the Radiance on the morning of creation."



As she recalled her grandmother's smile of remembrance for her infants, Neril remembered the dream she had been given and the thought of a child of her own made something move within her. It was as if a string connecting her womb and her heart had been pulled taut.



Although there were only four of them, Sergon put on the cowl he wore when he led the night ritual. The prayer reminded Neril of the questions she had first asked herself at the beginning of the trek. No other people called themselves 'children of Irilik' though all honored the First Prophet. The Seers had seemed specific in calling her a daughter of Irilik. A thrill ran through her as she thought of their words. There was hope and wonder, but also a warning. For a moment it reminded her of the thoughts she had moments earlier but this feeling was centered in her heart and radiated throughout her head and limbs. It was almost as if her meal of spearleaf had given her a sensitivity beyond her normal wont.



After the ritual Neril lay on her sleeping skin and gazed up at the great empty bowl of the sky scattered with glittering points of light. Sometimes they seemed so far, sometimes only windows in a low ceiling. Her mind reached out to find an answer to the mystery of the heavens. The knowledge seemed to hover on the edge of awareness but remained hidden as the long day took its toll and she slept.



They rose and broke their fast with another meal of spearleaf before taking to the trail just as the sun edged above the horizon. It gave just enough light to avoid another encounter with the edges of the spearleaf plants. At mid-morning they came to the edge of the plateau and entered a forest of ancient trees. Mossy avenues spread in all directions like the halls of a great shrine. Their breakfast on fresh spearleaf seemed to give them the capacity to walk farther without stopping to rest. They made lunch of dried breadberries washed down with warm water from their water skins then pressed on through the humid afternoon.



The raucous cries of bright birds and whirring locusts occasionally broke the silence. Flowers in brilliant colors glowed in the shadowed light. The blooms hung in clusters from vines that linked the trees. Neril's attention suddenly focused on a sinuous shape moving on a thick branch over Sergon's head.



She grabbed her knife from her scabbard and screamed a warning as a huge snake dropped from its perch. Its long body coiled around the elder. The flat head danced back and forth as the forked tongue tasted the air near his face.



Neril lunged at the serpent, jabbing at it with her staff. It's jaws closed on the staff and one of its coils wrapped around her legs. She felt the tightening muscles squeeze her flesh and fell forward against Sergon.



Alerted by her scream, Docanen and Thalon ran back along the path. Each caught separate coils and pulled with no effect. When the snake's mouth released Neril's staff and yawned wide over Sergon's head, Neril reached up and struck at the back of the jaws with her knife, her hand out of sight in the maw. Her first thrust sliced through one side of the monster's mouth. The snake closed its jaws over her hand but she ignored the pain of its lopsided grip and sliced at the other side of the mouth. The mouth fell open and Neril struck again at the writhing neck. Ichor gushed out over her arm.



Docanen and Thalon wrestled with the weakening serpent. Finally the pressure relaxed. Sergon gasped for air as the coils fell from his body.



"I didn't see that constrictor and that means it is too late for us to continue traveling," the elder said after they had rested for a few minutes.



"Drag the body to the base of that large tree and we will skin it. The flesh of this species is a delicacy in Timora, but I've never seen one this far north before. I've only met its kind in the southern jungles. We won't eat smoked fish for dinner tonight!"



"I'll slice the meat we don't eat tonight and salt it for later," Thalon said. He measured the length of the serpent with his feet and gave an amazed whistle.



Neril shuddered with reaction but she helped the others pull the serpent toward the tree.



"Better to eat than be eaten," Sergon muttered when he noticed her pallor.



"Neril and I can set about preserving the skin. We can cut it into smaller portions when it is cured. I doubt Geran can show a trophy like this, for all the hours he spent hunting reptiles," Docanen smirked.



"There is no question that Neril has been the heroine in this encounter," Thalon said. "It is just as well she won the knife from me. I thought only of wrestling it."



The snake meat tasted like a fattened domestic fowl and everyone ate their fill before setting to work preserving the flesh and skin of the reptile. Sergon still had several bags of scented sand in his pack and Docanen remembered that they had passed an outcropping of tufa less than an hour earlier. He took a torch and retraced the trail, returning soon with enough of the porous rock to extend the sand until it filled the length of the skin. They worked late into the night to preserve their prize before the heat and humidity of the forest could rot the skin or meat.



Thalon rustled through his pack and found two shining black beads. When he slipped the gleaming onyx into the eye sockets of the dead serpent, creating an illusion of life that started Neril. They wound the snake around a staff and secured it at either end with leather strips. "I won't have to hit anyone with this staff. They'll take one look and run away," Docanen said when he stood back to admire the result.



"How are you going to cure the meat?" Sergon asked. "You can't take time to smoke it."



"I can smoke it tonight, then tomorrow I could string the salted meat from the cross pieces we saved from the litter and sling them between two staffs," Thalon said. "Tomorrow we'll be on the south slope again. The dry air will quickly dry the strips. There is little threat of attack between here and Rubble Ford. We could carry the snake skin in the center of the contraption."



"In this deserted land we are unlikely to need our staffs for defense," Sergon said. "Your idea seems workable, I will lead and Neril can bring up the rear with her staff when we take the trail tomorrow."



Although the air was warm, they kept the fire going to smoke the snake meat and keep away animals that might be tempted to raid their camp by the smell of the meat. By taking four watches, they each slept long enough to feel refreshed for the next day's travel.



The change from humid forest to arid scrub land came early in their trek the next morning. The broad brim of her conical reed hat shaded her face and the weave of her cape allowed the circulation of air while diverting moisture if it rained.



When they paused for rest and a drink in the shade of a large rock, Thalon tested the meat. "Another few hours of moving through this heat will complete the curing. Movement seems to hasten the drying process."



"The idea of Marekla merchants marching through the desert with hunks of meat strung from their staffs is enough to cause a rebellion," Sergon said with a grimace of wry dismay. "Please don't brag about this venture. I will never live down the shame."



Thalon was too busy with his vision of possible profits to listen to Sergon's disguised warning. "A large wheel could be mounted on a pivot and the meat, or anything that needed drying, could be spun around in the dry air," he mused. Docanen nodded his agreement with the idea.



"I'm afraid your invention is doomed to obscurity. Such a rig would be cumbersome to carry on trek, and in the Homeplace, the air isn't dry enough," Sergon reminded them. "I think the heat is beginning to affect your minds."



The others laughed ruefully at his reminder of how far they had strayed from acceptable practice. They stood and took up their poles to continue their journey. Near sunset they topped a rise and saw the glitter of the Opeta river in the valley below. A small village guarded Rubble Ford, the only place on the river where it could be crossed without threat to life and merchandise. Sergon called a halt and looked up the valley to where a narrow line of smoke betrayed the presence of others.



He gestured Docanen and Thalon to lay down their litter and join him. "I want the two of you to go close enough to make certain it is our friends in that camp ahead. Neril and I will stay here and pack away the dried snake meat."



Neril settled down under a tree and welcomed the cooler air of evening as she began to pack the dried, salted snake meat into Sergon's nearly empty pack. The elder picked up a slice and tested it for moisture. "Have a taste," he said, offering a leathery sample to Neril. She chewed on the piece of dried snake. She nodded. "Dry and salty, but savory. I will have to add eating snake to the list of things I had never thought I would experience."

They had finished packing the meat when Thalon and Docanen returned. "We can see most of the men from our trek, but there are still several people missing including Neragon and the young men Beldon took on a snake hunt to lure them out of Timora without betraying our plans. I gave them the signal and they're expecting us," Thalon reported.



Sergon rubbed his stubbled chin while he considered the sand and pumice filled snake skin that stretched almost twice the length of a man at their feet. "Thalon should wear the cured skin around his neck for the final stretch of our trip. I don't think Docanen is tall enough to keep the ends from dragging. It should impress the others enough when they see it that they won't ask embarrassing questions about how we brought it this far."



Thalon let the others drape the serpent around his neck after he had put on his pack. It draped over his shoulders with either end almost touching the ground. When they approached the Marekla camp they saw Beldon lead Geran and his friends out of the woods nearby. Neragon was with them. The raised voice of Geran rang through the woods. "What will we do with all the skins you sent us chasing after? We could have returned to Timora after the excitement ended."



Sergon looked behind him and gestured Thalon to take the lead. Then he raised his hands to his mouth and produced a loud sound that made Neril jump with surprise. It had the same effect on the men in the camp. All eyes turned to see the arrival of Thalon, his neck wrapped with the coils of a serpent whose size left the others speechless.



Neragon was the first to realize that the great snake was lifeless. He stepped forward and greeted Neril with an unusual show of affection as he put her staff aside and folded her in his arms. "We heard many rumors and one of them claimed that the Orquians had captured you and that Ordlum, the head of the cult, would sacrifice you at their new altar," he whispered.



Others were clamoring to hear the tale of how the serpent had been taken and nothing would satisfy them until the full battle had been retold. Geran grew quiet when he heard that Neril struck the fatal blow. The fine skins he had taken seemed paltry compared to the great constrictor that now lay extended to its full length while Feton measured it.



"I don't know what you plan to do with it," Geran said with resentment heavy in his voice and brow.



"I could use it as a rug for my villa," Sergon mused as he measured the snake with his eyes.



"I have heard of your villa once too often old man. Next time we are in Timora I want you to show me this fabled residence. Or is it more fable than reality," Geran said with a heavy attempt at wit that belied the glare in his eyes.



Neril glanced at Thalon and Docanen and they winked back at her. They were tempted to reveal the truth about Sergon's villa, but it was a secret best kept by those who could be trusted with the truth.



"We encountered a runner taking word of the events in Timora to Zedekla. In return for sharing our meal, he shared what he knew," Toleran told Neragon. "Nearly two hundred cultists and their hired bullies took part in the assault on the enclave. The Peace Guardians kept a count of them as they entered the city and Anget executed a clever plan that captured most of them. He posted a small force inside the enclave and had them hold the wall long enough to make certain that most of the Orquian mob had gathered in the street while they brought up a log to batter down the gate. When the gate yielded, the Guardians swept along the streets and forced the Orquians into the enclave. At first they didn't realize they were trapped. They tried to loot the store rooms. The Guardians had filled them with bales of straw covered with cloth. The enclave became a jail for the mob when the Guardians closed their trap and shut off the gate with an iron grid. The only problem now will be conducting trials for such a mass of miscreants."



Sergon let out a shout of laughter, "It worked! It will be a while before those demon worshipers can drop out of sight again. I'm only nervous about Orquians I can't see or count."



"I had no idea there were enough of them near Timora to rally a mob on such short notice," Neragon said with a frown. "I shouldn't have risked Neril on this trek. We will stop in Tedaka and Saadena but I think it is best for us to split the caravan. The main body will continue on to Janaka and Zedekla but some of us must escort Neril back to safety in Marekla." Geran's sullen expression changed to smug vindication as he nodded his assent to the plan.



Neril quietly left the circle of men who had gathered to discuss the assault on the enclave. Her venture had endangered the men of the trek. She could understand her father's reluctance to continue on to the crowded cities that had no laws forbidding Orquians from walking abroad. Even the sacred precincts of Timora and the presence of Peace Guardians had not kept the demon's dogs from making an attempt to capture her. Neragon had apparently forgotten the attack with numbthorn made by Geran on the first day of the trek. He had distanced himself from her more with every threat that appeared.



Her dour thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a familiar voice. Sergon sat with Thalon, quietly discussing the events of the days just past. The sight of the two men reminded Neril of what she had gained by making the trek.



Her friendship with Thalon, Docanen and Sergon ranked first on her list. She must not let her encounter with the craven Orquian obscure the honor of meeting Kemila, Tomak and the others of their family, including the holy Seers of Timora. She had seen the vast, star scattered sky unrestricted by rampart cliffs and she realized the poverty of the education she had received as a young woman whose ignorance had been fostered by fearful tradition.



The Homeplace seemed to be a prison not just for her body but for her mind and spirit. The worry in her father's face and Geran's gloating smile when he heard her father's words told her this trek would be the only one she would ever enjoy. She would never again taste the sweet flesh of Spearleaf, she would never know what was written in the sacred and secular Chronicles that were available for all the people of Okishdu in the libraries of Timora.



The jeweled walls of Janaka and the sophisticated palaces of Zedekla would remain a mystery to tantalize her imagination. Her thoughts strayed to the impudent little prince of Zedekla and his request that she be his queen. She could not even visit with him now that her father had taken fright.



She gathered a change of clothes from her pack and walked to the river. The churning water of the rapids had created a tiny beach near a pool that surged and rippled under the moon. Aware that she might be followed, Neril used her cape to protect her modesty as she removed her soiled clothing. She scrubbed them clean in the lapping surge of the little inlet and draped them on the rocks nearby.



The wild river churned and boiled with man-killing energy only an arm's length from her feet but she paid it no heed as she gratefully washed away the sweat and dirt accumulated since her last bath in Timora. It would almost be worth casting herself into the current and seeing what would happen but that thought bounced away from her resilient spirit before it found place. There were other adventures ahead of her, even in the smothering protection of Marekla. She would marry and bear children and watch them grow. Some would say it was enough for any woman. It would be enough for her if she loved the man who would be her husband.



Shaking with cold, she hurried through her ablutions and waded back to the pebble covered beach. Her teeth chattered as she put on her clean, dry clothing and rolled up her damp clothes to be dried before the campfire, grateful for the warmth of her cape as she made her way back to the glow of the camp. She took her sleeping skin from her pack and joined the group near the fire.



Neragon stalked over with Geran following close behind while she checked her equipment. "Where were you?" her father demanded. Neril wordlessly pointed to her damp hair and he shook his head. "Don't leave the campsite again without telling me exactly where you are going."



She nodded and took the knife she had won from Thalon from her belt pouch. The dark green blade looked black in the firelight. She unwrapped the leather strips that held it and removed the blade from the hilt in order to examine it more closely for nicks. It had been hard used since Timora, but it seemed as sharp as ever except for a small chip that slightly blunted the tip.



"What is that?" Geran demanded. He took her by surprise and wrenched the blade from her grasp. "It looks like the blade from Thalon's knife. What are you doing with it?"



"It is mine," Neril said. She reached to take it back.



"What did you do to earn it?" he growled. "If the two of you--"



"Give me the blade," she repeated. "We did nothing that I am ashamed of."



Geran threw the blade into the darkness and Neril heard it splash into the river. "Tell Thalon to search for it," he sneered.



She regretted the loss of the blade, but there were others in the packet of spare blades. She turned away from Geran. She would keep the knife concealed from now on. It would only cause more trouble for Thalon if Geran saw it.



After the evening ritual, she spread her sleeping skin and tried to sleep, but she lay awake for a long time. Weariness lowered her spirit as she watched the dancing flames of the campfire. She knew her fatigue was only partly the result of the days of hard-pressed travel. Her hope for sympathy from Neragon had faded. From now on his anxious eyes would follow her until he delivered her back to the stone-bound security of Marekla.



She closed her eyes and silently begged the Radience for comfort. Sweet peace flooded her heart and the pain caused by her father's change of attitude eased. "Thank you," she murmured as sleep came gliding like soft, dense fog. Faces swam in the uneasy dreams fostered by her fatigue.



Once again she saw the fire haired youth who had so often haunted her sleep. She had searched the crowded streets of Timora in vain for his like. She seemed to see the little prince of Zedekla as he would appear when his own youth was left behind. A goodly man, a king with sons who were nearly in his image. His queen was a tall woman with auburn curls and a smile that reminded Neril of the face she viewed when she looked in a mirror. What wish is this she thought as the dream persisted into her waking. Surely she was not foolish enough to imagine herself as Tomak's bride. A swath of her straight, night dark hair fell over her eyes and reminded her that the young queen in her dream had dark red curls. She shook her head to shunt the aimless images of night back to the nameless sources from which they sprung.



She avoided both Geran and her father that morning as the Marekla merchants gathered up their packs and prepared to approach the ford over the Opeta. They planned to leave the bulky length of the serpent at the cache once they had crossed the river. Meanwhile Thalon carried it slung around his neck like a grotesque scarf, its head brushing his ankles and the end of the tail just clearing the ground.



"I want you to stay near me where I can see you," Neragon said as Neril prepared to take a place somewhat back in the group near Sergon and her other friends. She nodded and joined her father at the head of the line as they approached the ford where a large group of the men of Rubble Ford village were gathered.



Neril was surprised to see that the men who faced them were very like Mareklans. The gray-haired chief who stepped forward to greet Neragon with formal gestures could have been Sergon's brother.



"Welcome. It has been many years since we settled here to keep the ford safe for our friends and brothers. While you have been free to reap the profits of the great cities, we have faithfully kept our trust. All we ask is a small portion of the profit your freedom yields," the old man spoke in measured phrases that told Neril his speech was a ritual greeting. Her father made a sign of kinship with his hand near his neck and replied.



"Greetings. For many years our brothers have kept the ford and enjoyed the profit of their position. They have avoided the risks of trek and have a comfortable home here at Rubble Ford in exchange for losing the freedom of the trail. Choose now what your toll will be."



The exchange may have been a ritual established by tradition, but it was also a thinly veiled exchange of near insult. It was evident that both the merchants and their distant cousins, the keepers of Rubble Ford, felt that any amount offered in payment for the privilege of passing would be unfair. The keepers of the Ford relied on this one source for contact with the wider world and a failure of their duty must bring swift and relentless retribution.



On the other hand, she had seen for herself the risks that the merchants often endured, risks the keepers of Rubble Ford could hardly comprehend. She found her sympathies resting with the people who had been tied to the same small village by the necessity of guarding the critical access to an important trade route. They had been deprived of the freedom promised to other Mareklan men as certainly as the women of Marekla. Although every line of their faces bore witness to the relationship, the clothing they wore was a poor imitation of the utilitarian and well made travel clothing of their merchant cousins.



A young man stepped forward and began to whisper in his chief's ear. The eyes of the elder fell on Neril. Neragon saw the direction of the chief's gaze and pulled his daughter behind him but the damage was done.



"My son is ready for marriage and you have a woman who is yet a maiden. We will grant you passage free of toll for this year and five years hence if you will give her to us as the toll. We will accept no other price," the old man said. His face grew grim when Neragon gave a negative sign. "We are of the Marekla, we have a right to choose our wives from among the Marekla. Our blood grows thin and cousins marry cousins. If you forbid us your daughters, you doom us."



Neril felt the tension in her father as she stood close behind him. The traditional greeting and toll setting had turned personal with the chief's demand. Neril glanced around her at the beautiful valley of the Opeta River. The river could be crossed in only a few places. It was unnavigable for most of its length as it tumbled down the face of the mountains. She was tempted to step forward and volunteer to stay as wife to the chief's son, but she knew it wasn't her decision to make.



In the brief glance she had taken at the young man she had seen an attractive but sullen looking youth wearing an imitation of a Mareklan patterned cloak. At first the only people in evidence were the men in the group confronting them. Then a group of women came out of the walled village and gathered in a group a cautious distance from the river. They were covered from head to toe in dark robes with their faces masked by veils. It was a warm day and Neril knew they must be uncomfortable in the shrouding clothing. Perhaps this swathing was the means the Mareklans who guarded the Ford had chosen to seclude their women from the attention of Orqu's priests. Neril decided it was not a good omen. She hoped her father would find a way to resolve the dispute without leaving her behind.



Thalon grew impatient. The weight of the great snake lay heavy on his neck and he pushed himself forward to the front of the waiting merchants to find out the cause of the delay.



When he stepped into the clearing next to Neragon, the village men yelled and turned as a group to splash their way across the river. Only the old chief stood his ground. His mouth widened in a smile as he stepped forward and reached out to touch the stuffed serpent.



"My son desires a wife, but I will accept another toll in place of the woman. There are many women, but I have never seen such a serpent. It seems to live. The treks guided by Neragon shall pass without toll as long as I am chief, if you give me this," he said, lifting the head of the snake and examining the neat stitches that closed the wound Neril had made. He touched the gleaming onyx beads Thalon had set in the eye sockets and laughed gleefully.



Neragon glanced at Thalon who quickly nodded. He knelt and let the weight of the trophy slither off his neck. The effect was uncanny and the chief started backward. Then he gave a giggle of relief before he stepped forward again to test the weight of the head.



The village men, seeing that their chief was unharmed, returned and gathered around the snake. Several of them, including Neril's would be groom, lifted it onto their shoulders and returned across the ford. Neragon and the chief exchanged soapstone tokens of the promised toll relief and the line of merchants proceeded across the ford and up the valley.



"Now I know what I'm really worth, slightly less than a leather bag full of sand and rock," Neril joked to Thalon as they walked along next to each other.



"Toll relief at Rubble Ford is no small thing. That snake was large, but I suspect it will seem bigger when no one can check the stories against the reality. In a few years our little tussle with the serpent will have been blown into a battle with a dragon. I'm almost certain the people at Rubble Ford will begin to claim that one of them was responsible for killing the snake. There will be no evidence to keep us from joining the ranks of Marekla's legendary heroes."



Neril laughed at his fantasy and her father turned a grim look on her. She ducked her head so that he couldn't see the smile that persisted. The unexpected demand for her surrender at Rubble Ford had increased Neragon's wariness. He sent Thalon back to join Docanen and Sergon near the end of the caravan. When they approached the cache Neragon waited with her while others scouted ahead to make sure the hidden storage cave still lay secure and undisturbed. A stern glance from her father warned Sergon against speaking to her.



Because they left Timora abruptly, most of the merchants had not renewed the contents of their packs. Several of them expressed an interest in acquiring some preserved snake after Sergon distributed small samples of the delicacy. Tolaren traded for half the feathers Thalon had salvaged from the fan. "I'm sure I can design something attractive for trade with the Tedakans. At least I'll have an easier time carrying my pack if it's half full of feathers," he said as he wrapped the colorful plumes for storage.



Most of the packets of scented sand were left in the cache in anticipation of future trips to Timora. The merchants agreed that the Tedakans were unlikely to appreciate the esoteric appeal of the product. Neril traded a few yards of fringe and most of the embroidered material from the disguised litter to Sergon for a supply of scented sand in several blends. The packets would make interesting gifts for her friends in the Homeplace.



The stocking of packs and trading between merchants took most of the morning. They ate lunch before taking the trail again. When they started out, Neragon made certain that Neril walked behind him, followed by Geran.



The trek to Tedaka from Rubble Ford cache seemed endless to Neril. Geran guarded his new status and Neril's friends soon learned that even after the day ended and they sat around the campfire she could not speak to them. When she began to talk to anyone other than Geran or her father, she was interrupted and the offender sent on an errand. Because she didn't care to speak to either of her protectors, she remained silent.



They camped in a pleasant dell near a waterfall on the evening of the third day. Neragon advised them to bathe and change into their best tunics in preparation for their entrance into the city. He no longer assigned Neril to the watch but after the others had bathed and retired for the night he accompanied her to the falls and guarded her privacy while she bathed and washed her spare tunic and loincloth. At least he spared her the humiliation of bringing Geran along on the errand.



Chapter 8 A Proper Place







The woods and orchards of Tedaka came in sight early the next day when they crossed a ridge and entered an area of foothills and valleys covered by orchards and forests. The city was still several hours away. Excellent roads crisscrossed the temperate valleys backed by magnificent mountains. "You will be safe while we are in Tedaka," her father said. "They have no tolerance for fools and miscreants and every adult is a member of the militia."



She was grateful for the information, more because he spoke to her in an almost friendly manner. He had daily grown more grim and silent. She could understand his fear, but there were many things she wanted to know about and her friends were not allowed near enough to speak to her.



Neril noticed that there were no great estates. She knew from earlier conversations that Tedaka acknowledged no aristocracy. Their government was headed by a man they simply called "Headman" and his office was subject to periodic approval by a council of family heads.



As the caravan approached the city, she saw no walls. Sergon, Docanen and Thalon had worked their way forward in the caravan and were speaking loudly enough for her to overhear their words. Surely neither Thalon nor Docanen needed instruction in the ways of Tedakans. She knew that Sergon's words were meant for her.



"Tedakans can turn their city into a fortress in less than an hour. The walls of those large houses that surround the center are not only tall, they are thick and there are armories in every one of them. Only four streets breach the ring of houses and heavy gates can be rolled to close them. The councilors of Tedaka live there. Among their duties is the obligation to maintain their homes as potential defensive positions. It isn't easy on their wives and families in time of war, but it is a high honor to be chosen to be a councilor. It is equivalent to a general commission in the militia."



Geran hung back from his position directly behind Neril and began to ask questions about the Tedakans. Neril smiled when her friends answered his queries in voices that were more than loud enough to carry to her. Finally Neragon turned and glared at the trio of conspirators and Geran blushed at being duped into aiding their circumvention of her isolation.



After they passed the fortress houses, they came to a wide plaza decorated with neat plots of bright flowers. Neragon brought the caravan to a halt. Neril followed the example of the others as they spread out in a line that faced the complex of stone buildings that housed the governor of Tedaka and the meeting rooms of the council. Window boxes and hanging planters relieved the gray stone of the city with touches of floral color. Here and there a bright bird warbled from a generously large cage. Granite window frames revealed colorful curtains.



Neril had always been taught that Tedakans were practical and made poor customers for luxury goods, but it seemed that every woman she saw had a tiny colorful kerchief or bit of lace decorating her dark clothing. She suspected that while they despised the artificial ornaments so prized by Zedeklans and Janakans, the Tedakans would be pleased with a product of natural beauty. She slipped two of the scented sand packets out of her pack, tracing the patterns of the snake scales to make sure she had one of each of the pure scents. As the line of Tedakan officials proceeded from the council hall to greet the Marekla merchants, she identified the governor by his tasseled staff.



As Neragon stepped forward to greet Headman Doka he saw that his daughter had drawn the eyes of his host. Reassuring himself that Doka's unmarried sons were too young to require a wife, he turned and gestured for Neril to join him. She made a small bow that she hoped showed respect without being obsequious and extended the hand in which she held the packets. "I would like you to accept these gifts for yourself and your lady wife," she said before her father could intervene.



Doka examined the beautiful markings on the snake skin packets, then caught a hint of the scents they emitted and lifted first one, then the other to his prominent nose. The other officials crowded close and ceremony dissolved as they passed the packets around and savored the sight and scent of each. Finally Doka recovered the packets and turned to Neril with a smile lighting his craggy face. "You honor me. One of our runners returned from Timora and we learned of the beauty and success of Neril, daughter of Neragon. You must be my guest for the few days you grace our city."



"We will both accept your invitation, Headman. My daughter was the object of the attack on our enclave in Timora. You will understand my anxiety that no harm befall her before she can be returned to the safety of our Homeplace," Neragon said.



Doka nodded. "Of course you must be careful of such a treasure. I will be happy to have both of you as my guests. We have secured your enclave after news of what happened in Timora and you can be sure of the safety of your company. I hope they came well provided with this new product, it will be a great success with our people."



Neragon followed Doka into the council hall after turning her over to the gentle custody of Doka's wife. Placine, a pretty matron eager to show all her friends the precious packets of scented sand her husband had trusted to her care. Neril stole a moment to speak to Thalon. "The feathers you carry will be popular here. You might make them into small bouquets or fans that could be carried in a pocket. These people may despise the glitter of metal and the sparkle of jewels, but they are fond of color and the beauty of birds and flowers."



Geran interrupted her brief counsel by pushing between her and Thalon. "Why didn't you tell me I could sell scented sand here?" he demanded querulously. "I left most of what I had in the cache."



Neril didn't say anything to him in reply but turned her back and joined Placine with a slight grimace that told the other woman all she needed to know about the strained relationship between the two young people. Doka's wife chatted with her as they walked toward the stern facade of her residence. "It's been too long since we've seen a Mareklan maiden on trek. I hope this is the beginning of more freedom for your sisters."



"I'm afraid my father and some of the others have only had their prejudices confirmed. We left Timora early to avoid the attack of Orquians on the Mareklan Enclave. Perhaps my expectation that Okishdu was a land of law and peace was over confident," Neril admitted.



Placine shook her head. "We of Tedaka do not tolerate the slightest hint of variation from the Laws and Promises. Those who disagree are better off to find a life in Zedekla or Jama. You need not fear Orquians and their kind while you are here."



The gray stone of the exterior belied the soft comfort of the home inside the fortress-like walls of the Headman's residence. Wherever she looked Neril saw furnishings that gleamed with polish and betrayed a high order of craftsmanship in design and decoration. Vines and leaves, fruits and blossoms were a favored motif. Floral designs predominated in the embroidered cushions that softened the contours of carved benches. Delicate screens and translucent curtains subdued the light that flooded through high windows.



Two young boys peeked shyly around the corner of the stair well at Neril. "Come and meet our guest." Placine coaxed her sons. They sidled into the room, but curiosity won over caution as they came nearer.



"These are my younger sons, Deka and Desta. This is Neril of Marekla, my sons. She has traveled far to visit our home." When they extended their hands she explained their shyness. "They have never seen a woman wearing the cape and boots of a Marekla merchant."



The twins reminded Neril of Tomak, the prince of Zedekla. She suspected they would enjoy the same small figures that had caught his attention.



She reached into her pocket and brought out two tiny toys. They were the product of her work during the previous night as she waited for her turn at the waterfall. The capes and hats gave each little doll the distinctive shape of a Marekla merchant on trek. The boys watched her as she showed the finger-sized mannequins to Placine.



"Do you think your sons would like these?"



Their eyes grew round with wonder and their mouths hung open in suspense before both of them stepped forward and the bolder one spoke their thoughts.



"Please Mother, we would like them very much."



Neril placed the figures into their extended palms when their mother nodded her assent. They knelt on the polished stone of the hearth and began to assemble a troop of additional merchants from straws pulled from the hearth broom.



"You are very good with children," Placine murmured. She left her sons to explore the world of their imagination and led Neril into her immaculate kitchen. A number of people were busy making preparations for the formal meal that would welcome the Mareklans to the city.



Moving among them, advising and approving, Placine was a queen in her domain. She assembled several plates of savory samples of the delights being prepared for the feast.



"I don't like to prepare a separate lunch when there is so much being cooked for dinner," she explained as she indicated that Neril should pick up a pottery flask of nuka juice and follow her back to the room where the children played.



"We have no servants and the women who are preparing the meal are the wives of the other councilors. It is easier on all of them for me to stay out of the kitchen when they are making a feast. I'm afraid I become too anxious and put a strain on their patience. It is my assignment to set the tables and make sure our guests are housed in comfort." She gave a rueful chuckle. "Sometimes I resent being shunted out of my own kitchen, but today I am delighted to play the part of hostess."



Neril had camped for days on end, but this was her first picnic since the impromptu meal she had shared with Thalon and Docanen in Sergon's garden. "Come boys, there will be plenty of time for you to finish your game after we eat," Placine called. Deka and Desta were reluctant to leave their play and wash their hands but they had been trained to obey.



"How did you escape Timora when the priests of the demon threatened you?" Placine asked with a calculating glance at her sons.



"We disguised ourselves as the servants of a Zedeklan matron and carried Sergon out of the city on a litter. You should have see us. Sergon shaved his beard and wore a fancy dress and paint."



Placine and her sons laughed gleefully at the picture she painted with her description. "It must have been a relief to escape into the safety of the countryside," Placine commented.



"It was nice enough until a snake twice as big as me tried to eat one of us," Neril said with a smile toward the wide-eyed twins.



They forgot the last of their reserve as they competed to ask questions about her adventures. "Can we see the snake?" Desta asked.



"We traded it for passage at Rubble Ford. The Chief wanted to have me stay there and marry his son. Instead he settled for the snake."



"Was the snake this big?" Deka spread his little arms to their widest reach.



"When you finish eating, I'll show you how big it was," she promised. Her small interrogators were suddenly silent as they concentrated on cleaning their plates of every tasty morsel. When they had finished they looked at Neril with silent pleas in their eyes and she nodded. Placine carried their dishes to the kitchen while Neril paced out the length of the serpent on the hall rug. Deka and Desta followed in her footsteps from the stairs to the front door and looked back to the base of the stairway with doubt that such a thing could be.



Neril could understand their doubt. "You will meet my friend Thalon. He carried the snake around his neck and he is so tall that he will have to bend his head to enter the door. The snake dangled to the ground on either side. If you would like, I will ask one of my friends to give me some of the smoked snake for you to taste." She laughed at the twin grimaces on their faces at the thought of eating such a monster.



"Very well, I can see you don't like the thought of eating snake." Her words brought a clamor for a promise to obtain the exotic treat. The thought of what they could tell their friends was goad enough to venture the taste they dreaded.



When their mother returned and reminded her sons that it was time for them to nap, they left their guest reluctantly. Neril heard them repeating a garbled version of her adventures to their mother as they climbed the stairs.



"They'll never forget you Neril," Placine said after she returned from settling her sons for their afternoon rest somewhere in the upper regions of the house. "They've met heroes before, but never a pretty one who was willing to share such intimate details as the exact length of the great serpent you killed and offered them a taste of the very beast you bested."



"It was all true, though as I get further from the event, it seems more like a story told to entertain children," Neril admitted. She picked up her pack and prepared to follow Placine to the room prepared for her.



"Your story had the ring of truth. I saw the boys eyeing the wound on your leg. They won't let you alone until you tell them what fearsome beast gave you that scar," Placine said.



"Would you believe it was only a very painful vegetable? Have you ever heard of spearleaf?" Neril asked.



"No, and it sounds dreadful. I'm sure the boys will enjoy hearing about another of your adventures. I hope all your enemies are so easily defeated," Placine said with a smile. Then her eyes widened and she gave a gasp of dismay. "Oh what a thoughtless thing for me to say. Here you are, fleeing for your life from a mob of bloodthirsty Orquians and I treat it as a joke."



"My father is anxious after the events in Timora, but I'm sure I'm safe from them now. Those who came against the enclave were trapped and identified. Sergon thinks it a good thing they came in search of me. He says it is past time to reveal the secret members of the cult."



Placine nodded but her face betrayed her worry. "The idea that anyone would willingly diverge from the true worship of The Radiance appalls me."



She paused in the passageway and opened a door to reveal a room as charming as the rest of the house. Colors of rose and gold like the center of a flower were used for linens and curtains. A deep green rug lay on the polished floor in front of the bed. A dish of dried flower petals scented the air.



"I wish you could stay with us for more than a few days while the council bargains with your father over the grain vouchers," Placine said. She impulsively hugged Neril. Her wishes perfectly reflected Neril's thoughts.



Neril was grateful for this small respite from the constant tension of her father's supervision and Geran's proprietary air. Her quick affiliation with Placine's children had confirmed her feeling that motherhood would be an important part of her life. She frowned as she thought of having Geran as father of her future children. Geran would be hard enough to bear as a husband but his mother and sisters were enough to strangle any hopes for happiness. The idea of living with the family of boors and shrews made her shudder. Placine saw the shiver of revulsion and jumped to the conclusion that she had overwhelmed her guest.



"I'm sorry I didn't think of your comfort sooner Neril. I should not have left you to entertain my sons. I can see that you need to rest. I certainly would, after walking most of the day."



"I enjoyed your children," Neril assured her. "I was thinking of something else just now, but I would appreciate the chance to bathe and change my clothes before dinner this evening."



"Could I lend you something to wear or do you have to wear these tunics at all time like a uniform," Placine's sweet expression changed as she made a little expression of distaste.



"My father has a dress for me in his pack. He isn't very happy with me right now. I'd appreciate it if you could ask him about the dress."



"I think I hear the men returning from the council hall now," Placine replied. "When it seems appropriate I will talk to him. If he balks, I'll lend you one that I wore before giving birth to my lovely brood of boys widened my hips." Placine had a twinkle in her eye that told Neril she would enjoy applying some of her charm to the project.



To Neril's surprise, the bathing room was next to her bedroom, a luxury not even Sergon's well appointed villa had afforded. The clever Tedakans had discovered a means of putting valves on the pipes that led into an empty tub carved from a single block of white marble. It was as sparkling clean as everything else in Placine's domain.



Neril mixed the hot and cold water that gushed from the valves when she opened them until she obtained a perfect temperature to ease the ache of travel and refresh her spirits for the evening ahead. She had finished bathing and was toweling herself dry when Placine called her name from the bedroom.



"Neril, your father gave me your dress. I'm leaving it on the chair. Is there anything else you need?"



"Thank you Placine. I'm certain I have everything. How will I know when I should come down?"



"I'll come and get you. Rest now, and make yourself beautiful. The boys need to see that a Mareklan woman can be pretty as well as brave."



Neril followed her advice and slept for at least an hour. Enven was not a custom in Tedaka but she woke at near the same time as she had when the shrine bells had signaled an end to her afternoon naps. Placine had pressed her dress and her sandals had been polished as well. Neril quickly dressed and fixed her hair in the style she had worn when she visited Queen Kemila and King Manchek in Timora. She opened the door when she heard a gentle knock and Placine calling her name.



Placine stepped back and looked at her critically as only a friend who is another woman might do. "You are nearly perfect," she said, "but you need a flower to bring out the full impact of your beauty. I bought this in the market just an hour ago. The merchant who sold it to me assured me you would be happy with it." She held out a lovely white blossom with a setting of iridescent blue green leaves. It took a moment for Neril to realize that it was made of feathers scented with night blossom oil.



"Was the merchant a very tall man with a slightly bent nose?"



"Yes, and he told me to tell you that Thalon is doing very well for himself. He tried to make me take this as a gift, but since I intended it as a gift for you, I could hardly accept his offer. I bought several of them for myself as well. They were quite expensive, but they will last." Placine said as she fastened the feather flower in Neril's shining dark hair.



There were other ladies among the guests who wore Thalon's handicraft, and those who didn't have the feather flowers, asked where they could be obtained. It saddened Neril when her father greeted her somewhat stiffly. She knew he was still angry over her presumptuous presentation of the scented sand to Doka when they first met. It was a gesture he would have approved before the attack of the Orquians soured his thoughts.





Neril took a seat to the right of Placine who sat next to her husband at the head of the table. Neragon sat next to Doka on the other side.



"Your young man is very handsome," Placine said as Geran made his way to his seat at the far side of the table after being presented as Neril's suitor by Neragon. Neril said nothing.



After the dinner was over and the plates were removed, the company followed the Tedakan convention of remaining in the dining room. The women who had cleared the table returned to their seats and held court while the men rose and wandered about the table to pay their compliments and visit. Geran's surliest looks couldn't discourage the courtliness of the Tedakan men who competed to bring dimples to Neril's cheeks with outrageous flattery.



Placine watched Neril parry the flattery of the Tedakans with modest wit that added sparkle to the company. Neril's only favorites were the little boys who stood at either of her shoulder. Deka and Desta were remarkably well behaved. Their heroine showed them special regard though the most eligible and charming bachelors in Tedaka begged her attention.



The twins were awed when they were presented to Thalon. His height convinced them that Neril had spoken the exact truth when she told them the length of the serpent that had dangled to the floor from the neck of such a great fellow.



Geran approached Neragon and hissed a reproof to Neril. "Stop this flirting. You must go to your room now." Neragon stood and added his insistence that it was time for his daughter to retire to her room.



Neragon and Geran had behaved boorishly, but Neril retrieved the situation by standing and giving a polite yawn. Doka hadn't noticed the slight commotion that had taken place when Geran had shouldered his way through the crowd around Neril and Neragon, but the Headman caught a look from his wife that told him it was past time for him to bring the evening to a formal close.



Placine managed to put herself between Geran and Neril. She claimed her privilege of caring for the needs of her guest before the arrogant young fool could follow through with his evident intention of grabbing Neril by the arm and pushing her toward the stairs. She wondered what future Neril faced at the hands of such a bully. He made no secret of his jealousy, but Neril had been blameless in her behavior. She had not favored anyone but the children.



After the other guests were gone, Placine relaxed with Doka as they reviewed the evening. "I fear Neril will be very unhappy when she returns to Marekla. It seems her father intends that she marry Geran and she is not at all fond of him."



"Many marry people they don't like. They fill the lack with friendships and the love of their children," Doka replied complacently.



"I would have said the same thing before my sister Eronine married Toluka," Placine said. "She was merely fond of him but he was obsessed with her. I don't need to remind you what happened."



"I know Neragon. He's a good man. He'll make certain that Geran doesn't mistreat Neril after they marry," Doka said to placate her.



"Neragon was with Geran this evening when he rudely ordered Neril to go to her room. I've heard from others that Neragon's second wife treated Neril like a servant. She has lived with her grandparents for several years but they are too old to offer her protection when her father goes on trek," Placine said.



"I'm sorry to hear this, but I can't interfere with their private matters," Doka said with a frown of irritation. He liked to be as comfortable mentally as he was physically. The thought of a woman his wife admired being subjected to unreasonable restrictions pained him and he preferred to ignore a situation beyond his control.



Placine reluctantly resigned herself to the knowledge that there was nothing she could do to alter Neril's fate but she resolved that while Neril and Neragon remained as her guests, she would ban Geran from her home.



Placine was up early the following morning and intercepted Neragon before he left the house. "I noticed a rash on the neck of that young man you introduced as Neril's suitor. I have just been through a bout of sickness with my two youngest boys and I do not wish to have them exposed to any further disease."



There was a tissue of truth in her plea. Geran had foolishly left his hat hanging from its strings and had paid for his carelessness with a sunburn between his collar and his hairline. Neragon reluctantly agreed to ask the young man to keep his distance.



Doka offered himself as a confidant for Neril after taking lunch at home that afternoon. Neragon was in the marketplace with the other Mareklans. The Headman saw Neril standing by the window, her shoulders slumped as she looked toward the mountains where Marekla lay hidden.



"Placine tells me you don't like Geran," he said as he walked over to stand by her.



"At the beginning of the trek he and his friends attacked me while I was on watch. Fortunately I heard their approach and defeated them before they could use numb thorn on me." she said.



Doka frowned. "Surely your father would have sent them back to Marekla for such an offense."



Neril shook her head. "I advised him against turning them back from the trek. Two of them were initiates without an independent thought between them. I'm sure Geran planned the attack. I know how dangerous humiliating someone can be and I hoped to avoid the issue. Word of their defeat by a 'mere girl' got out and only intensified Geran's resentment."



"He sounds more like your enemy than your suitor," Doka said.



Neril nodded. "Yes, he seems to enjoy catching me in moments of weakness. He rescued me from almost certain death by impaling a viper. He was so pleased with himself that I thought we could become friends. I guess my father was misled by my attempts to heal the breach. He presses me to accept Geran."



"Enemies are easier to handle when you can convert them to friends," Doka mused. "Would it really be so bad to marry Geran. He seems a likely young man, if not quite likable. Time will surely improve his character as he matures."



"If I could believe that, I might not feel so frightened of the future," Neril admitted. "I am afraid his dislike and need to control me will turn to hatred and abuse. I would not have my children born into a home of discord, yet now that my father has decided to encourage Geran, I may have no choice in the matter."



"I know your father is stubborn. I've dealt with him for years. He is a tough man to bargain with."



Doka had thought at first to encourage her to be patient and obedient, then he paused. "Last night my wife reminded me of the tragedy that occurred when her sister let herself be convinced to marry a man who had not been her choice. Like Geran, he was jealous and possessive. Her patience won praise from others but their support only made him more insistent that she give up her friends and center her life on him. Don't let yourself be bullied into a marriage you don't want."



Neril reached for the hand of Doka and pressed it in wordless gratitude for his support. She knew that there might be nothing she could do to delay or prevent marriage to Geran, but when his mother grew too abusive or his sisters made unreasonable demands she would know that she was not alone. She turned and went toward the stairs with the intent of resting and thinking in the privacy of her room. Suddenly her plans changed as Desta spied her from the top of the stairs and called to his brother as he ran down to her, tripping on the next to the last stair and flying into her arms. She staggered back a few steps but remained on her feet and lowered Desta to the floor as his brother raced down to join them.



"Tell us about your scar," Deka demanded. Then he saw his father and blushed. "I mean, please, tell us how you were hurt," he said demurely.



Neril laughed. "I guess a girl who wears a travel tunic can't keep a scar on her leg secret from prying Tedakan infants for very long," she teased. She took their hands and led them to a bench in the garden behind the house. High stone walls veiled by flowering vines guarded the fragrant beauty of the garden from prying eyes and jealous suitors. The boys nestled next to her as she began to tell them more of her escape from Timora in the guise of a fan carrier. They held their breath with suspense when she told of encountering the mob of cultists. When she finally got to the story of her injury, it was nearly time for them to go in for dinner.



"Perhaps I will ask your father to let us adopt you and keep you safe," Doka said with fond approval of her attention to his children.



"Even if he says no, I will call you Father Doka. When my father is angry with me for standing against his wishes, I will remember your counsel. It is always good to have a friend."



When the Headman talked to Neragon he saw that the Mareklan leader was opposed to any plan that would keep his daughter from returning to the Homeplace. "There 's nothing that will keep me from taking Neril home as soon as possible. If I could, I would avoid our trip to Saadena, but that would be both frivolous and unprofitable. Your council has asked me to negotiate the exchange of grain and fruit vouchers for selan. I must complete the arrangements I've made, but when we leave Saadena, I will return my daughter to Marekla and witness her wedding to Geran. She requires a firm hand."



Doka nearly flinched at Neragon's reference to a 'firm hand', in his position he had sometimes had to rebuke husbands who thought their position gave them the right to beat and berate their wives and families.



Neragon chafed against the delay of their journey. The democratic right of Tedakans was exercised by a vote on the decision to accept Zedeklan grain vouchers for Tedakan fruit vouchers. At last the negotiations were approved and Neragon returned to Doka's house and ordered Neril to pack.



"But it is late in the day," Placine implored. "Surely you should rest for the night before you resume your journey."



"We've delayed here too long. I am afraid the Orquians may be making plans to do here what they tried to do in Timora. When it is dark we will take leave of you. I am grateful for your hospitality, but my daughter's suitor, Geran frets at the separation. It is time for Neril to accept her role and my rule." The cold formality of his language stopped Placine from further pleas.



Doka and Placine had tears at the corners of their eyes and Deka and Desta were trying manfully in, their boyish way, to keep their lips from quivering as they said farewell. They watched Neril walk away between the grim backs of her father and her sullen suitor. When they knelt the next morning for worship in the tall Shrine, the single white building in the gray stone city of Tedaka, every member of the family asked the Radiance to protect Neril.



Chapter 9 Ambush





The road from the city led north through quiet woodlands and orchards, past villages and holdings where lamplight glowed golden in the night. The rising moon turned the pebbled path silver. Secure in the knowledge that brigands and thieves would not find place in the peaceful countryside, and free to take the unobstructed path, the Marekla merchants made a swift passage until they crossed the border of Tedakan clan lands near midnight. The track became rougher and their passage slowed. Finally Neragon called a halt. Sergon stooped next to the leader of the trek who rested on his haunches while he consulted with his council on whether to make camp where they were or find someplace more secure.



"There is a safe camp about an hour away," Sergon said. "I would advise that we rest here for a few minutes and proceed to the camp."



Neragon looked to the other men for confirmation. He had given the Tedakans the impression that he feared pursuit by the Orquians, but it was Geran who had urged him to leave the safety of the city and take the trail. The rough track reminded him that they had passed the border and the region where Tedakan woodsmen would rally to a distress signal.



Geran had neared them to hand a flask of nuka juice to Neragon. "There is no need for such caution when we have not slept for many hours and there has been no sign of either cultists or bandits on this road. We are still within reach of the border of Tedaka. What have we to fear?"



Neragon looked indecisively from Sergon to Geran. After giving his approval to the match between Neril and Geran, he found that he was troubled by the decision. If only there had been another man eligible to marry her. If she returned to Marekla, she had no other choice. He felt he had to forget the reservations that plagued him. A decision to follow Sergon's advice might make it seem he was retrenching on his support for Geran.



Neragon looked toward the members of his council, but each of them gave a signal that it was up to Neragon to choose their course. Geran stood and addressed those nearby. "The old one is frightened. He thinks we should march for another hour until he can lay his grey head in a safe place."



There were groans and protests. Neragon frowned. Geran's criticism of Sergon threatened the discipline of the trek. The decision had been taken out of his hands. If he favored Sergon's suggestion, the young men who toadied to Geran might rebel and stay where they were. Several had already spread their sleeping skins and removed their boots in signal of their reluctance to travel any further.



"We will set double watch and stay here for the night," he told Geran. "Pass the word to the others. Daltin, Erogon Vestan, and Gidgidon will stand watch." The men he chose for the watch were known to keep themselves aloof from favoring either Geran or Neril. He glanced toward Sergon. As the elder of the trek, he had a right to over-ride Neragon's decision, but he was unlikely to do so.



There was no choice but to make camp in the middle of the track. On every side a tangled forest grew, black against the moonlit sky. The campfires were fed on windfall branches that littered the verges of the track, but the morale of the camp was low. An aura of unease sent the eyes of the more experienced trekkers to search the hidden coverts where danger might be waiting. Only a few of them had ever seen the living animals that provided the claws and teeth that Janakans seemed to prize as trophies, but the woods seemed dark and threatening. Sergon drew the prayer shawl from his belt pouch and put it over his head. When he said the words of the ritual he seemed to hesitate over the familiar phrases.



~



In the darkness beyond, concealed by dense thorn bushes, Zadak crouched and watched the Evening Ritual with a grim smile. He had never forgotten that Sergon had carried the tale that had robbed him of a crown. Tonight he would take the revenge that had simmered in his heart for seven years. His eyes were caught by the maiden who raised her hands and bowed her head while Sergon spoke the cryptic words of the Mareklan prayer. The night vision of those who were in the camp had been diminished by their fires, a clear violation of camp discipline. The light illuminated the maiden's face and Zadak caught his breath. She was the essence of all of his desires. The flop-brimmed servant's hat she had worn on the road from Timora had effectively concealed her beauty. This was a face that should have worn the consort's crown in Zedekla. It was no wonder that Mareklans guarded their women.



When the ritual ended, the girl looked around with a slight frown on her face. She walked toward the edge of the road and the narrow border of thorn bush where Zadak crouched in concealment. She stopped and seemed to stare straight at the bush where he hid. He hardly dared breath, wondering if she had caught the glitter of his eyes as he watched her. She stood only an arm's length from him and looked around. Then she removed two wooden hair pins and shook her head, releasing her long hair from the braid that held it near her head during the day. She took a carved wood comb from her belt pouch and combed out the snarls of the day. Dark tresses tumbled in the breeze as she lifted them to welcome the cooling draft.



The wind carried the scent of her hair to Zadak. He identified the delicate odor of night blossoms. If it had not been for the barrier of matted thorns that stood between them, he might have grabbed her into his arms and taken her captive at that moment, but the pain of thorns pressed against his knees and elbows returned him to sanity. Too many of her fellow Mareklans were still up and about and armed.



After staring about at the darkness for a moment more, Neril returned to the place where she had dropped her pack. She spread her sleeping skin and took off her boots and belt. Every casual move of her slender body was as expressive and graceful as the studied gestures of a Jaman dancer.



The rogue prince remembered his original intention to take her to Irivul. That would never happen now and he rejoiced that he had broken with the Orquian priest. She would be his woman. He had led a life of casual passion after leaving Zedekla as a youth. At least one child bore his features, but no woman had ever been with him for more than a year.



She would be different. He would take her far into the steppes of Kumnora and found a new dynasty with their sons. This ambush would settle an old score and begin a new era in his life. He would take the brothers with him or not, depending on their choices. Bildug would have to be left behind. Visions of a new life, far from the scandal tainted haunts of his outlaw life teemed in Zadak's mind.



He silently stole away from the camp and returned to the covert where he had left Doplik and his brothers. He touched Doplik's shoulder to wake him. All the other brothers but Bildug woke as soon as Doplik opened his eyes and murmured a welcome. Years of depending on their wits in a hostile world had sharpened their senses and kept them from sleeping soundly but Bildug slept on until his second brother waked him with a sharp poke.



"I have found our quarry," Zadak whispered. Their surprise gratified him. After two days spent in sparse camps, the band of men had stopped at the inn that marked the Janaka fork. They overheard one of Zedekla's royal runners entertaining pilgrims with a tale of the ambush of Irivul and his cultists at Timora. Zadak pulled his cloak up around his face lest the man recognize him. The courier had come straight from Timora and would rest only a few hours before continuing. Since all he carried were dispatches and they had already received the gist of what he carried to Farek, Zadak ordered his men to leave the inn before the runner had finished his brief nap. The news he brought was sufficient to stop any further criticism of Zadak's decision to abandon the cultists.



They had kept to night marches, hiding out and sleeping during the day when their presence on the road might be remarked and reported. Years of chancy living had taught all of them caution. Doplik was willing to let Zadak set the course and dictate the goal, but both of them knew it was an alliance of convenience, bound by no special oaths or promises. Doplik and his brothers would abandon Zadak if his schemes became too dangerous or produced no booty.



With that in mind, the former prince dared not blunder. He would have only one chance at taking his quarry. As he told the men about the careless siting of the Mareklan camp. Doplik gave an amused chuckle. "I think fortune is your friend, Zadak. I have never heard of the Mareklans camping in the open near a well traveled road in such a careless way. Are you certain it is not a trap for us."



"They are arguing among themselves. The presence of the maiden caused discord. We will remedy the problem and remove her. We have three goals. I have a personal debt to settle with Sergon and I want the maiden. The leader of the trek will have the most valuable of the trade goods and grain vouchers in his pack. There are four men on watch. There are seven of us. That means each of us will have a task. The watch must be silenced before the rest of us can enter the camp."



The bandits continued to refine their plans while they waited for time to pass. It would be best if everyone but the watch were sleeping when they approached the camp. Bildug fondled the image ring while his lips moved in silent invocations of the demon. He had his own ideas about what would happen to the Mareklan girl. It was fortunate Zadak and his brother had decided that his strength would best suit him to carrying her away. They would be surprised when they realized that he had no intent to join them. With such a prize in hand, he would be welcomed with open arms at any of the dark altars of Orqu.



Neragon had doubled the watch, but that was only four men, and they were weary from spending half the night on the road without an opportunity to rest the day before. They were still near the border of Tedaka, a place known to be hostile to the thugs that sometimes infested less proper places and the men on watch were not as careful as they might have been in wilder lands.



Several hours passed before Zadak and the brothers began their ambush. Four of the brothers were sent to take care of the men on watch. He told them to give the signal of a night bird whistle when they had finished. He heard three signals and finally the forth. With Bildug and Doplik close behind him, he stole into the camp to where he had seen Sergon lay his sleeping skin. Doplik had the task of recovering the pack that the leader had carried and Bildug was to take the girl.



Moonlight glimmered on Sergon's silvered hair. Zadak crept forward with his dagger ready in his hand. When he was near enough to reach his enemy, he raised his arm to make the fatal thrust.



A scream rang through the night from another part of the camp and Sergon's hand reached up and caught Zadak by the throat. In a moment he was disarmed and lying flat on his back fighting against the hands that were throttling the life from him. He thrashed a bit when he found he was unable to break the strangling hold, then he arched his back for a moment and went limp. It was a trick he had learned early from his mentors in the band of mountebanks. It was sometimes useful to pretend unconsciousness or death.



When Sergon released his throat, he waited until the Mareklan went to aid others against the ambush, then he rolled up to a crouch and ran to hide behind a bush without pausing to locate his knife. He huddled close to the ground and listened to the voices of the Mareklans as they leaped from their sleeping skins and rushed about with questions and alarms.



"Blood! Someone has killed Neril," one of the men shouted.



"No, the scream came from the man who tried to attack me," Neril said. "I struck too soon and missed my target. Something caught on my knife."



"Look there by your foot, someone left their finger behind." Sergon said. "It is a good thing your attacker made so much noise, it woke the rest of us." He held up the bloody remnant of Bildug's finger. The crude ring gave silent evidence of the demon worshiper who had worn it.



Neril remembered the words of the seeress. She had severed a finger, therefore a grasp of one who would have been her oppressor. It seemed the prophecy was fulfilled. She shuddered at the sight of the bloody evidence and washed the blade of her knife meticulously.



Doplik had faired better. Neragon found several vouchers missing from his pack. Zadak dared not break cover to join the brothers. He knew the terms of their alliance. They had gained a few vouchers but Bildug's digit would be seen as a poor exchange for such paltry takings. It would be fruitless to follow them, he would do better to retreat to Taleeka and retrieve the few belongings he had left with a slattern a few years before. Before Sergon could discover that he was not a corpse, he slid away into the darkness. He would fare better alone



The Mareklans counted their losses. The assigned to watch had all died. Their attackers had fled. They spent the early morning hours digging graves for their fellows and Sergon led them in a mourning ritual as the sun rose over the horizon. He said nothing to Neragon about the folly of making an open camp near the road when they could have stayed the night safely in Tedaka or moved a few miles along to a secure camp. It was not a time for recrimination. In the light of morning he tried to find some clue that would identify the band of men who had laid the ambush.



The grisly evidence of Neril's self defense was a severed finger, still wearing the demon image ring that had caught the edge of her knife when she had slashed at her attacker. The finger was hastily buried but Neragon kept the ring as evidence.



Only one other object remained to bear witness. Sergon kept it to himself. No other would recognize the dagger that had so nearly speared his heart. It was a fine knife with a blade of hardest Janakan bronze. The creamy hilt of banya horn inlaid with gold had been made in Marekla. It was elegantly carved with a long arabesque that formed the telltale crest of a Zedeklan prince.



Ten years before, Sergon had made a gift of the knife to the oldest son of Manchek, king of Zedekla. The next day prince Zadak had sent his servant to steal a paltry jewel from Sergon's stand in Zedekla.



The elder's heart filled with sorrow when he recalled that day. He had visited with his friends Manchek and Kemila whenever the trek took him to Zedekla and had watched the royal couple raise their twin sons to honor virtue and accept responsibility from the moment they were breeched. But while his mother tended to the sickly younger twin, Farek, Zadak's nurse had given him every indulgence.



A company of Mareklan merchants led by Sergon had visited Zedekla when the princes were on the verge of manhood. Zadak had seen a brooch he coveted on Sergon's stand. The brooch was made from the shell of an insect that came from the southern jungle. It glistened green and blue as if jeweled.



"When I am king of this city, I will favor any who are generous with their gifts," Zadak had said with a meaningful glance at the unusual jewel.



"I have no need for your favor Zadak. I give my gifts where I will," Sergon had replied.



Moments after the prince left the market square, his servant had returned and clumsily tried to steal the brooch. Sergon had easily apprehended the man. The servant would not say the prince had sent him, but Sergon decided to visit Manchek and advise his friend to proceed with care when he chose his heir.



Kemila and Manchek were surprised to see him again when he approached them in their council hall. He had given both of their sons fine gifts in honor of their coming of age. When he hesitated to name his errand, Kemila had urged him to tell her what had furrowed his brow with worry.



"I am concerned about the choice you will make when you designate your heir," Sergon said. "Will Zadak be appointed because he is the older of the twins?"



Kemila had smiled and shaken her head. "We have a means of choosing the heir that will reveal the true nature of his heart. Come tomorrow and you will witness the test that all the heirs of Tharek's throne must pass."



The next day when Zadak entered the throne room for the rites that could end with his investiture as the official heir of Zedekla he dressed with care in his finest clothing. The empty weapon harness that rode across his shoulders told of his expectation that it would soon house the heir's sword, Tharek oc Baroka. The sheath was new and made of rich Kumnoran leather tooled with the symbols of the ruling house.



Sergon remembered the glare Zadak had given him when he saw him standing next to the royal chaplain in the line of dignitaries come to witness the rites. Before the ceremony began the prince was led into a small, room. Sergon still remembered what had been said.



"Read the words on the wall before you." Manchek had said.



"I will read the words as soon as you bring a lamp," Zadak had replied with a laugh.



"You have failed the test my son," the king had said with sorrow.



"What do you mean father? What test is this to ask me to read when the room is so dark that I cannot see?" Zadak said. Sergon had wondered at his words. Although he was standing to the side, the glow that came from the room lit the corridor and the faces of all who witnessed.



"If you were worthy to be my heir, you would be able to read the words," Manchek had answered with real regret. He turned back to the hallway. "Bring Farek for the test."



Farek had better fortune than his brother. He quietly read the verses to his father. Moments later everyone had returned to the throne room. While Zadak looked on, his younger brother was ordered to stand forward and receive Tharek Oc Baroka, the sword of the heir. For a moment he seemed to think he was to pass the sword on to his brother.



"Tharek Oc Baroka is yours Farek. You will bear it until you give it to your own heir when he comes of age." The king's pronouncement caused surprise and consternation throughout the throne room. Zadak had always been a favorite with the courtiers, but when they realized where their future fortunes lay, they thronged the new heir to offer their congratulations on his elevation, ignoring his proud brother.



Zadak had moved stiffly to stand before his brother. "May the crown of Zedekla rest as easily on your head as my good wishes weigh on your heart," he said with a glint in his eye that gave the true meaning of his curse. Then he had walked from the throne room without faltering in his appearance of indifference.



It was the last time the prince had been seen in Zedekla. Reports came that he had joined a troop of tumblers and actors who had been on their way to Orenon. Now Sergon had proof that Zadak had joined his lot with bandits and brigands or worse. After examining the surrounding ground Sergon deduced that the rogue prince had hidden behind a bush and his footsteps led in a different direction from those of his companions.



If he had not been bound to follow along with the caravan and act as elder, guiding them through the caverns, Sergon would have followed the trail of Zadak. As it was, he could only hope that he would find the rogue before the rogue found him again. No doubt remained that Zadak blamed him for the loss of the throne.



In light of the attempt to abduct Neril and the evidence of the image ring, Neragon decided that Orquians were dogging their trail. From that moment Neril never found a time when she could be alone. Even the moments that were required for personal cleanliness were attended by her father with a cloak held between them to guard her privacy. She made no protest with the blood of the man who would have abducted her still staining the edges of her tunic,



She could not rid herself of the memory of waking to the sound of a night bird that sounded too much like a human whistle. She had not moved but a feeling of dread anticipation had honed her senses and her eyes opened and surveyed the barely visible contours of those who slept near her. A few hours earlier when they first made camp she had the sense that someone watched them. The foreboding had made her sleep lightly. The fatigue that had sent the other Mareklans into deep slumber had not kept her from waking now and then, her ears and eyes alert.



Her nostrils had widened at a whiff of foulness. It reminded her of the stench of the Orquian who had accosted her in Timora's market square. Her fingers had found the hilt of her knife and curled around it. Something loomed over her, cutting off her sight of the stars and she reacted too soon. The razor sharp edge of her obsidian blade caught on something that gave a metallic squeal as she slashed upwards. The screams of her attacker as he rolled away from her had worked to good effect. Had her knife been effective in bringing a swift, still death to her attacker, he would not have screamed and woken Sergon.



The memory of the attack confirmed Neril's fear that she had brought unnecessary risk to her companions. Sergon's encouraging words were nearly forgotten. If not for her, four good men would still be alive. The prospect of marrying Geran weighed less than the thought of living out the rest of her life under the reproachful eyes of the women she had widowed with her willful insistence on joining the trek.



Neril had a vague idea of the location of rivers and mountains from her conversations with Sergon. They would have to cross the Com before they could reach Saadena. The river was the greatest in Okishdu, gathering the waters from most of the mountains that lay north of Timora and south of the borders of Janaka. Would there be another ford, or would they cross on boats? Her father was silent on the subject and Geran seemed to enjoy keeping her in ignorance. She heard the conversation of her friends, Sergon, Thalon, and Docanen only as tantalizing fragments of words and laughter.



The faint sound of low thunder came from the northeast as they approached a belt of trees. Neragon called a halt and summoned Sergon to join him. Neril had been told to stay close to her father and she took advantage of the admonition when he left the main group of men to walk with Sergon. The sound of unceasing thunder grew louder as they approached the trees. Neril gave a gasp of surprise when they stopped and she caught up to them.



A deep gorge breached the earth near their feet. Water spilled in urgent flood through the depths of the gorge, crashing against huge boulders and casting up a mist of water. Upstream, a cataract spilled emerald and white over the brink of a cliff.



"We could travel downstream to the ford at Ocom," Sergon said. "I recommend that we reinforce the old bridge and make the crossing here. It would save several days of travel and make the bridge safe for later crossings. We can easily replace the bolikas we use to mend the bridge. It is unlikely we will need them before we return to the Homeplace."



Neril searched for the bridge Sergon referred to and saw nothing until he pointed out a few strands of braided fiber that hung like a spider web above the thrashing water far below. Once she identified the bridge she could see the trails that led to it. Neither would present any difficulty for the Mareklans, but a hollow feeling clenched her stomach when she looked at the bridge.



It consisted of two upper lines that were linked at intervals with two lower lines that supported a woven floor. The main lines seemed to be intact, but the woven floor of the bridge had several gaps. A broken line dangled and danced in the wind that carried the mist up from the surface of the churning waters.



Neragon hesitated. Time equaled profit for the Mareklans. If he took the cautious option of going downstream to the ford and paying the crossing fee that had made a prosperous town of the village of Ocom, he would be open to censure by the men he led. He already felt the burden of his decision to make camp against Sergon's recommendation with the result of being ambushed and the death of four of his men. His eyes betrayed his uncertainty when he looked at the elder.



"I could take one other person with me and mend the gaps with our bolikas. It will have to be someone who is light and deft. I think it should be Neril," Sergon said.



"No, not my daughter," Neragon said. "There must be another who would serve as well."



Neril looked down at the fragile bridge and put her hand on her belly to still the flutters that betrayed her fear, then she spoke up. "Sergon is right. I will help him mend the bridge. The only other person who is light enough to risk the damaged bridge is Feton. I don't think he could do it."



"Put it to the others," Sergon urged. "In a case like this they have the right to have a voice in the decision."



Neragon turned away with a tortured look. If Neril had not volunteered for the task, he would have been within his rights to forbid Sergon from using her. He had some authority over her, enough to keep her at his side and away from her cronies, but the rules of the trek demanded that he honor her offer to take on the dangerous task of mending the bridge.



He hoped that the other men would reject the plan, but most of them, including Geran, were eager to save time and the toll fee if possible. A show of hands made the attempt to mend the bridge inevitable. Only Thalon and Docanen voted against mending the bridge and Neril knew that they shared the secret of the fear of heights she had confided to them when they descended the cliffs on their way to Timora.



Knowing she would be more surefooted with bare feet Neril took off her boots before winding the coiled bolikas they would use to mend the bridge around her waist. Sergon stripped to his loincloth while Neril took out the mitts of snake skin she had used to descend the cliff. They went down the trail to the end of the bridge and she felt reassured to see that the span was sturdier than it had appeared from overhead.



Sergon stepped onto the bridge first, his nimble feet taking him rapidly across to the beginning of the first break. He knelt on the narrow woven floor to examine the gap. "The line has been cut," he called. He retraced his steps more slowly, examining every inch of the lines on either side to make sure there were no other cuts. He paused at one point and reached down to examine the line. Then he joined Neril and Neragon who stood over her as if his presence could somehow insure that she would take no harm.



"There was a clumsy attempt at sabotage. I don't know if we were the targets, but I suspect the villains who ambushed us may have known of our destination and tried to lay a trap for us here. The supporting lines seem to be sturdy and whole. All the damage was done to the connecting lines and the flooring. There is evidence that one of the villains cut too deep and plunged into the river below when the line gave way prematurely."



"Then you won't need Neril," Neragon said with a sigh of relief.



"Of course I need Neril," Sergon said. "She will follow behind me and provide me with the bolikas to mend the damage. This means that we can use the bridge with confidence once we have repaired the cut line. It would be far worse if the bridge had been damaged by a landslide or the lines had rotted."



Neril had volunteered because she knew she was the best person for the job, but she hoped her father would not detect the shaking of her hands as she pulled on her mitts and took hold of the lines on either side of her. She stepped warily out onto the narrow woven band that connected the lower lines. The bridge shivered and shook with every motion. Sergon waited for her near the gap. When she joined him he pointed wordlessly down river.



Neril studied the pool for a few moments until she recognized something that brought a wave of nausea. The scale of the scene had deceived her. The shape that she had mistaken for a tumbled white and scarlet blossom resolved into the battered body of a man. This was the evidence Sergon had spoken of when he indicated that the saboteur had paid for his deeds with his life.



When she drew near enough to hear him over the tumult of the waters that raged beneath them, Sergon gave her instructions. "I will attach three bolikas to the line on this side. While I cross the gap, braid the bolikas loosely together. When I am on the other side, knot the loose ends and throw them to me."



It sounded simple enough, but she found she had to sit with her legs wound through the lines that linked the upper and lower main lines in order to use her hands to braid the bolikas. Each of the bolikas was more than three man heights in length and braiding them made for a cumbersome job, made more difficult by the swaying and jerking of the bridge caused by Sergon's crossing. Neril wished she could keep her eyes off him, but affection and fear for his life kept her from looking away. Her hands moved automatically, pulling the lengths of braided fiber into a larger braid.



Sergon reminded her of one of the captive beasts from the southern forest she had seen in Timora's marketplace. It had hung suspended from the bars of its cage with two feet and a hand. When she had approached, it had swung back and forth and turned a somersault, all without touching the floor of the cage.



With similar agility, the elder swung from the upper lines, his feet never touching the lapsed floor of the bridge. When he finally reached the far side of the area that had been destroyed, he looked back and saw that Neril had not yet finished braiding the bolikas together. He proceeded further along the bridge to look for other damage.



When he returned he smiled reassuringly. "They apparently made another attempt to cut the bridge, but the supporting lines are in good shape. You have braided enough, now knot the ends together and toss them to me."



Neril looked up and saw the line of Mareklans standing at the edge of the gorge watching them work. She gritted her teeth and gathered the braid in an unwieldy coil. It would be nearly impossible to throw it across to Sergon while she sat with her legs wound securely through the lines supporting the bridge. She would look ridiculous to those who watched from above if she repeatedly failed to make the toss. Pride fought with fear even while she stood and leaned against the supporting line. She made adjustments to the coil so that it would feed out without tangling when she threw the knotted end. Then she closed her eyes, prayed for success, and made the cast.



At first she thought she had failed in her first attempt when she felt the line continue to play out without stopping. She opened her eyes and saw that Sergon had caught the knotted end and was pulling the line to him almost as fast as it left her hands. He attached the line with a series of knots. "Sit down," he called. "I want you to use another bolika to weave the line to the supporting lines on either side. I will work from this end if you will toss me a bolika."



She was grateful for the task that let her return to a more secure position. She cast the weighted end of a single bolika to Sergon and he deftly caught it. Then he copied her posture, sitting with his legs wound in the lines while he worked. He finished before her, but he gave a nod of approval when he examined the work she had done. "This bridge will serve for many years unless another fool decides to risk his life to cut it down," he said.



After that it was somewhat easier to mend the other, smaller, cut. The leather root fiber of the bridge was the same that had been used to make the bolikas. She had no doubt that her skin would have been scraped raw by the time she finished helping Sergon without the protection of her mitts.



The elder took advantage of the privacy of their shared task to speak to her. "You must not feel that you were to blame for the ambush. The louts who attacked us were motivated by more than a desire to gain a Mareklan maiden for the altar of Orqu. Don't forget that one tried to kill me and another tried to rob your father of the vouchers. We played into their hands by making poor decisions about the camp site and the timing. You have done more than your share to add to the success of the trek."



Sergon made one last survey of the repaired bridge, then he sent Neril to the far side to wait until the others crossed over. "I will bring your pack," he said. "I know it was a challenge for you to venture onto the bridge, but your courage has been adequately proved, you need not cross again. There is a narrow trail down to the water's edge. Go down and refresh yourself while I organize the others to cross. A cliff conceals the beach from the eyes of those on the bridge. I will whistle when we begin to cross. When you have finished, rest and watch how well the others enjoy the crossing."



She found the trail. It seemed barely wide enough to let her pass sideways between looming rocks when she approached the river. At the end of the steep trail a tiny beach had formed where contrary currents created a pool of still water. Glancing up, she saw that only rocks and trees would witness her ablutions. She took off her sweat-stained garments and washed them, scrubbing away the blood that stained her tunic.



Desert lay ahead and this might be her last chance to bathe for many days. Sergon had forced her to take on a task that he must have known terrified for her, but she had regained a sense of self respect. Then he had arranged for this interlude of privacy and refreshment. He was a friend against whom all others must be judged. She suspected that few would meet the mark.



When she finished bathing and had begun to put on her damp clothing, she heard the faint sound of Sergon's piercing whistle. She climbed up the trail in plenty of time to greet the first of the Mareklans who had began to venture across the gorge. It might have been amusing to watch the intensity of their expressions and witness the whitening of their knuckles as the bridge wove and jerked beneath their feet, but she was too conscious of the way she had felt when she took her first steps onto the seemingly fragile span.



Her father glanced at the damp ends of her hair and the moist edges of her tunic with raised brows and tightened lips, but he said nothing. Sergon was the last man over the bridge, her pack and staff with the wide hat fastened on top suspended in one hand, the only man who had ventured across the span without clinging firmly with both hands.



They camped at the head of the trail from the bridge. Sergon took the water skins and disappeared back down the trail while others prepared the evening meal. When he returned with fresh water no one bothered to ask him how he had found his way to the river. They had seen enough of the thrashing waves and sheer cliffs that rose on either side of the Com while they were crossing the bridge. The corpse they had seen downstream provided a vivid reminder of the danger of daring the river.



*



Doracat ced Morcat stood on the bridge that crossed the Ocom river and watched the thrashing water upstream where it cut through a rocky gorge before gentling at the Ocom Ford. It was the nearest thing he could find to the waves of a sea storm in his native city of Orenon, but it fell short of his need. He had learned as a boy to challenge the crashing water when he was angry or caught in some urgent emotion. He felt a need for the tang of salt and the flash of lightning to get any benefit from the tossing violence of the water.



Muttered curses were his only relief. He had just finished meeting with the last of his five procurers and the merchandise they had brought was pitiful. In former times he could count on each man procuring as many as fifty youths and maidens, sold by parents into bondage for seven years to settle debts or pay fines. The Peace of Tagun had changed that. With peace had come prosperity and only the most delinquent of parents were driven to the recourse offered by the child buyers.



He had been presented with only fifteen young ones, and of those, six did not bear the Shrine mark that showed they had come of age. Even if he had forged a mark, they were clearly too young to meet the requirements of the law. He would have to send them to the Shrine orphanage in Jama or be fined more than they were worth. The law was plain: no bond servants could be younger than the year of their naming day, and none could be indentured for more than seven years.



Doracat cursed the name of Irilik, the so-called prophet who had set the laws. He cursed the petty officials who dared not make exception even when bribed. He cursed Tagun and all the other kings and councilors who had ended the war and plunged his business into failure. If he turned from the river, he would see the town of Ocom Ford behind him, the town dominated by a Shrine where the law he hated was inscribed in stone. "There shall be no slavery. A person may sell themselves into bondage. Indentured servants must be released from their bonds after seven years. The children of servants are not in bondage. A child may not be taken or sold in bondage until they have received the Rites of Renewal."



The law might have been engraved in his forehead. But if he obeyed the law in these prosperous times, how was he to meet the needs of Jama's factories and brothels? How was he to provide servants for those who did not care to be held to the whim of ordinary servants who had the right to leave if they were not satisfied with the circumstances of their employment?



He had debts to pay, expenses to meet. His first daughter hoped to become the third wife of the watcher, Belgat ced Norgut and that would not happen without a generous dowry. The girl was infatuated, but the connection was desirable on every basis. Now it would not happen unless his luck turned. His eyes tracked a piece of flotsam that tumbled in the tossing water upstream.



"Algunagada!" he yelled when he realized what he had been watching so heedlessly. It was a man, his face bleeding, his clothing mostly gone, but his arms were moving and his mouth was working in a feeble shout for help.



Doracat was plump but greed made him agile. He raced from the bridge and scrambled over the stony bank of the stream. The river widened and quieted at the ford, but his feet slipped on mossy boulders as he waded out and waited for the current to bring the man to him. He had already made a quick assessment and he no longer cursed. The young man floating toward him on the now placid current of the river was a bonus that could make this trading season profitable.



Ocom Ford had been established as an outpost of the Orenese trading societies and the laws of the city were based on those of Orenon. No city could bypass or ignore the basic laws inscribed on the Shrines of the Radiance, but the coastal city of Orenon had salvage laws that included humans as well as boats and merchandise. A human rescued from death in the water was bound for seven years to the man who saved him, unless he had enough money to purchase his freedom.



With a strength belied by his paunch, Doracat latched on to the shoulders of his sodden prize and pulled him toward the bank of the river. A Kumnoran teamster on the bridge above shouted an offer of help and the servant seller waved him to meet him on the shore. There must be no question that he had been the man who rescued this particular prize. If any questioned Doracat's salvage rights, the teamster would be a useful witness. The team of dalas plodded along in front of the teamster, crowding the bridge from rail to rail, keeping him from claiming any role in the rescue, but he should clear the bridge in time to put his mark to a bill of salvage.



Once Doracat had lodged his catch high enough on the bank to keep him from being swept away by the river again, he reached into his belt pouch and removed the packet of proofs he kept at hand. He scraped the location into one of the soapstone tablets and marked the date. As he finished the notation, he heard the steps of the teamster on the loose gravel of the riverbank. He looked up and gave a smile of welcome. The man wore the colors of sub-clan Tarit braided into his hair. Doracat handed him the tablet and the gouge. "I will be providing aid for this man and need a witness that I rescued him. Would you put your mark here?"



The teamster hesitated. A mark was not given carelessly, but if it hastened aid for the victim, he could hardly deny its use. He carefully inscribed the open triangle that stood for his clan and the five lines through a crescent that stood for his own name. As soon as Doracat returned the plaque to his pouch, he indicated that the teamster should help him carry the man further up the strand to where his tents had been erected.



"You are Orenese!" the teamster exclaimed when he saw the veiled faces of Doracat's harem. "I must not give my mark to you!"



"This boy needs help. I will tend his wounds and teach him a trade. If you want your mark back, I will leave him in your hands. What can you do for him? How long will your team wait for you while you tend him back to health? Will you return to Kumnora with a stranger in your care?"



The teamster shot a look toward his team. They had begun to wander, lured by the fresh grass near the shore. Doracat offered him a coin to soothe his troubled conscience but the teamster spat in the servant seller's hand and stalked away to gather his wandering team. Doracat shrugged and smiled. Let the fool have his dubious honor, he would have the prize of a prime young male.



Bildug woke to the feel of soft hands and the sound of murmured singing. In a drugged haze from the selan and dass that had eased the work of his healers, he wondered if his hopes of Orquian bliss had been realized. The dark sides of the tent filtered the light that fell on his face to a dark purple that mimicked the color of Orquian robes. A graceful figure clad in a dark veil and long shawls moved into his view and even the dulling of his senses told him the truth of his plight. From childhood he had been afraid of the servant sellers who moved through the villages, taking those youths whose parents could no longer support them. His brothers had used the threat of selling him to keep him from running away from their failing farm after their parents died.



He lurched up and found that he could not move his legs. His panic cleared away the last effects of selan and dass and he fell back on the pallet, struck with the pain the drugs had eased.



"Be quiet or you will hurt yourself," the veiled woman said. "Take this wine." Her words were drawled and difficult to understand, but when she lifted the cup to his lips, he drank every drop. In moments the pain receded and he felt himself slipping away into sleep.



Falling, falling, death fear ripping the mind, the nightmare seemed unending but Bildug woke with a shout just before the rocky river gorge claimed his life. The smell of incense surrounded him in the dark. He shuddered at the memories that had birthed the dream. He had urged his brothers to help him lay an ambush for the Mareklans by cutting the lines that held up the old bridge. Only one of them agreed, the others standing on the shore and taunting them for the clumsy way they were sawing at the supports. His temper rose and he slashed deeper, digging his knife into the lines. His brother, Miklag, who had joined him on the bridge, urged caution and he had turned on him, waving his knife at him and screaming for him to be quiet.



Miklag had lurched back and broken through the cut lines. He fell headfirst onto the rocks below the bridge but the raging current tore at him, hurling him downstream until tossing him onto another rock.



Bildug had leapt to his feet, screaming his brother's name, then he was falling himself. Instead of the rocks that had battered his brother, he fell into a deep, swirling pool. The current pulled him under and held him down. Only in the last moments as darkness settled over his mind did he struggle free and gulp air. Then he was cast out of the pool and caught by the urgent current, carried tumbling and gasping over cascades and frothing rapids, his body battered by the rocks. When it seemed he could go on no more he looked up and saw a dark figure on a bridge beyond. With a gasping cry to the demon he worshiped, he had cast up his arms and shouted for rescue.



"I will look to see if he is awake father," a woman's voice said. Bildug wished the rocks had taken him. In his childhood, he had seen the servant seller's wagons lumber past with the faces of bond servants peeking from the slits in the hooped coverings. Death had seemed better than such a fate.



The hanging that covered the opening of the tent lifted and a lamp held in the hand of a veiled woman lighted the tent with a dim golden glow. The dark eyes of the woman, barely seen above her veil, assessed him with cold efficiency. Her hands on his body were cool and deft. "You were lucky to survive," she muttered. "Your leg is broken in a way that will heal straight in the splint and your wounds are not reddening with the curse of blood fever. What happened to your hand? That is no river wound."



A breeze that disturbed the flame of the lamp announced the arrival of the Orenese trader who had pulled him from the river. For the first time Bildug looked on the face of his captor. The oiled ringlets of the servant seller's beard hung below a grim smile that warned him there would be no appeal.



"Ah, you are awake," Doracat said. "I am Doracat ced Morcat. I hold a plaque of salvage for your body signed by a witness. Do you know what that means boy? You are mine to sell or keep for seven years. I doubt you will try to run, impeded as you are." He turned to the woman. "Go, Belana. I must speak to him alone."



The woman ducked her head and scurried from the tent. Alone with Bildug, Doracat put his left hand under his right armpit while touching the longest finger of his right hand to the ball of his thumb. "I am bodandil, sworn of Orqu, priest of the first altar."



Bildug's eyes widened and he gasped. "You saw the sign of Orqu on my thigh!"



"Even if I did not have salvage rights over your body, you are sworn to obey me," the servant seller said.



"Master, what would you have me do?" Bildug whined.



"First, you must tell me why your sigil ring has been cut off," Doracat said.



"I tracked a band of Mareklan merchants from Timora," Bildug muttered. He decided against revealing the part that Zadak and his brothers had played. "There was a maiden with them. Last night I tried to abduct her, but the men of the camp arose and I barely escaped with my life."



"Did they cast you into the river after removing your finger?" Doracat asked.



Bildug hesitated. Then he nodded. "They thought they had destroyed me, but Orqu saved me."



"We can still take the maiden," Doracat said. "I have not seen any Mareklans cross the bridge. How soon can we expect them?"



Bildug shook his head. "I doubt they will use the Ocom Ford bridge. There is another way to cross the river, a hanging bridge that connects with the old imperial road. They were headed to Saadena."



"The Jamans won't be happy to hear that the Mareklans are trading with Queen Challan," the servant seller said. "She is my cousin of the house of wen Morcat, a clever woman, but not one I care to meddle with. I may find a way to use her in obtaining the Mareklan maiden."



Bildug wished he had thought of another story to tell the Priest, one that would not so soon be proved a lie. It could be death to lie to a superior in the cult. "The Mareklans might have passed through Saadena and gone on to Janaka by the time you reach Challan's realm," he said.



"Perhaps," Doracat said. "On the other hand, it would be better to follow an established trail rather than try to guess where they have gone. It is a pity you won't be fit to come to Saadena with me, I like the look of you. If you serve me well, you may find that it was a lucky day for both of us when I salvaged you from the Com. I will train you in the inner secrets. In seven years, if you have proved your worth, you will be high enough in the cult to oversee an altar."



Bildug felt the sting of his mangled knuckle and wondered if anything could ever compensate for the sacrifice of his finger or the loss of his freedom for seven years. If it had been any other than a high priest of Orqu he was sworn to, he might have tried to escape in time. Now he was bound both body and soul with no recourse. The Mareklan maiden had caused his loss. Someday, somehow, he would take his revenge.



Chapter 10 An Evil Air







Hot, dry air, parched Neril's throat as she kept pace with the line of men climbing the slope of rock. She yearned to stop and rest but Geran hovered close. If she faltered or stopped to ease the pain in her side, he would grab her and pull her along behind him gloating in her weakness and reasserting his claim on her.



Black rock and gray scrub stretched under a hard blue sky on every side. For three days, since they had crossed the bridge over the Com, there had been no sign of water. Neril felt the pace begin to slow and peered ahead. Her father had gained the summit and waited for the others to reach him. His eyes met Neril's gaze and she saw sympathy and a pride in her persistence that he would not voice in front of the other men.



She smiled back at him and her weary body straightened. She would not falter. They had hardly spoken to each other since the day they had entered Tedaka a week before and she had maneuvered herself into an invitation to stay with Doka and Placine. Even the ambush and its dreadful cost had been cocooned in silence between them.



When she reached her father's side, she could see into the wide valley below them. "Is this all that remains of Saadena?" she asked as she surveyed the vast ruined city that filled most of the broad basin below. Only the grimy white eminence of the Shrine seemed intact.



"Look to the west and you will see the New Palace," Neragon said. "It was built onto what remained of the old palace after an earthquake destroyed most of the city hundreds of years ago."



Neril shaded her eyes and looked toward the vast palace that she had taken at first for a natural stone palisade on the southwestern lip of the valley. A troop of men marching along the ramparts like ants carrying spears gave the scale of the distance. She thought she saw a flicker of movement on a high tower but the sun was descending and she could not be sure of her vision against the glare.



"The rulers of Saadena continue to live in luxury from the profits of selan. Their empire was destroyed when the earthquake diverted the rivers that once joined in this valley," Neragon explained.



He shoved his wide hat back from his forehead and let the faint breeze stir his graying hair. Neril followed his example. She sighed with pleasure when the brief cooling wind lifted the dark tresses that had slipped from the carved pins securing her hair.



A steep path led perilously down into the jumbled ruins of the ancient city. Loose rock shifted and skittered under her feet. Neril nearly fell when she reached to rub her nose. It tickled from the pungent smell that emanated from the fallen walls.



A moldy growth covered the scattered stones and abandoned ruins. There was something familiar about the scene. It tugged at her memory and she frowned with the effort of trying to recall where she had seen it before.



Sergon saw her expression and sniffed the air as if he smelled a delicious essence. "Do you like the delicate scent of raw selan?" he teased. "I can assure you, it must seem delicious to the royal house. After all their other sources of wealth were destroyed, the rulers of Saadena discovered that selan grew on the stones of the fallen city. They change nothing lest they destroy the basis of their wealth."



He looked at the scene around them, then frowned. "I thought the harvesters were pitiable when I last visited, but they seem even more benighted now."



Neril followed Sergon's gaze and saw gaunt men and women moving slowly and silently through the shadows cast by the ruins. They seemed more wraith than mortal as they stooped to scrape the mossy herb into leather pouches.



"Those who live with selan cannot escape its effects," Neragon said. "But our healers value selan. It blunts pain, hastens healing and soothes fevers. The wild men of the southern forests trade their finest herbs and textiles for selan."



"Will we become like them if we breathe this tainted air?" Neril asked with an empathetic glance at the harvesters.



"Not for the brief time we will stay here," her father assured her. "The vapor seems to linger in the lower parts of the valley. It seldom reaches the halls of the New Palace. The harvesters live with it constantly. Since Challan became queen, most of the food they eat comes from selan. She found a way to feed them the residue that remains after the spores that carry the drug are removed. I hope to sell them fruit and grain. They sorely need it."



Neril shook her head in disbelief and sorrow for the harvesters. This serfdom seemed more vile that the bondage caused by servant sellers. She always carried some selan in her pack of medications, but the value of the remedy could not excuse such exploitation. She yearned to somehow alleviate the situation of these people, but she could not even save herself from the threatened bondage of a hated marriage.



In comparison to the ancient ruins of the city, the palace seemed new as they drew closer. Bright mosaics glowed in the shadowed gloom of the facade. Neril contrasted the stone structure with the home she had known since birth. Marekla merchants had found a settlement where they could hide their maiden daughters in the caldera of Mount Vald not long after the earthquake had destroyed Saadena's empire. Even the oldest homes and the Shrine of the Homeplace were new compared to the weathered stones of the New Palace.



As they reached the lower part of the city, a great stone tower rose ahead of them. Another tower measured its length beside the trail. "This is all that remains of the Bridge of Heroes," Neragon said.



They neared the standing tower and Neragon veered to the east and led them down the side of a wide channel that cut through the city. When they climbed out of the dry water course and passed the dusty eminence of the Shrine, the palace loomed ahead in ponderous grandeur with a reach and ornament of the walls that Neril had not seen in either Tedaka or Timora. She wondered if the cities of Zedekla and Janaka, which she would never see, could be more impressive.



They climbed toward the palace on its hill above the city after passing through the harvester haunted streets. Once above the miasma of selan they came to a pavement of stone with sockets cut in the surface.



"This is the accustomed camp of Marekla merchants when we come to Saadena," Neragon said. "We will erect the weather tent while we are here." He gestured for Thalon to unpack the rolled tent fabric. The routine of making camp progressed quickly as staffs were set into stone notches carved generations before. The fabric of the tent was stretched over them.



She started a fire and prepared a meal of matlas stuffed with dried fruit and minced jerky while she listened to the men discuss their plans. The sound of a soft footfall, clearly not the aggressive tread of Geran brought her gaze up to see Sergon resting on his staff nearby.



"You held up well," he commented as he accepted a portion from her. "Once Mareklan men and their families traveled together. We made slower progress then. Now we travel faster and profit more, but we pay a price by leaving our families behind in the safety of our hidden valley. I have decided this will be my last journey and I'm glad of it. Dresla and her family have urged me to stay in Timora. It isn't good for men to spend months away from their loved ones."



"But it is safer for our women to stay protected in our valley," Geran pushed Sergon aside and pulled Neril roughly to her feet to be gathered to his side. "There may be priests of Orqu at Saadena's court and it could be unsafe for a Mareklan maiden. I told your father to leave you in the tent when we go to the palace to bargain this evening."



She tried to move away from him, but he caught her arm. "We've heard a rumor that the royal house of Saadena dabbles in the worship of Orqu. It was unwise to bring you on this trading journey, but now that we know what it truly means to bear responsibility for your safety, we must keep you from exciting further notice."



Neril wanted to protest but she glanced at her father's face and caught his expression of warning. "When we are satisfied that the rumors are unfounded, we will take you with us," he said.



She turned away but Geran grabbed her face and forced her to look at him. "Just because you ate dinner with Queen Kemila and the Headman of Tedaka, you must not presume that the heirs of the Saadenan empire would welcome you. They live in the midst of a fallen empire but they never forget that once they were lords of Okishdu. The sons of Elianin will never let mere poverty swallow their pride."



"We might have been followed by the men who attacked us near Tedaka. I doubt it is safe to leave her alone," Thalon said.



"No one need know she is here if she stays quiet in the tent," Geran replied.



Neragon nodded. It was needless to remind anyone that she had been the only one to leave a mark on the men who had attacked them. He shied from the knowledge that it was his own decision that had left them open to attack.



"I will stay here with Neril," Sergon volunteered but Geran scowled and Negagon shook his head. He avoided looking at Neril as he organized the others for their visit to the Saadenan court.



"The harvesters are in dire need of better food. I will offer fruit and grain vouchers from Zedekla and Tedaka. I'm confident the rulers of Saadena will want the additional food supplies."



"There may be a market for other goods," Sergon said. "Challan has a taste for luxury."



"Someone is coming," Docanen said.



They looked up to see a man in a scarlet tunic picking his way over the rubble strewn ground between the camp and the palace. Two armed men made an effort to march behind him, but their shining, hard soled boots slipped on the loose stone and they were forced to wave their arms to keep from falling and dirtying their ornate uniforms. Neragon quickly shoved Neril into the tent out of sight. She opened the flap of the tent a slit, enough to see the approach of the trio. With a hand over her mouth to keep from giggling aloud, she listened.



"I am Jargin, Queen Challan's steward," the small, bald man said when he reached the level of the campground. "You are invited to dine with her majesty this evening. Bring your finest goods to the court. Soon the prince will marry and we wish to celebrate the nuptials with splendor." He said nothing more but turned on his heel and led his escort back to the palace.



"It seems you were right Sergon," Neragon said. "Bring whatever you think might please the queen and her court. Unfortunately, we left most of our luxury items in the cache near Rubbleford."



The men soon selected the goods they thought might appeal to the members of Queen Challan's court and they set out for the decrepit grandeur of the palace. As he passed the tent, Geran grasped the edge of the tent flap and pulled it closed with a jerk. Neril felt a surge of resentment. In theory she had the right to refuse Geran's suit, but had she ever really had a choice in the matter? The prospect of marrying Geran hovered over her future like a cloud.



Remaining unmarried would make her life even more difficult. She wanted children. At least she could become a mother and have a focus for her love and attention when her grandparents died. If she fretted and mourned her fate, it would gain nothing for her but the destruction of her peace of mind. Even as Geran's wife, she would be far better off than the people of Saadena.



With the flap closed, the tent was as dark as a cave. She opened the flap enough to locate and light a lamp. When she had completed an inventory of her pack, she began to mend a tear in one of her mitts. The simple task allowed her mind to wander and she smiled as she recalled the adventures she had shared with Sergon, Thalon and Docanen.



The lamp guttered out, leaving her in darkness. She was trying to relight it when she heard a slight noise and realized with panic that she had been too preoccupied to keep her staff close at hand. She should have treated her solitary wait as a watch instead of losing herself in memories. She dropped her mending and groped to find her staff in the dark tent.



She saw the silhouette of a tall, slender man as the tent flap opened. He reached into the tent and took her hands in a firm grip before she could locate her staff. "Hurry and come with me or you will miss the feast."



His greeting disarmed her. She knew that the other Mareklans would be too far to hear her if she gave the shrill whistle of the Mareklan distress signal. The stranger's hair caught the light of the setting sun sending glints of red and gold from crisp curls. Neril's resistance faded. He moved back to cajole her with a pleading look and the sun lit his face. His eyes glowed golden. She had never seen his like before except in her dreams. The sight of his face bemused her. While she gazed at him, he tightened his grip and pulled her closer to his side.



Confused, Neril reacted with anger. "Have you no manners?" she taunted him. "When a tent flap is closed, it signals a desire for privacy. I might have been sleeping or dressing."



He laughed and the sound of his deep chuckle resonated within her. "Do not tempt me with such thoughts." She couldn't approve of his innuendo but his smile held a warmth that calmed her temper.



The bachelors of Tedaka had been more straight forward in their compliments and Geran was more inclined to berate than to flatter her. She made a weak attempt to resist his charm. "You have no right to speak to me in such a way."



"Come out into the light where I can see you better," the young man said, ignoring her reproof. "I am Carnat, the prince of Saadena, and you are my guest. Why do you stay here in this stuffy tent when the table is laid with delicacies for your fellow merchants? I saw your caravan enter the valley earlier today and noticed that the Mareklans had a woman with them. When they came to the palace, I looked for you, but there were only men. I was curious to see why they hid you. I wondered if it was because you are ugly? Would the sight of your face rebut the legend of the beauty of Marekla's maidens? Come, let me see your face."



"How did you know I am as a woman when I wear the same journey clothing as the men," Neril asked.



He smiled and touched her hair gently. "You may wear the same clothing as the other merchants, but no one who saw you walk would mistake you for a man. Come, I will take you to the palace. It isn't right for you to stay in this sweltering dark tent while your companions enjoy a feast."



Although her staff remained out of her reach and the knife that she had won from Thalon remained fastened inside the belt around her waist, she knew it would be easy enough to slip from his grasp. Curiosity about him stopped her from wrestling free. There would be ample time to evade him when she found some answers to the riddle of why she dreamed of him and knew his face long before this meeting.



Pride urged her to let the stranger see for himself that she had not been left in the tent to hide an ugly face. She followed without a struggle when he drew her out of the shadow of the tent and into the twilight. When the fading light fell on her face, she heard the quick intake of his breath.



"Indeed, you are lovely. I am not surprised that your fellow merchants hid you from the sight of other men. I would hide you from the eyes of others if you were mine."



She might have resisted him better if his strangely familiar face and the soothing tone of his voice had not pierced her heart with a peculiar pleasure. Somehow the deserted camp seemed too intimate and she decided she would be safer among others if he truly intended to lead her to the palace.



She stumbled when the path led into the shadows and he pulled her against him with an arm around her waist to lead her on. Locked close under his arm, she could feel the excited beating of his heart as he drew her along the path toward the palace. At first she was afraid that he meant to take her into the city but he led her upward until the palace loomed ahead of them and she relaxed. He had not lied. He meant to take her to join the others.



The men who stood guard at the main gate of the palace were dwarfed by the massive grandeur of the structure. Lit by the gold of a dying day, the columns and arches of the doorway reached tree high above them. Four massive octagonal columns, their faces carved with archaic words and scenes of battle were set on each side of the great gate. The double doors were each set with six square bronze panels that wore the dull green patina of age. The figures depicted in the panels were nearly life-sized. Neril was curious to see if the ponderous scale continued into the interior. It would not be a pleasant place to live if all the halls and rooms were built to accommodate giants.



While she gazed toward the doors, trying to identify the scenes depicted in the panels, her host turned away from the main gate before the guards noticed them. He guided her along a wall that soon concealed them from the guards. "You will want to refresh yourself and find a flower for your hair before I take you to join the others," he explained when she resisted. "There is a fountain in the garden within the wall and it is nearly time for the night blossoms to unfold."



Pits and fissures marked the stone of the wall, eroding the design of leaves and vines carved into the ancient surface. This part of the palace appeared far older than the grand facade. It seemed that there was no opening in the wall until Carnat released his arm from her shoulders.



Holding her wrists together in one hand, he lifted his free hand and grasped a small stone carved to resemble a flower that was nearly invisible in the midst of carved vines. The stone slid forward and a slab of rock turned to reveal the garden within the wall.



The rich greens of the garden seduced Neril to enter and her captor released her as she stepped into the verdant scene. For days she had thirsted for the sight of vegetation other than the sere desert shrubs. She moved forward to study a perfect bloom on one of the many rare plants that surrounded her. It seemed that all the blossoms she had admired as she trekked through forest and marsh had been gathered here in one place. She saw the buds of a night blossom on the verge of opening to the rising moon and next to the opposite wall, far from the fountain that played in the center of the garden, she recognized a stand of spearleaf.



Neril turned to ask the prince how the garden had come to be, but he no longer stood by her side. The sound of stone scraping against stone brought her eyes to the opening in the wall and she saw the slab of stone closing, giving one last glimpse of the grinning face of her captor.



She couldn't imagine any reason he could have for tricking her into captivity unless he was in league with the cult of Orqu. Panic made her desperate as she whirled and looked around at the clumps of greenery. They were suddenly ominous with the threat of concealed enemies.



Neril ran to the wall and searched for some way of opening the door. There was a carved stone like the one that triggered the door to open from the outside, but she struggled in vain to move it. The looming walls of the garden cut off the evening light and only a dim glow illuminated the garden as she made a hasty survey to find a means of escape.



The thick vines that covered the walls suggested a way out of the garden. A windowless wall of the palace loomed over the wall west of the garden. At the very top of the wall, a carved border of pierced stone promised a hold for the weighted end of her bolikas if she linked them. After removing the coiled lines from her waist, she linked them together and prepared to make the cast.



When she whirled the weighted end and threw it upwards, it was a heartbreaking hand-span too short. The end of the linked bolikas caught in the foliage and she tried it to see if the line would support her weight. It tore away, bringing a shower of leaves and twigs down on her head. She would have to climb without it. She unlinked the bolikas before coiling them and replacing them on her belt. She had left her mitts behind in the tent. Even torn, they would have protected her hands against the thorny vine.



In spite of thorns that tore at her clothing and hands, she slowly pulled herself up the face of the wall, finding footholds on the ancient branches. She was within an arm's reach of the top of the wall when she felt the living ladder shift and sway under her weight. She had already climbed thrice the height of a tall man.



She reached upward with her right hand and found the edge of the wall. Digging her bleeding finger tips into the stone, she began to pull herself upwards. Slowly, still holding on to the vine with her other hand, she inched toward freedom. Her eyes were level with the top of the wall and she could see the wall of the palace only a few feet away. She shifted to reach the coiled bolika at her waist but the movement shook the slender branches that supported her feet.



Neril scrambled for another hold, her other hand still tangled in the vine. The stone under her hand twisted loose and she grasped at another. Then she felt the vine move and crumple under her weight. The tiny tendrils that held it to the wall peeled away with a ripping sound. She screamed as she fell. When she hit the ground, she heard the cracking of her thigh bone before her head bounced on the turf. Stars flashed behind her eyes. Then came pain, and an agonizing moment later, darkness.



Prince Carnat returned to his place at the long table that stretched down the middle of the dining hall. He adjusted his clothing as if returning from relieving himself and caught the disdainful glance of a tall, young Mareklan who had been given a seat next to his cousin and fiancée, Ayarlan. He watched while his mother's protégée flirted openly with the other man and felt only secret amusement. He saw the look of disgust the merchant gave him and felt a secret glee that he had taken their woman captive and they could never guess where she was. Even his mother was unaware of the garden where he had hidden the girl.



From the moment the merchants entered the palace, his mother had made it clear that she was the ruler of Saadena. On either side, she was flanked by women, her niece Ayarlan and her favorite courtier, Dramnine, a Tedakan crone with high claims and a shadowed past. King Eliat played with his food like a stupid child. Carnat imitated his father's drugged behavior. He picked up his wine cup and dribbled the drugged fluid down his chin, taking care that none of it reached his mouth. Ayarlan had selected the young Mareklan as her table partner and was fondling his hand where it lay on the table.



Carnat hid a smile behind his cup when he thought of the maiden he had trapped in his garden. She would be safe there for several days. There was plenty of fruit and water to sustain her. Once the Marekla merchants were convinced that she was no longer in Saadena and departed from the valley, he would go to her.



He glanced at Ayarlan, the girl his mother intended him to marry. It amused him to watch her trying to attract the youth. She leaned close to him, fluttering her lashes. The merchant ignored her and removed his hand from her grasp while he continued talking to one of his companions. Ayarlan placed her hand on the man's shoulder and he casually brushed it off.



"Geran, pass me that bowl of fruit by your elbow," one of the other men said, and Ayarlan's quarry extended the bowl to his friend.



"Geran, what a nice name. What does it mean?" Ayarlan purred.



The Mareklan looked at her and acted as if he had finally noticed her. "We don't tell the meaning of our names to strangers, but perhaps we won't be strangers for long," he said. Ayarlan tittered and turned her head away in a parody of modesty. She missed the rude gesture the young Mareklan made to the back of her head, but the queen had noticed the byplay.



An insult to her chosen daughter-in-law was an insult to Queen Challan and she stood abruptly and ended the meal. "We have wasted enough time and enough food here." She turned to her steward who stood near at hand. "Bring the Mareklans and their goods to the audience hall. I will see if they have anything worthy of my notice." She caught Ayarlan by the elbow in a hard grasp and pulled her close to her side while they left the hall.



Carnat had been toying with the food his mother provided for him and his father, hoping she wouldn't notice that he ate nothing. As soon as she left the room, he opened a pouch he wore at his belt and began to load it with the savories that had been set aside for Challan and her courtiers. Usually he was forced to raid the kitchens to make up for the meals he missed, the meals that had been dosed with selan since he was sixteen years old and Ayarlan had been brought to live in the palace. Only the warning of Fedder, the palace chaplain, had saved him from becoming as numb minded as his shambling father.



Neragon pulled Geran aside when they were in the entrance hall where Thalon had guarded their packs while they ate. "You were unwise to ridicule Queen Challan's niece. I know she was forward with you, but the insult you offered her will not be forgotten."



"I didn't like having her paw me," Geran excused himself. "That's what happens to women when they are exposed to the ways of the world. I hate to think what Neril would have learned from this decadence. It was well you left her back at the camp."



"Neril would never come to that," Neragon protested. He was puzzled that Geran could not see that for himself. It wasn't what Neril might do that concerned her father, it was the evil that others intended that made him cautious. He glanced around at the other Merchants and wished he had allowed one of them to stay behind and guard her, even if it had been Thalon or Sergon.



The troop of merchants followed Neragon into the audience hall where the queen and her favorites were seated on a dais. The presence of armed guards was normal in such a setting but Neragon saw that their eyes were fixed on the opposite wall in a staring gaze and their shoulders were thrown back in an exaggerated posture. Their officers were stationed by the opened doors, where they could survey the troops for any breach in the rigid show of discipline required by the queen.



Although there were more men in the ceremonial livery of Challan's court than on Neragon's previous visit to Saadena, there appeared to be no threat to the merchants. The richly dressed guards were as much a part of the furnishings as the carved and gilded arms of Challan's throne and just as effective for defense.



A flutter of excitement filled the room when the Mareklans entered. The courtiers openly speculated on the contents of their packs. The prince arrived a little late but didn't join the others. He lingered in the shadows of an alcove and deleberatly slumped against a wall as if too befuddled to stand erect..



"My son will marry soon and I wish to have his bride property attired," Queen Challan said in a loud voice that overrode all other conversation. "I know the true value of selan. You cannot trick me with cheap trinkets."



Carnat watched as stiff pride shuttered the faces of the Marekla merchants in reaction to her insult and hoped that they would soon tire of his mother's impudence.



"We have brought luxuries, but we also planned to trade for vouchers of grain from the plains of Zedekla and fruit from Tedaka in exchange for selan," the leader of the Mareklans said. Carnat was impressed. He wished he could bring himself to speak to his mother with such force and dignity. Instead, he still found himself resorting to the same pouts and tantrums that had been futile even when he was a child.



"You insult me when you imply that my people are not adequately fed," Challan huffed. "If they are hungry, let them follow others into exile. The people of Saadena have no need for any food other than what they produce with their honest labor."



"Few crops other than selan will survive this harsh climate," Neragon reminded her. "We have seen that they spend many hours harvesting selan. I doubt that they have time to raise other produce."



"If you won't trade for those things I wish to have, I'll contact others who might be more eager to bring me the luxuries I require. This is the most ancient court in Okishdu. Once Saadena ruled all, we will not content ourselves with a pauper's lot. Selan is our only product and we have never received adequate compensation for our effort. I have received offers from Jama."



Sergon remembered the dull eyes of her subjects and the rags they wore, certain they didn't receive due compensation for their labors. He was tempted to advise Neragon to refuse to make any trade with the monstrous ruler. Then he recalled the embroidered cloth and braided fringe Neril had used to decorate his litter when they escaped from the threat of the cult of Orqu in Timora. It was gaudy and tasteless, a mistaken purchase he had never expected to sell.



Sergon spoke up. "I have cloth fit for your niece's wedding gown in my pack but I thought to take it to Janaka. We also have packets of scented sand. The retired queen of Zedekla, Kemila, paid one of our people three enas for one packet of scented sand."



"Of what use is sand for someone who lives in the midst of a desert?" Ayarlan tittered.



"It can be used instead of water to refresh and cleanse the skin. I have heard that some Timoran ladies, surrounded as they are with hot springs and sparkling baths, stand and clean themselves with scented sand by preference," Sergon said.



Challan's eyes lit with the idea of another way of hoarding water. Her native city, Orenon, was located between the sea and a drought-ridden scrub land. The few springs were sources of wealth to their owners and she considered herself the owner of all Saadena's water. Her father, a servant seller, had taught her the exact ration needed to keep an adult alive. "Let us see what you have," she directed him. When he showed her the beautifully wrought packets of sand, she purchased all he had and declared that henceforth the palace baths used by the courtiers would be closed and the springs that fed them diverted to her storage cisterns.



Ayarlan was pleased with the garish embroidered cloth and begged Challan to buy it for her wedding dress. The queen purchased the fringed braid for herself.



Thalon stepped forward and displyed a selection of feather flowers. Challan's eyes lit with pleasure. "I have yearned for flowers now and then, but they require water that must be saved for the culture of selan. These are much more beautiful than any real flower."



Docanen displayed jewelry that Neril had made from Janakan green stone cared as leaves and vines and Challan again expressed her preference for something that imitated life without the need for water and sunlight. She arranged to purchase everything Thalon and Docanen carried. Garen grew more outraged as he saw the success of his rivals mount. Here in Saadena, just as in Tedaka, the secrets Neril had shared with her friends had brought them profit.



"I think we should consider accepting some grain and fruit vouchers in return for selan," King Eliat suggested with a timid look at his imperious mate.



"I will trade for vouchers to feed my court, and consider your suggestion about the other matter," Challan granted. She signed the chits for the transfer of selan to the Mareklans then nodded to Neragon. "Return tomorrow and I will tell you if I want to accept more of your vouchers in trade for additional selan." She stood and walked out of the hall with Ayarlan and Dramnine at her heels.



The merchants rose and followed the steward who led them to the storage room. They waited while he made his way through an intricate set of locks that guarded the contents. When they finally made their way out of the palace with the selan they had exchanged for the frivolities that tempted the queen Geran began to argue that the profits should be split with him and his cronies who he felt had somehow been cheated.



As soon as the merchants left the audience room, Prince Carnat slid away through the alcove and into a hidden and forgotten servant passage. With none to observe him and remark on the sudden change from listlessness to alertness, he hurried to his room.



From his early childhood, neglected by his mother and only occasionally watched by the palace chaplain, Fedder, who had been given the duty of instructing him, he had wandered through the ancient structure almost unimpeded, finding the secret passages of the palace. The complex structure, a blend of ancient halls and towers that had survived the earthquake that had ruined the city and the more recent additions carried out by Marnat offered nearly endless opportunities for exploration. It was thus that he had discovered the hidden garden where he had trapped Neril.

.



When he gained the privacy of his apartment, he pulled a dark, hooded cloak over his royal robes and released the catch on a door hidden behind an ancient tapestry. He raced down the narrow stairs that led to a small door near the palace wall and waited in the darkness for the merchants to pass by. Soon he heard the great bronze doors of the palace boom behind them.



"The queen is a fool," Geran said as they left the palace.



"Yes, but not such a fool that she doesn't understand the value of her product. Since men first discovered the properties of selan, they have tried to grow it as they would any other crop. It grew only in the clefts of weathered desert rocks. All efforts to cultivate it failed until it was found that it grew on the stones of fallen Saadena," Neragon said.



"In the reign of Eliat's father he kept a garden to grow food for the harvesters and we traded grain and fruit vouchers for selan," Sergon said. "In those days the people were poor, but no more than many in Okisdu. Since the old king died and Challan usurped Eliat's rule poverty has become thralldom. There is great evil in this place."



"It's good we didn't bring Neril with us," Geran said. "The Saadenan court is no place for an innocent maiden. She would have been corrupted by that sorry lot."



Sergon sniffed his disgust at the suggestion. "Neril would be more likely to bring a breath of fresh air into the court."



Carnat smiled at the elder's assessment of his captive. He turned aside into a path that led him around the group of merchants and hurried until he met them as they neared the camp. The shadow of his hooded cloak concealed his face as he spoke with the common accent of a Saadenan harvester. His hurry to meet them coming up the hill left him breathless and aided his ruse.



"If you are the Marekla merchants who have camped just beyond, I must warn you. I have seen dark robes of Orqu's priests in your camp earlier this night," he gasped. "I heard a woman scream and the priests hurried away toward the north."



His news resulted in shocked looks and cries of outrage. Geran seized Carnat by the arm. "What does this mean? Why didn't you stop them! She is mine!" His threats and questions gave no time for any answer.



"Come," Neragon snapped. He grabbed the arm that Geran had raised in threat and tugged him back. "We must see to Neril." The merchants did not stop to ask any further questions but ran past the prince to discover the truth of his report.



As the merchants dashed for their camp, Carnat ducked behind a ruined wall and scurried back to the palace. He easily evaded the notice of a squad of mercenaries who were executing a showy change of guard at the eastern gate and returned to his room. Excitement about the captive girl waiting in his garden banished sleep. He tossed and turned in his bed of tarnished gilt and worn linen while he waited for morning.



At the Marekla camp, once their fears for Neril were confirmed, Geran insisted that they immediately pursue the kidnappers. "We must find them before they can harm her," he urged as he took up his staff and headed for the north road, his friends following behind.



Sergon bent his efforts to finding the informer who told them about the abduction. He regretted that Geran's abrasive assault on the man had dissuaded him from following through with questions of his own. Neril's staff lay on the floor` in the corner of the tent and there were no signs of struggle. He sniffed the air and searched the ground and found no trace of any substance that might have numbed her awareness. Her mitts had been laid aside. One of them still held the needle and thread she had used in her mending. He'd spent too much time with Neril to think that she would be fooled into going willingly with the cultists or fail to hear the approach of an intruder.



The guards and troops who manned the walls of the palace were louts who only offered excuses and insults when they were asked what they had seen. He questioned the few Saadenan harvesters he found but none of them could affirm the story told by the first informant. Several of them seemed afraid to talk to him. The fear in their eyes suggested that they had seen something but couldn't or wouldn't say what it had been.



After hours of futile searching, Geran and his friends returned to the camp site. Docanen argued that they might have done better to wait until morning instead of heading off into the night. Thalon agreed, "Now that we have the light of the sun to aid us, there is no hope of finding a clear trail because of the confusion of footprints you left."



"We wouldn't be searching for her if she hadn't come on the trek," Geran shouted in frustration. "I have been against this folly from the beginning."



"We have no choice but to conclude our trading agreement and take the trail for Jama," Neragon said wearily. "That seems the most likely destination of the Orquians. Pack up and be prepared to leave when I return from the palace," His face was haggard with fear over the fate of his daughter. The others agreed to his plan with a gesture of assent.



Sergon and Neragon returned to the palace with the grain and fruit vouchers. While they waited for Challan's reply to their offer, several of the courtiers made trades. The palace chaplain asked if they had any Timoran ink and settled reluctantly for a packet of dried snake meat instead.



Sergon followed the old priest when he left the anteroom. "I am curious sir, there seems to be no ritual fountain in this city. Where do your people receive the Renewal Washing? I know that none of them go to Timora."



Fedder stopped and blinked at Sergon. The subtle patterns of the Mareklan elder's wrist guards revealed his special standing to the chaplain. Initiates to the order of royal chaplaincy were taught to recognize the signs that should summon their obedience. Fedder hesitated. Years ago he had made solemn oaths and given promises, but for too long his life had been dominated by Challan.



"The queen diverted the waters from the ritual pool and declared that all her people are free of sin because the harvesting of Selan makes them as innocent as little children. Therefore, they do not require the rite of purification when they come of age." The priest averted his eyes as he gave the explanation. "I came to Saadena to serve the royal family. The harvesters are no concern of mine."



"A priest worthy of his queen," Sergon remarked with eyes as chill as Janakan glaciers. He turned his back on the shabby chaplain and returned to the anteroom.



Neragon glared at the steward who had promised to deliver his message to Challan, resenting every moment of delay. Another servant entered the room and whispered to Jargin who then turned to Neragon. "Queen Challan is too busy to trade with you this morning. If you come back this afternoon, she may find time to speak to you."



Disgusted at the delay Neragon turned and summoned Sergon to join him. "We cannot wait upon Challan's whim while every hour carries Neril further from us."



They quickly left the palace and joined the other Mareklans who had broken camp while their leaders were absent. Even Garen kept silent as the grim group of men took the north trail. Sergon moved his lips in silent prayer. Let them find Neril before too late.



Carnat struggled to keep a smile of triumph from his face as he watched his mother tell the steward she was too busy to trade with the merchants that morning. Ayarlan glanced at him, "What are you smirking about?" she whined.



He ignored his cousin and hurried to the roof of the tower from which he had first seen the caravan enter the valley. As he had hoped, they didn't wait after receiving Challan's answer. With a mounting sense of triumph, he watched them leave the valley.



He had bested some of the most clever men in Okishdu. He had deceived his mother and Ayarlan. He ate from his hoard of stolen food and planned his day. He seldom needed to make plans. Most days he woke late then wandered aimlessly through the palace, spending part of his time stealing food and part of his time looking for reading matter in the neglected imperial library. Now he had a purpose. He made an effort to assume his customary slouch as he walked along the corridor toward the living quarters.



His mother called to him as he passed the hall where she and Ayarlan were arguing over the glittering goods the Mareklans had traded for selan. Challan extended a hand holding a new gown she had discarded in favor of the more opulent fabric obtained in trade. "Take this to the housekeeper and have her make it into a bridal tunic for your wedding. For at least one day Ayarlan deserves something better than a ragged ruffian." With no further notice of her son, the queen turned back to her argument with her favorite.



As a boy Carnat had been jealous of his mother's attention to his skinny cousin. Now he felt only relief as he left them. With their attention diverted to their recent purchases they would offer no interference to the plan that had been growing in his imagination since he first realized he had succeeded in misleading the Mareklan merchants. He fondled the zylka cloth of the gown and wondered how it would look on Neril in place of the weathered tunic she wore.



At first he had only thought to visit with the Mareklan maiden after his curiosity had driven him to seek her out. He had not decided to trap her until she was in the garden and he saw how easy it would be to close the door while she was fascinated by the flowers. His eyes glittered with laughter at the thought of the way he could use his captive to deal a blow to the proud women who dominated his life.



He would go to her and offer marriage. It might take time for him to convince her, but when she realized that her friends were gone and she needed his protection, he felt confident she would agree. He smiled as he planned how he would meet her anger with cozening words culled from a collection of ancient poetry. It should be simple to convince her that she must marry him. The new gown his mother had discarded in favor of garish finery would serve as her wedding dress.



"Neril, " he muttered to himself, testing the name he had heard the Mareklans use. He repeated the name again several times as he approached the hidden entrance with his gift of bridal finery. He would greet her by name when he entered the garden.



When he tripped the secret latch and cautiously opened the door, Carnat expected to confront an angry woman. Only the gurgle of falling water from the fountain murmuring in the midst of the garden and the buzz of insects busy collecting nectar broke the silence. Glancing around to see where she might be hiding, he saw the ragged gap left in the greenery that cloaked the walls.



His heart jumped within him when he guessed the cause. Fearfully, he ran to find the silent form of Neril at the base of the wall, her left leg bent at an unnatural angle and a great bruise staining her brow. Her pallid face chilled his heart. He bent over her to see if she still breathed and saw the pulse beating faintly in her throat. She moaned and tossed her head.



Soon she would be awake and in terrible pain. He recalled the concentrated drugs and mixtures of dass with selan his mother kept in her workshop. At least he could spare Neril the agony of her injuries. He hurried from the garden and went to get the drugs. Challan and Ayarlan were usually in the workshop at this hour and he would have had to wait until they left to take their noon meal. They did not eat where the drugs they prepared could contaminate their food. That was saved for others such as the king and the prince who must be kept compliant.



Carnat sneered at their carelessness in leaving the room unguarded while they diverted their attention to wedding preparations. After glancing around to make certain no one saw him, he hurried into the workshop.



Fearing he had already waited too long to drug Neril and ease her pain, he frantically worked at the lock of a drawer where they kept a supply of the potent compound. After the lock finally yielded to manipulation with his narrow knife, he scraped a supply of the drug from the under surface of the block where his depredation would not be noticed. After restoring the lock and looking around to make certain that he left no sign of his intrusion in the workshop, he returned to his room to prepare a tincture of the drug in wine that should wipe away any pain his captive suffered.



It seemed that he had never moved so fast with such deliberation. Less than an hour had passed when he entered the garden again and found his captive still unconscious. He removed his sash and moistened it in the fountain then tenderly cradled Neril's head. As he dabbed at the blood seeping from the middle of the bruise, she moaned again. He reached into his tunic for the flask of tincture he had made and poured it into a cup.



Neril woke to a world of pain. The only thought she had was to get relief from the misery that gripped her. The man from her dreams, or was it her captor, her mind seemed unable to focus, hovered over her and offered her a drink of something cool and pungent.



"This will help," he said. She could barely nod before raising her hand to steady the cup he held to her lips. The relief came quickly. She felt the dulling of the edges of pain and hardly noticed that the edges of her reason dulled as well. She closed her eyes again and began to breathe slowly as the pain washed away and left her feeling free of all sensation. She knew only gratitude for the ease the man had given her.



Carnat could from her expression that the pain had eased, but it would return whenever the drug wore off. Her leg would have to be set and her other injuries tended. Until she began to heal, he would continue to give her the potent tincture.



Carnat didn't want Neril to be will-ess and crippled. He wanted her whole, but compliant to his wishes. He had planned to fetch the priest to marry them as soon as she agreed to marry him. Now Fedder was the only person he could think of who would help him find a way to heal her injuries.



The palace chaplain raised his eyebrows with surprise when Carnat entered his chapel. Challan had forbidden him to speak to Carnat except in her presence when she found that her young son had begun to seek out the priest after their lessons were over. Although she didn't care for the child herself, she wanted no other to come first in his affections.



"Come, I want you to perform a marriage," Carnat demanded.



"But you are not to marry Ayarlan until the end of the full moon, and I hardly thought you were eager for the event," the old man joked with feeble humor while he rolled up one of the scrolls that occupied most of his time. "I am surprised to see you so eager to marry Ayarlan, or has your mother snared you with her dream of restoring Saadena's power?"



"I'm not marrying my cousin. Follow me and do as I say," Carnat said.



His interest caught by curiosity, Fedder decided to humor Carnat. "Wait here while I dress myself in appropriate robes for the ceremony." the priest said. He gathered up the moth-eaten robe from a hook near the door and took the scroll of ceremony from its case near the altar. He returned, trying to look dignified in spite of the toe that stuck out of one of his shabby slippers.



When Carnat began to lead him out of the palace he balked. "Surely you don't plan to marry a selan harvester. They are barely human."



"Follow me and you will see soon enough that I have found a worthy bride," Carnat assured him.



The prince stopped in front of a wall whose height stretched high above them. When he triggered the hidden latch and led Fedder into the garden, the old priest smiled with delight at the unaccustomed sight of flowers and running water.



"You are not the witless, sycophant you seem. It took cunning to conceal this green oasis from your mother and her steward."



Fedder knelt by the fountain and trailed his fingers across the shining surface of the water until Carnat drew his attention to the body lying near the base of the wall.



"Is she dead?" He wheezed fearfully, struggling to his feet and backing away from the pallid figure.



"No, she's only sleeping!" Carnat insisted. "Do you know anything about setting broken legs?"



Fedder noticed the faint flutter of a pulse in the girl's throat and realized that she still lived. "I can bring Mirin, she knows about such things. I think she will be willing to help,"



Carnat shook his head. "She is my mother's factor with the Harvesters, she will tell Challan about the garden and the girl."



Fedder lifted his hand toward the angry bruise on Neril's forehead. "Mirin is a healer and she loathes your mother and everything she stands for. She only acts as Challan's factor because she can stop the worst abuses of her people. You will need two witnesses to ensure that your marriage has legal force. Mirin has a couple of daughters."



"Go then," Carnat urged. "Bring the woman and her daughters. Do what you must to heal my bride and perform a marriage as soon as possible."



He led the priest to the wall and showed him how to press his foot against a carved stone at the foot of the panel while pushing the carved blossom that released the latch. Once Fedder shut the portal Carnat returned to keep watch over Neril.



When she woke, Neril gazed around and smiled at him. To make sure of her compliance when the priest returned he offered her another dose of the tincture. She smiled at him with the innocence of a young child and lifted the cup to her lips. Then she rested quietly in his arms while he waited for Fedder to return with the healer and her daughters.



Neril couldn't recall being tricked and imprisoned. The golden eyed prince and the lovelygarden seemed part of a dream, the same dream that had tantalized and troubled her for weeks. Time passed in disjointed confusion to her fuddled senses. She felt the hands of the healer tugging her leg into alignment and wrapping it with a splint, but she felt no pain.



The colors and scents of the garden and the worried face of Carnat as he leaned anxiously over her blended in her mind and she gazed into his golden eyes and felt she loved him.



While Fedder instructed Carnat in the responses of the ceremony in another part of the garden, Mirin and her older daughter Kana removed the belt and torn tunic from Neril and eased the journey boots from her feet before washing away the blood and soil that stained her skin. They dressed her in the gown provided by Carnat and Nara wove a wreath of blossoms and set it on the dark hair which lay loose across Neril's shoulders. Mirin folded the belt and boots into the tunic and put them in the ample pouch she carried on her belt



When Fedder and Carnat returned the old priest asked Neril to repeat the responses of a marriage ceremony, she complied with a dazed smile that included Mirin and her daughters. Remembering how quick and bright she had been when he had led her into the garden, Carnat felt a moment of guilt, then his sense of triumph in spoiling his mother's plans for his marriage to Ayarlan, banished his regret.



After signing her mark on the marriage document Mirin put her arms around her daughters and walked back to the simple shelter they shared, a tiny set of rooms tucked outside the northern wall of the palace. A steep ramp separated her humble dwelling from the refinery where she oversaw the separation of selan spores from the moldy growth the harvesters provided.



Her home was little better than a cavity in the ancient wall but it provded a haven that kept her daughters from the miasma of selan that filled the valley.



"There is something strange about the way the Mareklan responded to my treatment," Mirin mused. "I have never seen a dose of selan so completely ease such a serious injury. Carnat must have access to his mother's secrets," she said.



"I'm surprised the queen let him marry her," Nara said. "I thought she planned for him to marry her niece, Ayarlan,"



"I'm certain Challan has no suspicion of what took place today. When she finds out that she has been duped Carnat will feel her wrath."



Fedder returned to the chapel and tried to forget his part in the events in the garden. He avoided thinking about the hasty wedding, the glazed look on the face of the bride. He chose to think about the damage Carnat had done to the ambitions of Challan and Ayarlan. He chuckled with spiteful glee at the thought of their disappointment when Carnat showed them the proof of his marriage to Neril.



Chapter 11 Rescue





Neragon led the Marekla Merchants away from the ruins of Saadena with a grim face filled with dread. The ring that had caught Neril's knife bore awful witness that the men who had ambushed them less than a week before were devotees of the demon Orqu. He had no doubt that the band had followed them to Saadena and waited until he had left her alone and unprotected.



The same thought haunted everyone but Sergon. From his rearguard position in the line of men, the elder took a final look over the once-proud seat of the Saadenan empire. A flicker of movement in the highest tower of the New Palace caught his notice. He detected the russet gleam of the harsh sun reflected from the hair of the prince of Saadena. None other had those flaming locks that betrayed a true son of Elianin.



Had the prince been the mysterious messenger who brought word of the abduction? The informer had been hooded in the ragged cloak of a selan harvester, but his feet had been shod in elegant if shabby boots.



His feet slipped on the loose stone of the hillside, bringing Sergon back from his speculations to pay attention to the task at hand. The probability of rescuing Neril diminished with each hour. The Orquians who had invaded their camp outside of Tedaka had avoided the trap Anget had set for them in Timora. If they had returned and taken Neril, they would keep her alive, most likely drugged with docil or selan, until they could bring her to one of their principal altars for a ritual sacrifice.



The troop headed northwest on the Jama road, caring nothing for the normal precautions practiced by Marekla's merchants. Most of them hoped they would meet opposition, preferably the demon's dogs who had taken Neril. Geran strode ahead, his eyes gleaming with vindication. He had warned Neragon against bringing his daughter on trek. He had known something like this would happen. Neril would be his wife once she was rescued, but he would never let her forget her folly.



He could see the scene of rescue in his mind. They would have removed her belt and boots and stretched her slender neck over the altar where the trench for taking away her life's blood bisected the stone. The ax would be raised, the knife for removing her heart ready in the hands of the dark-robed priest.



At that moment Geran would burst on the scene, his staff a blur of movement as he knocked the villains senseless. Neril would turn to him as she had the night he had killed the viper that meant to strike her ankle. That time she had drawn back and only given him the scented sand in gratitude. This time she would fall into his arms and apologize abjectly for every humiliation she had dealt him.



Geran's daydream made him careless of his steps. He tripped over a gnarled root of oil bush and stumbled awkwardly. Feton giggled and Geran swung toward him with a murderous glare. Why were all his cronies fools and knaves? He yearned for the friendship of Thalon and the approval of Sergon, but Neril had turned them both against him. She would pay for that after they married.



Belil was right about her stepdaughter, she needed subduing. His emotions toward Neril vacillated between the desire to be the only owner of her beauty, and the desire to punish her. Both would be his right when they were wed. He dwelt on the thought as they jogged on through the long day.



"It has grown too dark to travel any further tonight," Neragon announced when he raised his hand to halt the others. "The road is broken and if someone is injured it will cause a greater delay than if we take our rest. It is another day's march to Jama the nearest city with an altar of Orqu."



Geran grumbled at the delay, but the swift advance from Saadena had taken its toll of his body. He had spent the night before in a futile hunt for Neril's abductors. His ankle ached from his stumble. He recalled the tender way Neril had cared for Thalon's ankle when the big man had fallen on the trail out of the Homeplace. He wished it had been he who had made the nearly fatal misstep. Perhaps the whole humiliating episode that had followed afterward could have been avoided.



It had been a mistake to challenge Thalon and accept Sergon in his stead. Who could have guessed that the old man would have it in him to destroy two staffs and put bruises on every part of Geran's body but his head? The illegal blow aimed at Sergon's head had been another mistake. Geran caught the direction of his thoughts and shifted away from any cause for self-blame. None of his humiliation would have occurred without Neril's presence on the trek. He continued to find ways to blame Neril for all of his misfortunes and by the time he finished eating the evening meal he had fully mended his sense of self-righteous indignation.



The urgency of their march prevented any lingering before they slept. Neragon forbade them to light a campfire before Sergon performed the night ritual. They wrapped in their sleeping skins and fell into the profound slumber their exhausting day had brought.



Sergon stood first watch. The familiar sound of the wind sighing through the branches of oil bush and the scent of the desert plant brought his thoughts to Neril. He fingered the packet of scented sand that had been her gift to him on the second day of the trek. By then she had killed a pit viper and defended herself effectively against an attack by three men while she stood watch. He reviewed her physical courage and alertness. She been alert to the dangers of the trail and helped kill a serpent that could swallow a man. She had wounded the man who had tried to abduct her from the camp outside Tedaka. Could such a woman be taken with no signs of a struggle?



Sergon recalled the scene in the tent. Everything had been neat and undisturbed. Her staff lay within easy reach. Her mitts, the needle still lodged in the mended tear, had been laid aside as one might do if interrupted while working. The orb of bejeweled metal work that he had given her remained tucked into her pack along with a set of spare clothing and a few things she had reserved as gifts. Sergon considered a theory that had been working in his mind since he caught sight of Prince Carnat's russet head on the tower of Saadena's palace.



It had been tempting to dismiss the prince as a shambling dullard like his father,King Eliat. Sergon suspected that the older man was kept drugged, but as he observed the prince during dinner he had noticed that he ate none of the food set before him. He had only lifted the wine cup to his mouth when his mother's eyes fell on him. When he had stood early in the meal and taken his leave, his movements had been awkward until he reached the corridor beyond sight of Queen Challan or his intended bride, Ayarlan. Then he had shed his scuffling tread like a cloak and swiftly moved into the darkness with the grace of a wild cat.



When Carnat had returned to the table some time later with a gesture that broadcast that the reason for his absence had been nothing more than an urgent bladder, there had been a gleam of feral excitement in his eyes, quickly covered by a mask of lethargy. He had been gone during most of the prolonged meal. When his mother had taken exception to Geran's rudeness to her niece and abruptly ended the meal, the prince had lingered to scavenge from the food set before the queen and her favorites.



His movements had been sly and exact, belying his dullard act. Later, while they had negotiated with the queen for the sale of selan, the prince had stood in an alcove observing the merchants. He had chosen a vantage point that protected him from sight of both the punctilious officers of the palace guard and their rigid troops.



To Sergon's senses the prince had appeared like a burning brand of heightened emotion. Amusement, anticipation, or a glare of hatred lit his face whenever queen Challan or Ayarlan spoke.



As he added up the evidence of his observations Sergon began to feel a certainty that Prince Carnat had somehow lured Neril from the tent without alerting her suspicion, then he had disguised himself in the cloak of a harvester and misled the Mareklans with a tale of seeing priests in dark robes and hearing a woman scream. As soon as Sergon put all the evidence together, he realized its truth. Now he had to decide what he should do with the knowledge.



One of the men mumbled in his sleep. Sergon walked over and saw that Geran writhed on his sleeping skin as if in the grip of a foul dream. his face screwed up in a scowl as he grunted a name: "Neril."



Another man might have taken it as a sign of anxiety of a suitor fearing for the life of his beloved, but Sergon had seen the glowering looks that Geran often bent on his intended wife.



Sergon walked away from the camp to the bounds of his watch. He needed to be away from the other merchants where their dreams would not disturb his meditations. He brought the ritual shawl over his head and prepared his mind and heart for his prayers. His companions on the trek seemed forgetful of the fact that Sergon was one of three men who had the right to inherit the office of High Priest of Okishdu.



The right came by lineage through his fathers to the first son of Irilik, and through his mothers to the prophet's oldest daughter. Sergon, by right, could have headed the Sacred Council in Timora. Only Manchek, the former king of Zedekla, and Neril's grandfather, Elkadon, had equal right to the responsibilities incumbent on the office.



Someday soon, one of them would have to accept that burden. Elkadon would never leave the Homeplace if it meant he could not take his beloved wife, Sericil. Until now Sergon had preferred to carry on as a Mareklan merchant, hoping that Manchek would be the man chosen to fill the prophet's role. Perhaps his own reluctance to step forward and accept the office had been more than a selfish wish to avoid responsibility. Perhaps it was for this moment that he had continued as a merchant.



The subtle sounds of wind and nocturnal animals dimmed in his consciousness as he reached for knowledge. No answer came and he knew what he must do. First he must decide whether to tell Neragon that Neril had been taken captive by Prince Carnat in Saadena, or keep the knowledge secret. The Radiance required him to bear the burden of the decision.



He examined the evidence. If he told Neragon and they returned to Marekla with Neril, she would have to marry Geran. She would become the daughter-in-law of Gidkil, a slattern who would use her daughter-in-law as a servant. Neril would never have privacy. When Geran went on trek she would be required to spend every moment with his family.



Sergon had watched the fate of Yeshil, the wife of Geran's older brother with sorrow. The girl had become hollow-eyed and hopeless, a sad wraith of the laughing girl she had been before her marriage. Neril would be tougher, but the streak of viciousness in Geran's family might only be exacerbated by her sturdy spirit. She would never venture forth from the palisaded valley again and the words the Seeress had spoken to her would not come to pass.



Neril's fate, if she were left in the custody of the prince of Saadena, was not so easy to predict. Most would say he was the dullard prince of the decadent court, futile heir of a fallen empire. He was betrothed to a girl with no sense of modesty or virtue and his mother was so greedy that she denied even the rites of Renewal Washing to the selan harvesters she enslaved.



If Neril returned to the Homeplace she would be honorably, if not comfortably married. It seemed the safer choice, but Sergon rejected it. "She will stay in Saadena," he murmured. Then he once again reached out with his soul and felt a flow of benediction. The spirit of the Radiance had never before been so powerful. A vision of the months ahead showed both promise and threat. As he witnessed what the presence of Neril would bring to the harvesters his heart lifted. As always the foresight could not be exact in terms of time or place, but the task the Seeress had given her would be accomplished if she remained in Saadena.



Then a fleeting image seared itself into his mind and shocked him from his meditation. Before it faded, he turned back toward the camp with the impulse to wake Neragon and order him to return to Saadena with the full authority of his neglected office. He hurried back to the camp and once again heard the troubled muttering of Geran as he gave vent to his twisted dreams. "Beat her, Mother. Neril heeds no language but the lash."



The ugly words stopped Sergon short. He would not wake Neragon. He must keep to his decision. He walked back to his post with a weary knowledge that he could not reveal his insights to the others. Perhaps he could intervene with the fate of Neril after she had fulfilled the words of the Seeress. Perhaps that was the reason he had been given that brief glance of what might come to her.



The signal of the midnight watch ready to replace him ended Sergon's speculation. He walked back to his sleeping skin with a gesture for his replacement that he had nothing to report. Sleep came quickly with no dreams to disturb his rest. He woke refreshed and ready for another day of rapid travel along the road to Jama. The others felt the urgency of their errand and none of them noticed his solemn expression.



Violet and crimson clouds, lit by a sullen orange sun on the horizon greeted them when they topped a rise and saw the low buildings of Jama cupped in the shallow valley below. The smoke of cook fires drifted upward then eastward on the evening breeze.



As they descended down the track toward the city the musky scent of Jama teased their noses with a combination of pungent odors. Wood was precious here, reserved for furniture and looms. Charcoal from Taleeka fueled fires for the wealthy. Others used dried dung to cook their food and warm the night. Each gave a distinctive note to the blend of smoke and spice that scented the air. The distinctive smell of spicy Janakan barbecue predominated and the Mareklans hurried their steps as hunger joined anxiety for Neril in driving them toward the city.



There were rebellious murmurs when Neragon called a halt. "If we go into Jama in force, we will be met by the Pontic's guard. Our quarry will be warned and have time to escape. The Orquians perform their rituals at night. Sergon, Thalon and Geran will join me. The rest of you will make camp here. No cook fires, cold rations only."



Feton gave a cry of anguish at his leader's words. Sergon almost smiled at the youth's woeful face, but he schooled his features and joined the other men Neragon had chosen to go into the city.



Jama revealed its character best at sunset. The lurid scarlet of the sun's last light tinted the reddened cheeks and painted mouths of Jama's harlots a deeper crimson. The flaring torches at the entrances of gambling dens danced in the evening breeze. There was a heat in Jama that owed more to the dispositions of her inhabitants and visitors than it did to forces of nature. The city had been founded on vice, and vice remained its primary product. The cloying stench of burning dass mingled with the spicy odors of Janakan barbecue and steaming Kumnoran beer.



The light was dim but not so dim that the passage of the Mareklans went unnoticed. Soon they had gathered a trail of customers eager for the rare goods only Mareklans sold. "We must find an inn and make preparations for the night," Neragon said as he turned away an offer of gold for his cloak.



He noticed Geran's gaze fastened on the painted face of a harlot and spoke a sharp word of reproof. The keeper of a gambling den ran backwards in front of them. "Come, try your skill, triple your profits. Game for gold or the favors of my women."



Thalon extended his staff and swept the man to the side. Then he turned to Neragon. "I think we should visit Tirka at the Shrine and see what news he has."



Neragon nodded. The harlots and gamblers who dogged their steps would leave them when they entered the Shrine of the Radiance. They turned into the street reserved for religion and saw the shrine set incongruously close to the dark mass of the squat pyramid that held the altar of Orqu. Perhaps its setting among the tawdry ornamentation of Jama's other buildings made the white face of the shrine gleam so pure. Gleaming mosaics in shades of cream and white covered the outer wall with delicate traceries of blue and red and gold around the door and windows.



"I didn't know there is a Shrine in Jama," Geran said. "Surely it wasted funds to build it here where only sinners live."



"Tirka made the shrine himself, with the help of his wife and sons," Sergon replied. "It is built of sun-dried bricks like the other buildings of Jama. Only the Pontic can afford to build with stone. Tirka and his family dug crockery shards from discard heaps and made the mosaic patterns. The Pontic donated the triple spire and bronze doors when he saw would be a credit to his city."



The ribald laughter and raucous music of Jama were muted when the Mareklans entered the shrine. After the doors swung shut behind them and closed with a ringing clang near silence reigned. They stood in the prayer hall, the glowing globe symbolic of the Radiance lighting their faces with pale purity. Most of them bowed their heads, inspired by their surroundings to meditate or pray, but Geran looked around and gave a snort of disdainful laughter. "This is a poor imitation of a real shrine," he muttered.



Sergon felt tempted to give the arrogant youth a sound thumping with his staff. He could hear the uneven gait of his old friend Tirka hurrying along corridor from the living quarters behind the shrine and decided he could not sully this sacred place with violence.



Tirka bustled toward the Mareklans, his square Tedakan face bisected by a grin of welcome. He grabbed Sergon by his wiry waist and swung him around. "Old Goat," the holy man roared, "When are you going to stop acting like a boy and take your proper place on the Sacred Council in Timora?"



"When you learn to restrain your appetite for meat stuffed matlas," Sergon said with a laugh as he playfully punched the Tedakan's ample middle.



"We are in a Shrine!" Geran admonished the elders.



Thalon laughed and cuffed the younger man. "Tirka built this shrine with his own hands. Somehow he has convinced the Jamans to support it and the orphanage next door. That tells you what he is. The Radiance welcomes the laughter of saints."



Tirka led them through the prayer hall into his quarters behind the Shrine. "What brings you to the fleshpots of Jama?" he asked after he had seated them and began to serve them a meal.



"My daughter, Neril, was abducted from our camp in Saadena two days ago," Neragon said, his face haggard with grief. "An informant told us he had seen Orquians and heard her scream. We thought they might have brought her here to Jama."



Tirka shook his head. "I keep watch on the servants of the blood altar. At this time here are two of them. A Kumnoran herdsman sold them a huge packet of dass a week ago. Since that time, Darvad and Edgerd have rarely risen from their dreaming couches. Their sacrificial knives and axes are rusty with disuse. The last blood feast took place six weeks ago when they killed a skinny corum bull."



"What of their visitors?" Geran asked.



"There have been none except a few beggarly gamblers who are too ashamed to seek alms here."



"Then we must seek them in Janaka," Neragon said.



"King Tagun has banned the cult from Janaka," Tirka reminded him.



Neragon turned his head from side to side like a man facing a blank wall seeking an exit. The tragic set of his features almost drove Sergon to reveal what he knew about Neril. Then Geran spoke up and guaranteed the elder's silence.



"When we find her, you should beat her for causing so much trouble. Once we are married, I can promise she will be closely guarded and swiftly punished. I will not make the mistake of sparing the rod for her impertinence."



"If we do find her safe, I certainly won't punish her for being abducted!" Neragon snapped. "And once you are married, I expect you to treat her gently."



Geran flushed with anger but he had the sense to bite back his reply. Thalon stood and stretched. "We should return to the camp now if there is no hope of finding Neril here in Jama."



"Please stay with me in the shrine tonight," Tirka entreated them. "The streets of Jama are filled with peril for decent men once the sun goes down. Perhaps we can put our heads together and discover the probable destination of the abductors. Jama is a sewer after dark, but there are those who are willing to sell what they know. I doubt her captors would sacrifice Neril until they reach one of their principal altars. They might even dare to take her to Zedekla."



Sergon remained silent. He couldn't bring himself to supply false leads even though he concealed the truth. Tirka left them to speculate and returned nearly an hour later. He wore a look of satisfaction. "It seems there was a gathering of the southern branch of the cult in Timora and all of their priests were imprisoned. I didn't find out the details, but my informant tells me that it put a scare into the cultists of Orqu and they are keeping a low profile everywhere in Okishdu. Only the Orenese temple is still holding blood feasts."



"Neril was the cause of the gathering in Timora that you heard about," Neragon said. "A band who escaped the Peace Guardian's trap followed us. They tried to ambush us on the trail and take Neril, but they failed. They must have guessed our destination and arrived in Saadena ahead of us. Then they watched and waited until we left Neril alone." He glanced at Geran accusingly. It had been Geran who had urged Neragon to leave his daughter alone in the tent when they went to the palace.



"It would seem that we should split our troop of merchants into three," Thalon said. "Three men could return to Marekla and tell the council what has happened. That would leave two larger groups to search for Neril. We can't give up until we know for certain what happened to her."



Neragon nodded. "We will accept Tirka's offer of sleeping space. Tomorrow I will follow your advice as soon as we join the rest of the troop. Geran, Feton, and Sergon should be the ones to take the news to the Homeplace. I will lead one troop of men southwest to Zedekla and you, Thalon, will lead the other troop to Orenon. We will be able to trade selan in both cities for a good profit as a cover for our real intent."



"What about the fruit and grain vouchers Queen Challan refused to take in trade for selan?" Sergon reminded the trek chief.



"I'll give them to Tirka as an offering," Neragon said after a moment of consideration, "Surely he is a saint to establish this house of prayer in the midst of Jama's moral swamp. I'll take it out of my share of the profits. Perhaps the Radiance will smile on our efforts to recover Neril."



Sergon and Thalon quickly volunteered to share the offering from their own portions but Geran remained silent. After all, Neril's tricks with her staff had caused him to pay a heavy fine. He could hardly afford to make the gesture of an offering to Tirka when he expected to set up a household in the Homeplace. A niggling remnant of conscience reminded him that he planned to house Neril with his mother once they were wed, but he swiftly quelled the thought.



He waited impatiently while Sergon performed the night ritual and the other men fell asleep. Tirka had not offered them private rooms, but Geran only pretended to fall asleep. At last he heard the trio of whistled breathes that signaled that the others were sleeping. He gathered his boots and belt and crawled from the room, biting back a curse when his head met the edge of the doorway.



Once in the hallway, he stood and quickly found the exit to the rear alley. He opened the door only wide enough to slide through. Excitement curled in his belly and set his heart thudding in his chest. He told himself that he was going out into the city to find better information than Tirka had been able to retrieve, but his imagination fixed on a picture of himself taking up the offer of the owner of the gambling den. The skill in playing droka that was almost a birthright for Mareklans was unknown to others. It would be a simple thing to dupe the gamblers and return to Marekla with a fortune.



As midnight approached, the frantic beat of activity on the streets of Jama grew hectic. Rowdy teamsters and scar-faced mercenaries sang raucous songs and hurled genial insults. Pickpockets slid through the crowd harvesting belt pouches from careless revelers. Harlots teemed the way and hung from the overhead windows making a display of themselves. They called invitations to Geran. They wore tawdry brass chains and glass jewels that sparkled in the torch light. One girl boldly twined her arms around his neck and kissed him on the mouth. He flung her aside, feeling virtuous at resisting temptation, but enjoying the cry of pain when she fell and tore the fragile fabric of her gaudy, spangled skirt.



He shoved another girl away so hard that she bounced off a low wall, crumbling the top course of mud bricks. Soon he walked unencumbered as rumor of his nature went ahead of him. When he entered the largest gambling hall in Jama, the women within turned sullen eyes on him or simply turned away, but the owner greeted him with unctuous welcome. "What is your pleasure sir? Your first cup of wine or stick of docil root will be my gift."



Geran looked around and located the bench where two men sat on either side of a droka board. "What is that game in the corner," he asked disingenuously.



"That is the game of droka, but it is a game that requires great skill. We have tables for grat and weyyo which require less of the player."



"I'll watch the game until someone wins. Then I'll try my hand. I feel fortune is my friend tonight," Geran said.



He turned aside the tray of wine cups offered by a buxom waitress, but when another woman came by with a box of docil root he stopped her. A clawing excitement filled him. Docil, dass and wine were forbidden to Mareklans. But he was trying to earn the trust of these people so he could cheat them. Docil was said to sooth the mind while elevating attention. It could be useful to his plan.



He selected one of the dark, gnarled objects and put the end of it in his mouth. The slightly acrid taste as he sucked on it brought a in increase of saliva to his mouth but didn't seem to have any other effect. He wondered why the council had banned such an innocuous vice. He became absorbed in watching the game and hardly noticed when he stopped sucking at the root end and began to chew. Saliva flooded his mouth and he swallowed rapidly. The insidious excitement of participating in a forbidden vice intensified as the liquid entered his belly and filtered into his blood.



Not so innocuous after all, he thought as he registered the effect of the drug, but he didn't cast the root aside. He savored the alertness bestowed on his mind. Every object in the wide room seemed open to his gaze. He felt omniscient. He noticed that his hands and feet moved slowly in response to his will, but it seemed a small price to pay for the sense of alertness and power.



When the girl came by again, he dropped a coin in the box and took another root. One of the men at the droka board finally conceded and Geran moved to take his place. The winner glanced up at him and widened his eyes when he saw the young Mareklan with a docil root dangling from the corner of his mouth. It was a visual contradiction, like seeing a painted harlot in pilgrim robes. He would play a weak game and lose; the first time.



Geran had the same object in mind. When the game ended in a draw, they began again, their stakes laid with a more generous hand. Another buxom waitress passed with a tray of hot Kumnoran beer. Thirst guided Geran's choice. He dropped a coin on the tray and retrieved a cup. He made a face at the pungent taste of the hot beer, but it slaked the need for liquid to increase the flow of docil.



He played brilliantly. When the game ended the other man pushed his winnings into Geran's side of the stakes tray and got up from the bench shaking his head. Another man took his place. It was Urgit, son of the owner Uguck. Urgit watched the Mareklan take another swig of beer before buying another docil root. Only a fool or a novice would combine hot beer and docil, unless suicide was intended.

Urgit couldn't be certain what motivated his opponent. Mareklans were pitifully ignorant of the effects of various drugs, especially when used in combination. They refused to trade them and lost huge profits as a result. He had heard that a Mareklan girl had been abducted and that this bully was her betrothed. Perhaps she had simply run away. Somehow he didn't think the youth opposite him would commit suicide over a woman, so it had to be ignorance that led him to such folly.



The game proceeded as Urgit knew it must. He was too young to have developed skill at droka and the Mareklan had already demonstrated expert ability. He watched for the moment when the drug and the drink would have their final effect.



Geran's sense of exultation grew. He felt fire in his belly and watched his hands float slowly toward the droka board, but the play, when finally accomplished, was brilliant. He turned his eyes with an effort and saw everything intensified, the images so sharp they seemed to scrape his nerves. He saw a girl with a tray of wine cups approaching and lurched up from the bench to reach for her.



A small rush of activity near the door distracted him. Two women were entering the gambling hall. The host hurried toward them. Something about them teased Geran's memory but the girl with the wine cups was passing by and he lurched slowly after her. She swerved aside and he began to fall. The poisons in his belly clawed upward into his throat and erupted onto floor as it rose to meet him.



He could not bring his hands up to break the fall. His head hit the edge of the bench with an explosion of pain but he remained conscious as his nose plowed into the foul vomit. His eyes fixed immovably in front of him so he caught only a few glimpses of the men who carried him out of the gambling hall and dumped him in a narrow closet hardly big enough to hold him. They didn't bother to gag him against making noise, there was no need. His tongue was as unresponsive as his eyelids which would not close. His heart beat and his breath whistled in and out but any move that required an act of will was beyond him.



Sergon had watched Geran crawl out of the sleeping room and wondered why he was being so considerate of others if he only meant to relieve himself. As the minutes passed he realized Geran's intent. Carnat, the prince of Saadena had not taken so long when he had left his mother's table to abduct Neril. Sergon sighed and sat up. It did not surprise him that Geran wanted to prowl the streets of Jama after the others fell asleep. He leaned over Thalon and touched his shoulder.



The big man woke immediately, and seeing that it was Sergon who loomed over him in the semi-darkness, relaxed his hands. He rose and followed Sergon into the corridor where they would not disturb Neragon. "Geran is gone. At first I thought he only meant to use the privy, but he must be well on his way into trouble by now."



Thalon made a gesture. "We can't go into Jama at this time of night dressed in our Mareklan tunics, but what other choice do we have. We are oath-bound to defend our fellows. We must go after Geran, no matter how much he deserves to be abandoned to his folly."



Sergon smiled and rubbed the stubble of the beard he had shaved in Timora. He pulled the edge of his tunic up to reveal his knotted knees and took a mincing step. "Well, my darling daughter, Thalana, Tirka's wife Nerine was about your size and I suspect he still has a few of her gowns. They will be either gray or black, as befits a proper Tedakan matron, but I still have some of the gaudy goods we used for disguise when we left Timora."



They went to find Tirka who provided them with the clothing they requested and Sergon dressed himself as a widow. Few men would examine his crone-like appearance after a glance at Thalon, now dubbed Thalana. Little paint was needed to enhance his ruddy good looks. His dark eyelashes shadowed eyes enhanced to brilliance with subtle streaks of blue green powder. Sergon's artful draping of Nerine's dress and two round hanks of corum wool strategically placed above Thalon's narrow waist transformed the big Mareklan into a luscious amazon.



No Tedakan woman would dare the dens of Jama after dark, so Sergon created the illusion that they were Orenese. Gold-fringed veils hid their strong jaws and prominent Adam's apples and lines of kohl beneath their brows enhanced the lively sparkle of their eyes.



"We are wealthy widows of a Watcher who has been dead long enough that we are looking for a replacement," Sergon explained while he adjusted Thalon's veil. "That story will justify the black dresses but still make us seem worthy of courting. The Jamans respect wealthy prospective brides far more than any blushing maiden."



Apparently their disguise was so effective that no explanations were necessary. They stopped at an inn not far from the shrine and engaged a suite of rooms before proceeding on their errand. As soon as they began to walk through Jama, they were given a respectful reception. Men looked yearningly after the pulchritudinous giantess with their eyes, but a glimpse of the flint in the older woman's gaze kept them from calling out their thoughts. Harlots either turned away in sullen jealousy or yearned after them with nostalgic thoughts for what might have been if only their luck had been different.



Sergon led the way to the center of Jama where torches at the entrances to the dens of vice heated the night. He peered in the doorways as he passed. Then he stopped. "He's in here," he whispered urgently. Thalon followed him and saw Geran slowing groping after one of the bar maids. His aim missed and he cast up the contents of his stomach before dropping like a tree, his head bouncing off a bench as he fell.



In seconds two burly bouncers lifted him and carried him through the rear exit of the room. Thalon started after them but Sergon restrained him. "He'll keep."



The host of the gambling hall welcomed them fulsomely. After making a brief effort to clean the stains of a decade from the surface of their table with his apron he seated them. Then he ordered a servant to bring Janakan barbecue. At a glance he had read their wealth and origin, exactly as Sergon had intended.



"You have traveled far, fair ladies. We seldom see the widows of Orenese Watchers here in Jama." He intended them to be impressed with his insight. Sergon gave a tittering giggle and gestured for him to join them at the table. As soon as he took a seat, the Mareklan spread his net.



"My cousin Challan warned me to be wary of the wiles of Jaman men," the elder said in a falsetto voice.



Uguck gulped nervously, then hid his fear with an increase of unction. "You are related to the Saadenan queen?"



"Cousins. I had hoped to find a place for my sister-wife in Challan's court, but there is nothing there to interest such as Thalana," Sergon smirked. "By terms of our late husband's will, I am her guardian and will not receive my full portion of inheritance until I see her well wed."



Uguck regretted for a moment that his own wife was both sturdy and cautious and held the purse strings of his enterprise with her relation to the Pontic. Polygamy was frowned on in Jama. It interfered with the practice of harlotry when a desperate maid could choose the security of being a wife against the servitude of a brothel.



His eye fell on his son Urgit and he smiled. The boy was young but experienced with women. He should be able to charm the young widow. He caught Urgit's eye and signaled that he should join them.



"I noticed an unruly customer when I entered. Do you often have such problems?" Thalon asked. His tenor voice sounded low and seductive to his unsuspecting audience. Urgit leaned closer to the veiled woman. "He is a Mareklan. The fool mixed Kumnoran beer and docil root, the result was predictable."



"A Mareklan?" Sergon purred. "Surely no Mareklan would be out alone at night in Jama, let alone indulging in such a potent mixture."



"It was our good fortune," Uguck admitted. "I think his comrades will pay well for his return."



"I see you have a droka board," Thalon observed as if the subject of the foolish Mareklan held no further interest.



"You know how to play?" Urgit asked.



"I am somewhat expert," Thalon admitted in a deep alto voice that thrilled the Jaman youth. "I seldom find worthy opponents."



"My father is skilled at the game. Perhaps he would play with you."



"Of course I will," Uguck said expansively. "What will you wager?"



Thalon displayed one of the elegant filigree earrings he had planned to give his wife when he returned to the Homeplace. "I'll venture this, what will you put against it?"



Uguck reached into a pouch at his waist and displayed a ring. It was a good glass imitation of a Janakan sapphire signet. Anyone with less skill and experience than a Mareklan might have been taken in. Thalon made an appreciative noise. "That is worth both of my earrings," he purred mendaciously.



They took their places on either side of the board. Thalon could tell that the Jaman started play at a lower level than his true abilities. He only hoped that Uguck could not tell that the same was true of his own play. In less than an hour Uguck yielded the game with gracious words. "You are indeed an expert. You must give me the opportunity for another game."



"Move aside Thalana, you are not the only one who enjoys droka," Sergon whined.



Uguck viewed the older woman and decided to risk showing his hand. "I can tell you will be a real challenge. This game promises to take a long time and the stakes should be worthy of the effort."



"I might be willing to wager the betrothal of my sister wife, I can see the way the grass bends," Sergon gestured toward Urgit who eagerly entertained Thalon with tales of his cunning. The veiled Mareklan nodded and batted his long lashes in response.



"I will wager the deed to my gambling hall in return," Uguck offered.



"What would I do with a gambling hall. I am getting along in years. I need amusement more than I need responsibility," Sergon paused and seemed to search the ceiling for an answer to his dilemma. "It would be so amusing to have custody of a Mareklan youth foolish enough to combine hot beer and docil. I'm not at all certain I would trade him back to his fellows." He tittered and the hesitation in Uguck's eyes faded. He glanced toward his besotted son again and accepted the wager. If he lost the contest, he would sweeten up the old woman toward the idea of letting her ward marry Urgit. Either way, he would win the deeper game.



Mareklans only played droka for a few days after returning from a trek. The game was so addictive for them that it was banned at other times. This only meant that every man of them, and some of the women, played endless mental games whenever their work was automatic and didn't require their full attention. Sergon savored the rattle of the five colored disks that would double or half the value of the tokens he had placed on the various regions of the board. His opponent's opening placement marked Uguck as a skilled and subtle opponent.



Like most players, he relied on pentagonal markers to keep track of the changing values of the regions. Sergon pretended to consult them before making his own moves. It slowed his game.



While Sergon considered the placement of his tokens, Uguck snapped his fingers to catch Urgit's attention. The youth reluctantly left the side of voluptuous Thalana and walked to the bench where the other widow studied the board.



Uguck gestured him to come closer. "Are you aware of the stakes of our game?" he murmured. "I have wagered your betrothal to the young widow against the Mareklan we have captured. I was willing to offer the deed to this hall, but she asked for the young fool. Find Burgic and Tarn and tell them to pull him out of the hole and clean him up. They can put him on the cot in the small storage room. He won't be going anywhere for hours yet, and if I should lose, I don't want to offend the widows with the slimy mess of his vomit."



Sergon cleared his throat, indicating it was time for Uguck to move his tokens. This would be his last move before the cup was shaken and the disks that changed the values of the regions would be thrown again. The gambler felt dismay when he surveyed the board. The old widow's green tokens had been placed with rare sagacity. It was well he had warned Urgit to clean up their hostage.



Urgit smiled with delight at his father's news. Thalana was a dream of a bride. Above her veil, her eyes spoke volumes and he anticipated the privilege of lowering her veil and revealing the sight of a dainty nose and lush soft lips. He sat by her side again after telling the bouncers to take the Mareklan out of the hole. He reached over to pinch his prospective bride's thigh and felt his hand imprisoned in a surprisingly strong grasp. "Not now, little one," the young widow cooed. "I save myself for the marriage."



Urgit decided to urge a hasty wedding. He looked anxiously toward the droka board and murmured an invocation of the luck idol Karakat when he saw the glitter of moisture beading on his father's forehead. Uguck had one flaw as a gambler. When luck went against him, he perspired.



Urgit left the side of Thalana to view the board. The old woman was winning. It would take an improbable run of luck to reverse the balance. When the values were evened at the end of the next two moves, she would have more than double the tokens that Uguck controlled. The game had taken slightly more than two hours. One throw of the disks remained. Urgit gasped when they finished spinning and fell with a clatter. One move remained, but it would be a formality. The Orenese crone had won the Mareklan hostage. It could have been worse. After all, Uguck still retained the deed to his gambling house and the shy giantess still gave Urgit looks that promised much and fired his imagination.



Sergon stood and extended his hand to his opponent. "Well played. I look forward to meeting you again when we make our little alliance." The frown cleared from the gambler's face. He wasn't quite sure how he had lost the game of Droka so quickly, but the deeper game that would see his son married to an influential Orenese widow remained in play. This was no time to waffle about paying up the wager that would ease the way and cost him nothing but the faint hope that the Mareklan could be ransomed. He signaled to Burgic and Tarn to carry the Mareklan to the back entrance while he led the ladies around to take possession of their prize.



Sergon reached out and flicked the rigid eyelids of the stunned and staring youth. They snapped shut. "Could your men please carry him to our inn?" Thalon purred in his rich voice.



Urgit gazed after the small caravan as they moved down the narrow alley. The bouncers carried the Mareklan slumped between them. The old woman led the way and Thalana brought up the rear with a swaying gait.



Urgit wondered if it would be rude to call on them in the morning. In Jama, most people didn't rise until well into the afternoon. While he pondered propriety toward his intended, his father moved past him and gazed down the alleyway. "You're a lucky man, my son. If I were ten years younger I might divorce your mother for a chance at the fair widow."



It was an empty threat and both knew it. Urgit's mother was the niece of Lord Bugurm, Pontic of Jama. Divorce, or anything less than careful courtesy, would end Uguck's career, and quite possibly his life.



Sergon led the laden bouncers up to the suite of rooms she had paid for before entering the gambling district. "Put him in the small room at the head of the stairs and bar the door. He's a big one so he might sleep it off before I'm ready to deal with him."



Sergon tipped them generously and made the suggestion that there was still some time to enjoy themselves before Uguck expected them back. As soon as the men left the building the two Mareklans rapidly transformed themselves by removing the robes and padding that had aided their performances. "We can leave now and return to the Shrine before Neragon awakes and worries about us," Thalon said as he rubbed paint from his face.



"The streets are still crowded. We would be conspicuous," Sergon warned. "I will stay here with Geran while you return to the Shrine and tell Neragon what happened. Uguck will be angry when he finds he has been duped. While we played, he told me that he is related to the Pontic. I'll put my mind to the problem while you're gone."



Neragon was pacing back and forth and muttering to himself when Thalon entered the sleeping room a few minutes later. "What happened to Sergon and Geran? I might have expected Geran to play the fool and explore Jama at night, when all decent men have taken to their beds, but what excuse do you offer?" the trek chief demanded.



"Sergon woke me when Geran didn't return and we set out to rescue him. It is well we did. We have him stashed at an inn, dosed to the eyelids on Kumnoran beer and docil root. We'll have to carry him back to the camp if we leave Jama before noon."



"Young fool! He'd better watch himself after we find Neril and they are married," Neragon muttered.



"You would still require her to marry him, even after this?" Thalon asked.



"It doesn't concern you Thalon. Perhaps if you hadn't encouraged Neril in the idea that she was competent to take care of herself, she wouldn't have been abducted," Neragon exclaimed.



Thalon clenched his teeth and resisted expressing his opinion of a father who would saddle his daughter with a bully like Geran. It would be fruitless to point out that it was Geran who had suggested that Neril should be left alone while they visited the Saadenan court. Neragon had closed his mind to any hint that there was something wrong with forcing Neril to marry a fool. Perhaps her abduction had muddied his reason.



"Sergon suggested that you should take Geran's pack and staff and return to the camp immediately. You can prepare the other merchants to march out. We'll meet you at the crossroad for Ocom at noon," Thalon prevaricated. He hated lying, and this night had been one long lie, all in the cause of rescuing Geran. He hoped that Neragon would follow his cue and stop burdening him with recriminations he had not earned.



"I hope I can trust the old man to keep you out of trouble," Neragon said with a grimace of distaste for the plan. Thalon bit back a smile. Sergon was only a couple of years older than the trek chief. He was an elder because membership in the council was determined by years as a trekker. Sergon had earned the right to carry his pack out of the Homeplace in his fifteenth year. Most Mareklans did not earn the right to take the trail until they were in their twenties.



"Tell Tirka we appreciated his hospitality, but I will leave it to you to explain why you are alone this morning," Thalon said. He picked up Sergon's pack and staff along with his own and slipped out of the shrine. With the approach of dawn, the frantic activity in the streets had quieted.



When he returned to the inn, he found that Geran still lay unmoving. Sergon made use of cold water and massage but several hours passed with no great improvement. At least Geran was able to blink his eyes and move his lips. His tongue was still unmanageable. "We must leave soon, but how will we manage this oaf?" Sergon muttered impatiently.



"I could carry him," Thalon ventured.



"A pretty sight that would be, two Mareklans carrying a third who can't manage to move himself," Sergon countered.



"What if what people saw was a big Mareklan carrying a woman under the direction of another woman?" Thalon asked. "We could repeat our disguise from last night, but this time Geran will be Thalana."



Sergon chuckled and shook his head ruefully. "I think I'm going to get a reputation if I keep wearing skirts. I've always thought of myself as rather a manly man, but I seem to have an almost alarming success playing the role of a dowager."



Urgit hated facing the sun while it still rode high in the sky, but he had conceived a passion for the voluptuous Orenese widow that urged him from his bed before noon. His eyes were still bleary from lack of sleep when he turned the corner of the street that led to the inn and saw a spectacle that held him speechless for a moment. Then he began to howl with rage and lifted his long robe to run with spindle shanked urgency. The older widow had somehow revived the hostage Mareklan and was leading him out of the city. Over his shoulders he carried Thalana, her veiled head bobbing senselessly against his back.



The old woman was surprisingly spry and the distance between Urgit and his objective lengthened. Urgit's anguished cries drew a crowd of Jamans who ran along with him. Sergon turned with a whirl of his black skirts when he reached the top of a hill near the edge of the city. With dramatic flair he lifted his arms and pointed his finger at the pursuing mob. He shrieked a garbled curse through the veil that hid his features. The pursuers halted as one body.



The sight of the dark-robed crone with her finger pointed in the gesture of a curse sent the Jamans scurrying for cover. Urgit hesitated, caught between emotion of desire for Thalna and of one who claimed a relationship to Challan. Fear won the battle and he turned back and hurried to his father's house. His fear and disappointment grew as he waited for the better part of an hour before Uguck's servant returned with the news that his father was awake and had consented to talk to him.



When Uguck was finally able to get a coherent account of the scene that had caused Urgit such pain, he shuddered. "I should have suspected a woman who plays droka so well. I've heard rumors about Saadena's queen. Some say she's a witch, her cousin surely is. Nothing other than witchcraft would compel a Mareklan to act as a servant, not even such a young fool as we trapped last night."



Uguck stood and walked to his latticed window which gave a view of the arid hills that lay between Saadena and Jama. He made a warding gesture against evil and turned back to Urgit. "Let this be a warning my son, never play games with a widow, especially when love is the prize."



As soon as they were out of sight of the Jaman mob, Sergon dosed Geran with a strong purgative to banish the docil from his system. "He's lucky he's alive," Thalon marveled as he watched Sergon's efforts to restore the errant youth's mobility.



"If they had known we carried selan, he might still be in the hole, waiting for ransom," Sergon replied. "If Uguck learns the prize he lost, I'd wager he'll comb the countryside looking for the widow who won his captive Mareklan. He proved to be a surprisingly worthy opponent." Sergon laughed and clapped Thalon on the shoulder. "You narrowly missed becoming Urgit's bride."



"Then Urgit narrowly missed becoming a soprano," Thalon replied. "It's a shame we must keep your triumph a secret between us. In the annals of Droka, there has seldom been an equal for your Jama Game."



When they finally met up with the others, Geran had recovered his speech but he fumed silently when the others asked him what had led him to venture the streets of Jama after dark. He had once again managed the mental exercise of blaming everything that happened to him on others. He had been an unwilling witness to the gibes and jokes exchanged by Thalon and Sergon and he vowed that when he returned to Marekla they would be sorry for the liberties they had taken with his body. When they dressed him in the skirts of a woman, they had earned his eternal enmity.



Not long after the Mareklans left Jama, Doracat ced Morcat, the Orenese servant seller, stopped at Uguck's tavern. He had regular dealings with the Jaman who had put in an order for a couple of new girls on his last visit. Doracat had traveled with little more than short night camps in order to reach Saadena as soon as possible, but he found it always paid a dividend to take time with good customers. The tavern-keeper seemed preoccupied, failing even to chivvy him about the failure to deliver the two servant girls he had promised.



"Why are you so gloomy, old friend?" Doracat asked.



"I am puzzled. Only hours ago I witnessed an alliance that I would not have believed if my own eyes had not given proof. Begging your pardon, but two Orenese women spent time in my tavern last night. One of them was an elderly virago, the other a lovely young matron. I thought I had secured the hand of the younger woman for my son Urgit, but this morning, the old shrew and a Mareklan carried the young woman away from Jama senseless. Urgit is distraught."



Doracat was an old hand at concealing his emotions, but the mention of the Mareklans brought him upright in his seat, ending the easy slouch that he usually assumed to gain the confidence of customers. "What were the names of the widows?" he asked.



Uguck scowled and shook his head. "I can't remember that the older woman gave me her name, but the younger was named Thalana and they claimed kinship with Saadena's Queen Challan. It was apparent from their jewelry that their husband had been a wealthy man.



Doracat was puzzled. Several Watchers had died recently. A feud had been going on between those whose towers dominated the northern beaches and those who guarded the south. It was not unusual for 'accidental' deaths to occur with frightening regularity during a feud. Drift from the demolished tower of a dead man could be claimed by his neighbors to increase the height of their own towers. "Where did the shrew find a Mareklan to aid her?" he asked.



"He was a young oaf who swaggered into the tavern last night and was foolish enough to combine docil and wine while he gambled. Yes, I know it is hard to believe that any Mareklan would do so, but I witnessed it with my own eyes. When he fell to the floor, I had my men put him in the storage room until I could find his fellow merchants and make a profit from the rescue."



Doracat shook his head. "Everything you tell me challenges my reason. No Mareklan would venture into Jama alone. No Mareklan would drink wine or suck docil at any time, and no Mareklan would gamble in a tavern. How did the Mareklan end up with the old woman?"



"The crone won a hard-fought game of Droka with me and took the Mareklan as her prize," Uguck said. "I let him go with her because I anticipated it would sweeten her attitude toward a marriage between my son and the younger woman."



"Where did they go?" Doracat asked. The entire story seemed far-fetched, but it was certainly worth further investigation. If the Mareklans had come to Jama already, it would profit him nothing to go on to Saadena.



"Come I will show you, custom is always slow at this hour. I seldom rise before noon. It would have been better if I had kept to my bed this morning." Uguck heaved his body from his chair and led Doracat out into the street. Soon they were standing at the edge of the scrubby bush that surrounded the town. "They went north in that direction. If you can tell me anything of what became of them, I would welcome the information." Uguck turned and hurried back to the shadows of Jama. Sunlight was not his natural element.



Alagad studied the ground and walked in the direction Uguck had indicated. Past the clustered marks made in the loose soil by the mob who had gathered to witness Urgit's despair, there were two sets of footprints. The marks were not distinct enough to betray the type of footwear, but one set was larger and much deeper. The larger man had been carrying a heavy burden. He could not go far with such a weight. Doracat hastened his steps, caution lost under the goad of curiosity.



The sound of men's voices ahead brought him to a halt. Uguck had spoken of only three people, two Orenense women and a Mareklan man, but there were at least three separate male voices to be heard, and probably more. Doracat dropped to his belly and began to crawl toward the summit of the small hill that hid him from his quarry. It would be more than foolish for him to burst unannounced into the midst of a troop of Mareklans.



His first glance proved the wisdom of his caution. The entire floor of the hollow below him was filled with Mareklans. He did not bother to make a head count, it was sufficient to see that they were too many to challenge, even if he had been prudent enough to bring his guards along with him. He searched in vain for any sign of the Orenese widows or a Mareklan maiden. There were no tents where women could have been concealed.



He recognized several of the men below. Sergon alone was enough to end any thought of approaching them. The puzzle of the missing women nagged at his brain, but the known antipathy of Mareklans for servant-sellers made him wary of continuing his quest. He slithered back down the slope and hastened back to the Ocom road.



Geran was happy to be among the company chosen to return to Marekla. Somewhere in the night of debauchery and humiliation he had lost all desire to stage a heroic rescue of Neril. Let her meet the bloody fate she so richly deserved. The other maidens of Marekla made no secret of their response to his attractions. He would not speak of his secret hope that Neril would never be found alive. He would mine the sympathy of those who thought him still devoted to the hope of winning her hand.



Sergon could sometimes sense the evil thoughts that haunted Geran as they made their way toward the Homeplace. Feton had lost the antic edge that had made him so amusing on the trek to Timora. The dreary journey proceeded in sullen silence.



Sergon knew this would be the last time he would lead a trek through the caverns that guarded the secrecy of the Mareklan Homeplace from the assumed evils of the world. He could not deal daily with his friends and companions and comfortably keep the secret of Neril's fate. The time had come for him to his heritage. When next he left the hidden vale he would be wearing the white robe and blue sash of a servant of the Radiance.



Chapter 12 Garden of Secrets





Within the walled garden near Saadena's palace, Carnat's impulse of a moment became the burden of his days. Elderly Fedder lost himself in the daze of futile scholarship that hid his mind from his failures. Mirin had no time to spare from the tasks of caring for the health of her selan-muddled people and supervising the capture of selan spores in the tumbler barrels where the harvest was refined. Carnat could trust none of the palace servants with his secret. He became Neril's nurse and caretaker.



He performed a multitude of daily tasks to keep her clean and comfortable. He carried her to and from baths in the pool beneath the fountain, searched the palace storage rooms for clothing and bedding, and built a shelter in the corner of the garden from large stones recovered from the rubble in the city. His body hardened and lost the scrawniness of indolence.



He timed the doses of selan so that Neril slept when he could not be with her. The hidden ways he had discovered to enter the palace without rousing the notice of the palace guard simplified his expeditions for supplies. He knew the schedules followed by the cook and her helpers, and kept up a supply of fresh food.



Carnat's prolonged absences from the palace might have been noticed, but when his mother and Ayarlan were not in their workshop they were closeted with seamstresses and craftsmen as they prepared for the sumptuous ceremony they planned for the royal marriage. The courtiers had learned from Challan to ignore the prince and his father. None of them noticed Carnat moving past as he gathered all that was needed to make his bride comfortable. His appetite increased with the increase in activity as he tended to her needs and carried her from one place in the garden to another according to her whim.



Hidden in the garden, but provided with everything for protection and comfort, Neril lived in a dazed dream world. Carnat often spent most of the day with his young wife without returning to the palace.



As he carried her about or lounged near her on the soft grass of the garden, Carnat listened to the disjointed sentences that betrayed the wanderings of Neril's mind as she tried to follow fleeting memories. Tantalizing glimpses of adventure and honor glittered in her almost incoherent words.



He yearned to know more, but he feared the consequences of letting her emerge from the dream world to which he had condemned her. At first the drugs had been necessary to dull the pain of her injuries, but as time passed and her injuries healed, he feared her anger when she emerged from drugged complacence and found that she had been trapped and separated from her people.



"Neril," he whispered one morning while he carried her to the fountain for her daily bath. "It is a lovely name." He buried his face in her soft dark hair and breathed the scent of night blossom that always seemed to linger about her.



"Neril," she nodded. "That is my name. What should I call you?"



He told her his name and she smiled with innocent pleasure. "Carnat, You are the prince of my dreams. Will you be gone again when I wake up?" Her words sent a jab of guilt that nearly wakened his dozing conscience. He fought down the fear that haunted him.



When he was a child Carnat had found a little hop rat with an injured leg. He had fed it bits of bread and bound the delicate limb with a bit of thread and a small stick. When it finally began to hop again he had known a thrill of success.



One day it escaped from the cage he'd made of twigs and ran into the corridor just as his mother passed by. She had glanced from the cowering rodent to her son's anxious face. Then, with a malicious grin she lifted her foot and brought it down on the tiny animal, crushing away its life. She had turned to Carnat who fought back tears of grief. "You are becoming too much like your father. Remember what happens when you cross my will."



While he fed and cared for Neril he recalled the days he had spent trying to help the little animal and his triumph when it had accepted food from his hand. He feared what Challan would do when she finally found out about his wife.



He couldn't completely absent himself from the palace without causing comment, but whenever he was away from Neril for a few hours, he worried about her. She had become as simple as a young child, but when he waited too long to give her the drug, she became restless.



At length, Neril's broken leg healed sufficiently that she began to hobble around the garden, taking naive pleasure in the beauty of the variety of growing things. Carnat continued to drug her to relieve his own worry. He feared that she might attempt another escape with even worse consequences if she became aware of her captivity.



Sometimes he toyed with the temptation to reduce the dosage of drugs he gave her with her food and drink so that he could ask her questions about her life before she had come to Saadena. The whispers of curiosity were quickly subdued by selfishness. He had never had a friend or playmate and with her childish joy in everything, he shared a vision of wonder he had never experienced. She knew the names of most of the plants in the garden. They reminded her of the days she had spent on trek without disturbing the deeper wells of her reason and the questions and doubt he feared.



When her wounds healed and she began to walk with a limp, Carnat was again awakened to the beauty that had caused him to capture her. He fetched sketch materials from his rooms and entertained Neril by drawing pictures of the stories she told. His tools were simple; a few soapstone tablets scavenged from the library and a broken flint.



As he worked, his skills improved. She laughed merrily at some of his efforts to depict the adventures she recalled. He tried to capture her image, but most of his efforts at portraiture were disappointing. One day as she sat gazing with an entranced expression at a butterfly that lit on her hand and seemed willing to stay, he found that he was able to sketch a startling likeness in a few swift strokes.



As he hesitated over elaborating the image, the butterfly took flight. Carnat laid aside the sketch when Neril rose laughing and limped after the colorful insect as it rose and fell over the blossoms.



A spring of sweet water had been diverted to feed the fountain in the center of the garden. It had been fashioned into a waterfall that fell over mossy stones into a pool. Before her leg had healed sufficiently to let her walk, Carnat carried Neril to the edge of the pool daily and cared for her with the selfless concentration of a nurse. With the return of her mobility, he provided towels and clean clothing and left her to make her ablutions in private. When she called his name he returned and led her back to the comfortable bower he had provided in a simple pavilion of stone with a cover of cloth for shelter but it seldom rained in Saadena. The ceiling of the star spangled night sky was another joy she shared with him as they lay together in innocence and watched the moon rise.



Once her leg had healed and she could walk, Neril enjoyed standing in the pool under the waterfall while she bathed with the fragrant soap Carnat filched from his mother's supplies. Once she healed and no longer needed his help to bath and dress he respected her modesty and left to gather food while she bathed.



One morning he returned while she was enjoying her bath and she laughingly beckoned him to join her while she played among blossoms floating on the surface of the pool.



He hesitated, then he reminded himself that they were married and he had a right to sport with her. Even so, he was shy about taking off his own clothing. He sensed that the days of innocent play had come to an end and he was not quite certain of accpting the challenge that she so guilelessly offered as she opened her arms and tossed sparkling drops of water at him.







Carnat was conscious of entering a realm of experience that had only existed for him in dreams and imagination before this hour. Any of the female courtiers who had been tempted to flirt with Carnat had long since learned that Ayarlan could be vicious when her jealousy was roused. Although the prince either ignored her or chafed her, his cousin was determined she would have no rivals. The decadence of the court had swirled around him but left him innocent of more than theoretical knowledge of human passion.



His growing conscience whispered that it was unfair to approach her while her mind was still clouded with drugs, but the lure of her laughing face and beckoning hands overcame his scruples.





That night, while they slept together in a bower of night blossoms near the fountain, she started from his arms with a cry of alarm and began to weep. "What troubles you?" Carnat asked as he took her in his arms and tried to comfort her.



"Hide me! The priests of the demon will take me!" she cried.



"No one knows you are here but a few trusted servants. You are safe," he assured her and reached for the cup of drugged wine.



After taking a few sips she nestled by his side with a sigh of relief, but sleep was long in coming to the prince. Neril's childlike trust in him, her innocent assumption that he was her protector, gnawed at his conscience.



He stared defiantly up at the night sky. Neril believed there was a beneficent being who watched over her. She often muttered simple prayers and he had heard her thanking the Radiance for her kind husband. A knot formed in Carnat's chest and he gently rolled away from Neril to avoid waking her. He didn't want to think about such things. It was nearly morning and he needed to replenish his supply of selan from his mother's secret workroom.



When he entered the palace through a side entrance, he saw someone moving along the dim corridor in front of him. He had timed his return to avoid any of the scheduled watches and the servants would still be rubbing the sleep from their eyes before starting their tasks. He sank back into the shadow of a sculptured ancestor and peered at the person moving toward him. Then he recognized the shuffling gait of his father. Eliat started guiltily when Carnat stepped out of the shadows. "Where are you going Eliat?" Carnat asked.



The king mumbled and turned around, returning to the great, musty chamber where he spent most of his time, surrounded by the litter of a life of futility. Carnat felt disgust for his father. Challan kept Eliat subdued with selan, but surely the man must suspect something. Carnat ignored the fact that Fedder had warned him of his mother's plots and had kept him from his father's fate.



He continued in the direction his father had been headed and entered the library. A musky, nose tickling compound of the dust that covered the shelves and bins for tablets and scrolls, and the smell of the scrolls themselves filled the room. It was here that Carnat had spent much of his solitary youth.



He searched for another of the scrolls of poetry that fed his imagination and kept him from dwelling on his culpability in drugging Neril. He ignored the works of history that had fascinated him in his childhood when Fedder had first taught him to read. The random memories that Neril shared with him were far more interesting than the deeds of men long dead. He failed to find more volumes of poetry but he found a small scroll illustrated with flowers and thought Neril would like it.



The high windows of the chamber were lit with morning light when left the library. He met his mother and Ayarlan as he headed toward his room to dress in a fresh tunic and quickly hid the scroll behind his back. Challan surveyed her son with an expression of distaste. "You look disheveled. One would think you'd spent the night sleeping in the dust." Ayarlan tittered at the queen's words and nodded contemptuously before following Challan along the corridor.



Carnat quickly changed and made his stealthy rounds of kitchen, laundry and workroom to gather supplies. He felt a thrill of defiance when he successfully found the answer to a new puzzle lock on his mother's workroom and shaved a portion from the block of concentrated selan she had recently prepared.



When he entered the garden, he found Neril waiting for him just inside the door. She smiled brightly. "I thought you were lost. I'm supposed to find something that is lost. The Seers told me so. I'm lost. I can't find my father or Sergon, but if I find my father, Geran will marry me." A frown wrinkled her brow as she pondered the problem.



"Geran can't marry you. You are my wife now," Carnat said. He remembered the tall, young Mareklan who had laughed at him derisively. Jealousy flared when he thought of Neril returning to her Mareklan fiancé. "Come, we'll make cala and you won't be worried anymore."



The renewal of the drug made her drowsy and she limped over and stretched out for a nap in a sunny place where the grass grew long and soft. Carnat watched her awkward gait and wished her leg had healed properly. It was her only imperfection.



With Neril drugged and sleeping, Carnat grew restless. She had mentioned the Seers of Timora several times. Carnat decided to find Fedder and ask the old chaplain about them.



He left the garden and sought out the priest in his cluttered quarters behind the chapel where workmen were refurbishing the chamber. Fedder reluctantly put down the old scroll he had been examining and invited the prince to enter.



Once Fedder had entertained hopes that the prince would amount to something. He had been a bright-eyed, intelligent child, badly in need of attention and guidance when Fedder had first come to Saadena. The priest had tried to teach him about the Radiance and he had hoped that the boy would continue to visit the library of the palace and learn from the many writers represented there. He had watched from a distance as Carnat sampled the accumulated wisdom of a millennium. Lately Fedder realized that the prince had discovered the decadent poetry of Pezril, a courtier of the reign of Marnat.



Fedder had hidden the scrolls in an unused closet far from the library. His love of books militated against destroying them. Now he feared that Carnat had guessed what he had done and had come to demand the missing scrolls of Pezril's poetry.



"Who are the Seers of Timora?" Carnat asked, surprising the priest who stuttered for a moment before answering.



"A-At present they are the great grandparents of Zedekla's king, Farek, but the Seers can be from any walk of life or background. When I was a student, the seers were a Tedakan couple who lived for so long no one could quite remember when they first began to serve. They named the Zedeklans as their successors and walked away one day. They were never seen again."



"Why would the Seers ask Neril to find something for them?" Carnat asked the priest.



"Neril? The Mareklan woman you married?" Fedder asked, then shook his head. "I doubt you heard her right. The seers do not converse with every traveler who goes to Timora. They are the Voice of the Radiance. Everything they say is written down and culled for meaning by the scribes who serve in the Hall of Sacred Chronicles. As a result, the Seers are careful to make no casual comments. Sometimes they spend years in virtual silence lest rumor take root in their words."



"Neril said they wanted her to find something that was lost," Carnat insisted. Fedder might think that Neril was imagining the message but Carnat knew that in her drugged state she was incapable of lies. "Could they mean they wanted her to find the missing seers?"



Fedder chuckled at the absurdity of the prince's suggestion. "It is understood that the old Seers were so holy they simply walked into Heaven, just as you or I might pass through a door. But you must be mistaken. The Seers rarely speak to anyone. If they did, they would constantly be bothered by those who want to know what fate intends for them. I doubt they would speak to a young woman unless it were very important, and surely they would not ask a girl to perform a service for them when they could call on the armies of any city in the Alliance and ask whatever they desired."



"Thank you for answering my questions," Carnat said abruptly. Fedder was left with his mouth hanging open with another question when Carnat whirled and hurried from the chamber.



Carnat pondered the information the priest had provided while he evaded a squad of parading troops and returned to the garden. In her childlike state, Neril said the Seers had spoken to her and given her a task to perform and he believed her. Again guilt tried to edge into his conscience but he thrust it away as he opened the door to the garden.



He found Neril awake and eager to welcome him. He led her toward the bower at the end of the garden and vowed to forget his curiosity about her past. He wanted nothing to interfere with his joy in her sweetness. She was his wife, he had a right to her beyond all the claims of whatever saints or seers might be.



Carnat cuddled her to his side. She was his, she would remain here, another flower in his hidden garden. He looked defiantly in the direction of the sky and the god who had seemingly forgotten his servant and left her to the fate of pleasing a prince.













next book: Blade of Neril