Chapter 1 Quest

Kaigun sat on the champion seat of Algire village braiding a battle token into his beard. He fastened the gem with a twist of gold wire while he listened to the other warriors brag about the victory over clan Terifil the night before. Kaigun had led the attack and had won the battle token for his bravery, but he did not join his comrades in their boasting. The emptiness that began six years ago when his wife fled the clan with their first child dulled even the simple pleasure of winning a hard fought battle.

The voice of Garvan, newly initiated as a warrior, rose above the others. "The fields won by last night's battle have changed between our clan and Terifil since the time of our first fathers in these hills. When will we follow the example of other Janakan clans and fight to gain new land in the plains."

When none of the other warriors countered Garvan's complaint, Kaigun rebuked him, "Clan Algire honors the covenants made by our forefather Janak. Those who breach the boundary set by the prophet Irilik gain nothing. Tharek and his army repel every incursion."

Garvan swung toward Kaigun and made a gesture of contempt. "You may claim the victor seat, but you are full of fear that you conceal as veneration for the rules of dead men. Why should we listen to you Kaigun? It was your uncle, Darm, who lost the Sword of the Wizard Smith to Tharek. If it had not been lost, Tharek would have no power."

Kaigun stood and Garvan flinched before the grim expression in the champion's eyes. For a long moment the other men watched Kaigun's hand, waiting for him to reach for the long bronze sword that rested between his shoulders in a leather harness. Then the corner of Kaigun's mouth lifted in a small, grim smile. "You are a fool Garvan. Tharek's power rests in more than a mere sword. He is the bearer of the Stone of Truth."

Garvan spat as if from some foul taste. "You call me fool, but you believe the superstitions spread by silly women and old men. Tharek has no power but the sword he stole from Darm. It could not have been fair combat, or your uncle would have died. No doubt your woman fled from shame of being linked to such a family."

Kaigun looked around at his companions. None of them met his gaze. He shrugged. "You think a sword, however well-wrought, would give you victory over such as Tharek's armies? I will go and win the star sword and bring it back to Algire clan. It might help us win new fields, but the kingdom Tharek founded will continue and you will learn the folly of your boasts."

"You cannot go alone!" one of the other men protested. "Wait until we have rested and a troop of us will go with you."

"If a troop of men leaves our village, Terifil would take our fields," Kaigun said. "We fought hard to win them. If I die in the attempt to gain the sword, none in Algire Clan will mourn."

There were mutters from the others assuring Kaigun of his worth, but their protests were faint and unconvincing. He had spoken the truth. With disappearance of his wife and child and the passing of his mother, there were no women of his close blood left to carry out the rites of mourning for a warrior. His tiny, ancient grandmother, Malinkra, would not mourn for him. She was full of bitter anger at the lack of a young wife to apprentice at her mine and forge.

He passed the glowing entrance of her forge when he went to fetch his few belongings from the warrior lodge. He saw her wizened figure bent over the task of pouring molten bronze into a waiting mold. This was not a time to interrupt her work, and years had already passed since they had spoken.

For the past six years Kaigun had lived in the warrior lodge, owning nothing but his battle tokens, weapons, clothing and sleeping skins. A few half-hearted protests from the young men he had trained in the arts of battle were his only farewell as he rolled up his pack and left the village. He smelled the smoke of cook fires being lit and wondered for a moment if it had been wise to make his exit before eating breakfast. Pride prevented him from turning back. He would rather scavenge berries to fill his empty stomach than face the gloating eyes as such as Garvan.

The village of Terifil lay in the path of his most direct route to the border between the clan lands of Janaka and the fertile plains. Ordinary caution would dictate that he should avoid the rival clan territory, but on the day after losing a battle the men would be resting and recovering from their wounds and the older women and children would be about their business in the mines and smelters. He risked being seen by younger women as he crossed the stream near the rocks they used for washing clothes.

Although the day was fair, he pulled a hooded cloak out of his pack and drew it over his back, hampering access to his sword. It would be a sign to any who saw him that he had no intention of making an incursion on the village.

Two women with several small children squatted by the stream doing their laundry. One of the children yelled and pointed at the warrior making his way across the ford. One woman gathered the several children close to her. The other lifted a sharpened staff and faced toward him, her eyes steady and unafraid. The flicker of familiarity in her glance nearly stopped him.

He recognized his younger sister, Larinka, five years since taken in a bridal raid. He raised his hand in brief token of their childhood closeness and continued on his way. He heard her speaking to the other woman, calming her and pointing out that he was only passing by and posed no threat.

He paused to rest and ease his thirst when he reached the line of stones that marked the edge of a clearing where Mareklan merchants once made their camp. The clans of Janaka had banned the Mareklans after learning that Tharek had taken the Wizard Smith sword from Darm and broken the ancient rule against Mareklans bearing arms. Instead of the Mareklans, Orenese traders now brought goods to tempt the widow-smiths and trade for blades of bronze, but they did not come this far into the mountains. They stayed in the larger villages.

It was not the only way in which the Orenese differed from Mareklans with their patterned staffs and strict sense of fair trade. The Orenese were known to deal in stolen children, selling servants to those willing to overlook the ancient laws against slavery. A faint memory of Mareklans remained from Kaigun's childhood and he felt the sense of loss for what had been as he settled on a long flat stone that had once been used for making matlas.

A breadberry bush grew wild near the center of the clearing and long fingers of tangled vines crept across the flattened ground. Kaigun skimmed several handfuls of the berries while he looked over the clearing. He was surprised that no one had claimed the land for growing crops when every year saw new terraced fields carved out of the stony hills of Janaka. Perhaps the matriarchs who ruled each clan still hoped that old grudges would be forgotten and the Mareklans would return.

Kaigun traced the sound of water to a spring-fed brook hidden in denser foliage near the edge of the campground. The flow disappeared into a crevice in a rock outcrop only a little way downstream from where it rose. His water-skin had been filled the night before the battle. He drained it and refilled it from the spring. A fat young paca scrambled up the bank and Kaigun was tempted to set a snare and enjoy the roasted meat, but he would risk notice if he lit a fire.

Crisp water weed grew dense on the surface of the stream. He plucked a few bright leaves to add flavor to the breadberries. It made a simple meal but it filled him and it might be some time before he had a chance to eat again.

It was near midday, and with preparations for the battle of the preceding night, Kaigun had not slept for nearly two days. It could be many hours before he found another place where he could rest without fear of being challenged. As soon as he finished eating, he stood and looked around for shade and shelter. An ancient tree lay split and blackened on the ground at the edge of the clearing. A single low branch survived near the roots. It rose at a low angle and shaded a narrow covert with its leaves.

Kaigun settled himself with his sword parallel to his body and quickly fell asleep. When he woke the sky was black above him. The position of key stars told him that it was several hours until dawn. It was the best time of the night to make his way down from the hills. By now any clan battles would be over and the combatants straggling home to boast their victory or count their losses.

He had left the mountains only once before when he made his pilgrimage to the sacred city of Timora. He had received his ritual washing in the holy lake when barely old enough to sprout the first faint signs of the beard that now covered his chest. All his thoughts had been for battle training and stealing a bride when he returned home. He flinched from the brief thought of the girl of Margan clan whom he had taken as his wife.

He had been counseled to court her by showing himself over a period of several weeks and wait until she gave some sign of favor. Instead, impatience and arrogance had prevailed in his courting. As soon as he saw a girl who caught his fancy he had gathered a few friends and mounted a bridal raid. He could not imagine that the maiden he chose would want another once he took her as his bride. She fought like a wirra from the moment he had taken her. Subdued by force of his greater strength, she had suffered his caresses in silence, demanding that he quit her couch as soon as she quickened with a child. Then, only days after the birth, while he was absent for a battle, she took their infant son and fled Algire Village. Margan clan claimed that she had not returned to live among them.

For a moment he wondered what had become of Falinta and his son after she fled. No other Janakan man would want her, unless he was willing to risk censure or exile to give her his protection.

Kaigun had long practice in subduing memories of the pain of Falinta's desertion. His decision to leave Algire village had not been impulsive. For some time he had been weary of the double onus of Falinta's desertion and Darm's loss of the sword made by the wizard smith, Algire. It did not seem to matter that he was almost always seated on the champion seat after a conflict. The younger warriors, like Garvan, newly fathers and swollen with their own dreams of glory, were the ones most likely to comment on the crime of his kinsman.

His grandmother, the widow-smith Malinkra, matriarch of Algire village, had goaded him with words of shame when she bestowed his sword. When his wife deserted him, carrying away their infant son, Malinkra had declared the girl free of blame and forbidden pursuit. "Who would want to share the shame of such a family?" she had sneered.

He turned his mind to other concerns and made preparations for the journey. His gear included several fish hooks and two good knives in addition to his sword. He sorted through the contents of his medicine pouch that he often used to help companions who had fallen in battle.

He gathered several branches laden with breadberries and tied them together at the stems with a thong. He usually avoided eating the bland fruit, but liked them better after they had withered and dried, concentrating the bland taste to something sweeter and more pleasing. He would wait to hunt until it was safe to light a fire.

The waning moon gave sufficient light for him to find the path that led out of the clearing toward the south. It had not been used for years but centuries of prior use had left it packed and resistant to encroaching weeds. Mareklans were known for making secret tracks, but here in Janaka, before the betrayal of Tharek, they had enjoyed security and safe passage. Even so, as Kaigun soon discovered, the trail avoided villages and battlegrounds.

He stopped at a stream to take a drink and relieve himself just before sunrise. Mist concealed the surrounding hills, leaving only the peaks to catch the first light. Another day of steady travel westward should bring him to the pilgrim road that led past Zedekla where Tharek ruled as Tyrant.

He left the path and climbed to the top of a nearby peak to get his bearings. The sun rose as he climbed and it was full up when he reached the summit. Most of the mist had burned away by the time he looked around to get his bearings. He saw a smudge of smoky air to the south marking the location of the town of Setalan where the Orenese carried out their trade. It might be wise to go there first and find out more information before he sought out Tharek and contested with him for the sword. It would be naive to think he could approach the Tyrant of Zedekla openly. The leader of a city and would not be easily approached by one who would be recognized as a natural enemy.

He had learned the cost of being impulsive. Kaigun closed his mind against the pain of memory and turned his thoughts to planning. By tradition a sword could only be taken when the man who carried it died, but Darm had yielded up the Sword of the Wizard Smith without yielding up his life as well. There were plenty of stories about those who had attempted to challenge Tharek for the star sword. At first, they had died swiftly with little distinction. In time, they were simply prevented from coming close enough to Tharek to try their skill against him.

It would seem foolish to approach Tharek directly. The Tyrant commanded an army along with a hardened rank of guards dedicated to his personal survival. The only Janakans permitted in Tharek's city of Zedekla were those who had sworn personal fealty to the Tyrant. There was no chance of making such an oath and then betraying it. With the Stone of Truth, Tharek could detect any deception.

Kaigun knew this much, but further information could only help him with his quest to return the star sword to Algire clan. The Orenese were known as much for their fund of gossip as for their trading.

Information could be had for a price, and Kaigun would not hesitate to part with any of his battle prizes in exchange for facts that might help him. He took his bearings, noting the shape and position of the hills that lay between him and the trading town.

As he worked his way south, the hills grew gentle but the need to avoid villages led him far from the path he had projected from his viewpoint on the peak. When night fell, he finally saw the smudge in the air ahead, glowing orange in the setting sun. He decided to make camp and approach Setalan at dawn.

The next morning he discovered that the rumors about border men were true. They worked like women, tilling the fields with no appearance of shame for doing women's work. The track led past a small mine and here the evidence of lapse was even greater. Even Algiran warriors would lend a hand to bring in a ripe harvest, but none would ever touch a miner's spade or carry ore. The degraded border men with sacks of ore on their shoulders looked up at Kaigun boldly, meeting the contempt in his eyes with bland smiles.

Mining and smelting were the basis of wealth in Janaka, and as such were in control of the matriarchs. The work of men was making war. Kaigun flushed with shame when he recalled that his uncle, Darm, had become a smith, but at least he had waited until the loss of the star sword had driven him from Algire clan in shame.

Burdened by the evidence that his world was slowly turning on its head, Kaigun entered Setalan, unsurprised to see men working in the smelters on the outskirts. He was relieved to see a woman supervising the workers. At least in this they held to the tradition.

Even at this early hour the streets were crowded. Booths lined the way and hawkers competed for attention. Women from the various clans had brought their blades and tools to barter. Some had hired the services of Kumnoran teamsters with their trains of woolly dalas to carry the merchandise.

Kaigun narrowly avoided stepping in a pile of dung in the middle of the street. Several people gave him covert glances. There were only a few men other than the teamsters and the Orenese traders in the center of town. Most warriors would disdain such surroundings. Even with his cloak covering his naked torso, concealing his battle tattoos, anyone could see that he was a champion of his clan by the battle tokens in his braided beard.

One of the Orenese traders openly ogled the gold and gems and shells that caught the morning light. Kaigun decided to gratify the man's curiosity. When he approached the stall, the trader flinched at first but then he took a step forward and boldly addressed the warrior. "Pardon me, I meant no insult, but I have never before seen a man with so many proofs of bravery."

Kaigun twisted his lips into a wry smile. "You mean that you have never seen so much wealth displayed on one beard. If I took off my hood, you would see an equal amount braided into my hair. Are you interested in making an exchange for information?"

"For that small glass button in your left ear-lock, I will tell you anything I know," the merchant assured him.

"I know the worth of that small button. It is emerald, not glass. You may have this carved shell for any information you can give me," Kaigun offered.

The trader raised his brows and studied the piece Kaigun extended. "Shells are nearly worthless to a man from Orenon. I could find a hundred such on the beaches near my home in less than an hour."

Kaigun chuckled mirthlessly. "This shell is not from Orenon, but from the isles of Arqua in the western sea, as you well know. It is carved with the profile of Elianin and bears the sign of Partha, jeweler to the emperor of Saadena before its fall. I was only willing to part with it because it has no value to me other than its monetary worth. I will find another merchant, one who recognizes value when he sees it."

He began to turn away, but the trader stammered out a quick apology. "I c-can see you are a man of discernment. You must excuse my attempt to mislead you. Any other Orenese would do the same. You are right about the shell. It is no mere trinket. Come back when the sun reaches its zenith. I will close my shop and treat you to a meal. While I feed you I can likely satisfy your questions. If you need to find me before then, ask for Dashkar."



Kaigun nodded. The man was as dishonest as any Orenese, but he seemed willing to provide information. It was time for him to find an inn and remove the various tokens that might tempt others to challenge or rob him.

Not far from Dashkar's shop he found a modest building with the sign of a roasting paca hung over the door. The walls were newly painted and the entry clear of weeds and trash, signs that the host had an attitude of orderliness that would make his inn a comfortable place to stay.

The man polishing the benches just inside the door flinched visibly when Kaigun entered. "How can I serve you?"



The host's Tedakan accent confirmed Kaigun's assessment that he was the man responsible for the orderly inn. "I am looking for a lodging for several days. I do not wish to share my room with others. Can you provide me with a private place to stay? It need not be luxurious or large."



The innkeeper nodded. "I have such a room, hardly more than a closet with a cot. Otherwise, the inn is full. You may stay here only if you promise you have no intentions of starting trouble with some rival warrior."



"I am not looking for a fight," Kaigun assured the anxious host. "I only want a place to bathe and rest."



"You will have to share the bathing room with others, unless you choose an hour when the baths are empty, but your food is included in the fee."



"The arrangement suits me. Show me the room."



Reassured, the host led Kaigun down a hall that ran crosswise to the main corridor. Kaigun stooped as the ceiling became lower. The hallway ended in a low but sturdy door made of heavy timber. When the Tedakan unlocked the door and opened it, the room inside seemed at first to be no more than the closet that the host had described, but once the shutters on the narrow window were opened by the host, Kaigun discovered that the room was more than adequate to his needs. A sturdy trestle frame elevated the cot above the floor and it was long enough to keep his feet from dangling over the end. Sturdy planking covered the floor, unlike the other part of the inn which had a floor of laid stone.



"Is there a cellar underneath this room?" Kaigun asked the host.



"I purchased the building from a local family. They told me that it had been built over a mine. The ore has long since been depleted past the point of good return. They boarded over the entrance and that is what you see. Some are superstitious about sleeping above a mine, but as I told you, this is the only private room I have to spare."



"I do not fear spirits," Kaigun said. "Our village has its share of phantom guardians. Somehow they are never seen by any but the owners of the mines. Such ghosts are useful for protecting valuables against thieves."



"You are a man of good sense," the innkeeper said with a nod of approval. " The bathing room should be empty of others at this time of morning if you care to bathe."



The innkeeper left the room and Kaigun latched the door and took off his hooded cloak. The breeze through the opened shutters cooled him and relieved the stuffy air in the small room, but he closed them and dropped the latches, wanting no witnesses to his actions. Unlike some other warriors who left their hair unwashed and braided until their wives complained of the stink, Kaigun washed his hair at least once a month. He swiftly untwisted the wires that held his battle tokens to his beard and hair, heaping them on the cot to be sorted before using his fingers to comb out the braids.



The attitude of the innkeeper had reminded him that many would fail to see beyond the fearsome aspect of a warrior and he might find himself fighting every ambitious upstart in Setalan. The covetousness in the eyes of the Orenese trader warned him that many would be willing to engage in stealth to gain the wealth he casually displayed.



In a few minutes, with the aid of his sword, he pried up several of the floorboards from the corner beneath the cot. He had built braces in his mother's mine before manhood took him to the pursuit of battle and he guessed that there would be plenty of suitable hiding places in the tunnels below.



After sorting out the most valuable of his various tokens, he bound them into a cloth and lowered himself into the mine. Years of night fighting had honed his senses and he moved easily along the tunnel until he reached a fork. The conditions of the timbers reassured him. There was no musty smell of dry rot or stink of burrowing insect droppings.



He moved by touch alone. Finally he found a suitable crevice between the top of one of the sturdy beams and the ceiling of the tunnel. Anyone who searched the tunnel with a torch would not notice the depression because of the angle of the wood.



He unwrapped the bundle and one by one he pressed the jeweled trinkets into the crevice until they all fit snugly. Finally he mixed some of the dirt from the floor with spit and daubed the mixture over the opening. Even if it cracked while drying, it would conceal the treasure he had buried.



Minutes later he entered the bathing room ready to relax and contemplate his errand. As the innkeeper had hinted, he was alone in the room where hot and cold water mingled from two pipes on either side of the pool. Solitary bathing was a luxury he rarely had a chance to enjoy. In Algire village, the bathing place was a wide place in the icy stream that watered the crops and heat came only from the sweat hut near the bank.



The luxury of the warm bath tempted to linger, but he had other preparations to make if he hoped to regain the star sword from Tharek. He needed something more than his cloak and his kilted loin cloths to wear and the winter tunic in his pack would be too heavy in the warmer climate of the plains. He had a few hours to make changes to his wardrobe before he met with Dashkar.



Several cloth shops shared the same street with the inn. Most were filled with tawdry Jaman cloth, bright with dyed patterns. He sought out the shop of a Virdanan who displayed well woven cloth in subtle designs of restrained color. The owner produced two lightweight tunics, one in blue striped gray, the other brown with black bands around the neck and hemmed edges. After considering briefly, Kaigun decided to take both of the tunics along with a length of belting and a narrow cloth of deep red for a turban. Next he found a leather-worker's shop and purchased a pair of sturdy buskins.



Back in his room at the inn, he wrapped his weathered old boots in his winter tunic and added a few of his lesser tokens. He shoved the bundle under the trestle of the cot and dressed in the brown tunic. It hid the battle tattoos on his torso and upper arms. He pulled his hair into a topknot and hid it with the turban before he left his room to keep his appointment with the trader.



Dashkar was in the process of closing down his booth when Kaigun approached him. The trader quickly hid a his surprise. "You have traded away some of your ornaments. You should have let me exchange them for money. I have no doubt that you were cheated by the merchants."



"They seemed honest enough," Kaigun replied. "I left a few things concealed in my room. There is no need to wear all my battle tokens here where few could appreciate what they cost me and those I vanquished."



"You have a room?" Dashkar inquired. "Was it wise to be so extravagant? Any thief could rob you in your absence. I hope you found a decent inn."



"I have my lodgings at the sign of the roast paka. The innkeeper is Tedakan. I believe I can trust him."



"Excuse me while I fetch my servant," Dashkar said. "I have some errands for him to run while we are eating."



Kaigun restrained a cynical smile as Dashkar turned back to his shop and disappeared inside for several minutes. When the trader returned he had a young boy by the arm. The child was dressed in threadbare rags and his hair, cut in a jagged bowl shape that hid his ears, was matted and filthy. The child stumbled on a loose stone and Dashkar yanked him upright with an oath. "Lazy good-for-nothing little brat. I rue the day I paid good coin to buy you from your mother."



The boy dropped his head and mumbled something that might be an apology, but Kaigun caught sight of the tightened fists at the ends of the wiry arms. The youngster was resistant to his master. Life would be hard for him until he learned humility.



"Go now and deliver the message to Badala. When you return, sweep the shop and fetch wood for the brazier."



The child turned and skittered away on his errand. As soon as he was beyond earshot Kaigun said, "The law forbids buying servants before they are old enough to make the choice for themselves."



"I did the boy a favor!" Dashkar said. "His stepfather beat him daily. His mother is pregnant and has two other young children to care for. I will teach the boy a trade and tame his manners."



Acting impulsively, Kaigun twisted the gold wire that fastened the emerald to his earlock and held the jewel out to Dashkar. "Sell the boy to me. I can see that he is Janakan. I will teach him how to be a warrior."



Dashkar did not hesitate. Seizing the gem, he made a sign. "You are a fool, Janakan. I accept your offer. Before you change your mind, I will give you the document making you his master."



Once again Dashkar returned to his shop, returning with a piece of scroll cloth and a scribing tool in far less time than it had taken to fetch his servant. Using the top of a low wall for a table, he inscribed the receipt and signed his name. When Kaigun lifted it and carefully examined it, Dashkar expressed his surprise. "You can read?"



"Most Janakans learn to read," Kaigun answered shortly. "We are not the savages you seem to think."



The document seemed satisfactory. The age of the child was the only thing he questioned. "I thought the boy seemed older than six years. I will not accept a substitution."



"He is tall and quick for his age," Dashkar admitted. "He is also sly and deceitful. Do not trust anything he tells you."



Dashkar led the way to a matla shop and ordered meat-filled matlas for both of them with wine to drink. "I would prefer a cup of nuka juice," Kaigun countered.



Dashkar smirked. "It is a little too late for you to worry about thinking clearly. Witness your folly in purchasing the brat I sold you. Whatever your plans may have been, you will find it far more difficult to proceed with an obstinate child in your possession. Why not enjoy the pleasures of the world while there is no one to observe you and report you to the matriarch? If wine does not please you, I can find other ways to divert you from your cares."



"I'm certain you could," Kaigun muttered. The trader seemed to want to goad him and he resisted a sharp reply. The weight of his sword harness between his shoulders reminded him that any show of temper could result in a deadly contest. Surely Dashkar did not wish to test the edge of his blade.



The matla maker appeared with a wide tray containing a plate of crisp flat loaves, a dish of minced meat, pots of seasonings, a flask of wine for Dashkar and a Jama glass beaker of nuka juice for Kaigun. In truth, the Algiran would have preferred water to the tart-sweet flavor of the juice. He looked around to make the request for water from the waiter while Dashcar poured his wine into a little cup he took from a belt pouch. A movement in the corner of the matla shop caught his eye. He saw a man glaring at him from the shadows. The man's shaven head and tattoos identified him as a Margan warrior.



"How much did you promise the Margan to kill me after you lured me here?" Kaigun muttered just loud enough for Dashkar to hear.



Dashkar went pale and twisted in his seat, staring everywhere but into the dark corner where the Margan warrior stood. "I had no intention of setting up an ambush," he protested.



"Now that I have penetrated your game, I know that I cannot trust you. Whatever you might tell me would be suspect. I will tell the Margan who and what I am. You may have thought that he would kill me and you could rob me while he was taken away for disturbing the peace. He will know my name. He would know that no warrior has stood against me and survived. What do you think he will do when he discovers that you as good as signed his death warrant?"



Kaigun stood and walked deliberately toward the warrior in the corner. He stopped while still a sword's length away from the Margan. "I am Kaigun of Algire clan. I know that Dashkar paid you to fight me."



A flash of fear, followed close by anger shone briefly in the Margan warrior's eyes. It would be interesting to stay and watch the confrontation between the warrior and the trader, but Kaigun turned and stalked from the room.



He was still hungry. The savory odor of the fresh grilled matlas had tantalized his appetite and he soon found a barbecue shop where he could satisfy the grumbling protests of his stomach with spicy meat and boiled noodles. He had nearly finished his meal when shouts in the street and a rush of men in the direction of the matla shop proved that the Margan warrior had followed up on Kaigun's veiled suggestion. It was time to make his way down to the trader's shop and intercept the boy he had purchased.



He wondered what he would do with the child. Of course he could not keep him, nor could he set him free to fall victim to hunger and the predatory traders of the town. If Dashkar survived his reckoning with the Margan he might try to claim the boy in absence of other proof as soon as Kaigun left Setalan.



He found the boy lurking near the corner of the trader's shop. His knees were scraped and bleeding and a raised bruise darkened his forehead. When he saw Kaigun, he turned to run, but the warrior quickly intercepted him and pulled him to a stop.



"You must come with me. Dashkar has sold you," Kaigun told the struggling child.



The boy immediately grew quiet and his eyes rounded into pools of terror. "Do not beat me! I only did what Dashkar told me, but I fell when I tried to climb through the window of your room after the innkeeper kept me from the door."



Kaigun had suspected the errand from the moment Dashkar sent the boy away. "How often has he used you to steal for him?"



The child shook his head. "I never did it before. He said he would give me back to my mother if I found your treasure."



"Where is your mother?"



"She lives at the river side with my sisters and O-Okan."



The boy's hesitation over his stepfather's name was a telltale sign that Dashkar had told the truth about the brutality of the man. It would be easy enough to return the child to his mother, but it was likely she would only sell him to another merchant when her husband's temper heated up again.



"Come with me. I will not beat you, nor will I make you break the law, but you must do whatever I say. Obedience is the first step in learning to be a warrior."



The child's huddled shoulders straightened and his eyes began to sparkle. "You will teach me to be a warrior!"



Kaigun nodded. "I will teach you when you prove that you have learned to obey me. Come. Dashkar will not return soon, but others may come to try and take you."



With the infinite energy of a small child, the boy ran ahead of Kaigun, only to return and dance around him. Then he was off again, leading the way toward the inn, apparently heedless of his injuries.



The innkeeper greeted Kaigun and looked askance at his small companion when they entered the gather room. "Is this your servant? I refused him entry to your room."



"He is my charge now that I have freed him from Dashkar. You did well to guard my privacy. It proves that I can trust you. I want to retain the room while I leave for a period of time. If for some reason I cannot return, I will leave you a deposit to pay what you feel I owe you."



The innkeeper hesitated for a moment. "The room I rented to you is usually empty. I can hardly lose from accepting your offer." He held up his hand in sign of pledge without first asking how much Kaigun would pay.



It confirmed Kaigun's estimation of the Tedakan's character. He had been prepared to pay Dashkar with the imperial cameo shell and now he offered it to the innkeeper. The man took it in his hand and held it to the light, then he shook his head and returned it. "You would have to keep the room for most of a year for it to be worth this much."



Kaigun sent the boy on ahead to his room and leaned closer to the innkeeper. "If this is too much to retain the room, perhaps you would be willing to do something more to earn it. I have taken on the responsibility for the boy, but it will be difficult for me to care for him while I go about my business. Could you let him stay here and give him some small tasks to keep him busy while I am gone?"



The innkeeper shook his head. "The child is a scamp. I have seen him often enough to know that he needs a firmer hand than mine. It may be that with care and attention he will change. I have seen the way he looks at you. You may be his last chance for redemption."



Kaigun looked toward the small figure lingering in the hall and let out a sigh of frustration. He had vowed to fetch the star sword back to his clan. It would be a venture filled with risk and danger. He had vowed to avoid acting impulsively, but in a moment of weakness he had encumbered himself with a wayward child. What more would cross his path to foil his purpose?



"The boy is bright and resourceful or he could not have survived this long. Perhaps Dashkar told you of his history?"



"He hinted at a brutal stepfather and a mother without the spine to protect her child. Take the cameo and sell it if you choose, just give me what you think is a fair return," Kaigun said. "I must purchase supplies and some clothing for the boy before I set out on my errand."



The innkeeper nodded and tucked the shell into one of his belt pouches before turning away to attend to another guest. Kaigun caught up to the child and put a hand on his shoulder. "I am Kaigun, a warrior of Algire clan. I never learned your name."



"Ocan told my mother to call me paka," the boy said with an expression that betrayed his anger at being called after a common rodent. "I never knew if I had a real name."



"I will call you Dorn," Kaigun said. "It is a more fitting name for one who would be a warrior. We will get the innkeeper to provide us with some food, then we must find buskins that will fit you and a tunic that won't show your backside."



"Dorn," the boy muttered as if testing the new name. He looked up and grinned. "I am Dorn, apprentice warrior to Kaigun."



Chapter 2 Ally





"Where did you come from?" Dorn asked Kaigun. "Will you take me home with you?" His questions diverted Kaigun's attention as they approached the door of his room. The warrior opened the door and stopped before entering. A fetid smell warned him that they were not alone. He recognized it from the matla shop, the odor of a man averse to bathing, combined with the pungent scent of the dye that Margan warriors used to paint their skins. An undercurrent in the odor warned of something even worse, the smell of rotting flesh.



"Have you ever wondered, Margan, why you have seldom won a battle against my clan?" Kaigun said. He heard a stir from the dark corner beyond the cot and the dim light from the shuttered window revealed the warrior as he stood. He held his hands clasped in front of him in truce.



"He's come to rob you!" Dorn cried, cringing behind Kaigun at the sight of the Margan.



The Margan shook his head. "No warrior worthy of the name would steal the battle tokens of another warrior. They must be won in combat, or they are worthless. I came to return the battle trophy Dashkar took from you. I recognized its meaning and worth as soon as I saw it." The man extended the emerald that Kaigun had given to Dashkar in exchange for Dorn's freedom. The golden wire that twined the jewel and made a loop for braiding gleamed softly in the darkened room.



"I have no doubt that you had to fight a number of Dashkar's bullies when I left you with the challenge to repay him for his treachery," Kaigun granted. "I gave the emerald to him in payment for the boy. Count it as a battle token of your own."



The Margan hesitated, then nodded gravely and tucked the jewel into a belt pouch. "Dashkar is the reason for my taking refuge here. You left the matla shop just in time to avoid a braw;. There were at least four men waiting in the back of the shop. As soon as I rose and approached Dashkar, they rushed me. I was nearly overwhelmed. Fortunately, none of them were worthy of the name of warrior and any others who might have come to aid them quickly deserted the matla shop when they saw that I was winning. It is likely that Dashkar will be laid up for several weeks."



"You seem to have acquitted yourself well enough," Kaigun said. "Why do you need my help?"



"Several days ago Dashcar approached me with an offer of doing something that needed the skills of a warrior, but he had not yet revealed what he wanted me to do. He said that I must prove my worth before he told me all. Orquian priests have been recruiting here in Setalan and I suspect that Dashkar is one of them. Some of the men who attacked me wore the mark of demon worshipers."



Dorn pulled on Kaigun's tunic to get his attention. When Kaigun looked at him Dorn muttered. "You should make him go away. The Orquians will kill us if he stays."



"What do you know about the cult?" Kaigun asked the child.



"I slept in a closet near the door of the shop. Late at night Dashkar would leave. One time I followed him to the cave where the demon lives and spied on what he d-did." The boy fell silent and huddled into himself, wrapping his arms around his shoulders and cringing with the awful memory of what he had witnessed.



"What did you see?" the Margan asked impatiently.



"T-they killed a girl. I closed my eyes and didn't see her die, but I could hear her screaming. While they completed the ritual, I ran away. Dashkar's bullies found me near the river the next day. I never told them what I saw but Dashkar thought I tried to run away so he tied me up and wouldn't feed me for three days. After that, he locked me up at night."



Kaigun put his hand on the boy's head and cupped it tenderly, remorseful that a child so young would witness such vile acts. The Margan was not so sympathetic. "You should have reported the murder to the village chief."



"I saw him with the others in the cave. Most of the men with power in Setalan are members of the cult," the child muttered.



"What makes you think that they will come after me?" the Margan asked.



"The Orquians make blood oath to protect their secrets and take revenge on any who attack their members," Kaigun said. "It seems that all of us have reason to be careful. Tell me, Dorn, did you ever overhear Dashkar speaking to the other members of the cult?"



"There was a hole in the door of the closet where I slept. It was too small for me to get out, but sometimes when visitors came at night, I could hear what they were saying. Last night one of the other priests of Orqu came to visit Dashkar. They talked about capturing a band of pilgrims and using them for ritual."



The Margan gave a low growl. "My father nearly died in such a raid. Tharek was traveling with them and saved his life. When the cultists attacked the pilgrim band, Tharek gave the warning cry and held up a stone that shone bright as the sun. The cultists couldn't see its light and were easily defeated."



Kaigun had heard about the raid, but never from a source so close to the matter. "Did your father see the Sword of the Wizard Smith?"



The Margan nodded. "He said that Tharek conceals the star sword in a staff. He used its blade to kill the captured Orquians. He let one of them go free because he had not yet killed an innocent and wore no tokens of the cult. He carried the tale of what Tharek had done. Now the Orquians hate Tharek above all others. They would do anything to get revenge."



"They cannot hate him worse than the warriors of my clan," Kaigun replied. "They blame him for taking the star sword. Even though he won it from a warrior, he left the man alive. It brings shame on all of us that Darm still lives. I am on a quest to bring the star sword back to Algire and erase the stain on our honor."



"You cannot go alone on such an errand," the Margan said. "If you help me avert the Orquian attack on the pilgrim train, I will aid you in your quest." He held up his hand in oath sign. "I am Thrak, son of Palarm who saw the Stone of Truth."



Kaigun hesitated for a moment. If Thrak had sympathy for Tharek, as it seemed from his use of the honorific for his father, could he be trusted to help regain the sword?



The Margan reassured him. "All Janakans feel that it was unjust for Tharek to take the sword from Darm if he had no intent to give him a warrior's death. I would see it restored to Algire clan, and then I will be among the first to challenge its new owner."



"I look forward to meeting you in combat when I have the sword," Kaigun said. "I accept your offer of alliance. We will wait until nightfall before we leave Setalan. I am curious to know how you entered my room with the shutters still barred. I thought that the innkeeper was trustworthy. It seems that I was wrong."



"I was waiting in concealment in a large box in the alley by the inn. I used my knife to force the latch on the shutters and slipped in through the window while the innkeeper was diverted by your arrival. I have only been here for as long as it took you to come back to your room." Thrak said.



"No wonder you stink like a rotting corum," Dorn giggled. "There is a butcher store next to the alley. They store offal in the box. It was emptied only this morning."



Thrak seemed to swell and his face grew red with outrage, the ruddy hue rising to his naked temples and beyond until the blue tattoos on his scalp stood out in vivid contrast. "This brat will only cause us trouble," he snarled. "We should tie him up and leave him for the innkeeper to find."



"He only speaks the truth," Kaigun reproved the Margan. "I thought that you were more aromatic than the others of your clan. There is a bathing room just down the hall. Otherwise, your odor alone will warn of our movements if we try to leave the inn tonight."



"What of the boy?" the Margan challenged. "He will only impede us if we take him."



Thrak's eagerness to be rid of the boy piqued Kaigun's anger. "He can identify the men we are looking for and it will be easier to find them with his help," he answered sharply. "If we leave him here, he could fall victim to Dashkar when the Orquian recovers from your attack. Come, both of you must bathe and change your clothes. I will not travel with you in your filth."



Thrak scowled, but finally he nodded. "I will bathe, but I will not change my clothing." The garments in question consisted of little more than a kilted loincloth and a rudimentary vest that served to display his small collection of battle tokens.



"The edges of your kilt are covered with slimy blood from the box where you hid," Kaigun said. "I know that the warriors of your clan disdain to wash away the gore of battle from their clothing, but would any of them want to stink of the blood of corums slaughtered for meat and leather?"



"I have nothing else to wear," Thrak admitted with a scowl.



"The innkeeper is getting me some things for Dorn. It should not be difficult for him to find an extra loincloth and a tunic that will fit you. The things that you are wearing should be burned. Remove your battle tokens from your vest and put them in your belt pouch. I will take both of you to the bathing room and find some clothes for you."



With no further argument, Thrak set to work with a small obsidian blade cutting the treasured proofs of bravery from his vest. It was a paltry collection of minor tokens, betraying that he had been a warrior for only a year or so. It fit with his claim that his father had been one of the pilgrims saved by Tharek. Twenty years had passed since the encounter that had revealed that Tharek carried the sword that Algire the wizard smith had wrought from a star stone long ago.



Thrak's father would have been no more than a youth at the time. After the pilgrimage and the ritual washing in the waters of Lake Timora, he would have returned to his home to marry and produce a child before being welcomed to the ranks of Margan's warriors. However other practices among the clans might vary, even those who had abandoned pilgrimage still kept the rule. No man in any of Janaka's clans could be a warrior until he had become a father.



"Thrak, why did you come to Setalan?" Kaigun asked. "Surely you have a wife and children waiting for you in your village."



"I have a son, but my wife will not be satisfied with a mere warrior," the young man growled. "Other men from our village have hired themselves to the Orenese traders as guards for their caravans. They returned with trinkets of brass and shell made in Jama and Orenon. Now I that I have made an enemy of Dashkar, I can never give her the pretty things she craves."



Perhaps you will find some treasure to tempt smiles from your woman by the time we return to the mountains," Kaigun said.



Thrak's glum expression brightened and he quickly finished removing the battle tokens from his vest. Kaigun went to the door and looked into the corridor. Hours remained until the dinner hour and it seemed none of the other tenants had returned. "Come quickly. I will deal with the innkeeper while you bathe, but it is best if no others know of your presence in the inn."



He led Thrak and Dorn to the bathing room and waited for them to remove their soiled clothing. They grimaced as they immersed themselves tentatively in the steaming water.



Satisfied once they had settled into the pool up to their necks, Kaigun blocked the door against intruders and wrapped Thrak's pungent kilt tightly in the other garments before taking them to the grate that provided access to the alley. He pushed the bundle through the narrow opening, thinking that the smell alone should keep away the curious.



He found the innkeeper at his accustomed post just inside the front door. "Could you provide me with a kilt and tunic along with the clothing for the boy?" he asked the man.



"I have something left by a former tenant who left without paying what was due, but it may be too small for you."



Kaigun hesitated for a moment, but Thrak's body was slightly shorter and somewhat thinner, enough so that he had not offered him any of his own spare garments. "I want them for a friend who has joined me. I am sure the clothes you have will suit him. Could you bring them to my room along with the clothing I requested for the boy?"



"If you will keep guard here by the door I will fetch them now," the innkeeper offered. "The reputation of my inn rests on guarding the privacy of my tenants. I am surprised I did not see your friend enter."



"Perhaps you were too distracted to notice his entrance," Kaigun equivocated.



The innkeeper seemed a little uncertain of Kaigun's explanation, but he hurried away toward the back of the inn, paying the Algiran the implicit compliment of trusting him to keep watch on the door. He soon returned with a pile of assorted garments. "You can chose which of these you want to keep. I will not charge you for the extra clothing."



"I have one more request to make of you," Kaigun said. "You have proved that you are an honest man, but can you be discreet?"



"I know how to keep my own counsel," the innkeeper assured him. "Otherwise I could never survive in such a place as Setalan. The Orquians have infested every seat of power. If I had a wife or daughter to worry about, I would return to Tedaka. But this inn is profitable and if I left, where would the few who still honor the Radiance find someone to lead their worship?"



"You are a priest?" Kaigun asked.



The innkeeper nodded. "I am Folsha. My cousin is the Headman in Tedaka but both of us received instruction in Timora. I came to Setalan on instructions from Regnon, keeper of the Eye of Adanan. I did not question the assignment."



"Pray for us," Kaigun implored. "My friends and I have an errand to perform that needs your blessing. Dashkar and his cohorts plan to attack a pilgrim train. We intend to interfere."



"This is a matter for the Elite Guards," the innkeeper said. "But it would take days to contact them. I will pray for you, but be careful."



When Kaigun returned to the bathing room, he found Thrak and Dorn splashing in the pool, tossing water at each other and laughing like rowdy brothers. As soon as they noticed Kaigun watching, they subsided.



"We must eat and rest to gain strength for our errand against the Orquians," Kaigun said. "Dry yourselves and dress while I get something for us to eat. Wait here until I return, and be quiet."



The smells of baking guided Kaigun to the kitchen. He was surprised to see a young man at the griddle, then he remembered what the innkeeper had said about having neither wife nor daughter. The resemblance between the cook and the innkeeper gave evidence that this was Folsha's son. He appeared to be a few years younger than Thrak but he used the tools of the kitchen with a deft hand that promised a good meal.



He glanced up at Kaigun who held up three fingers. The young cook nodded and lifted three large matlas from the griddle. He dropped a ladle full of spicy meat in the center of each flat piece of bread and rolled them up. He pointed to a large crock of pickled breadberries and Kaigun nodded. He disliked breadberries plain, but the spicy scent that rose from the crock was promising. He hesitated over an offer of nuka fruit. He would drink the juice in preference to wine, but he really did not like the tart taste of the red-gold fruit. Perhaps Thrak and Dorn would want to eat them. He nodded, then indicated a small block of corum cheese. "Prepare a packet of matlas and cheese for me sufficient for three days, along with a full water skin. I will pick them up later in the evening after you have fed your other guests."



The cook handed Kaigun the platter containing the meat-stuffed matlas and the breadberries. The nuka fruit were separate in a basket. Balancing the two containers, Kaigun returned to the bathing room. As soon as he unlatched the door, Dorn rushed at him, setting him off balance. He managed to stabilize the platter, but the basket overturned, spilling nuka fruit across the floor.



Thrak scrambled to pick them up, even removing his buskins to go after a couple that had rolled into the pool. He wiped them dry on his tunic and popped one of them into his mouth. The smile on his face as he savored the fruit gave evidence that he enjoyed the taste.



Much of the color had faded from the designs died on the Margan's head and arms making the fuzz of stubble growing on his chin and scalp more evident. It was just as well he could not see himself or he would want to renew the dye. With his cheeks filled with nuka fruit and dressed in a tunic that hung a little loose, Thrak looked far less fearsome than he had an hour earlier.



Dorn, on the other hand, was much improved by the bath and change of clothes. Kaigun used his blade to trim the boy's wild hair, now clean and shining. A line of neat bangs hid the nasty bruise on his forehead and his face did not seem so pale without the contrast of dirty smudges. He looked less like an urchin.



After checking to make sure that there was nobody in the corridor to observe them, they returned to their room. Kaigun gestured for the others to take seats on the cot. Dorn muttered a little with impatience when Kaigun paused to ask the Radiance to protect them and bless their errand before he sat down between them and shared out the food.



As he had hoped, the pickled breadberries were well seasoned and salty. The matlas were crisp on the outside and soft within. The spiced meat was the only disappointment, but how could a Tedakan know how to properly prepare barbecue? It was at least adequate, neither tough and stringy nor too tender to give a satisfactory exercise to the teeth.



Sitting side by side on the cot, the three of them ate the simple meal. Dorn and Thrak seemed equally hungry and when they had finished every particle they looked at Kaigun expectantly. He realized that neither of them had eaten since morning. Possibly Dorn had not eaten since the day before.



"Stay here and keep quiet and I will fetch more food," he promised them. "Open the door only if you recognize my voice."



The corridor leading between his room and the kitchen on the other side of the inn ran crosswise of the entrance hall. As he neared the corner, Kaigun heard a voice raised at the door. "We are searching for three people who robbed and injured Dashkar, the Orenese trader. Two of them are Janakans. The other is a runaway servant. One of them was seen entering your inn earlier today."



"There was a Janakan here earlier, a man with a beard full of battle tokens," The innkeeper admitted. "He told me he would travel for some time and wanted to reserve a room for his return. Let me show you where he stayed."



Kaigun hung back, astonished at what seemed to be the innkeeper's betrayal, but the next words of the seeker reassured him that the Tedakan had determined the best way to discourage the search.



"I won't waste my time looking at an empty room. If he comes again, send a messenger to Dashkar. He is offering a prize for the capture of the brutes who attacked him."



The innkeeper looked up at a polished piece of metal mounted above the doorway and met Kaigun's eye in the reflection. "I will keep watch for him," he assured the Orquian standing just beyond Kaigun's sight.



The clatter of boots on the stone of the street warned of the return of other guests of the inn and the innkeeper turned to greet them. Kaigun slipped past the entrance hall and hurried to the kitchen. The cook was away from the room on some errand but he had already set aside the cheese and the packet of matlas Kaigun had requested.



Kaigun had hoped to save the food for the journey, but he did not want to linger in the kitchen any longer than necessary. The cook returned to the kitchen with the water skin and handed it to Kaigun, seeming to understand the reason for the change of plans.



"Go with the blessing of the Radiance," he muttered before turning his attention to the griddle where a batch of matlas neared completion.



Wary of being seen by other guests, Kaigun darted back toward his room. When he neared the doorway of the common room where the guests were gathering to dine, he paused. It seemed inevitable that one of them would see him. Just then the cook brushed past him and entered the common room with a platter filled with steaming matlas in one hand and a crock of pickled breadberries in the other. He walked to the other side of the room before beginning to serve, drawing all eyes away from the door.



Kaigun muttered a quick prayer of gratitude for the aid of his new friends and hurried to his room. "It is Kaigun," he muttered. The door stayed closed and the room seemed ominously silent. Had Thrak and Dorn been detected in his absence. He repeated his name a little louder and he heard the sound of the latch being lifted.



As soon as the door opened, Thrak and Dorn attacked the matlas and cheese like hungry pakas eating ota shoots. While they ate Kaigun told them of his near encounter with one of Dashkar's bullies. Thrak frowned, but nothing seemed to distract him from eating. The provisions Kaigun had hoped would last for several days were quickly reduced to a fraction of what he had expected to pack for the journey.



Thrak gave a loud belch and patted his distended stomach. Dorn flopped down on the cot and sighed with repletion.



"I will stand watch while the two of you get some rest," Kaigun said. "We will wait until the other guests are sleeping before we try to leave the inn."



"We should leave now while the streets are crowded," Thrak countered. "It will be easier to avoid notice if we alter the way we look. We could use the other clothing the innkeeper provided to make disguises for ourselves."



Kaigun looked from one to the other of his companions. Their baths and change of clothing had made a difference, but something more was needed. As for himself, he glumly concluded that he would have to borrow Thrak's obsidian blade and remove his treasured beard.



It seemed that Thrak was thinking along the same lines, but his conclusion was somewhat different. "You could pretend to be an Orenese woman. The veil would conceal your face and hide your beard. The coverlet from the bed is wide enough to drape around your head and shoulders like a shawl and you could belt a tunic around your waist to serve as a skirt."



Dorn began to giggle. "He is too tall and broad to be a woman."



Kaigun agreed, but then he thought of his beard and made a choice. "I can walk stooped over. I will bind my sword and halter with a strap and use them as a staff."



Thrak seemed to have a genius for creating disguises. He asked Kaigun if he could remove a few inches from the end of his queue. The warrior nodded. Thrak quickly wove the hair into a topknot that fit his pate like a skull cap, successfully concealing his shaved head and the faded tattoos. With a tunic hiding his tattooed chest and upper arms, he completed the transformation into a rather ordinary youth.



Dorn refused to be dressed as a girl. Thrak seemed disappointed, but finally he agreed. "The Orquians are known for stealing girls and maidens. Perhaps it is best if we leave him as he is."



"I doubt that many who knew Dorn as Dashkar's servant would recognize him now," Kaigun said. "Now let's get our story straight. I am Perlan, a matron from Orenon looking for my husband who has been too long gone from our home by the eastern sea. You two are my sons, Thag and Dod. Keep silent unless I tell you to speak." As he spoke, Kaigun's voice became falsetto and he affected a lisp. Dorn giggled at the effect.



Thrak seemed stunned. "You sound just like one of the Orenese women who keep the matla shop where we met."



"That was my intent," Kaigun said, continuing the falsetto murmur, much to Dorn's amusement.



"In these disguises we should be able to escape Setalan before nightfall," Thrak said. "I suggest that we should leave through the window."



"It is a long way down," Dorn warned, rubbing his still tender hip that had been injured in his fall earlier that day.



"Perhaps it would be better if we tested our disguises on someone who might recognize us," Kaigun suggested. "The innkeeper will let us know if our attempts at camoflage are successful."



Eying the window once more and finally shrugging his reluctant agreement, Thrak settled his makeshift wig firmly on his head and preceded Dorn and Kaigun out of the room. They met a few men and women in the corridor, but none of them seemed to give a second glance at the trio.



To Kaigun's disappointment, after one incredulous stare, the innkeeper covered his mouth to stifle his laughter. "You recognize me?" the warrior asked in the same soft lisp that made Dorn giggle.



"Not at first, but that veil that you have wound around your face was woven by my wife. To be truthful, it took me a moment to make the connection between this well dressed child and the ruffian scamp you adopted. I can only wonder who is concealed beneath what I now detect are remnants of your braid."



"Then you think we will succeed in our disguises?" Kaigun waited anxiously as the innkeeper studied each of them in turn.



"After sunset, while the streets are crowded with people, you should pass easily. You fooled me for just a moment, and I have a good eye for such things. You would hardly credit the chicanery an innkeeper is exposed to by those who are reluctant to pay for their lodging."



Someone approached the door of the inn and Kaigun motioned for Dorn and Thrak to move back behind him in the corridor. As soon as he heard the voice that hailed the innkeeper, Kaigun recognized the seeker who had come to the inn earlier. This time he did not stop at the door, but pushed the innkeeper aside and looked around.



"We intend to make a thorough search for the fugitives. Dashkar has offered a reward of fifty enas for the capture of any of them. You would do well to cooperate."



The bully pushed past Kaigun with no apology and seemed to dismiss both Thrak and Dorn with only a glance. "Come along boys," Kaigun cooed in a tremulous treble. With a gesture of farewell from the innkeeper, they left the inn and ventured into the street.



Chapter 3 Disguise





Kaigun stepped to the rear and let Thrak lead the way along the street. When they had gone a few yards, Kaigun recognized Dashkar reclining in a litter surrounded by a squad of armed men. They were stationed at the crossroad where Dashkar turned his head to scrutinize everyone who passed.



Kaigun gathered Dorn close to his side and concealed the child's face with a corner of the cloth that he was using as a shawl. Turning away from the sharp eyes of the Orenese merchant, the Algiran made a pretense of studying a display of fabric hung from pegs inside a shop. Thrak tugged at his shawl to hurry him along.



"We must turn back to the inn," Kaigun hissed with a slight gesture toward the men stationed at the corner.



Lingering for a few moments to avoid making a sudden, suspicious move, Kaigun reached out and stroked a bright length of zilka cloth. The shopkeeper caught his gesture and hurried forward from the back of the shop.



Thrak choked back a chuckle as he saw the tall Algiran caught up in a rapid spate of bargaining that included shrill protests by the merchant that an Orenese woman must recognize the superiority of his wares. Dashkar's eyes turned toward the trio and Kaigun had no choice but to satisfy the noisy shopkeeper by purchasing the length of cloth.



From the corner of his eye, Kaigun saw Dashkar turn his gaze away to study another byway. He abruptly took the package of cloth from the merchant as soon as he had counted out a few coins and then turned back toward the inn. He had neglected to ask the innkeeper if there was a back entrance they could use. Even if they had no recourse but to lay low until Dashkar turned his attention elsewhere, they could not risk the scrutiny of one so well acquainted with Dorn.



The innkeeper betrayed only a flicker of surprise when they returned. Without a word, he gestured toward the kitchen door and the trio hurried past him. They could hear the raised voices of the searchers and Kaigun caught a brief glimpse of men moving around in the small room at the end of the corridor. Suddenly the mat that had covered the cot came flying through the door, scattering red root husks from rips along its seams.



Dorn gave a tiny gasp of dismay and huddled closer to Kaigun as they hurried into the shelter of the kitchen. They found the young cook standing in the midst of upturned barrels and scattered supplies. He held a crock of picked breadberries tight against his chest and looked around him in dismay. "Why did they try to ruin everything?" he asked, bewildered. "They laughed when I protested."



"They are Orquians," Thrak explained while Kaigun righted a barrel and Dorn gathered up scattered nuts.



"They claim their demon loves disorder and everything unclean," Kaigun added. "Perhaps you noticed that they disdain to bathe or clean their clothing."



The cook made a face and Dorn choked back a giggle when Kaigun raised his fingers to his veiled mouth. "There is nothing humorous about the flaunting of filth," the young Tedakan cook muttered.



Thrak seemed anxious to distance Margan clan from Orquian practices. "Our warriors make a show of wearing battle gore, but we value order in our homes and none are cleaner than our wives and children."



The sound of voices in the corridor brought an urgent gesture of silence from Kaigun. The cook opened a low door in the corner of the room and urged them to enter. It was little more than a cupboard where wood for the griddle was kept. Moments after the door was shut on the three huddled fugitives, they heard the protests of the cook as once again his storage vessels were tumbled. The sudden sharp odor of pickle juice followed the sound of a jar being shattered.



A shout of raucous laughter trailed away as the bullies left the kitchen. Not long afterward, the cook opened the door of the storage cabinet and helped Kaigun, Thrak and Dorn to crawl out. "They only seemed to want to make certain that they ruined everything before they left," he said, with a gesture toward the shards of pottery and pickled breadberries that littered the floor.



"Is there some way we can leave the inn other than climbing out a window or going through the entrance door?" Kaigun asked.



"My father believes that having just one door is better for our safety. We bring all of our supplies in through the front. I think you will be safer here than venturing into the streets now that they have made a thorough search."



"Is there anyone staying in the room above the entrance door?" Kaigun asked. "If not, Thrak could watch from the window and tell us when Dashkar leaves the corner."



"That room is where I sleep after my work is done. I will take Thrak up to watch if you think it worth the risk that he could be seen."



"I doubt that even my brother would recognize me in this guise," Thrak admitted as he scratched beneath the topknot covering his scalp.



"Dorn is the one we must keep out of sight," Kaigun said. "It might be best if he stays here in concealment while I mingle in the dining room with the other guests and see what I can learn."



"Give me something to eat and I will stay here in the wood closet," Dorn volunteered. He had already salvaged several handfuls of pickled breadberries from the wreckage on the floor.



The cook found some matlas that the bullies had overlooked and provided Dorn with a handful that he could eat while he waited. "It is fortunate that I already served dinner to the other guests," the young cook muttered.



Kaigun left the kitchen first. He sloped his shoulders and cringed within the confines of his concealing drapes to minimize his size. When he entered the dining room, he received only a few glances. Everyone was busy discussing the insults and abuse of the bullies who had left the inn only minutes earlier.



"They should be whipped by the chieftain of the town," a burly Kumnoran teamster growled.



"They are the chieftain's cronies," his table partner cautioned. "Be grateful that they left us alone once they failed to find the fugitives who assaulted Dashkar."



"They say the men responsible are staying at this inn," a woman murmured. "They tore up the small room at the end of the corridor. I saw them prying up the floorboards when I passed."



"Did they discover anything?" the teamster asked.



"I think they would have been less surly if they found anything," the woman replied.



Kaigun settled onto a bench at the end of the table and lifted up a cup that had not been claimed by one of the other diners. He slid it under his concealing veil and sipped at the tangy juice while he listened.



A self-important little man wearing the striped shawl peculiar to a Saadenan scribe cleared his throat and caught the attention of the others. "This is more than just a hunt for fugitives. Tonight I will leave Setalan before my business is concluded. There are dreadful things underway. The child who Dashkar claims is a runaway was sold to the merchant by his mother. I heard from a reliable informant that the woman and her other children, both young girls, were taken to the Orquian cave and sacrificed at sunset."



There was a gasp of shocked surprise from everyone who heard his claim. Kaigun shut his eyes and groaned with grief for the orphaned child he had taken under his protection. He uttered a silent appeal to the Radiance that somehow he could save Dorn from sharing the fate of his mother and sisters.



"What did they hope to gain by committing such an outrage?" one of the guests protested.



"They use fear as an instrument of coercion," Kaigun whispered.



"It is well that the innkeeper has no wife or daughter to be taken by the Orquians or he would lose them," the teamster said. "I cannot continue doing business here where such things can take place with the cooperation of the highest officials. I will leave with my team this evening."



One by one the other guests concurred. The Saadenan urged them to organize into a caravan, explaining that there was risk to any woman who did not have a sizable escort. He turned to Kaigun. "Even a woman of Orenon such as yourself will not be safe in Setalan now that the Orquians are rampant. You must join us and bring along any of your dependants whom you value."



Kaigun considered the advantage of traveling away from Setalan with a large party. Surely this was an answer to his prayer. He nodded slowly, making the caravan a unanimous gathering of all who had gathered in the dining room.



Now that a course had been decided, the others rose and hurried off to gather what they needed in order to make their exit from the inn. Some called for the innkeeper, others sought the help of his son, the cook. Kaigun was the last to rise. He was tempted to check the condition of the room he had reserved, but he knew it would be folly. If the searchers had discovered his hidden battle prizes, it was unlikely they would have been so surly with the other guests. He would have to wait to regain his battle tokens until he returned to Setalan after winning the Sword of the Wizard Smith from Tharek. It seemed unlikely that he would return as soon as he had hoped when he had set out from his home two days before.



Kaigun looked up the stairwell and saw Thrak hurrying down the stairs toward him, his hand clamped to his topknot to keep it in place while he leaped three steps and nearly lost his footing. "Dashkar has given up his watch at the corner. It is safe for us to leave the inn," he gasped.



Kaigun gripped Thrak and put his hand near his mouth, urging him to be quiet. "We are joining a caravan that will be leaving Setalan this evening. Dorn should stay in hiding until just before we leave. We must not let him talk to the other guests even after we have taken the trail."



Thrak's eyes widened with speculation. They moved along the corridor toward the kitchen where the cook was fending off the eager requests of other guests. Thrak stopped and lowered his voice to a murmur. "I will keep Dorn from the others. Perhaps it would be useful if I spread the rumor that he is ill."



"Wait until we are well underway before you say anything," Kaigun counseled. "Illness might prove a useful excuse to separate ourselves from the others once we escape Dashkar's net. Meanwhile, take this coin and hire a covered litter for me. It would seem unseemly for me to walk and it will provide a place where Dorn can be concealed."



After Thrak returned with a litter, Kaigun consulted the bearers. "Are you willing to carry me on a journey away from Setalan?" he asked them. They seemed as eager as the people in the inn to quit the city but begged to be allowed to fetch supplies for the journey. After they left the inn Kaigun directed Thrak to offer assistance to the others in the caravan. Meanwhile, he went to the kitchen and summoned Dorn out of the wood closet. Keeping the boy close to his side, he walked to the litter and concealed him behind the drapery. After doing so, Kaigun sat in the place usually occupied by the innkeeper and kept watch on the entrance of the inn.



At last the caravan was ready to leave. There were fifteen men, counting Kaigun and his two husky litter bearers. Four women and five children huddled in the midst of the others, keeping well away from the dalas of the teamster who led the group. The normally placid animals seemed infected with the anxiety of their usually stolid master. They moved their polled heads from side to side, rattling the chains and metal buckles of their harnesses.



The racket attracted the attention of passers-by and as soon as the caravan set off down the street they met a challenge from a group of bullies wearing the tokens of Orqu on their headbands. "Stop and let us search your baggage!" the leader of the troop demanded.



Kaigun, peering through a tear in the drapery of his litter, saw the teamster move his goad to the rearward dala and lightly draw the barbed end against the animal's haunches. It was hardly more than a scratch, but the already nervous dala bellowed and plunged forward, driving the rest of the herd ahead of it.



The teamster was prepared for the stampede and kept his hands on the lines that held his team, running to keep pace as they scattered the Orquians. The people in the caravan scrambled after the team, taking advantage of the clearing of the road. The teamster shouted mocking apologies to the man who had commanded him to stop. Kaigun's litter bearers, well paid in advance with a promise of more if they were worthy of the bonus, kept pace, jogging the litter as they raced toward the road that led south away from Setalan.



The team finally slowed and stopped when the caravan passed well beyond the last straggling suburbs. The hour was late, but the teamster advised them that it would be unwise to camp until they had put more distance between themselves and the Orquian-infested town. Once the dalas had regained their wind and were ready to set off again, no one protested against continuing. It was nearly midnight and clouds covered the stars, increasing the gloom when the teamster finally called a halt.



The litter lurched and settled to the ground and Kaigun woke Dorn who had succumbed to the steady rhythm of the running litter bearers. The boy had been groaning slightly in his sleep, doubtless suffering the pangs of eating far more than was good for him. The stale air inside the closed litter had given Kaigun a headache and he felt hampered by the draperies that concealed and covered him. Worst of all, for a battle hardened warrior, were the hours of forced inaction. His limbs were cramped and he staggered when he rose and stepped out of the litter.



Kaigun lifted the child in his arms and felt a shiver go through him. Just in time, he held the boy away from him. The results of Dorn's too eager appetite splashed out on the ground, giving evidence that he had salvaged too many of the spilled breadberries. The sour stench brought a reproof from the Saadenan scribe who passed near enough to witness Dorn's illness. Kaigun felt would be well for both of them to relieve and clean themselves before trying to settle down for the night.



Fearful that his identity might be revealed if he stopped too near the place where the teamster was directing the setting up of camp, Kaigun carried Dorn into the bushes that lined the track and walked until he found a small stream. They were far enough from the camp that he thought it would be safe to remove the stifling drapes that covered his head and body. He put down the wrapped sword and began to divest himself of his bulky garments, shifting Dorn from one arm to the other until he had stripped down to his tunic. He put Dorn down on top of the pile and left the boy to rest while he relieved himself and washed.



Refreshed, he helped the child clean himself. "Will I die?" Dorn murmured. The tremulous little voice affected Kaigun. It seemed unlikely that Dorn had ever suffered the effects of overindulgence in his short and meager life.



"You ate too many pickled breadberries," Kaigun explained as he washed the boy's brow with a moistened cloth. "After a good night's sleep you will be up to more lessons in how to be a warrior."



"I am feeling better now," Dorn said. "Can we stay out here to sleep? I don't like the smell of dalas."



Kaigun looked back toward the glow of the campfires that cast a pale orange light on the clouds overhead. If the Orquians persisted in the chase, they would have an easy time of finding the caravan. He wished there was some way to let Thrak know where they were, but the young Margan was resourceful. He would know that they were safe.



"We will make our own camp here as you suggest," Kaigun said. "It would be better if we don't try to light a fire. You should be warm enough wrapped up in these clothes"



After Kaigun arranged the clothes and covered Dorn, the child gave a little sigh of contentment. "Will you say a prayer for my mother?" he asked.



Kaigun nodded and raised his hands toward the heavens. "We come before the Radiance and pray that Dorn's mother and his little sisters will have peace and happiness."



"Thank you," the child murmured. "I wish my mother could see how kind you are to me. It would make her happy."



Kaigun would not admit that the moisture on his cheek was anything but an errant drop of rain. It was not fitting for a warrior to weep. He unwrapped his sword and lay down with his back against a boulder with his sword hilt near his hand. Hidden in the dense brush as they were, it would not be necessary to keep watch and he was weary from a day of shifting scenes and change of fortune.



He woke with the first dim rays of dawn. While Dorn slept, Kaigun gathered leather-root and the tiny berries of the blue-green shrub that surrounded them. Somehow or other they would have to separate themselves from the caravan and provide for themselves. Wild pakas could be easily lured and trapped using the berries.



As soon as Dorn woke up, Kaigun assumed his Orenese disguise from the clothes the boy had used as bedding. He lifted the child in his arms and made his way back toward the camp, following the bellows of the dalas. The noise receded, as if the caravan were already moving away.



Soon a pall of dust appeared and Kaigun realized that his sense of hearing had not betrayed him. The caravan was not merely moving away, but doing so at a speed that would make them difficult to overtake. Were they fleeing an attack by Orquians?



Kaigun slowed to avoid the risk of running headlong into the cultists. After he found the track that led to toward the abandoned camp, he kept to the verges where looming shrubs offered cover.



When Kaigun reached the campsite, he saw a solitary figure leaning over the diminished campfire tending a roasting paka. It was Thrak.



Dorn clambered out of Kaigun's grasp and ran toward the Margan. "What happened to the caravan?" he asked.



"They were afraid of catching the plague," Thrak said.



Kaigun unwound the shawl that had concealed his face and divested himself of all the other drapes. It was a great relief to draw a breath of unobstructed air. Thrak helped him fold and store the fabric in a cache that they dug in the sandy soil at the edge of the campground before he returned to check the paka on the spit.



Satisfied with the progress of his cooking, Thrak summoned the others. "Come and eat your breakfast. This paka is roasted to a turn."



Dorn's appetite was fully recovered from his illness of the night before. Soon the succulent roasted animal was reduced to a pile of bones and skin.



While Dorn wandered around the camp looking for small things he could scavenge, Kaigun consulted quietly with Thrak.



"What outrageous story did you tell them to make them fear the plague?" the Algiran asked.



"I told them nothing but the truth. In fact, I think my eager assurances that Dorn was only suffering from eating too much should have been convincing. I did mention that he was virtually an orphan because of a terrible blight that afflicted the people of Setalan. The Saadenan argued with the teamster. The Kumnoran felt it would be cowardly to leave a woman and two children alone. I pointed out that if the blight affected the two of you, you would not return to camp. Of course I was referring to the Orquians, but somehow the idea became fixed that you were ill. The bearers gave witness to Dorn's groans. Finally the scribe convinced the teamster that his team could be at risk. Once the decision to abandon you without a search was made, they wasted little time. Of course their guilt was eased when I volunteered to stay behind and wait."



"What happened to the litter you hired? I paid the bearers well."



Thrak shook his head. "No one could pay them enough to keep them here when they were convinced that Dorn was carrying the plague. They gave me back a portion of the fee you paid them and the Saadenan scribe hired them instead."



Dorn skipped up to them and displayed a collection of tiny trinkets that had been overlooked by the members of the caravan in their rush to leave the campsite.



Among the booty was a cup decorated with inlaid pictures of fish and waves in the manner of Orenese craftsmen. Kaigun's memory was tweaked by the distinctive pattern. Dashkar had used a cup of the same pattern for his wine when he had lured Kaigun to the matla shop with the intent of ambushing him.



"Look at this," Kaigun displayed the cup to Thrak. "Do you think it has any significance?"



"Some of Dashkar's men had cups like this one," Dorn said. "He had an uncle in Orenon who made them specially for his use." Kaigun held up the cup to look at the pattern closely. The sign of Orqu was concealed in the design.



"This would seem to indicate that one of the guests at Falsha's inn is Orquian. I think there is a spy among the members of the caravan. We must assume the worst. We have already lingered here too long. Bury the fire while I prepare."



After organizing their packs to best effect, Kaigun led the way into the brush. He took his bearings by the morning sun and headed toward a pass that led from the plateau where they had camped. The ground was rough and rocky and he was grateful for his new boots with their sturdy soles. Now and then he carried Dorn over the worst rubble. Thrak began to fall behind. Finally the Margan called for a halt.



"I used to think that I was able to keep up with any pace another man could set," Thrak gasped breathlessly when Kaigun stopped and waited for him. "You have humbled me. Even carrying Dorn, you left me behind."



"I should have slowed for you," Kaigun said. "We will take a rest for a while. Your boots soles are too thin for this country. Chew some leather root and use the fibers to pad the insides of your boots. That should suffice for now. We should avoid towns until we intercept the raiders."



Thrak made a face as he followed Kaigun's suggestion and cut off a length of a wilted leather root. It took several minutes of steady chewing to reduce the root to a hank of tough fibers. "How will we keep the Orquians from assaulting the pilgrims?" Thrak asked as he twisted the fibers into a pad to line his boots. "We have only rumors to go by."



"The pilgrim trails that are most vulnerable to raiding lay to the southwest," Kaigun explained. "The south pass from the plateau is the likely route for the Orquian raiders. We can conceal ourselves in the heights above the pass and watch for them."



"How do you know so much about the passes and the pilgrim trails," Dorn asked him.



"My father was with me when I made my pilgrimage seven years ago," Kaigun said. "We used the south pass when we went to Timora. He used the journey to train me to observe the terrain we passed through and analyze it for strategic advantage."



"You were fortunate to know your father as a youth," Thrak muttered. "Mine died in battle when I was only a child."



Dorn had been napping but now he looked up sleepily. "I wish I knew my father."



"I will be your father," Kaigun promised. He had once again acted impulsively, but he could not regret it when he saw the expression in Dorn's eyes. He raised his hand in pledge sign and made an oath of adopting the boy. He looked around until he found a palm-sized, flat stone of friable schist and engraved a record of the ritual. Each of them scratched their witness mark with the tip of Kaigun's knife.



Thrak suddenly stilled and stared toward a sunlit rock nearby. "I will make a feast in honor of your new son Dorn," he muttered.



Kaigun followed the direction of the Margan's gaze and saw a large gray lizard basking on a rock that nearly matched its pebbly skin. Moving more like a reptile than a man, Thrak slid from the rock where he had been sitting and moved stealthily toward the stone where the lizard poised, keeping low and out of sight of the swiveling eyes. His quarry suddenly came alert and raised up on its legs.



The lizard twitched its tail and darted to the side, but Thrak was quicker than his prey. He grasped it around its body before it could disappear into a crack and held up his hand to display the catch. Kaigun assembled the makings of a fire and was ready when Thrak finished preparing the lizard, stuffing its cavity with leaves from a nearby fragrant herb and sliding a spit along its length.



They kept the fire small and the tinder dry enough that hardly any hint of smoke rose into the air above them. While the lizard roasted, Kaigun prepared a mixture of breadberries and the small pungent berries he had gathered earlier that morning. Thrak set cups and plates on the surface of the stone where the lizard had been captured and Dorn gathered a few bright pebbles to decorate the center of the setting.



"I've never had a feast before," Dorn confided with a grin after he had stripped the last morsel of meat from his portion of the lizard. Thrak glanced over Dorn's head at Kaigun and made a grimace of sympathy for the boy. Both of them had memories of many feasts and celebrations. This meager meal represented all that Dorn had missed.



"Come, we have rested long enough. We must find our way to a vantage point above the pass before sunset," Kaigun said. He lifted Dorn to his shoulders and led the way up the ridge.





Chapter 4 Raiders





Wary of the possibility of watchers in the plains below, Kaigun took a winding path to avoid making a silhouette against the sky. This, combined with the dense shrubs that often blocked the way and the uncertain footing of fall areas that were littered with loose stone, prolonged their climb until Thrak began to mutter complaints.



"We will never reach the overlook before nightfall. We could have watched for the Orquians as easily below after going through the pass ourselves."



Kaigun stopped and waited for the Margan to catch up to him. The men of Algire clan had seldom questioned his decisions, but Thrak was too valuable to their enterprise to let discouragement set in. "We have no idea of how many men will be in the Orquian raiding party. They may have trackers who could pick up signs of our passage and surprise us from behind."



Thrak tilted his head to the side. "A warrior of your rank in Margan clan would have refused to answer my impertinence."



"I seldom do anything without good reason Thrak, although I can't claim that everything I have done lately meets a strict standard of rationality." Kaigun bent his head and frowned. "We sound like scribes, practicing to use long words. A warrior says only what is necessary."



To his surprise, Thrak continued the conversation. "How can I learn all that might be needed on this expedition unless you explain things to me now and then? I can observe and guess, but if my guesses are wrong, it could cost us heavily. You are not at the head of a troop of experienced warriors who have learned your ways for years. I admit that I am hardly more than a novice and Dorn is only a child, but with your leadership, we've made a good account of ourselves so far."



Kaigun nodded briefly in answer before turning and setting off again.



Long clouds streaked the sky as the day ripened into afternoon. A chilly wind whipped the top branches of the shrubs and sent curls of dust racing over rocky slopes where no seeds could take purchase long enough to grow. The sun's heat on their shoulders and heads counteracted the chill.



Kaigun worried about the heaps of billowing clouds that rode the winds toward the northeast, trailing veils of rain. Deep gullies and tumbled rocks gave evidence that storms could be sudden and fierce along these heights. Undercut ledges pocked the faces of the steeper slopes, but so far none of them had offered the combination of viewpoint and shelter he was searching for.



At last he saw a promising dark hollow and turned to Thrak. "It is not yet sundown and we could climb higher in the hours of day still left to us, but it might rain tonight. I see a cave where we should camp."



"I have fought and camped out in rainstorms before," the young warrior replied dismissively. "If you feel that you must stop for Dorn's sake, stay here while I go higher."



Kaigun's features hardened. "You asked me to explain my decisions," he reminded the Margan. "I have done so. What I ask of you is obedience to the decisions that I make. If you cannot do so, leave us now. I would be better off with a child as my only ally than continue with a man who takes his own counsel against my greater knowledge and experience."



Thrak looked chagrined, then raised his eyes to the Algiran. "I was out of place."



Kaigun maintained a grim face as he nodded and turned away to study the opposite slope. A steep fall of loose stone at the base of the cliff blocked easy access to the cave. A continuation of the narrow ledge that formed the floor of the cave seemed the only practical access to the shelter.



"I'll investigate the cave," Kaigun said. He lowered Dorn from his shoulder and ordered him to stay still. "If you move, you could start a cascade that would carry all of us down."



"I understand," the child said with a pert glance at Thrak. "I will do exactly what you tell me."



Kaigun made his way across the narrow valley, crossing the stream that meandered along a rocky bed and bearing eastward until he cleared the fall of stones. After that he found it relatively easy to scale the cliff by using the rough ledges that projected from the steep face to pull himself upward. A spindly bush marked the edge of the ledge that led to the cave. He broke off a sizable limb and stripped it into a staff. Then he proceeded cautiously along the edge toward the cave, using the staff to probe for friable stone. Several times the ledge crumbled away under his thrusting staff, reducing the available width as stones tore lose and fell to the ravine below, sending up a curtain of choking dust and muddying the stream.



At last Kaigun reached the cave and found that it widened beyond the entrance. He could stand erect in the center of the rough oval of the floor. Remains of prey provided evidence that the cave had once been used as a den by a large predator, but the bones left on the floor were eroded and grey with dust. No smell of decay or musk remained to indicate a threat of recent occupancy.



When Kaigun stood just within the shadow of the overhang at the entrance of the cave, he could see the pass below from side to side and for several miles into the plain beyond, making it a nearly perfect vantage point to keep watch for the Orquian raiding party. With the stream below to provide for water and the promise of fresh game, they could camp here indefinitely.



He returned to Thrak and Dorn by working his way along the ledge toward the west until he cleared the area of fall. The ledge on this side of the cave was sturdier and only once gave way under his probing staff. Even so, the fall was minor, taking only a small fraction from the ledge when a few stones bounced away. It seemed to be a better path for Thrak and Dorn to take.



When Kaigun returned to the shelf of stone where he had left them, he found Thrak entertaining Dorn with tales of his exploits as a warrior. The boy sat rapt and wide-eyed with excitement as Thrak concluded an account of a raid on the traditional rival clan of Pandang, but he had not moved from the perch where Kaigun had left him. Kaigun whistled, and when they looked up, he gestured. They quickly took their place behind him.



Storm clouds darkened the sky. The afternoon sun dropped slowly to the horizon in the west, sending a golden light that flashed from the descending drops of rain that began to spatter all around as they scrambled downward. The sound of rushing waters from the head of the narrow valley warned that they would soon face a torrent when they crossed the stream.



Kaigun grabbed Dorn up and perched him on his back just in front of the harnessed sword. The lazy stream had widened to a tossing rapid when they reached its edge but Kaigun knew there was no time to stop and find a narrow place to cross. With one great leap he cleared the water and landed on the opposite side. Dorn clung to his neck with a grip that nearly stopped his breath.



With one brief look backward to check on Thrak who was preparing to follow his example, Kaigun ran up the slope until it became too steep to stay upright, then he gripped the edge of a rock and pulled himself upwards toward the ledge that led to the cave. Thrak clambered past him on the left and was waiting at the entrance to the cave when Kaigun caught up to him. The Margan peered nervously at the bones that littered the floor.



Kaigun grasped Thrak by the arm and thrust him into the shelter of the cave, kicking the bones into a pile as he passed. "Bones cannot hurt you unless you fear the ghosts of wild corums more than you value warmth and safety from the storm."



"Something big and mean killed those animals," Thrak protested. "I would almost think a wirra made a den here, but I have never heard of one coming this far south. Are you certain it will not return to get out of the rain?"



"It could be that wirras made their den here many years ago. These bones come from before Janaka's founding. The big cats retreated to the steppes of Kumnora long ago."



The rain increased in fury but the floor of the cave sloped up from the entrance, keeping the wind driven rain that came in through the entrance from pooling on the floor. The overhang protected the rear part of the cave. Kaigun set Dorn down and removed his harnessed sword. Thrak followed his example and rolled out his sleeping skin of thin, tough corum hide. The two men set up a rudimentary camp while Dorn poked around among the bones that Kaigun had heaped into a corner to clear the rear part of the cave.



Thrak suggested that they could use some of the bones to set a fire, but Kaigun pointed out that the air currents in the cave would carry any smoke back toward them. It was a cool evening, but all of them were hardened to sleeping in the cold of Janakan winters and their food required no heating.



Just before the sun finally set, the rain eased up and Kaigun peered toward the pass that lay several leagues away. There were rivulets of water gleaming as they ran across the rocky surface of the pass. It seemed unlikely that the Orquian raiders would risk traveling over such uncertain ground at night and there was no sign of them on the plain beyond.



They did not sleep immediately when darkness came. Dorn insisted that Thrak should finish telling him about the battle he had been describing before they made the dash for the cave. The Margan hesitated. When he spoke he seemed uncomfortable of boasting in front of Kaigun. "If you want to hear of glory, ask Kaigun to tell us how he won the jewel he paid for you."



Kaigun remained silent, then Dorn spoke up. "You probably have so many that you forget how you got each one."



"I can hardly remember why I was awarded some of the battle tokens," Kaigun admitted. "But others carry memories that I cannot erase, even though I wish I could. The emerald I offered to Dashkar to gain your freedom was given to me by my grandmother, the matriarch Malinkra. She was the finest widow-smith in all Janaka when I was a child. She wrought the sword I bear, as well as most of those still carried by the warriors of my clan."



"Malinkra's blades are sought by all who know quality," Thrak said. "Some say she will take her secrets with her when she dies."



"So why did your grandmother give you the emerald," Dorn asked, undeterred from his interest in the story of whatever feat won the gem.



"Malinkra was ashamed of the dishonor of my uncle, Darm, her oldest son. She hoped that one of her grandsons would find a way to restore the reputation of our family," Kaigun said. "Unfortunately for her plans, I was the only one to grow to manhood. When my wife deserted me and took our child, Malinkra forbade me to follow them. Instead, she sent me on a quest to determine if the rumors she had heard about Darm were true. I was to seek him out and challenge him to a duel. As soon as I set out, I discovered that a party of Terifil's warriors was advancing on the watchmen at the mine of Algire clan. Caring little for my life after the loss of my family, I took no heed of the risk of taking on the raiders by myself. The surprise of my lone attack destroyed their stealth. The watchmen were alerted by my warning and the screams of those I wounded. Almost alone I slew five men and drove away the others. The wounds I received in the battle were to severe to permit me to continue with the quest to find Darm. Malinkra told me that I had failed her, but the council of warriors demanded that the matriarch should acknowledge me as a hero of the clan. The gem was my reward, grudgingly bestowed on me by my grandmother. It was the first battle token I received."



"I will return the gem to you as soon as it is light," Thrak said. "You cannot give up such a prize."



"I gave it up willingly," Kaigun insisted. "The life of Dorn was worth the exchange and you earned it for your courage in turning against the Orquians."



The Algiran warrior heard his two companions shuffle and try to find a comfortable place to sleep. Neither of them spoke again. Kaigun made a silent plea with the Radiance for wisdom and strength in what he was doing. He had told the warriors of his clan that he would bring the sword of the wizard smith back to their village. Already he had been diverted from his path. Would it all end with his acquiring another battle token for something other than the errand he had undertaken?



Kaigun focused his mind and stilled it. Tomorrow he would need strength un-eroded by the worries that now nibbled at his confidence. He schooled his breathing to a regular, almost shallow pace and deliberately fuzzed the edges of his awareness. He would sleep lightly enough to protect his companions against surprise, but he would sleep.



When Kaigun woke a faint pink light illuminated the cave and lit the faces of Thrak and Dorn. There was something in the child's sleeping face that nudged him into remembrance of someone, but he could not track the recollection. He dismissed the thought. All Janakans had a similar profile. Even the youngest children had the raptor nose that distinguished their clan and made their women lovely beyond any others in Okishdu. It had been the first thing that told him the boy had Janakan blood.



Thrak yawned and opened his eyes. Then he sat up and looked around. "You were wise to choose this cave, Kaigun. I bragged that I had camped out in the storm before, but it is far better to be warm and dry. Have you looked toward the pass this morning?"



Kaigun stood up and walked to the entrance of the cave. He stopped and stooped at the overhang, staying in the shadow of the rocks while he peered at the pass. It was still shadowed by the surrounding rocks. At first the pass below seemed empty, but just before he turned away, a movement caught his eyes. One by one with scouts far in advance, a group of men emerged from the early morning shadows and proceeded down the pass toward the plains. In the midst of them two men carried a litter.



"Thrak, come here." Kaigun said.



When the Margan looked toward the pass he gave a low whistle. "There must be more than twenty men. The litter cover is in Dashkar's colors. He probably insisted on joining the foray. I see that most of the guards are Janakan warriors. The three of us can't take them on."



"We can track them now that we are in their rear," Kaigun replied. "But we have no hope of defeating so many. We must warn those who guard the pilgrims and join forces with them."



"If we could find the pilgrims without following the raiding party, we could speed ahead of them and carry our warning without risking ourselves," Thrak said.





Kaigun turned toward the back of the cave where the boy was just sitting up and rubbing his eyes. "Dorn, did any of the men who visited Dashkar mention any towns or other places?"



Dorn got up and twisted his wiry little body between the two men to gaze down toward the pass. "The man who visited Dashkar said they would find what they wanted south of the Or Bridge."



"The bridge over the River Or is one of Tharek's outposts," Kaigun said. "I would be surprised if the Orquians would dare to pass there. It is more likely that they have arranged for boats to carry them over the river marshes, or perhaps they plan to make their way to the coast and make rafts to ferry them across the estuary."



"We could ask for help at Tharek's outpost near the bridge," Thrak suggested.



Kaigun gave a grunt that did not quite dispute Thrak's proposal. He was loath to join forces with Tharek's men. He had set forth on this journey with the intent of winning back the sword of the wizard smith. He could not make alliance with Tharek's troops and then turn against the Tyrant. It would be better for his own plans if they were able to frustrate Dashkar's aim without involving Zedeklans.



He turned his eyes back toward the pass and studied the progress of the raiding party. The plan of march was familiar, a typical Janakan formation with scouts ahead and the main body following. It served well where the rearward was secure, but it left the rear of the party open and undefended. Most of the guards were grouped around Dashkar's palanquin, leaving the supply train of plodding dalas open to attack.



"It will be a day or more before they reach the Or River," Kaigun said. "We can follow them and cause disruption at night to slow them. In such a case our limited numbers are an advantage since they are unlikely to suspect that such a small force would dare oppose them."



"What about the boy?" Thrak murmured.



"He has proved that he can be an asset. I have seldom seen a child with such quick understanding and he has an aptitude for mischief that could serve us well."



They made a brief breakfast from bread berries and nuka juice. As soon as Kaigun was confident that they would not be detected by the raiding party, he led the way out of the cave and along the narrow ledge above the gully. Now and then he stooped and arranged hand-sized rocks in piles that pointed back toward the cave. It was a trick that he had learned from observing Mareklan merchants who used a similar method to mark their trails. The shelter might prove useful after they had finished their business with the raiding party.



It was not difficult to follow the track left by the Orquians. There had been no attempt to hide the trail. The trio made swift progress, stopping briefly to take a meal from their meager rations at noon. As the afternoon passed and the day grew warmer, Kaigun called a halt. From the sign of a steaming pile of Dala dung with only a few flies hovering over it, it seemed that they were closing the gap too rapidly. It would not do to catch up to the raiders until after nightfall.



Kaigun took an empty belt pouch from his waist band and handed it to Dorn. "Fill this with stones no bigger than your thumb."



Thrak started to object, but halted. "What should I do while we are waiting?" he asked.



"Gather oil brush twigs and bind them into hand-sized bundles with strands of leather root." Kaigun demonstrated what he wanted with some finger length twigs from a nearby bush. Once the others had settled to the tasks he assigned, the Algiran unsheathed his knife and followed the tracks of a paka into the brush. When he returned he was carrying a compact carcass.



Without being asked, Thrak started a small fire after testing the breeze to make sure that it would not carry the scent of smoke toward their quarry. Kaigun had already gutted the paka and divided it into sections. He spitted them on sticks and suspended them over the fire by inserting the ends of the branches into stacks of stones. Soon the savor of broiling meat scented the air. After a brief invocation of the Radiance, Kaigun lifted the spits from the fire and handed them around.



"All for me?" Dorn asked with wonder when Kaigun gave him a portion.



"Eat as much as you can," Kaigun advised. "If my plan succeeds, we will be able to take supplies away from the Orquians, meanwhile, we must strengthen ourselves."



After finishing his own portion, Kaigun began to twine together some leather root strands into various lengths and attached them to the oil brush bundles Thrak had prepared. When he saw Thrak staring at him he muttered: "Fuses."



"What do you plan to do?" Thrak asked.



"First I want to test the two of you. Can you see the knot in the center of that dead tree trunk that looks like a headless man with his hands upraised?"



When the others nodded, Kaigun handed each of them several of the stones that Dorn had gathered. "Take turns and see how often you can hit the knot."



As Kaigun had expected, Dorn had an aim with the stones surprising in one so young. Thrak was only slightly better at hitting the mark.



Kaigun nodded and gave a brief, grim smile. "Both of you have skill enough to spook a herd of dalas with a few well-placed throws. Tonight when it is dark we will get close to the raiding party. I will steal in among the dalas and cut their tethers. When you see the signal of fires starting on whichever hill is nearest the Orquian camp, get close to the dalas and wait until you hear me shout. I am counting on the Kumnoran teamsters to join in what they will think is a fight. As soon as they leave the herd, throw stones at the dalas. Try to hit them near their heads or haunches. When the herd begins to stampede, Dorn should return to this camp and take cover in the oil bushes by the tree you used as target and Thrak should sneak into the camp of the Orquians and take as many packs as he can handle before the confusion eases and he risks capture."



"What will we do if one of us is captured?" Thrak asked.



"The two who remain free will continue and alert the Zedeklan guards at the Or Bridge," Kaigun explained. "Unless, of course, Dorn is captured. If that happens, we must mount a rescue. In any case, we will meet in that stand of oil brush before dawn. Stow your packs there now."



"What do you hope to accomplish by driving off the dalas?" Thrak asked.



"It will slow them," Dorn answered before Kaigun spoke. "If the dalas run away, they will have to take time to catch them."



Kaigun nodded at the boy's reply. "Rest now," he told the others. "I will wake you when it is time to make our move."



Replete with food, Dorn quickly fell asleep but Thrak was less successful and tossed several times as he tried to clear his mind and find rest. Finally Kaigun stooped over him.



"If you still question the wisdom of my plan, I cannot trust you to take the part I have appointed. Speak up now if you doubt me."



"This is not the kind of battle I was trained for," Thrak admitted. "We will not be fighting, just sneaking and stealing. Yet I know it would be folly to attack the party straight on. I trust you. I hope that I can trust myself. It is difficult for me to sleep with such doubts hanging over me."



"Were you never trained to still your mind and sleep without wasting energy in futile worries?" Kaigun asked.



"I never had the need for such a thing. Our enemies were near equal in numbers to our own forces. The times and places of battles varied little. Sometimes my friends died or were wounded and forced to leave the ranks of warriors, but there was really nothing to worry a man with skill and courage. The chance that death would take me never bothered me as much as the thought that I might be captured and tortured by the Orquians. There is something glorious about death in battle, but I admit that I am troubled with thoughts of being tortured if I am captured tonight."



"Then keep watch while I sleep. At least one of us should have advantage of some rest."



Thrak got to his feet and watched with envy while Kaigun lay down and almost instantly fell asleep. After a short time, Thrak settled to sit on the sandy soil that still retained heat from the fading sun. His eyelids grew heavy and he forced them apart. He would not sleep. Kaigun woke him with a nudge on his back and muttered that it was time to go.



Thrak staggered to his feet and picked up the sword that had fallen when he somehow stretched along the ground where Kaigun found him sleeping soundly. There was no sign of reproach from the older warrior but Thrak's cheeks burned with embarrassment for having succumbed to fatigue and abandoned his watch.



It took less than an hour of following the well marked trail before they found the Orquian camp near a bluff that overlooked a tiny stream. The sliver of new moon yielded hardly any light and only the brightest stars shown through the haze of mist that gave them cover. A few men were still awake engaged in games of chance, but they paid more attention to their wagers than to the fringes of the camp.



Kaigun led Dorn a little to the north and indicated that Thrak should move to the other side of the teams of dalas, nearer the camp. The smell of pungent dass burning over a small fire in the midst of the teamsters' separate encampment answered his puzzlement over Kaigun's daring raid. The Algiran must have guessed that only addicts would have hired themselves out to the Orquians. Most Kumnorans despised the demon's dogs. Only those lost to decency would be in this company.



After moving along the line of dalas, Kaigun took the bundles of oil-brush twigs and crept away toward a bluff on the opposite side of the camp. Thrak briefly wondered how the fires would be started but then he saw Kaigun venture close to one of the untended campfires. Only a brief shower of sparks betrayed his movements as he gathered some of the glowing coals. Thrak held his breath for a moment, praying that none of the Orquians and their hirelings would detect his actions.



He followed Kaigun's progress by the momentary flare each time he lit one of the leather root fuses on the bundles of oil brush. He held his breath and waited for someone to raise the alarm. With a suppressed gasp he filled his lungs as fires started all over the bluff, the fuses so well calculated in their timing that very little time elapsed between the first flare-up and the tenth. Kaigun must have set each of the bundles in a clump of oil brush because the separate flames grew into a line of fire racing across the face of the bluff.



At first Thrak wondered if the fire would go unnoticed, but finally screams of fear and rage erupted from throughout the camp and someone shouted that an attack was coming from the south. Thrak recognized Kaigun's voice, but the Orquains did not question the warning. Men staggered to their feet, grasping up their weapons and milling about in confusion. Once again Kaigun's voice rang out. "Follow me or die. Attack the intruders. The Mareklans have found us out!



Thrak saw the teamsters rush toward the fiery bluff in the wake of the other armed Orquians. The animals were already restless. The lead cow raised her head and sniffed the air. Suddenly she jumped and flung her head toward her hindquarters. Then another of the beasts responded as if stung. Dorn was already at work with his supply of stones.



Thrak followed suit, concentrating his attack on the animals nearest the fire. He had thrown only four stones when the lead cow leapt into the air again with a twisting motion, then she began to run away from the fire. The dalas in the herd were spooked and some of them followed her lead, some catching up and passing her. Others took their own paths at an angle to the cow, but soon none of the animals were left near the tether lines that Kaigun had cut.



Thrak had scouted out the packs left unattended near the campfires and quickly darted in and caught up four of them. He reached for a pouch that had been resting on the ground near the man who had been conferring with Dashkar just before the ambush began. The pack was small, more like a satchel, and Thrak suspected that it contained some information that would prove useful.



Dashkar had not joined the rush to battle that Kaigun had started with his shouts, but was huddled, moaning, in his tent. Thrak could hear his frantic supplications of Orqu, mixed with moans of fear. It seemed worth the risk to take a moment to scoop up the pouch before he followed Kaigun's instructions to make a clean escape before the 'battle' was uncovered as a ruse.



Before he could scoop up the satchel, he was hailed by a Janakan. "Have you seen any sign of the enemy?"



Thrak recognized the voice. It was one of the men who had recruited him when he entered Setalan. He feared being recognized, but then he remembered the topknot that he still wore to hide his tattooed head. He might remain anonymous if he changed his voice to answer. He thought of Kaigun's Algiran drawl and tried to imitate his mentor. "The Mareklans have been known to light fires to lead their enemies astray. While our men are pursuing them in the west where the fires are burning, it is likely that they have circled and will come from the south."



The other man uttered an oath and raced away, calling to his cronies to gather and guard the southern approaches to the camp. Dashkar called out from his tent and his servants started toward it. Frustrated in his effort to snatch the promising satchel, Thrak took advantage of the general confusion and slipped into the bushes on the north of the camp. He back-tracked until he located the distinctive dead tree where he expected to meet the others.



After more than an hour passed without any sign of Kaigun or Dorn. Thrak began to wonder if he had somehow mistaken the landmark of the meeting place. The sky began to pale along the eastern horizon and Thrak felt the breeze grow chilly, warning him that the sun would soon rise. If the Orquians had captured Dorn and Kaigun, they would know that he could not be far away. In daylight his trail would be visible to a tracker since he had made no real attempt to conceal it as he paralleled the main track in the sandy soil nearby. He looked around for someplace to hide. A large rock almost hidden by a stand of oil brush looked promising. He brushed away his tracks as he retreated to the hiding place and huddled down to consider what he should do next.



It had been folly to go up against the Orquian camp with only two men and a boy. Should he go back and see if he could find another tree that looked the same once the sun was up? Should he make an attempt to rescue Dorn and Kaigun? Lost in the tug of war between fear and honor, he missed the first sounds that announced the arrival of his missing companions.



Dorn's young voice rose in a laugh, followed by the lower tones of Kaigun's caution to be quiet. Thrak leaped to his feet and hurried to meet them. To his surprise, Kaigun carried four large packs while Dorn was hardly burdened by the small satchel strapped over his shoulders.



"I feared you had been captured, or that I had come to the wrong meeting place," Thrak said as soon as he greeted them.



"Three Orquians nearly caught me," Dorn explained. "but Kaigun made some dalas run between us. I was able to hide under a bush and they ran after the dalas."



"I saw a satchel like that near Dashkar's tent," Thrak said when Dorn slipped the small pouch from his shoulders.



"I wanted to help, and it was the only one small enough for me to carry. I waited until Dashkar left his tent and was carried away in a litter," the child explained.



"It was dangerous for you to enter the camp like that. You could have been caught!" Thrak chided the boy.



Kaigun made a gesture of reproof that quelled Thrak's outburst. "We have evaded pursuit, although it took longer than I had hoped. We heard the teamsters hunting for their dalas. They will not go on until they collect the last animal, and the raiding party is dependent on their transport. We should examine the contents of the packs we took and discard anything that isn't useful. Then we can take advantage of the delay we caused and detour to the west around their camp. I feel certain that the contents of the satchel Dorn picked up will help us determine where they are headed."



It took only a few minutes to rifle through the purloined packs. It proved a disappointing take. Most of the packs contained spare sets of robes and boots or sandals along with the random shoddy trinkets that the Orquians held dear. Among them were grisly trophies of Orquian sacrifices that Kaigun hastily concealed from Dorn's curious gaze. One pack proved useful since it contained nothing other than a quantity of spices, leaven and dry meal.



"I hope we find something worth the danger you risked when you picked up this satchel," Kaigun told Dorn as he untied the knots that secured the pouch. In his surprise at seeing the contents, he gave a muted whistle.



"Look, here is a map and several letters from Dashkar's contact in Zedekla," he said after spending a few minutes examining the contents. "No wonder such a force has been assembled. The pilgrim train these raiders are planning to attack is made up primarily of Zedeklans, and not just any Zedeklans. The pilgrims are Tharek's older children, Shirak, the heir, and two of his sisters."



"Such a pilgrim train would be too well guarded for these renegades to risk," Thrak protested.



"Dashkar's correspondent writes that an attack by Janakans on one of the Virdanan villages required a diversion of the troop that was intended to guard the pilgrims on their journey. The Tyrant was drawn away to lead another troop of men to quell a bandit gang before the message of the battle in Virdana arrived in Zedekla. It was Tharek's oldest son, Shirak, who decided that the pilgrims should proceed without a heavy guard. He is an impatient young man, eager to go to Timora with his sisters."



"Whoever wrote these things to Dashkar has escaped detection as a spy by Tharek," Thrak observed. "I thought the Tyrant was able to use magic to keep traitors from his court."



"From the map, it seems that the Orquians intend to mount their ambush in the tract a few miles south of where the Janakan pilgrimage road intersects the Com. We could join forces with the pilgrims and warn them of the risk."



Chapter 5 Traitors





The traitor who had betrayed Zedekla's royal house scurried back to the disturbed camp of the Orquians. Fear had driven Parval from the threat of battle and now he cursed himself for leaving his satchel behind. It had been folly to write down all that he had learned from his contact in Zedekla, but he had a faulty memory from an injury suffered in his youth. He searched the area where he had been conferring with Dashkar.



Knowing that Dashkar would blame him for the loss, Parval muttered angrily to himself, "It would be better for me to be gone when the others come back to the camp."



With a thief's disregard for property, he hastily gathered provisions. He scavenged through the packs of other men and unwittingly obscured the evidence that only a few attackers had ventured into the camp. When he heard the hailing cries of Dashkar's men returning, he hurried into the bushes and was well away before Dashkar himself returned.



Fearful of encountering the party of Mareklans that he was certain had attacked the camp, Parval backtracked along the road and passed near the meeting place where Kaigun, Thrak and Dorn were deciding how to use the information in the satchel.



Hearing the murmur of voices from a copse not far from the road, Parval made a wide detour to avoid an encounter and then turned southward again. He was not quite certain what he should do next. He wandered on until sunset when he made a rough camp and ate a meager meal of breadberries and stale matlas. While he chewed the matlas, Parval considered his options.



If he returned to Zedekla and his small tailor shop near the river, he could be in danger of being put to the test of the Stone of Truth when the pilgrim party did not return. He had grown careless in the days before departing the city and more people than he liked had knowledge of his friendship with Jacla, the gossip who had confided all the information he had passed on to Dashkar.



The old woman had befriended him because they shared a trade. As soon as Parval realized how close she was to the royal family, he had cleverly questioned her, using flattery to draw her out. Although she had tried his patience with her endless stories about Tharek, her hero, Parval's endurance had yielded fruit when she told him about the plans for a pilgrimage.



He had been able to manipulate Shirak through Jacla, convincing her that it was her own idea to advise the arrogant youth to hasten the pilgrimage journey when his father, Tharek, left the city to lead the fight against a gang of outlaws and the troop that should have accompanied the pilgrims was engaged in a conflict on the borders of Virdana. He had coached her to overcome the reservations of Tharek's wife, Shira, about letting the pilgrims set out with a small contingent of guards.



Now it seemed that all his careful work had been for naught. If the Mareklans knew about the planned ambush, they would doubtless lay an ambush of their own. Parval picked up a stick and idly drew in the loose dust near his feet. He found himself tracing the map that he had drawn to help Dashkar understand his plan. With a flick of the stick he scribbled out the intersection of Dashkar's band and the pilgrims. By now the Mareklans might have the map in their possession and doubtless they would be concealed in the hills nearby. But what if the pilgrims took a different track, one that passed to the east of the projected meeting place and then intersected with the Orquians further to the south. Doubtless Dashkar and his men would be delayed by the attack of the Mareklans and the timing would work out if Parval acted immediately. Jacla was his key to leading the pilgrims into ambush. He could not afford to rest any longer. He rolled up his sleeping skin and stuffed it into his pack.



He was growing old and his joints protested the pace he set, but he was so excited with his new scheme that he ignored his body's painful plea for rest and skittered along the trail with no thought but for the coming sacrifice that would ensure his place just under Dashkar in the hierarchy of the cult of Orqu. He rested only when his body would not support him any longer but soon rose again to stagger onward.



At last Parval saw the dim glow of damped down campfires just as dawn begin to light the sky on his second day of travel. A light mist concealed most of the tents and he did not see the guard who had been set to watch until the man thrust out a sturdy arm and caught him by the shoulder.



"I am Parval, Jacla's friend. I have urgent news for the pilgrims," Parval gasped.



The young man looked closely at him then nodded. "I will take you to Jacla. She is making breakfast for the others."



He was led to one of the campfires where a flat griddle had been braced on stones in preparation for making matlas. Jacla was flattening out balls of dough and sliding them onto the slightly smoking surface. The smell of the hot, fresh bread nearly overwhelmed Parval and he became all too aware of his body's aches and cravings.



"This man claims to have a message for you," the watchman told Jacla as he thrust Parval toward the kneeling woman.



She looked up and frowned at the old man, failing to recognize him for a few seconds. His normally meticulous grooming had been destroyed by the urgency of his journey. Dust coated his clothing and concealed his features. At last the light of recognition filled her eyes. "Parval! What are you doing here? You departed for a visit with your family days before we set forth from Zedekla."



"I stumbled on a plot by the Orquians and some rogue Janakan warriors they employ. An ambush has been set by your enemies. If you continue on your current track they will fall on you before sunset today."



Jacla finished baking the matlas then stood and dusted the flour from her hands. She took Parval's elbow and urged him to sit on a pile of sleeping skins nearby. "Rest yourself and have a matla and some cala. I must give your information to Shirak. He will decide what must be done."



Parval relaxed onto the soft pile of skins and accepted a cup of cala and a fresh matla from the young woman who had been left to tend the baking. At first he did not recognize the girl, but then he recalled seeing her with her sisters at a ceremony in front of the Shrine of the Radiance in Zedekla. It was Belin, the Tyrant's oldest daughter.



Dressed in the simple robes of a pilgrim with her hair bound back to keep it from the fire, she looked far different from the proud young beauty who had been dressed in rich embroidered cloth and decked with jewels when he last saw her.



The official genealogy of the royal family held that Belin was not the Tyrant's daughter, but the child of his wife Shira from a previous marriage. Parval discounted that story. The Tyrant was too fond of the girl for her to be other than his natural child. It was certainly mere hypocrisy that led the self-righteous leader to pretend that he had not indulged in the same sins that he condemned in others.



Belin would be the centerpiece of the coming sacrifice. Through the lineage of Tharek she was Mareklan and there was no doubt that her maidenhood had been guarded like a precious jewel. The Mareklan Merchants looked after their female children so zealously that it had been years since the altars of Orqu had been properly blooded. Tharek had played a major role in frustrating the demon of his due. It was Dashkar who had decreed that the ritual death of the Tyrant's daughters would be a fitting revenge for Tharek's usurpation of Zedekla years before.



Belin gave Parval a look that almost seemed to say she knew his thoughts. He turned his face away from her disdainful gaze and fondled a hidden pouch that contained the desiccated tokens of his own initiation into the worship of the demon. He would ask for Belin's eyes. The thought amused him and he chuckled, then choked on a the piece of matla he had just accepted from the girl.



Shirak hurried up, followed close behind by Jacla. "Jacla says you have knowledge about an ambush! Tell me all you know."



His keen gaze was so like his sister's that Parval felt confirmed in his opinion that they were full siblings. He had never really met the youth before, but he had been able to manipulate him through Jacla for several weeks before leaving Zedekla. It should not be difficult to exploit his impatience and arrogance again.



"I was visiting my family in Setalan and I happened to overhear your name spoken by some bullies who passed me in the street," Parval said. "I followed them to an inn and spied on their meeting with a leader of the Orquian cult. When I heard their plans I knew I had to find you and warn you of their plot. Fortunately I knew your plans from my conversations with Jacla. At great cost to my comfort, I hastened to intercept you."



"You will be compensated for your trouble," Shirak quickly assured him. "Where is the ambush set to take place?"



"There is a range of low hills that you would ordinarily enter near midday. As I understand it, the cultists plan to attack just as you set up camp in the lea of the hills."



Belin stood up and moved close enough to speak to her brother. "We should either return home to Zedekla, or we must stay here and send back runners to Zedekla for reinforcements."



Parval nodded. "Your sister is prudent to advise you to back down from your previous position and acknowledge the greater wisdom of your mother. Jacla told me that Shira counseled you to wait until your father returned from his campaign against the bandits on the borders of Virdana."



"We will not return or rely on help from Zedekla," Shirak said. "If I am to rule in my father's stead, I must prove myself able to meet this challenge. We will skirt the hills and avoid the ambush." Parval lifted his hand to his mouth to conceal his smile. Things were going as he expected.





"Are you certain it is wise?" Belin asked.



Shirak put his hands on his hips and jutted out his lower lip. "If you want to be useful, order everyone to be ready to take the trail within the hour. You may be a few years older than I, but I have responsibility for the safety of this pilgrimage train."



Belin shook her head and turned away. Parval stood and moved closer to Shirak. "I am familiar with these lands. It would take more time if you went to the North, making it more likely that you would avoid the confrontation with the Orquians."



Shirak studied the small man and shook his head. "We will go to the south. There is no reason for us to delay our journey on nothing more than a rumor."



Parval concealed his delight that the Tyrant's son was so easily led. The youth combined arrogance and willfulness, a dangerous combination, but not unusual in a youth of wealth and privilege.



Belin quickly organized their departure from the camp. Unlike her brother, she listened to the questions and complaints of others with enough attention that when she was forced to countermand their preferences they seemed to obey her without grudge. Only Jacla, seemed resistant to Belin's charm.



Before the hour was up, the order of march had been established and awaited only a word from Shirak who had taken a few men and scouted ahead to make sure the southern trail was passable. The pilgrims were traveling in characteristic simplicity and there was only one litter provided. Jacla's age gave reason enough for her to be carried on the long journey to Timora, but the others in the party were young enough to walk.



Parval was aching with the speed of his desperate journey through the night and he muttered piteously and rubbed his joints. Soon Jacla insisted that he must have the use of the litter. "I may be old, but I am used to walking on my own two feet. You, on the other hand, have always been a sedentary sort. Your effort to warn us deserves to be rewarded. I have nothing to give but my litter."



Parval had expected her to make the sacrifice and he did not turn down her offer. He settled himself in the seat of the litter and napped while the caravan waited for Shirak and the two guards to return.



He woke to the sounds of protests and demands. Lurching up in his seat, he parted the curtains of the litter and looked around for the cause of the excitement. Shirak and the guards had returned but not alone. They held three people at spear point. Two of them were dressed in simple tunics but the style of their hair, one bald with faded tatoos covering his head, the other wearing elaborate braids, and a full beard, gave evidence that they were both Janakans.



The third was just a child, but it was he who made most of the noise that came from the group. "We came to help you! Tell them Kaigun!"



"The boy is telling the truth," the larger warrior said. "We came to warn you that Orquians are planning an ambush south of the hills you will pass this morning. You must turn back to Zedekla."



Parval lurched up from the litter and stumbled forward, his hand shaking with emotion as he raised his voice and pointed at the trio. "They lie. These are some of the very men I warned you about. Doubtless they have set two ambush points, one to the rearward and one in the hills I told you to avoid."



Belin stepped forward and took the child from the guard who was struggling to hold the wriggling tot. "Can such a young child lie? And would the Orquians let one so young as this come with their raiding party? More likely they would use him as a sacrifice ."



"I saw that man conferring with Dashkar in the raider's camp a few nights ago," Thrak made his own accusation of Parval. "When did he join you?"



"He stumbled into our camp this morning just as Jacla and I had warmed the griddles to prepare breakfast for the others," Belin said. "He is a friend of Jacla's from Zedekla,"



"He must be the spy who provided Dashkar with information about your pilgrimage," Kaigun said. "We found evidence of their correspondence in the Orquian camp."



"I will not stand for this!" Parval protested. "Gag the three of them before they lead you into the ambush. Jacla knows me for a friend. Let her speak for me and judge which of us is lying."



Shirak looked from the warriors with their child companion to the old man who claimed to be a friend. He gestured for another guard and gave his orders. "Take all of them into custody until we settle this problem."



Jacla hurried onto the scene, pulling her protege, Chasona, along behind her. "What is this commotion?" she asked querulously.



"I am falsely accused of being an Orquian spy by these Janakans," Parval moaned.



"Nonsense," the old woman snapped impatiently. "I have known Parval for several years. No one hates Orquians worse than I, and with good reason. I would not be so easily deceived as to befriend one of them. Janakans are our enemies. You should never trust what they tell you."



"What of Darm, my father's friend?" Shirak challenged her. "I have learned that he is trustworthy."



"We are packed and ready to take the trail," Belin reminded them. "It will not be wise to stay here and argue whichever of these men is speaking truth. We must either take the track around the hills or return to Zedekla. Either way, Parval and the others can stay close guarded and carry packs to ease the burdens of the men who guard them."



Shirak reluctantly nodded. "We will take the southern route and skirt the hills. Parval urged me to go to the north and the Janakans said we should return to Zedekla. We will ignore both counsels."



Belin spoke to Shirak about the Janakans when they were alone together. "The larger one reminds me of Darm."



"I agree," Shirak said. "Keep pace with them and listen to what they have to say to each other."



Jacla had insisted that Parval retain his place in her litter, arguing sensibly enough that the old man would delay their march and it would be as easier to guard him in the litter than if he walked. The litter was carried near the back of the pilgrim train with Jacla and Tabla's daughter, Chasona, walking nearby to comfort and console the tailor for what they viewed as unjust treatment of a loyal friend.



Chasona was a self-consciously pretty girl, combining the best features of her Virdanan mother and her Kumnoran father. Jacla had doted on her since her birth eighteen years before. Chasona wore a robe of white zylka cloth instead of the sturdier robes of white linen worn by the other young pilgrims. Somehow she kept her skin pale and her cheeks rosy without the use of paint. Half of the pack carried at the rear of Jacla's litter was devoted to potions and preparations the old woman had acquired to keep her darling from suffering pain or weathering from the hardships of the pilgrimage.



The young woman had grown used to Parval because of his frequent visits to Jacla's shop where she was studying as an apprentice seamstress. She had long since ceased to notice his irritating whine and the avid glitter of his aged eyes whenever she appeared. Like Jacla, she mistook his interest for a compliment to her beauty.



"I know these Janakans. They are bloodthirsty and they hate Tharek and his family. I have no doubt that they will seek to kill or kidnap Shirak," Parval told the girl. Chasona listened to Parval's fabrications about the Janakan warriors and the child they had enlisted.



At first she shied away from Parval's implication that even little Dorn had bloody hands. Parval saw the reservation in her eyes and took a different tack. "Jacla has told me how you feel about the Tyrant's oldest son. I have seen for myself how Shirak overlooks your beauty and ignores your affection. Surely he would open his eyes and recognize your worth if you performed some brave deed to earn his respect and gratitude."



Parval watched Chasona's eyes grow dreamy with the prospect of making herself a heroine in Shirak's eyes. He continued his calumny against the trio of Janakans.



Meanwhile Belin was putting questions to Kaigun and his companions. They amused her with their tale of escape from Setalan in the guise of a veiled woman with her sons. She knew that self-deprecating humor was seldom found in stupid or vain men and she was impressed with the camaraderie between Thrak and Kaigun. It was evident that Kaigun was by far the more experienced and expert warrior, yet he bore with the teasing of both the younger warrior and the boy.



Belin began to believe that these three were telling the truth about Parval. The two warriors might have concocted a story to cover their own villainy, but Dorn was too young to be involved in such a scheme without contradicting himself under her skilled questions. She was inclined to ask Shirak to release them, but her brother was in a contrary mood. From the day he had made the decision to proceed with the pilgrimage against the advice of their mother he had been suspicious of everything she told him. He viewed his sister's advice as criticism of his decisions.



Kaigun and Thrak had not lifted their swords against their Zedeklan captors and had surrendered them peacefully when challenged. She knew how jealous a warrior was about his weapons, particularly swords as fine as the widow-smith sword of Kaigun. There had to be some way for her to convince her brother of the innocence of the Janakans. If Parval was the traitor he would lead them into ambush.



Shirak called a halt at noon. The hills that might hide the Orquians were north of the path they were taking but scouts had reported that there were no signs of the raiders. While the others rested, the young heir of Tharek talked to Parval and Jacla.



"You must tell your guards to execute the Janakans before they turn on us!" Parval insisted. "You cannot be ignorant of the hatred they feel toward your father. What greater prize for them than to take you and your sisters hostage?"



Shirak shrugged and reached for one of the fresh matlas that Jacla had just lifted from her portable grill. He burned his fingers on the steaming bread and blew on them for a moment while he considered Parval's counsel. Finally he shook his head. "Your motives are still in question. I will not jeopardize my future as my father's heir by acting unjustly. The youngest of the Janakans is a child. His age alone would put him under the protection of the law. I have not witnessed them in any crime."



Shirak stood and walked away and Parval turned to Chasona whose eyes followed the prince with longing. The tailor sidled close to her and lowered his voice enough to keep his words from reaching Jacla who was readying a new batch of matlas for the griddle.



"He risks his life by refusing to kill the Janakans," Parval hissed. "If only there were some way to protect him from his folly. I wish that someone had the courage to take up a knife and kill that big Janakan. I know Jacla would do it in an instant, but she has made a vow to never use a bladed weapon to kill."



The girl looked toward the old woman who had been her mentor since her earliest childhood. Unlike Tabla, her mother, who had other children who had a share in her love, Jacla had devoted herself entirely to Chasona. "Why did she make such a vow?"



"She never confided her reasons to me," Parval whispered. "I think she was Mareklan in her youth. I can only speculate that she fears that she will lose her place by the side of her god if she should violate the ancient tradition of her people." His mouth twisted in a snide expression as he spoke, but Chasona did not see his face and the irony in his voice was muffled by his whispered tone.



"I would do the deed myself in an instant," Parval continued. "But I am guarded and they would take away my knife if they suspected me of having one. Shirak could not fail to be grateful when his enemies are dead. He only hesitates because he has listened to their lies and fears that his father might not approve a summary execution. If only someone were willing to take the burden from him and kill Kaigun-" He fell silent as Jacla moved closer.



Chasona's large eyes filled with tears and she twisted her delicate hands together until the skin began to redden. Parval smiled, satisfied that he had planted the seeds of murder.



Shirak asked the guards to cut sturdy limbs for those few who were not provided with staffs and he instructed the pilgrims to gather large rocks and stow them away in their belt pouches. Before setting out again, he addressed the caravan. "We may not need to use these staffs and stones in our defense, but it is better that we prepare than be caught helpless to defend ourselves. My father has made certain that all of you are capable of defending yourself if we are attacked. Only the guards have bladed weapons, but many of you have as nearly much skill as Mareklans in the use of staffs to fight. Use the stones that you have gathered when our enemies first come in sight, then we will use our staffs when they are close enough."



He gave a rallying cry but the pilgrims gave a half hearted response. Shirak turned his back on them and started out along the track. He could hear the bass rumbles of the big Janakan's voice as he talked to Belin. Now and then his sister laughed and Shirak longed to know what they were saying. Pride kept him from giving in to his curiosity and he raised his chin a little higher.



The afternoon passed without incident and Shirak planned to continue until the sun set. In late afternoon Agard, captain of the guards, urged Shirak to stop and make camp on top of an outcrop of stones. "Our beds will not be soft," Captain Agard said, "But we will have the advantage of height and the loose stones will prevent a stealthy approach to our camp after nightfall."



The captain was a veteran of many campaigns with Tharek, Shirak's father, but this was the first time he had ventured his advice. Shirak had deliberately avoided watching Agard's expression when he made his earlier decision to proceed against the advice of Belin and the Janakans. He considered the prospect of the proposed campsite and nodded.



"Tell your men that we will make camp on the outcrop."



Their scouts reported that there was no indication of the Orquians. With a few hours of sunlight still remaining before they slept, some of the young pilgrims pulled grass to cushion their sleeping skins against the stone of the outcrop while others gathered roots and berries to supplement their supply of pilgrim rations.



Kaigun and Thrak were required to stay close confined in the camp, but Dorn was allowed to wander without a guard. Kaigun watched the boy stooping over a flat stone where a large lizard basked. With a sudden move, he caught the tail of the lazy reptile and looked up to grin at Kaigun. After stowing it in a pouch he looked around and waited until he spotted another. He soon returned to Belin who was setting up a campfire and displayed his catch.



At first she seemed a little bewildered by the lizards he displayed, but he quickly gutted and spitted the largest of his catch and leaned the stick on one of the stones that surrounded the fire. Belin nodded and followed his example. "I am accustomed to eating fish and corum meat, but these should serve to help extend our rations."



Shirak performed the evening ritual and the pilgrims scattered to separate campfires to eat their evening meal. At Jacla's fire, Parval muttered to Chasona, firing her determination to win honor with Shirak by killing one of his enemies.



A few tents had been erected, the largest of which belonged to Belin and her sister, Tarina. Shirak walked among the others and tried to imitate the way his father talked to those who he led in a dangerous cause. For three years, since his sixteen birthday, Shirak had often joined the ranks of those who defended the borders from incursions by Janakans and bandit gangs but he had never had the role of leader. In time, if he proved himself a worthy heir and married wisely, he would inherit his father's sword. With Tharek oc Baroka in his possession he would hold the right to rule the city of Zedekla. He smiled at the thought. Surely the sword his father carried by his side was no small part of the respect that others gave him. The guards and pilgrims responded with averted eyes when Shirak tried to reassure them and he yearned for something to validate his leadership.



"You are like your father," Jacla said when he approached and repeated the reassurances that had earned him so little credit at the other fires. "He always sets his own comfort aside as long as others need his leadership. I doubt that anyone has offered to share their meal with you."



Shirak welcomed her concern and admitted that he had not yet eaten. It was pleasing to sit down and be waited on by Jacla and Chasona. The younger woman smelled of something fresh and sweet, a flower of some kind. He glanced at her as she bent over the fire to turn a matla on the griddle and was struck by the beauty of her profile. How had he overlooked her? The sound of his younger sister laughing trilled through the night from the fire on the other side of the camp and he remembered that as a child Chasona had been Tarina's friend and nearly constant companion, visiting the palace often. She had grown from a child into a woman without his taking notice.



Parval noticed the way that Shirak studied Chasona. The boy seemed a little stunned, as if just recognizing that she was an attractive woman. It would not suit the tailor's plans for Shirak to speak now. The girl was desperate to gain his notice and would do as Parval suggested to gain that end.



"Your sister Belin seems enamored of the Janakans," Parval murmured. "Your other sister seems to be falling under their spell as well. Perhaps they need your counsel."



Shirak's looked away from Chasona and considered Parval's comment. Finally he shook his head. "They are only silly women. It matters little what they find amusing."



Unconscious of the insult he had given his hostesses with his dismissive statement, Shirak stood. "I must set an example to others by returning to my tent and preparing to sleep."



"He ignores you," Parval muttered to Chasona when Shirak moved away. "If only you could do something brave to capture his notice. Let him wake to find that you are a heroine."



He had concealed a bronze dagger in his clothing and now he pressed it into her hand. She looked toward the sound of Tarina's laughter and her fingers closed around the hilt. A look of stubborn resolution replaced the trembling lips and teary eyes that Shirak left behind when he walked away.



His final dismissive comment about the frivolity of women stung Chasona's tender heart and she resolved to swallow hurt and show that she could be as brave as anyone. She found Jacla folding her spare robes inside the tent and murmured a vague excuse before making her way to the edge of the camp and sidling from shadow to shadow. Her heart beat like a drum inside her chest with fear and excitement as she slowly made her way toward the tent of Belin and Tarina where the Janakans were entertaining the others.



Shirak had intended to go to his own tent, but another gale of laughter erupted from his sisters' tent and he decided to take Parval's advice and intervene. It was not seemly for his sisters to be so friendly with the captive Janakans.



When he entered the tent he was already opening his mouth to give a stiff reproof but the sound of singing stopped him. The man called Kaigun stood in the center of the spacious tent with the glow of lamplight glinting from the battle tokens in his braided beard and a look of longing on his face as he sang the legend of the Wizard Smith.



The man had a bass voice as pure as the ringing of bronze bells. Shirak had learned the song from Darm and knew the counter melody. He stood near the side of the tent and joined his tenor in the refrain as Kaigun finished the verse. The others in the tent; his two sisters, a couple of guards, the boy Dorn and Thrak, applauded vigorously when the two men finished the chorus. Tarina urged them to continue the duet and picked up a couple of sticks to add a counterpoint of rhythm.



There were three verses remaining and when the final verse was finished and the chorus began, Kaigun used his hands to urge the others to join in. By now, after nine repetitions, everyone knew what to sing. Few of the others had voices to match Kaigun and Shirak, but the addition of Belin's smooth alto and Tarina's sweet soprano more than compensated for the tuneless droning of Baldan, one of the guards.



Suddenly Shirak moaned and crumpled to his knees. When Belin hurried to his side she saw a spreading stain of red marking the back of his tunic near his waist. Grabbing a knife, she cut away the fabric from the wound and pressed her hands down over the welling gore.



Baldan and Tarina dashed from the tent. They found Chasona trembling with the knife still in her hand. "I am the one who killed the Janakan!" she claimed in a quavering voice.



"It was Shirak you wounded," Tarina said. "Why would you do such a cowardly thing?"



Chasona gave no answer. Her eyes widened in horror and her face grew pale. She crumpled in a faint at their feet, Baldan lifted her in his arms and carried her into the tent.





Chapter 6 Refuge





Belin had learned the healer's art from Tharek. She looked up briefly when Tarina and Baldan returned with Chasona, the tell-tale weapon still clasped in the hand resting over her heart. "It was Chasona? Why would she do such a thing? Set her down over there out of the way. I need someone to heat water to a boil. Tarina, fetch my medicine pouch."



Shirak's eyes opened and he watched Baldan carry Chasona to the corner of the tent. "Parval must have sent her," he murmured.



"Save your strength," Belin said. "This could be your death if I cannot stop the bleeding. I should have foreseen that I would need something more than selan and itch powder. I was not expecting a major wound."



"I will make a poultice of gunge weed to stop the bleeding," Kaigun said as he reached into one of his belt pouches. When Thrak returned to the tent with a pot of steaming water, Kaigun steeped the dried weed until it swelled into a mass. He lifted it from the pot with a set of tongs and wafted it in the air to cool a little before holding it over Belin's hands where she was putting pressure on her brother's wound. She nodded and removed her hands long enough for him to lay the steaming poultice on the gash before blood welled up again.



Belin quickly bound the poultice in place and gave her brother a dose of selan to ease the pain and fight infection. She finally stood and turned to Kaigun. "There is little more that I can do. If there were a priest present, I would have him bless my brother."



"I am the heir of my first father's authority," Kaigun volunteered. He laid his hands on Shirak whose eyes were glazing under the influence of the selan Belin had given him. "We come before the Radiance and ask for healing for this man. Give him strength to overcome this wound and fight-," Kaigun hesitated, realizing that the words he used when he was dealing with warriors might not be fitting for a pilgrim. "Mend his wound that he may live to worship in Timora and receive the blessing of the holy lake."



A moaning sound from the corner announced that Chasona had regained consciousness. The girl sat up and Belin went to her. "Why did you do such a craven thing as strike through the fabric of the tent? You could not have known who would receive your blade."



"I thought Shirak had gone to his tent to sleep," she moaned. "I saw the tallest shadow on the wall of your tent and thought that it must be Kaigun. I have killed the one I love!" Her statement ended with a shriek and she lifted the knife that had been left in her hand when Baldan had set her down.



Thrak lurched forward and grabbed Chasona's hand before she could plunge the blade into her chest. "Shirak is alive, but you must tell us why you wanted to kill Kaigun."



"Parval said I would be a heroine," Chasona moaned. "He gave me the knife."



Kaigun took the knife from Thrak and cleaned the bloody blade. Then he turned the knife in his hands, studying it and tracing a mark molded into the end of the haft. "Someone has ground away the symbol of the cult that was engraved here, but enough remains to name its owner an Orquian It is the. Do you need further evidence of Parval's guilt?"



He handed the knife to Belin who studied the faint trace of the symbol. "Fetch Parval," she told Baldan.



The guard hurried from the tent and returned a short time later with his report. "Parval used the diversion of Chasona's attack on Shirak to escape."



"You must return to Zedekla immediately," Kaigun said. "Parval must know where the Orquians are camped. He will lead them here. They could easily overcome your slight defenses."



"Shirak will die if we try to move him," Belin protested.



"Jacla has a litter," Chasona reminded them.



"The pace of the litter will slow you down and the Orquians will overtake you," Kaigun warned. "I will stay here with Shirak and hide him. When he has healed well enough to travel, I will take him to Zedekla."



"I must stay to take care of his wound," Belin said. "The three of us should be able to hide, but I agree that all the others should return to Zedekla." She turned to the guard, Baldan. "Fetch Agard. Then tell your comrades what we have decided. You must break camp within the hour and return to Zedekla."



Within seconds Agard entered the tent. "We must clear the camp and set fire to anything we have not used and cannot carry with us."



Kaigun countered. "It would be better to leave the tents standing and bank the fires. Form a few bushes into shapes suggesting that men are on guard. When the Orquians approach they will be delayed for a short time by the appearance that the camp is undisturbed. Your caravan will travel faster without the baggage you leave behind."



"Do as he says," Belin said. Agard nodded and left the tent to organize his men for the departure.



"I will stay and help you with Shirak," Chasona volunteered.



"You will return to Zedekla with the others," Belin countered. "Go with Baldan and spread the word to the other pilgrims to be ready to retreat. You have a chance to redeem yourself by obeying me without argument instead of listening to the words of a traitor."



Subdued and chastened by Belin's counsel, Chasona bowed her head and backed from the tent. Belin turned again to Shirak.



Thrak was eager to accompany the pilgrims to Zedekla. Kaigun thought that he should warn the other Janakan to look after Dorn, but when he looked around, he saw the boy gathering up his small pack and waiting near the entrance of the tent. It seemed he would go along with the scheme without protest.



The guards and pilgrims were quick to respond to Belin's orders. Only Jacla gave trouble. She hurried to the tent where Shirak slept and tried to argue with Belin. "I cannot face your parents knowing that I left you in the care of a Janakan. I will stay here and you should send him away."



"Chasona is distraught and I fear that she will injure herself if you are not there to help her," Belin said.



"Chasona will be with others who can help her," Jacla said. "I am needed here."



Belin lost patience with the woman. "You provided Parval with the information he gave to Dashkar. You spoke up for the Orquian traitor or we would have believed the Janakans."



Jacla stared at Belin astonished. Finally she covered her face with her hands and moaned. "It is certain then? I was cohort with an Orquian and responsible for Shirak's wound!"



"Nonsense," Belin said. "You were betrayed by someone you thought of as a friend. Your litter will have to be left behind for Shirak, but I know how strong and resilient you are. We must hurry or the Orquians will come and find us arguing."



Less than an hour passed before the caravan of pilgrims left the camp with the tents erect and the camp-fires still glowing. Kaigun had scouted out a hiding place and he returned to the campground just as the caravan disappeared into the darkness.



He stopped at the entrance of the tent where Baldan and Thrak had lifted Shirak onto Jacla's litter before joining the others. Belin leaned over her brother checking his wound.



Kaigun entered the tent and lifted the front part of the litter while Belin lifted the back. Shirak was a well grown youth, nearly as tall as Kaigun and he made a heavy load. Fortunately the litter was balanced with more weight toward the front once the rear baggage section was removed. Even so, Kaigun admired the uncomplaining way Belin handled the task. They moved quickly into the darkness past the eerie empty tents and guttering campfires.



They carried the litter up the narrow ridge that overlooked the camp. "There is a little cavern to the left, but the way is too steep for the litter," Kaigun murmured. "I will carry Shirak there and return for you. Dismantle the litter while you wait."



When Kaigun lifted Shirak in his arms, Belin set to work with a knife to cut the bindings and remove the braces from the sticks that formed the frame of the litter. She broke the two long poles to shorter lengths. When Kaigun returned to her side a little later he looked around for the remnants of the litter.



"I concealed the bindings and sticks under the bushes," she told him.



"Well done," he succinctly replied before leading the way back to the cave.



Belin checked Shirak as soon as she crawled into the narrow cleft beside him. He was still asleep. She touched his brow but it was neither hot nor cold which reassured her.



"He was wounded just beneath the ribs," Kaigun said. "If the knife had gone a little higher it could have been a fatal injury. If it missed the major organs, the wound will heal in a few days. So far there are no signs that he is mortally injured. The next few hours should be telling. Sleep now I'll take first watch."



Belin spread her sleeping skins beside her brother and lay down. Kaigun was relieved by her sign of trust when she quickly fell asleep.



She woke when Kaigun gently shook her shoulder. "Keep watch on the camp while I rest."



She rolled up her sleeping skin and packed it away before moving to the entrance. When she moved to Kaigun's side she heard him mutter.



"The little scamp!" he said. "I just saw Dorn lingering on the edge of our campsite below."



Movement in the south caught Shira's attention. "Orquians!" she murmured. More than twenty men were slinking toward the camp. Moonlight glittered from their knives and swords.



Below in the camp Dorn stopped and stared around. He must have seen one of the Orquians because he ducked and rolled under a pile of discarded supplies. Belin gasped for air and Kaigun realized that he had been holding breath as well.



The Orquians shrieked and fell upon the tents. Then they began to shout to one another. "The pilgrims are gone! The camp is empty!"



The litter bearers carried Dashkar up to the camp and the wounded merchant was lifted out and put on a pile of cushions. It appeared that the Orquians had decided to wait until morning when there was light enough to follow the trail left by the pilgrims.



"Our people are well-warned and have several hours advantage of the raiders," Kaigun murmured. "The Orquians are slowed by their dalas and Dashkar's litter. I think the pilgrims will reach Zedekla safely. Now we have to deal with Dorn. The boy is bound to be captured when the raiders rifle the baggage. I will go down and get him. I cannot bring him back here or all of us will be at risk. I will return for you when it seems wise. If I am caught, stay here until your brother can travel safely. If he stirs or moans, give him more selan."



Kaigun crept from the crevice, restoring the screen of brush as soon as he was outside on the ledge. Suddenly a cry of triumph, mixed with shrill protests sounded from below and Kaigun saw Dorn suspended by his arms, kicking wildly as he was carried to Dashkar who had chosen to use the tent Belin had shared with her sister. While Kaigun watched, fearful that the child would be killed as soon as Dashkar saw him, the guards came out of the tent, the boy still struggling between them. They carried him to a post near the tent and tied him securely before putting a gag in his mouth to stop his yells of protest.



Kaigun waited for the camp to quiet and the watch to grow more careless. Moving stealthily he ambushed one of the guards and took his place. After a few minutes one of Dashkar's Orquian priests passed near the guard post and Kaigun muttered a question. Turning to answer, the priest knew only a moment of surprise before yielding up his life. Dressed in the dark robes of the priest, Kaigun moved closer to Dorn. Several guards had been posted around the child but Kaigun approached one of the guards. "Dashkar will see the boy now that he has had time to consider the idea of dying. Take your ease until he has finished with the brat." The guard untied Dorn from the post, leaving his hands and legs still wrapped in ropes.



Belin watched as Kaigun carried Dorn into Dashkar's tent and the guards around the post dispersed. Not long afterwards Kaigun crept from the rear of the tent where he must have cut an opening. Dorn huddled close under his arm. Their progress through the camp was hard to follow as they slipped from shadow to shadow. Belin breathed a long sigh of relief when Kaigun and Dorn finally left the campground and headed toward the south, retracing the track the Orquians had taken.



She soon lost track of them in the dark and listened for an alarm to be raised. There was nothing to remark but the sound of a couple of quarreling teamsters who squatted near a fire.



Shirak moaned and moved and Belin left her anxious watch post by the entrance of the cave and went to her brother. "Be quiet. I will give you something to relieve your pain."



"The ground beneath me is strewn with rocks. Where are we?" he asked querulously.



"Do you remember what happened?" she murmured.



"Chasona tried to kill me. Did you catch Parval?"



"Parval escaped. Right now the two of us are hiding in a cavity in the ridge above the campsite. Orquians have taken over our tents in the camp below us. We must be quiet or we will be discovered."



"What about your heroes, the Janakans?" Shirak muttered sullenly. "Doubtless they turned tail and left us alone."



"Kaigun has just risked his life to rescue Dorn, the little boy. Before doing so, he carried you up here. Now keep silent!" Belin's anger made her warning into a hiss and he subsided. She measured out a small dose of selan and gave it to him. "If you are fit enough to argue, doubtless you will live."



She wanted to ask him what had happened to their old friendship. In the years of early childhood she had been his heroine, old enough to help her mother tend him, but young enough to share his interests and be his playmate. Together they had slipped away from the palace that loomed above the city and found a world of friendly adults who seemed to cherish them. There had been other children to play with, but for most of the first five years after Shirak's birth they had been each other's closest friends.



Now that she thought about it, she could trace the change to the beginning of Shirak's training as the heir of Tharek. While Shira initiated her oldest daughter into the mysteries of kitchen and sewing room, Shirak had learned to handle swords and bows. He had found other boys to share in his adventures.



They had continued to share lessons in history and language with their sisters, but Shirak's attitude had changed and he seemed to resent Belin's quick answers to the teacher's questions. He did not share her aptitude or interest in learning the secrets of healing from Tharek, nor was he interested in mastering the crafts his father was eager to teach him. All his attention was given to becoming a warrior. Sometimes he seemed more like a Janakan than a child of Tharek and Shira.



Lost in her unhappy thoughts, Belin hardly noticed dawn breaking. The sky outside her hiding place lightened until the sun made shadows of the leaves that shielded the opening. Shirak moaned and moved again and she gave him another dose of selan. If Kaigun were there, she would have asked for more gunge weed to change the poultice on her brother's wound, but with the danger of making a fire, she could not heat water for a poultice.



She tried to remember if it would do Shirak any harm to leave the poultice in place. Once when Dagnet, Tharek's general and Chasona's father, had been badly wounded. She had visited him with her mother while he was still confined to bed. Tabla had been tending her husband and while Belin listened attentively, the two women had discussed the treatment the general had received.



She recalled that there had been some disagreement over the management of his wound. Tabla preferred to leave the poultice in place, arguing that it would only disturb the wound to change it. Shira, on the other hand, advised that changing the dressing helped to air the wound and gave a better chance of recovery. It had been a friendly argument, but Tabla had prevailed and Dagnet soon recovered. Reassured by the memory, Belin stopped worrying about Shirak's wound.



It had been less than a day since Chasona had stabbed Shirak through the tent. It had been a fairly clean cut. Unless Parval had poisoned the blade it should heal without much problem.



Belin dozed off, waking with a start when Shirak clutched her hand. "What is it?" she whispered.



"Shhh!" he warned her with a finger to his lips.



She heard the sound of voices arguing nearby. "There were footprints in the sand down there and broken branches on the undergrowth. I tell you they are hiding somewhere up here!"



"You read signs of tracks in every accidental mark," another man derided. "This cliff is sheer to the top. We are tracking Zedeklans and Janakans, not bacals. There is a clear trail to the north and the footprints of others headed south. We are wasting our time searching up here."



Belin hoped they did not discover the remnant of the litter that she had concealed. From the sound of their voices, they were still downhill of the place where she had stopped and taken apart the litter while she waited for Kaigun to carry Shirak to shelter.



"Come, a troop of fifteen men is headed north and five others to the south. We will be left behind in camp with Dashkar if we don't hurry." The sounds of rocks sliding and branches snapping followed as the two men left off their search and started downward.



When the sounds had faded, Belin turned to Shirak. "How do you feel this morning?"



"I ache. I have seen others wounded and thought little of it. Now I will have more respect for them. Can you give me more selan?"



"Selan will dull your mind and I would like to conserve my supply," Belin said. "I have stayed up most of the night and I must get some sleep. Could you keep watch for just a little while?"



"I will keep watch while you sleep, but first both of us should eat," Shirak replied.



"There are some nukas in my pack and a bag of breadberries over in the corner. We have a waterskin that is nearly full. I have no idea of how long the supplies will have to last. If Dashkar is taking up residence in our camp while his men follow the pilgrims and Kaigun, we could be here for several days."



Shirak nodded gravely. She was surprised that he did not complain about their rations. She served him twice as much as she took, knowing the importance of keeping him from going hungry while he healed.



She rolled out her sleeping skin, lay down and stilled her mind. Shirak would wake her if he felt there was a need.



The light on the wall of the cave glowed with the warm yellow of late afternoon when Belin woke to Shirak tugging at her shoulder. "I need either selan or something more to eat and drink," he said.



"You should not have let me sleep so long," she said with a yawn. "First we will eat and then I'll give you something for your pain. Does it hurt only in your back where you were cut, or are there other symptoms?"



"The pain is in my back and through here," he indicated a line that ran toward his lower right hip. "It feels almost as if the bone were nicked."



"From what you say, the wound is relatively shallow. The knife must have struck downwards and stopped when it hit your hip bone. It is painful but it means that it only injured skin and a few muscles. You should recover soon and we can leave this covert when the Orquians go away."



She crawled to the entrance of the cave and peering through the leaves to study the camp. There were only four men that she could see. Dashkar sat near the entrance of the tent talking to Parval. It was faint comfort to see the guilt of the tailor confirmed.



She retreated to the rear part of the shallow cave and measured out the food and water for each of them. Shirak studied the sizes of the portions and gave her a puzzled frown. But he did not question her decision to feed him far more than she took. He whispered a prayer over their meager portions.



"We come before the Radiance with reverence for his power and justice. We ask that this food will nourish us and give us strength. Please bless Belin for her selflessness."



Belin was surprised and gratified at his words. When they had finished eating she measured out a small dose of selan. "This will help you fall asleep."



He nodded. Then he relaxed and waited for the selan to dull his pain. Belin watched the camp as evening came and several scouts returned from north and south and approached Dashkar where he sat outside the tent. He seemed angry at the things they told him and Belin smiled when she heard him shouting at Parval. From where she sat, his words were indistinct, but there was no mistaking the tone of anger.



The pilgrims and their guards had been several hours in the lead, and most of them were young and hale. Although the dalas and their teamsters had been left behind by the raiders, and Dashkar's litter would not delay pursuit, the Orquians and their minions had lost the element of surprise. If the pilgrims traveled late into the night and continued early in the morning, by tomorrow evening they would be well within the borders of Zedekla.



Belin decided it was best to use the dark to get some sleep. Even if the searchers returned, it was unlikely they would find the cave so late at night. Her long nap during the day made it more difficult to still her mind from thinking about Kaigun and Dorn. The two looked curiously alike, even though she had been told that Kaigun had adopted the boy after he was purchased from Dashkar. The resemblance was probably incidental. Thrak was of a completely different tribe from Kaigun, but there was something in the shape of his eyes, particularly when he laughed, that made him look like Dorn.



She fell asleep at last, but her peace was troubled by senseless dreams that woke her to stare into the darkness. She must guard her thoughts and shield her heart. Kaigun was a married man and the yearning that she felt for him was folly. She knew that all Janakan warriors must be married and have at least one child before they were accepted to the warrior lodge. Thrak was younger than Kaigun, but he openly bragged of his wife's beauty, while at the same time worrying about her greed.



Kaigun was more reserved than his companion, in fact when not engaged in actual banter his expression reflected some deep sorrow that she felt the urge to comfort. He made no mention of a tragedy that would have deprived him of a wife and family. His adoption of Dorn was occasioned by the conditions in which he had found the child. Belin knew more than most Zedeklans about the customs of Janaka. For a long time Belin had regarded Thareks' Janankan friend, Darm, almost as an uncle. His visits to Zedekla were a high point of her childhood. Had Kaigun known Darm before the loss of the sword of the wizard smith to Tharek had led to his banishment from Algire Clan? Belin turned to her other side, hoping to fall asleep and stop the questions in her mind. It could not be healthy to obsess about a man she had barely met. Doubtless when he found what he was looking for, another mystery he had not discussed, he would return to his village in Janaka and greet his wife and family with joy.



She fell asleep again and carried her resolution into her dreams. Sometime before morning she woke again. The lingering thought remained that Kaigun was near at hand, but she banished the lift of hope the idea gave her and closed her eyes.



In the morning she discovered a heap of provisions placed just inside the entrance of the cave. Two water-skins and several sacks of varied foodstuffs along with a small packet of medicine, including selan, gave evidence that Kaigun had come during the night.



Three days passed without incident. On their fifth day in the cave, Shirak reported that his wound itched badly and she decided to remove the poultice and see if the dreaded flush of infection had begun to spread. Instead she found that the wound was healing nicely. The entry point of the blade was closed and clean with only a narrow scab to mark it.



"Keep from scratching and you should be fine," she assured him.



The Orquians began to show signs of packing up and leaving the campsite in the early afternoon. As soon as they had gone, retreating back towards the east, Belin packed up the remaining food and rolled up her sleeping skin. Shirak had grown restless and her limbs were aching from the long confinement in the narrow cave. Surely Kaigun and Dorn would soon appear and they could follow the other pilgrims who had returned to Zedekla.





Chapter 7 Ransom





Thrak stopped himself from gaping when the caravan of pilgrims and guards came in sight of the city where his namesake Tharek ruled. He had imagined what it must be like based on his knowledge of such towns as Setalan. In nearly every way he had been wrong.



There was no pall of murk hanging over the city, although here and there a trail of smoke rose into the air and drifted toward the sea indicated that smiths and potters worked at hearth and kiln. The outer walls stretched from the river to the hills, enclosing rich fields and prosperous looking cottages. An inner wall with stately towers enclosed the central city. The palace, its towers gleaming with gilt and bright with banners, rose above a seaside prominence that overlooked the shining white Shrine of the Radiance with its golden spire. Nearby a huge dark pyramid seemed to brood like a dangerous crouching beast.



When they drew nearer, Thrak saw busy people whose easy smiles grew serious when they saw the pilgrims pass. Some ran to ask the guards why they had returned so soon and others ran ahead to warn the palace. A tall man met them before they had reached the gate through the inner wall. He was dressed in a plain blue tunic and only the staff he carried betrayed his identity to Thrak. It was the Tyrant himself.



Jacla ran ahead and was the first to reach Tharek. She fell on her knees and began to weep and stutter an urgent apology. Agard stood silent until Tharek gently pulled Jacla to her feet and asked her to take Chasona to her parents. The families of the other pilgrims came to greet their sons and daughters and lead them home. Soon only Thrak and Tharek's daughter, Tarina, were left to stand with the guards.



"Come, it would be better to discuss these things when we are out of the public way," Tharek said after he hugged his daughter. He let the guards lead the way as they proceeded through the city and up to the gates of the palace. Thrak's neck began to ache from swiveling his head to take in the sights on every side.



It seemed that matla makers had stations at every corner. The fragrance of their fresh baked flat-bread mingled with the scent of Janakan barbecue from an inn that bore the sign of a roasting paka. Thrak was tempted to leave the others and make a purchase, but he conquered his appetite and looked away from the temptation offered by the spicy odor. He marked the name of the street and promised himself that he would return when he had concluded his business with Tharek. He needed to assure the Tyrant that Kaigun was innocent of any wrongdoing.



At first Thrak had been surprised when Tharek greeted the caravan without an evident retinue of guards and servants. As they proceeded through the city toward the palace, he amended his first impression. Lounging at the corners, talking to the matla makers but keeping one hand on the pommel of their sword while their eyes surveyed the street in front and behind the Tyrant, there were men with the air of warriors dressed in tunics with a small badge of blue and white.



Thrak glanced up and caught the eye of a man who scanned the street from an upper window while Tharek walked past with his daughter. It would be folly to try and take the Tyrant by surprise.



When they reached the palace, the presence of guards became more apparent. Two bracketed the gate, four others stood on either side of the entrance hall. They were dressed in a livery of blue and gold, but they were not merely decorative attendants. They had a look in their eyes, and sometimes scars, that proved that they were battle hardened men, dangerous to any who might attempt to attack their ruler.



When Tharek finally led Thrak and Captain Agard into his small audience chamber and gave his daughter over to her anxious mother, the door was shut and it seemed there were no others in the room.



Tharek seated himself and studied the captain with grave eyes. Finally he spoke. "You must give me an exact report of how you came to leave my oldest son and daughter virtually alone in the proximity of acknowledged Orquians. Jacla's apology was garbled, but I caught the sense of what she said."



"Your son appointed me to lead the group of guards he selected to accompany the pilgrimage he led," Agard began. "Three days out we were approached by Parval, one of Jacla's cronies, who claimed that he knew of an ambush planned by Orquians. Not much later this Janakan and his two companions were apprehended near the camp. They claimed that Parval was a traitor in league with Dashkar, and advised us to return to Zedekla or send runners back to the city for assistance."



"How was Shirak wounded?" Tharek asked.



"The traitor Parval, for such he proved to be, cozened Chasona into trying to kill one of the Janakans. When she thrust the knife through the tent, it was your son she wounded."



"How bad is his wound," Tharek asked with narrowed eyes while his hand clenched his knee.



"I believe that he will soon recover," Agard assured the worried father. "The other Janakan, Kaigun, had some gunge weed and made a poultice."



"Kaigun? A name I know." The voice came from the corner and when Thrak turned, he gave a small gasp of surprise. At first he thought he saw the ghost of Kaigun standing in the shadows. Then the man moved forward into the light and the illusion was dispelled.



"You know Kaigun?" Tharek asked.



The stranger turned to Thrak. "Is your companion a warrior of Algire Clan?"



"He is." Thrak stared a moment longer, then he whispered a name that was known for infamy among Janaka's clans. "Darm."



Darm nodded. "Kaigun is my brother's son. Why has he left the mountains. I doubt that he was making a pilgrimage. It must be years since he married and begat a child and gained a warrior's first token?"



Thrak nodded. "He is well known as a warrior."



"And you are Margan, if I am not mistaken," Darm smiled as he surveyed the short hair that had not yet obscured Thrak's tattoos. "What would an Algiran be doing with a Margan? What is your name, Margan?"



"I am Thrak, son of Palarm who saw the Stone of Truth!" Thrak declared with pride. "I became companion to Kaigun who has taken on a quest. First he agreed to help me warn the pilgrims when I discovered that Dashkar plotted to intercept them."



Tharek stood. "I sense that there are matters concerning these Janakans that will require a private interview. Come, Thrak. Follow me."



At first Thrak felt disappointment when they entered the small room where a tiny spot on the wall let in a flood of sunlight. Then his eyes widened and he stumbled to his knees. "The Stone of Truth! It gleams as if the sun had shed a tear and it was placed among the pebbles on the wall."



Tharek did not ask the youth to read the writing illuminated by the stone. It was evident from his expression that he saw the light. Instead, the Tyrant invited Thrak to sit down beside him on a narrow bench which was the only furnishing the room contained. "Tell me of Kaigun's quest."



"He seeks the Sword of the Wizard Smith which his uncle lost to you," Thrak said.



"How did he hope to obtain it?" Tharek asked, puzzled. "Surely he knows that those few who have tried to take the sword have died. I am always guarded, even when I go into battle."



A plan bloomed in Thrak's mind and as he thought about it, the light dimmed and when he began to plan his words to aid Kaigun it nearly vanished. He felt like weeping at the fading of the light, but he owed a debt to Kaigun.



"He is holding your heir and your older daughter for ransom!" Thrak declared. The utterance of the lie completed the darkening of the room.



"What price does he demand?" Tharek asked.



"You must meet him in solitary combat and give him a chance to win the sword of the wizard smith as tradition demands. Only that will satisfy the ransom and free your children."



"Come," Tharek said. "We must not wait any longer. You will lead me to the place where Kaigun is keeping Shirak and Belin."



Darm was waiting in the corridor. "Has this Margan failed the test of the Stone of Truth?" he asked.



Tharek shook his head and made a grimace. "He tells me that your nephew, Kaigun, holds my son and daughter hostage and will not release them unless I pay a ranson."



"It seems strange that he would offer help and then take them prisoner," Darm said. "I thought my brother's son would be a better man than that. I am disappointed to see him stoop so low. How much does he require?"



"Tharek oc Baroka, won in combat," Tharek replied tersely. "I am sorry to leave so soon after you arrived, but you must see that this task cannot be delayed."



"I will go with you," Darm insisted. "Better yet, I will go in your place."



"I am the only one who can win or lose this contest," Tharek reminded his friend as they climbed the stairs together with Thrak trailing close behind.



"You mean to say that Kaigun will not accept the sword unless he takes it from your corpse?" Darm asked.



"You taught me the rules more than twenty years ago," Tharek said. "You refused to let me simply give you the sword. It wasn't until I had refused to let you kill me in order to recover it, that we joined forces in what followed."



"But this is different," Darm insisted. "I took the sword from my father peacefully when he grew old and retired to join the ruling council in the city of Janaka. If I had been wounded so that I could no longer be a warrior, I would have given the sword to my brother, Kaigun's father. You and I swore to be brothers with a sacred oath. Now I can take the sword from you without combat. I insist that you let me serve as proxy in this matter."



"I must pay the forfeit myself." Tharek insisted. "You are out of practice as a warrior. You have a wife and family. I cannot send you to your death. " He whirled on Thrak who had followed them so closely that when the Tyrant turned, he nearly stumbled over the Margan.



"Did Kaigun set any other conditions. Must I go to him alone with no others in attendance?"



For a moment Thrak was lost for words. He had hardly dared to hope that Tharek would take the ransom demand seriously. Now he worried about the lie that he had told in the face of the Stone of Truth. Perhaps it would go easier on his soul if he moderated the supposed demand.



"I believe that Kaigun would favor meeting Darm instead of you," he suggested. "Darm brought dishonor on his clan when he forfeited the sword without giving up his life. If you had not intervened, by now Kaigun would have the sword without the need for battle."



"Then Darm could take the sword and give it to Kaigun without combat, as he might have if I had not wandered into the path of battle and defeated Darm with my staff?" Tharek asked on a rising note of hope.



Both Darm and Thrak shook their heads. "Kaigun would not accept the sword from me without a fight," Darm said. "Even so, while I have a family, you have both a family and a city, nay, an entire nation to govern. If you take up the challenge of the ransom with Kaigun, he would very likely win the battle and take your life. He is in his prime, and a champion from what Thrak has told us. What guarantee would you have that he would let your son and daughter live? If he would stoop to take them as his prisoners, what other mischief might he do?"



Thrak wanted to protest that Kaigun was not the knave that he had led them to believe, but to do so he would have to revoke his story. It was Kaigun's only chance to win Tharek oc Baroka and restore it to Janaka.



The debate continued while Tharek went to his private quarters and began to put together a pack to take on his journey. Thrak and Darm had followed him to continue pressing the Tyrant to accept Darm's offer to replace him in the contest.



Tharek turned away from them to summon a servant to bring journey food and a couple of water-skins. When the man returned, Tharek took the food and asked the servant to return later. Tharek sat at a small desk and began to write a message to his wife on a length of scroll cloth.



"It is a cowardly man who leaves to face his death and is afraid to tell his wife about his folly face to face," Darm said.



"You seem to think that I will lose the sword," Tharek said with a grim smile. "It is not I who have given up the practice of war. That is why I cannot accept your offer to replace me. You say that Kaigun is in his prime, but so am I. I may not have the youthful strength of your nephew, but I have faced many men in battle. I have learned a great deal about how to handle Tharek oc Baroka. You, on the other hand, have hardly touched a sword since you became a smith in Tedaka."



Tharek turned his back on them and continued with his note. For several minutes there was no sound in the room but the hiss of Tharek's scribing tool. Tharek oc Baroka, sheathed in a staff little different from a Mareklan staff, leaned on a rack near the door. Darm edged toward the sword staff and nodded to Thrak. With a quick movement, he grabbed the sword and moved out of the room followed close behind by Thrak who noiselessly shut the door. Darm peered in through the open grill set in the top of the door and saw that Tharek was still concentrating on his message to his wife.



Darm slid an outer latch into the lock. Doubtless there was some passageway that Tharek could use to free himself when he discovered what had happened, but with luck, Darm and Thrak would be well on their way by the time Tharek gained his freedom.



"Follw me to the harbor," Darm murmured. "The last place Tharek would look for me is in a boat. He knows I am a miserable sailor."



Long familiarity with Tharek's home made Darm's plan flow swiftly. He led Thrak through the great halls and narrow passages that would have confounded the Margan if he had tried to find his way along. They came at last to a small door set at the end of a small hall on the west side of the palace. Darm unlocked the door and Thrak lurched back at the impression of vast emptiness in front of him. Darm urged him forward and he saw that a narrow porch set mere inches beneath the door sill stretched a few feet from the door. A narrow stairway led steeply downward from the porch to a simple quay of stones where small boats bobbed in the water. Giddy with relief after safely descending the stairs, Thrak hesitated to step into the narrow space between the benches of the smallest boat but Darm pulled him in with a rough hand.



"I am your accomplice in deceiving Tharek and leaving him behind without a guide, but I do not like you Thrak. I do not care for Kaigun either. Both of you are the worst sort of rascal. Because I am a man of honor and I want to protect my friend and save his children, I will accept your presence, but do not try my patience."



Thrak huddled between the thwarts of the boat while Darm pulled at the oars. Darm's shoulders, massive with decades of smithing, sent the boat along the edge of the beach like a frightened bacal, skipping and bucking over the waves until the Margan began to moan with fright and felt bile rising in his throat.



They made landfall shortly before dark. Darm hid the boat in a dense stand of bushes and waded through shallow water until he came to a rocky outcrop that would not leave footprints once the water from their feet had dried.



Thrak followed him, more afraid of being overtaken by the angry Tharek than by the presence of the stubborn smith. At least Darm had once been Janakan. Thrak decided it might be wise to remind Darm of something he had overlooked. "The guards who were with us could lead Tharek to the camp where I last saw Kaigun and the others."



Darm shook his head. "Now that we have made our escape, Tharek will not try to bring a troop of men to interfere. He should know that I am the best person for this task. I believe I have a good chance to win the contest."



"But Kaigun is younger than you, and I think, somewhat larger," Thrak demurred as he walked a little faster to keep up with the older man.



Darm gave a mirthless laugh. "It has been years since I fought with the sword of the wizard smith, but I am one of only two men who know its secrets. If I drew it from its hiding place inside this staff, you would see that it is straight rather than being curved like other swords. Only Tharek knows better than I how to wield the sword."



"Is it true that your ancestor Algire made the sword as the songs say, or is that just a legend?"



"As much as it pains others of my clan to acknowledge the fact, Algire, a man, made the sword from metal that fell from the stars. That is why I became a smith. Although I never found another star stone to match the one that Algire used, I enjoy the craft of smithing. In Janaka, I dared not speak of my interest. In Tedaka I am respected for my talent."



Thrak shook his head. "In Setalan the men are like you. They work in mines and smelters. It seems unnatural. Even the men of Margan clan have been affected by the blight of broken tradition. Too many are like me, seeking their fortunes away from the mountains and forgetting the warrior's way. Six months ago, if someone had said that I would let my hair grow instead of scraping my head bald with an obsidian blade and take off my trophy vest in order to wear a flatlander tunic, I would have challenged them to combat."



"Years ago when Tharek and I left the mountains we saw the first signs of decay," Darm said. "We saw two old champions who fought all alone on the nearly deserted battleground. Their people of their villages had almost completely forgotten the ways of true Janakans. Yet who are we to condemn others? You consort with Algirans instead of fighting them on sight. I have not been back to the mountains of Janaka for more than twenty years."



"Do you plan to travel through the night?" Thrak asked when the light had fully faded and the stars were bright in the dark sky.



"We should stop and sleep," Darm said. "Once I could go both night and day, but when I fight Kaigun, I want to be alert and rested."



"Did you bring anything to eat or drink?" Thrak asked when Darm began to heap dry grass into bedding.



"There is a stream just over there beneath the trees where you can slake your thirst. We will have to wait until morning to find some food."



Thrak found the stream and drank his fill. For a moment he hesitated before washing his face and hands. Cleanliness had become a habit that he would have to discard once he returned home again.



The bed of grass that Darm had mounded up for him was surprisingly comfortable and Thrak soon fell asleep. In the morning he woke to the smell of roasting meat. The sun hovered just above the eastern hills, but Darm had risen early and several fish were roasting over a small fire.



The two men traveled on in silence, avoiding other people and circumventing towns and villages. Darm gestured to the verdant settled country around them. "This was a desert twenty years ago when I came here with Tharek. Now there are farms and villages. The change of course of the river Com is only partly responsible. Tharek brought peace that encourages farming."



Thrak began to worry about his claim that Kaigun wanted a ransom. At the time he told the lie it seemed that Tharek would be an easy opponent for his friend. Few Janakan men attained the age of either the Tyrant or Darm. By the time their sons were old enough to fight, they had died in battle or were so badly crippled by wounds that they retired to the city of Janaka and joined the council of elders.



Darm was clearly not impaired by his age. It was all Thrak could do to keep up with the older man as he maintained a steady jog through most of the morning and afternoon. He had suspected Darm of lying when he claimed that he expected to win the confrontation. Now he felt the smith had only told the truth. With remembered skill and the sword that had never failed to win the battle for the man who wielded it, Darm would be a worthy opponent even for such as Kaigun.



Darm called a halt before sunset. "We must hunt and gather enough food to keep us going through tomorrow without stopping."



Thrak was grateful for the stop, even though he knew that he would have to seek out breadberries and leather root. "I should have taken the journey food and water-skins from Tharek as long as you were taking the sword, but somehow, it seemed too much like theft," he said.



"He would have been alerted if you had tried. The sword was by the door where I could easily take it." Darm replied. "In any case, why should such as you worry about theft. How did you mislead Tharek into thinking that you saw the Stone of Truth?"



"But I did," Thrak protested. "My father was one of those that Tharek rescued from the Orquians when he first traveled up to Zedekla. He saw the stone, and so have I."



"There is a mystery here," Darm speculated. "I am usually able to discern when someone is lying, and I have the sense that you have been devious almost from the moment I met you. It shows in the way you shift your eyes and look away from me. In time, I will find out what you are trying to conceal."



Thrak widened his eyes in feigned innocence, but Darm gave a snort of derision at the effore, evidently unimpressed. "There is a patch of breadberry bushes over there. Cut the most heavily fruited branches and tie the ends together. Surely you can do such a simple thing while I trap some meat?"



"If you doubt what I have told you, why are you continuing to follow me?" Thrak asked.



"I believe that Kaigun wants the sword I lost to Tharek. I believe that he is holding Shirak and his sister as hostage. Those are reason enough for me to follow you. If I find that you have deceived me about where they are, you will pay a forfeit of your life."









Chapter 8 Mareklans





Kaigun and Dorn appeared at the mouth of the cave where Belin and Shirak were hidden soon after the last laggard dala followed the Orquian baggage train down the trail. Kaigun had two short swords which he handed to Belin and Shirak. "I must leave Dorn here with you and ask you to keep him safe. Last night I crept into the camp of the Orquians to get more supplies and take these weapons. I heard Dashkar and Parval making plans. They have given up trying to find us and are after a new target. A small band of Mareklans has been spotted in the east a day's march from here. There are two maidens along with seven men. I must get ahead of the Orquians and warn the Mareklans."



"We will go with you," Shirak said.



"I cannot slow my pace to cater to your wound."



"My wound no longer bothers me. If the two of us can join with the Mareklans, we could give the Orquians a fight they will remember, if they live to tell the tale."



Kaigun looked toward Belin, asking with his eyes for her to stop her brother but she shook her head. "I doubt that I can keep either Dorn or Shirak here. The Orquians hope to have the advantage of surprise against the Mareklans. At the rate that they are moving, we should easily pass them."



"Will you obey me without question once we take the trail?" Kaigun demanded of Shirak.



Belin turned to her brother who was slow to give an answer. "Remember how our uncles nearly caused Tharek's death by failing to obey his orders?"



Shirak nodded and turned to Kaigun. "I will follow your orders exactly."



Dorn sensed a story and when he begged to know what had happened, Belin told him how the incident occurred. "My mother had five brothers who joined the army of Tharek when he came to Zedekla. In the first battle for the city the youngest brother failed to heed Tharek's orders. He broke ranks and challenged the foe. His brothers rushed after him when they saw he was in danger, leaving Tharek open to attack from all sides. Only one of them survived and Tharek was nearly killed because of their lack of discipline."



"I heard that the Tyrant is invincible and has never been wounded," Kaigun said.



"Tharek's invulnerability is a convenient fiction," Belin said. "Garvok came close to killing him when they first met in combat. In the battle I just described, he took a serious wound on one of his legs along with cuts in other parts of his body. Are you one of those who think that Tharek oc Baroka, the sword he won from Darm, is magic?"



"Tharek oc Baroka is not magic, but it makes a better warrior of any man who bears it," Kaigun said. "The metal of the sword will cut good bronze. Only Algire knew the secret of its making."



Belin was surprised by the extent of his knowledge of the sword. "You are Algiran. Could it be that you are a kinsman of Darm's?"



Kaigun stood and lifted his pack. "We must hurry," he said, evading her question.



"Your silence confirms what I suspected. Darm told me that he had been outcast from his clan for forfeiting the sword without giving up his life. You must be closely related to him." He shook his head to discourage further questions.



Shirak and Dorn each wore a light pack while Kaigun shouldered more than twice the load that Belin could manage. Even so, his pace soon tired the others, but having accepted them as his companions, he did not remind Shirak of his boast that he could keep up. They rested for a while at sunset, then traveled on through twilight, easily following the well defined track left by the Orquians.



As the sky darkened and night came on, they saw the campfires of the Orquians ahead of them. Kaigun led them toward the gentle hills that bounded either side of the narrow valley in which the Orquians had stopped to camp. There was no need to caution silence. They could see the men who stood watch outlined against the glow of the fires.



With only a sliver of moon to light their way, Kaigun slowed his pace. Belin could hear Shirak's heavy breathing but her brother did not complain. Dorn began to lag behind and Kaigun scooped the child up in his arms with hardly a pause in his steady gait.



After the long days of confinement in the cave, Kaigun was certain the others must be weary, but neither of them slackened their pace and his respect for Belin grew. She had surprised him from the first, belying every assumption about what to expect from a royal princess. Her humor, her intelligence, her willingness to stay behind and nurse her wounded brother, her quick compliance with his orders where others might have argued had ignited emotions he tried to ignore. Why had his youthful folly led him to settle for a pretty face with tragedy to follow. Surely somewhere in Janaka he could have found a maiden with Belin's qualities of character. Now he was cursed to yearn for the impossible. Again and again he felt his gaze drawn to her graceful figure and delicate profile. He had always considered Janakan women to be the very measure of feminine beauty. Why did Belin's pert nose and wide smile strike his heart with such devastating effect?



The more he tried to ignore his growing affection for the woman by his side, the more he found himself ensnared. At last he slowed and set Dorn on the broken remnant of the fallen tree. "We should be safe from discovery now. We will rest until sunrise."



Belin said a brief prayer of thanks and unrolled her sleeping skin on rocky ground. Kaigun hastened to heap a pile of dry grass for her to lay on. She smiled her thanks and lay down with a weary little sigh. She was soon fast asleep, leaving the others to arrange the details of keeping watch. She woke to find Dorn standing on the log surveying the surrounding countryside. Both Shirak and Kaigun were breathing with the steady, snuffling sound of heavy sleep.



Belin dug into the packs and assembled a breakfast of jerked meat, nuka juice and matlas that Kaigun had scavenged from the Orquians. The flat bread was stale and poorly made, but it would not be wise to light a fire while there was a chance of being discovered by the raider's scouts.



Soon Kaigun rose and left the camp with the empty water-skins. By the time he returned with full water-skins and a paka he had snared, Shirak was awake and ready to start again.



"We should encounter the Mareklans before mid-day if we maintain a steady pace this morning," Kaigun said. "I have no doubt that the Orquians have scouts watching the merchants. They will see us, but knowing we have added our strength to the Mareklans may discourage them from attacking. At least we will ruin their hopes of taking the caravan by surprise."



They rolled up their sleeping skins and put on their packs. Dorn was full of energy and trotted along beside Kaigun, sometimes stopping to look at something by the side of the trail, and then running to catch up. As Kaigun had suggested, they saw the small caravan of Mareklans with their distinctive staffs, wide hats, and patterned capes when they topped a shallow rise that led down into a wide plain.



Coming in sight of their goal, and seeing that the Mareklans were moving fast enough to stay ahead of them at their current pace was a goad to the Zedeklans. Belin and Shirak picked up their pace and matched the tempo that Kaigun easily maintained. Dorn scampered along just behind the others.



One of the Mareklans looked back and saw them. At his signal, the other merchants formed a circle with their staffs held in front of them and ready for defense. In years past when Janakans and Mareklans had lived in close accord, they had developed signs to be read at a distance, most of them now forgotten by the younger men. Kaigun remembered to hold his hands up with his arms spread outward in signal that he came in peace.



The defensive stance of the Mareklans eased and they raised their staffs fully upright, a sign that they accepted Kaigun's gesture. Two of them left the others and approached. As soon as they were within hailing distance Belin cried out to them.



"Orquians are coming! They have scouts in the area."



The two Mareklans stopped. The older of the two waved his hand toward Shirak and Belin. "I distrust people dressed as pilgrims who wear arms. All of you put down your swords."



Belin quickly untied the makeshift sword belt she had tied around her waist and dropped the weapon. Shirak followed suit. Last of all, Kaigun pulled his sword from the scabbard on his back and carefully laid it down at his feet. Dorn looked around at the three of them before digging into his belt and removing a dagger that he laid at his feet in perfect imitation of Kaigun's care for his weapon.



The Mareklans still waited and Kaigun seemed to understand what they wanted. "Step back five paces from where we have laid down our swords," he told the others. As soon as they followed his example, the Mareklans joined them.



"I am Malon, this is my son, Dubalen. We have seen men in the hills and suspected bandits," the older man said.



"I am Shirak, son of Tharek, Tyrant of Zedekla, and this is my sister Belin," Shirak replied. "This man is Kaigun and the child is his son."



At this Dorn straightened up and grinned. "I am Dorn, apprentice warrior to Kaigun." he boasted.



"What is a Janakan doing with the Tyrant's son?" Dubalen asked Kaigun.



"I discovered that Orquians were planning to raid a pilgrim caravan from Zedekla. A spy kept Dashkar informed of their plans. When they were warned, the other pilgrims turned back for Zedekla, but Shirak was wounded and we had to go to ground. Two nights ago I overheard the raiders plotting to attack your caravan. I could not convince these others to stay behind while I came ahead to warn you."



Malon looked them over, then he nodded. "We could turn aside and seek help from one of the villages to the south, but I am not certain which of them would aid us. The people of this region welcome our trade, but they are quick to bar their doors and refuse help when danger threatens. Retrieve your weapons and join us. We are headed for Mount Vald to harvest brass wood which we use to make our staffs. There are several caves which we have used to cache our goods for many years. We can find refuge there."



"We could fight them!" Dorn insisted.



"I will not risk three women and a child," Malon told the boy.



"I agree," Kaigun said. "The Orquians outnumber us and Mareklans do not carry swords."



Dorn seemed disappointed that they would retreat rather than face the foe, but soon he lost his dejected frown in the excitement of being surrounded by Mareklans. He was scooped up to ride on Dubalens's shoulders and once they joined the others, the entire company began a steady jog that carried them through the valley and into the foothills.



At last the company came to a halt. A slender Mareklan settled next to Belin. As soon as the conical hat was removed it became evident that she was a woman. Otherwise, her tunic and cloak was much the same as the other Mareklans. "I am Matenil, daughter of Malon. Would you share the tent with me and my sister, Seral, when we camp tonight?" she offered.



"I would be honored to share your tent," Belin answered



"Is it true that your brother was wounded by Orquians," the Mareklan girl asked.



She darted a look at Shirak and Belin was surprised to see a disdainful look on the maiden's face. Belin took a survey of her brother. He looked rather ragged and unkempt. The close quarters of their refuge in the cavern had prevented him from practicing his usual meticulous grooming. Only his most rudimentary needs had been tended in the past few days and he looked pale from his wound and the exertion of the days of steady travel.



Belin tried to see Shirak as someone not his sister might see him. In some ways he resembled his mother's brother, Turga. If one looked beyond the dust and grime, he was a fairly handsome youth. In past years his lips had often turned down in a scowl, but now that he was smiling and trading jests with one of the Mareklan men, his resemblance to his father, Tharek, became more apparent. Surely there was nothing about him to inspire such disdain in Matenil.



Belin suddenly recalled that she had been asked a question. "He was wounded by a woman, but she hoped to find another target. The Orquian spy, Parval misled her."



"He was fighting a woman?" Matenil asked on a rising note of doubt.



"She put a knife in his back through the walls of our tent," Belin said. "Shirak would not fight a woman."



To her surprise, her assurance made Matenil bristle with offence. "Mareklan women would not attack in stealth. We welcome fights if they must come."



"I thought you could not bear blades that could wound."



"No true Mareklan needs a sword to win a fight. Have you never seen Mareklans sparring with their staffs?"



Belin shook her head. "Tharek's Mareklan family comes to Zedekla now and then, but they come only to trade and visit with their son and brother. Perhaps there will be a contest while we travel with you."



Matenil jumped up and grabbed the staff that she had wedged between two rocks. "We will have a contest now. Which of these men would you like to see joust with me? My father is the best of them, but he still thinks of me as a child and won't accept my challenge."



Belin was fascinated by the idea that so soon after making the forced march Matenil was ready to engage in a sparring match. She quickly studied the men who were waiting for the cooks to finish making a meal. One of them was not much larger than Matenil and she pointed. "That small youth over there by the fire."



"That is my younger sister Seral. I will spar with her betrothed, Meropin."



Without further elaboration on what she planned. Matenil moved lithely across to the largest of the Mareklan men. "Spar with me Meropin. Our guests have never seen Mareklans fight with staffs."



Belin was surprised when none of the others interfered with Matenil's challenge. Instead, several of them marked a circle, two staffs in diameter, in the soil just beyond the camp. Apparently the aim of the match was to see which of the two contestants could drive the other from the circle.



Belin took a place in the forefront of the audience several paces from the circle. Shirak, Kaigun and Dorn were similarly honored with a first hand view of what followed.



Matenil and Meropin stood opposite each other with a staff length between them. "Begin," Malon said.



At first it seemed that it had all been a ruse meant to tease the visitors. Neither of the contestants moved for several seconds. Finally Matenil brought her staff upright above her head and shouted a wordless challenge while she dashed across the circle.



With a flick of his sturdy wrist, Meropin swiveled his staff to block her move. Then, with a movement so fast that Belin could hardly believe that such a large man had made it, Meropin spun on his heel, full round, in the process knocking Matenil and her staff away.



Shirak's chuckle sounded in the silence that followed the spinning defense. Matenil's cheeks flushed red and her eyebrows lowered dangerously. She attacked again in a series of pattering blows that landed mostly on Meropin's blocking staff, but some fell on his legs and shoulders.



"Flea, your sting offends me," Meropin said with a smile as he turned the tables on Matenil and spun his staff in his hands as if it were nothing more than a walking stick. He tapped her almost playfully on her head, shoulders, waist and thighs, dismissing her as an opponent with his gentleness.



The difference in the demeanor of their faces was evidence to Belin that this was far more than a casual contest to Matenil. With a howl that rivaled any wirra scream, she began to spin, her staff sliding through her hands until she held on to the knob. The spinning staff penetrated Meropin's defense and struck him solidly on the neck. He staggered, but recovered.



"Foul!" Malon cried. "The match is ended. Matenil must forfeit."



"He hit me on the head!" she argued. "I only gave him back what he began."



None of the other Mareklans seemed willing to listen to her protests. They left the circle along with Meropin, leaving only Matenil and the guests whom she had hoped to impress with her skill.



Belin walked up to the Mareklan girl and put her hand on her shoulder. "Come, we are hungry and your father is preparing to bless the meal."



Kaigun, Dorn and Shirak had been watching the match but when he saw Belin approach Matenil, Kaigun signaled the other two to follow him, leaving the two young women alone together. When the three were out of earshot, Matenil turned to Belin, "I made a poor showing. My father was right to end the match."



"Why did you challenge Meropin? Surely you did not think you could defeat someone nearly twice as large as you?"



"I expected to be Meropin's betrothed. I am the older sister. Two nights ago he asked to talk to me alone. I thought he had finally summoned the courage to declare himself. Instead he told me that he had had a dream. Before the dream, he had been undecided. He told me he had long been torn between Seral and me, but my seniority inclined him to choose me."



Matenil kicked at a stone and fell silent just as a hush came over the camp. Malon had raised his hands after tucking a blue shawl around his shoulders. In quiet words he blessed the meal and gave thanks for the timely warning of the Orquian plans and the weather that continued fair.



When he was finished, those who had prepared the meal began to serve it up. Belin left Matenil who had settled onto a rock and was holding her chin in her hands, the picture of dejection. She soon returned with two plates full of food.



They ate in companionable silence. Finally sated, Matenil resumed her story. "Meropin said that he had dreamed that he was walking in a forest of pillars. On the top of each one he could see a rolled up scroll. Names appeared on the pillars, and he found mine. He tried to take the scroll, but it was too high for him to reach. Then he turned and saw the pillar of Seral and he could easily reach her scroll. He opened it and found his name, along with those of their children."



Matenil's voice grew faint and rose on a note of pain as she finished her account. "I love him."



"Surely you told him so?" Belin asked. "I am almost certain he would have waited to ask Seral until the aura of the dream had passed if he knew you loved him." She was outraged that such an important matter had been determined by the vagaries of a dream.



"He is Tharek's nephew. He dreams truly," Matenil replied hopelessly. "As soon as he began to tell me what he had seen, I recognized that it was not mere whimsy. But knowing what he said is true doesn't ease my hurt."



Belin could appreciate the other girl's frustration. A man might be persuaded to change his mind about such things if it did not have the weight of prophecy. She had sometimes seen her mother steel herself against complaint when Tharek had some dream or intimation that conflicted with her own desires or led him into danger.



"Perhaps you should consider yourself well shut of him," she said, trying to ease Matenil's disappointment.



"Perhaps in time I will," Matenil admitted. "I made a fool of myself today, challenging him that way. I would not love him if he were not honest and willing to honor what he feels is right."



Belin felt it was time to change the subject. She admired the pendant Matenil wore on a thong around her neck. "I have many jewels at home in Zedekla, but most are garish and ill made by comparison to your pendant."



"I made it," Matenil replied. "I studied with the master goldsmith, Borcon. Here, take it."



"I am a pilgrim," Belin protested. "Visit me in Zedekla and I will accept your gift and purchase others like it for my mother and sisters."



The talk turned to Belin's sisters and her life as a member of the Tyrant's family. She reflected her prejudice in favor of the man who had adopted her as a child and been as good or better than a natural father.



"I know that Tharek is a prophet, but some say he truly earned the title of 'tyrant'." Matenil said. "From what you have told me, he is a very amenable and kindly man,"



Belin nodded. "In truth, most decisions about the governance of Zedekla are made by an elected council, but there are times when Tharek invokes his right as Tyrant and overrules the votes of others. Time has proved that it is wisdom to do as he says when he makes such demands."



Matenil fell silent and her lashes dropped to hide her glistening eyes. Belin realized that without intending to do so, she had returned to the topic of honoring the decisions of visionaries.



Malon gave the signal to take the trail again and Matenil stood. "Come, we must not linger. We will travel until full dark before we rest again."



Refreshed by the break, the small caravan quickly started on its way. Several of the Mareklans had insisted on relieving Shirak and Belin of their heavy packs and neither argued. It was far better to swallow pride and have the energy to keep the tempo Malon set than to struggle to keep up.



They continued until after nightfall. When they finally stopped, Belin sought out Matenil . The girl was setting up a tent along with Seral and they chatted easily together. Belin was glad to see that in spite of Meropin's decision, there was no apparent rancor between the sisters.



Belin grabbed a corner of the tent and held it in place while Seral pounded in a spike to hold it down. Once the tent was up, the sisters beckoned her inside. It was a tiny shelter, meant to provide a modicum of modesty for the maidens. "We have a set of clothing for you to change into," Matenil offered. "Your robes should be cleaned before you put them on again."



Matenil produced a bowl of water and a wash cloth and they left Belin alone in the tent to clean away the dust and sweat of days of steady travel. Belin was grateful to remove the stained robe. She had not really taken account of how soiled she had become through her ordeal until she had washed and dressed in the fresh clothing the sisters provided. After she put on the tunic and buskins and bundled up the worn sandals in the robe, she left the tent and looked around.



"I hardly recognized you!" Shirak said from close at hand. "At first I thought you were one of the Mareklan girls. Come, Malon is waiting for us to join the others before he performs the Evening Ritual."



Belin found a place between Matenil and Seral. Malon's gave a traditional prayer, invoking the blessings of the Radiance on the company and giving thanks. The final phrase was one that Belin had heard only from Mareklans: "As wanderers without a home, we seek surcease."



She was not quite clear about why Mareklans still lived in tents and had no permanent settlement. With the loss of the Scroll of History and Prophecy, many traditions no longer could be traced. Some said that the Kumnorans retained a verbal record of the things that Irilik, the first Prophet, had written in his Scroll, but the priestly scribes in Timora had not accepted the Kumnoran record as valid.



Belin turned to Matenil, hoping the Mareklan girl would know the answer. "Why do Mareklans wander without a home?"



"Irilik said that we would find our home when the river returns and the Incarnation of the Radience is born," Matenil replied. "I am uncertain what that means. The elders of our council, those who are not priests with their first loyalty to Timora, believe we must find a place where we can settle together in safety."



"With Orquians hunting Mareklan maidens for their sacrifices to the demon, it seems vital that we find a refuge where we can shelter," Seral added.



"Where could you find such a place?" Belin asked. "All the lands of Okishdu have been claimed or else they seem to be beyond redemption. Perhaps you should settle in Zedekla. After all, Tharek is a Son of Irilik."



"But Tharek is not acknowledged as Mareklan," Matenil demurred. "His very name betrays that he was driven from the clan."



"But he is worthy enough to possess the Stone of Truth," Seral reminded her sister. "I have heard that Tharek promised that he will encourage his heir to marry a Mareklan maiden. The elders of our people are eager for the alliance."



Matenil glanced toward Shirak who was entertaining Meropin and several other Mareklan men with an account of his adventure. She grimaced and balled her fists, surprising Belin with her silent but vehement reaction to the suggestion.



Belin felt that she should speak up for Shirak's virtues. "In spite of his wound, Shirak has been uncomplaining while we pressed on to warn you. I believe that in time he will be worthy to be his father's heir." After she finished speaking she realized that she had implied that Shirak was still lacking.



"We have tired ourselves today and we will probably be up early in the morning." Matenil said after a moment of silence. "Come, it is time to sleep."



Chapter 9 Vald





Night still ruled the sky when the Mareklans broke camp and made a quick breakfast. With an efficiency born of long practice, they were well along the trail by dawn. When the sun rose it silhouetted the truncated cone of a great mountain which stood above the range of other mountains surrounding it like a corum among its calves.



"It is Mount Vald where we will harvest brasswood," Matenil explained when Belin asked about the peak. "It appears only hours away, but we won't reach it for another day at the earliest. Once we are there we can hide from the Orquians in one of the cache caves."



The column of men and women kept up a steady pace until noon when Malon called a halt. "There has been no sign of the Orquian scouts today, but we have decided on gaining ground rather than covering our tracks thus far. From here on we will be more cautious. We do not want the Orquians to find our caches on Mount Vald."



After eating a simple meal, each of the Mareklans fastened sacks made of rough material over their boots. Kaigun, Shirak and Belin were also provided with the means to blur their footprints, but Dubalen carried Dorn when they started off again. Looking behind herself, Belin saw that there were no signs of footprints where they had passed.



They continued the pace until it was fully dark. Belin was not surprised when no fires were lit to warm the night and cook their food. She knew it would be foolish to take such pains to hide their trail, only to betray their direction with the glow of fires. Days of hiding in the cave above the camp had hardened her to eating cold meals and with the tent as cover against rain and cold, she could not complain. She was pleased to see that Dorn and Shirak also took the mild privation without murmuring.



Kaigun huddled in consultation with Malon and Dubalen while Shirak seemed to have found a comrade in Meropin. The mutter of his voice and intermittent chuckles from the darkness where they sat to eat their meal together seemed to bother Matenil.



"Meropin is treating you shamefully," she told Seral. "As your betrothed, he should spend this time with you."



"We will be constantly in one another's company soon enough," Seral answered complacently. "I will be a poor wife if I cannot tolerate the time he spends with friends."



"Shirak can hardly be called Meropin's friend," Matenil countered. "They have known each other for less than two days."



"I thought you counted Belin as a friend," Seral replied.



There was an awkward pause then Matenil turned and put her hand on Belin's shoulder. "I am sorry. My temper is ungoverned and I seem to wound with every word. I do consider you a friend, Belin. I can only justify my words by saying that I would not have tolerated such treatment from Meropin if he were my betrothed."



"I think it is just as well that he decided he must settle for me," Seral said with a gentle chuckle that showed that she had taken no offense. "I know you had hoped that he would choose you, Matenil. I was as surprised as anyone when he approached our father and asked to marry me."



Matenil gave her right hand to her sister. "Please bear with me when my anger flares and I let my tongue run loose. It is wounded pride that drives me. You know I am not usually so forward."



"All of us would do well to get some sleep. This pace is wearing on us. I am almost tempted to ask our father to go a little slower," Seral said.



The three young women stood up and stretched before they entered the tent. When Belin had murmured a prayer and settled down on her sleeping skin, she heard the mutter of voices where Malon and Dubalen were still talking with Kaigun. Her ears strained for the bass tone of Kaigun's voice and with an effort she turned her mind to something else. She had come to an age when maidens usually married, but until now she had never been tempted to give her heart. Matenil's distress was a cautionary example. It would be folly of the worst kind to yearn after Kaigun.



She hoped for sleep and tried to still her mind, but instead she found herself counting out the reasons that Kaigun was forbidden even to her imagination. First and foremost, he it seemed evident that he had a wife. Second, as a Janakan, he was the natural enemy of her people. Third. She tried hard to think of a third reason, then she decided that reasons one and two were more than sufficient to steel her against his appeal. At last she slept and woke when the signal sounded, grateful that no forbidden dreams had troubled her sleep.



The loose-woven sacks that the Mareklans had used to muffle their footprints were wearing through in places and before they took the trail again, all of them were replaced. Most of the sacks were worn through again by the time they reached the banks of a wild river that required several hours to ford. Stars had begun to sparkle in the sable sky when they finally approached the lower slopes of Mount Vald. The ground was rocky and it was easy enough to step from stone to stone to avoid leaving footprints in the softer soil between the rocks until it grew too dark to go any further without risking mishap.



Early the next morning they ascended a fall of rocks and edged along a narrow ledge that led up and around the face of the mountain. Malon was in the lead but suddenly he seemed to disappear between two bushes. The others followed and when Belin ducked into the narrow entrance that was little more than a fissure, she found herself in a spacious room of rock.



As soon as all of them but Dubalen and Meropin were inside the cave, three of the Mareklans set to work and lifted stones into place to close off the fissure so that there was no sign of an entrance. Only a small space, the width of a hand was left.



"Dubalen and Meropin will go higher and keep watch," Matenil told Belin. "We will go further into the cache cave. There is an underground pool where we can fill our water-skins and refresh ourselves."



Malon lit a torch to light the way before he led the others deeper into the cave. Great pillars and frozen draperies of stone loomed on either side of the narrow trail. Belin stubbed her toe and steadied herself on the wall.



"Keep your eyes on the trail," Matenil warned. "We will have time later to look at all these wonders. Some say that they were formed by water flowing through the mountain, others believe that they were carved by the people who built the great pyramid of Zedekla."



"I doubt that any human hand could frame such wonders in the hearth of a mountain," Belin answered. "I have seen quarries and mines, but nothing like this."



Kaigun was walking a few steps ahead and he replied, "I have seen such wonders in the mountains of Janaka. Last year our women opened a new seam of copper ore. The rock was colored blue and green and gold. It seemed a shame that they had to destroy it as it was mined."



"I thought only women entered Janakan mines," Matenil said.



"Only women dig for ore," Kaigun replied. "There is no rule against men entering the mines to estimate the value of the rock."



They heard the sound of water running and soon they entered a vast cavern that arched beyond the reach of Malon's torch. A pool mirrored back the light. First they filled their water skins, then all of them took advantage of the opportunity to wash away the dust of their urgent march to Vald.



"There must be some other source of air than just the entrance," Kaigun observed when Malon brought some sticks to build a fire. "In mines, women must be careful of their air supply."



The air of the cavern was chill after the heat of the plains below and the fire was welcome. Although there was no fresh meat to cook over the fire, Matenil set up a griddle and soon the scent of fresh baked matlas promised that this meal would be better than any they had eaten for several days.



The Mareklans set to work examining their equipment for wear and tear. Seral discovered that her bolika had begun to fray. She removed a packet of leather-root fibers from her belt and began to repair the braided rope. Watching her, Belin took a hank of fiber and began to twist them into sturdy threads which she joined to make a short length of rope.



"Well done," Matenil commented. "You have a deft touch. I am surprised. I thought that as the daughter of the Tyrant's wife you would leave such work to servants."



"I am the oldest sister of seven children," Belin said with a dry chuckle. "My parents have servants, but from my childhood I have been my mother's second pair of hands."



"She studied healing from her father," Kaigun added. "Some man will be lucky to have her as his wife."



"Maybe you should marry Kaigun," Dorn suggested. "He needs a wife."



"I have a wife," Kaigun replied shortly. Then he stood and moved away.



His words only confirmed Belin's suspicions, but hearing them spelled the end to any whim that he might be widowed. She wondered why he never spoke of his wife and family. She decided she would try to draw him out. There was nothing like putting your hand too close to the fire to warn against getting burned.



She had a chance to speak to him a little later when the group gathered around the fire. Matenil had been sitting next to Belin, but she moved away to speak to her father. Kaigun settled down by Belin's side, only to shift and try to stand when he discovered that it was she and not one of the Mareklan sisters.



"Tell me about your family, Kaigun," Belin said before he could stand up and move away.



"There is very little to tell. In my youth I was much like your brother Shirak when I first met him. I was arrogant and sure of my appeal. When I returned from my pilgrimage to Timora and began looking for a wife, I saw a girl of Margan clan who seemed pretty enough to suit me. Instead of courting her as wiser heads advised, I snatched her with no indication of her favor. How could she resist me?" Kagan gave a snort of self-derision.



"Did she try to run away?" Belin asked him when he remained silent.



"She ran away, but not until she had my son. As soon as she had strength to leave, she took our child and left the village. My grandmother forbade me to take warriors to reclaim her."



"How long ago was that?"



"Six or seven years. In truth, I try to forget."



"Have you ever learned what happened to her or your son?"



He shook his head. Belin could see the sorrow in his eyes and said no more. They sat together, each thinking of the pain of losing something precious.



Malon lit his torch from the fire and held it up. "We must rest. Tomorrow we will explore the cave a little further. We will wait until our watchmen give the signal that the Orquians are gone before we try to leave the cave and gather brasswood."



It was early the next morning that Kaigun discovered that Dorn was missing. At first he did not alert the others, but searched around the pool and walked back toward the opening. When he could find no sign of the child, he approached Malon.



"The boy is gone. I should have kept a better watch on him," he said.



"When did you last see him?" Malon asked.



"He slept beside me through most of the night. This morning I got up to get a drink and wash. When I returned to my sleeping skin, he had vanished."



"Where have you looked so far?"



"Around the pool, and back towards the entrance."



"I will ask the others to join us in the search," Malon said. He looked around. "He took a torch. I hope its light will help us find him."



Malon raised his voice and held his torch up high. "Dorn is missing. All of us must search for him, but at the same time, we must take care to avoid becoming lost ourselves. This cave is part of an extensive system. I will assign each of you to a team. Take a torch, a scroll and a scribing tool and map the route you take."



Soon four teams set out to search. Malon matched Kaigun with Belin. The constraint between them tempted Kaigun to appeal for another companion, but to do so would only draw unwelcome notice. Dorn was too important to both of them to let personal matters interfere with an efficient search.



The chill of the cave seemed to seep into Belin's bones and she knew she was sensitive to the lower temperature because of worry about how it was affecting Dorn. First Kaigun, then Belin called his name as they threaded their way through the depths of the mountain, first climbing then edging downward through narrow passages. Hours passed and the search seemed fruitless. Belin was tempted to urge Kaigun to turn back and take another route. Just when it seemed their search must end Kaigun saw a little footprint in a muddy patch where water seeped across the floor.



"He came this way. Call out his name," he told Belin. "A woman's voice can carry further."



"Dorn! Where are you?" Belin called in a voice trained by calling her younger brothers who were prone to getting lost. The words seemed to echo endlessly.



They heard a faint reply and hurried forward. The torch guttered and then flared with a sudden gust of air. High above them a narrow point of light appeared, then was blocked again.



"Dorn!" Kaigun called.



"I'm up here. I'm stuck!" the child replied.



Kaigun clambered up the rocky wall, his feet finding purchase on the rough stone. Belin stayed where she was. If Kaigun fell, she would take his place and try to reach the boy.



Moments later she heard them talking. "Be quiet, the Orquians might be near on the side of the mountain," Kaigun urged Dorn.



"I don't think this is the side of the mountain," the boy replied. "I can see out when I raise my head. There is a valley with high walls all around."



"Back away Belin," Kaigun called down to her. "I'm going to loosen the stone around Dorn."



She took shelter under an overhang and waited. Soon a cascade of stones, some larger than her head, bounced down the wall of rock Kaigun had ascended. They rolled along the passage, one stopping just short of her foot. The flare of light widened and lit the chamber.



She stepped from under the overhang and looked up. Both Dorn and Kaigun were gone, but where the boy had been caught, a wide opening shed the light of day into the cave.



Eager to join them and see what Dorn had found, Belin climbed the wall of the chamber. When she reached the opening and pulled herself from the cave, she looked around and gave a laugh of delight. It was just as Dorn had described. Surely this valley must be in the heart of the mountain, a hidden refuge never found before by man.



Looking around, she saw Dorn running toward a stream that wound its way through the valley. Kaigun was in close pursuit. "Wait son, do not drink the water! It may be bad for you."



"I am so thirsty," Dorn cried back as he reached the stream and scooped up a handful of water which he lifted to his lips. Kaigun reached him just as he spit it out. "It tastes like the water of Setalan!" he exclaimed with a grimace.



Kaigun lifted the boy under his arm like a sack and carried him back toward Belin with a grim look on his face. "When I tell you to stop doing something, you should obey me or you will not live long enough to be a warrior."



When they reached Belin and Dorn was set down, his doleful expression gave evidence that he had taken the lesson to heart. "I w-will obey you," he stuttered.



"Will he be sickened by the water?" Belin asked Kaigun.



"I doubt that he will suffer much," the warrior replied. "If it tastes like the water of Setalan, there is not much danger of poison. Few would find it to their liking, but I believe that the other aspects of this valley will overcome most objections to such a minor matter."



Belin looked around. Trees and bushes dotted the green grass that grew in lush profusion. She saw a small herd of bacals leaping toward a grove. The air was mild and just a little humid, a vivid contrast to the arid plains below the mountain where they had camped before ascending to the cave. As Dorn had claimed, a ring of cliffs encircled the broad valley like a palisade of stone.



For a few hours they wandered here and there, at each turn more impressed with the beauty and fertility of the vale. Kaigun finally tested the water himself . "It is just a little acrid, but not as bad as I expected from Dorn's reaction."



"We should return and tell the others about what we discovered," Belin said somewhat reluctantly. "This lovely valley is surely a better place to wait for the Orquians to tire of their search than the chilly cavern."



"Give me the scroll cloth on which you kept a record of our search and I will leave the two of you here and return to the others," Kaigun said. "I think this might be what the Mareklans are looking for. There are no habitations or other signs that humans claim this vale."



Belin and Dorn were both willing to stay behind in such a setting. They gathered food for a meal. Dorn managed to catch some fish and Belin found several varieties of fruits and berries and tufts of ripened grain.



She found a flat rock to use as a griddle and built a fire on top of it. After the fish had cooked, she swept the coals from the surface of the rock and spread a paste of grain and water in circles on the top of the hot surface. The resulting matlas were scorched and lumpy, but they were fresh and filling. After he had eaten his fill, Dorn leaned back on the grass and looked at the sky.



He sighed with contentment. "I hope we stay here instead of going back to Setalan,"



"You have been adopted by Kaigun. When you return home, it will be to the village of Algire," she told him. "Tharek's friend, Darm, lived there when he was a boy. He told me a lot about it. I am certain you will like it just as much as this."



"Could you come with us?" Dorn asked. "I think that you should marry Kaigun. He likes you."



"Come, run with me," Belin suggested as a way to divert his attention from the subject. "I saw a herd of bacals up there near the northern part of the valley. Perhaps we can catch sight of them again."



Dorn jumped to his feet and scampered off in the direction she had indicated. She hurried after him, worried that he might get lost again. She soon caught up to him and they found the bacals. The animals seemed fearless, staring at them, but not taking flight as they approached.



"They have not learned to fear mankind," Belin whispered to Dorn.



He pulled a hank of grass and walked toward the nearest animal. It dipped its slender head to sniff his offering, then wrapped its tongue around his hand, drawing everything, including his fingers, toward its square white teeth.



Dorn pulled his hand back with a shriek and the small herd scattered. They moved like a flock of birds, all in the same direction except for one or two who skittered off at angles for a moment before joining the others as they disappeared over a small rise.



Dorn turned his attention to a tree that was just perfect for a boy his size. The lowest branches divided from the sturdy trunk at about the level of his shoulders. Belin was accustomed to the ways of her younger brothers and sisters and she stood watch but did not interfere as Dorn pulled himself from branch to branch. His head disappeared in the foliage and he gave a shout of pleasure just before a small brown bird flew straight out of the tree toward Belin, swerving just before it reached her.



"I found a nest!" Dorn said.



"If there are baby birds or eggs, don't touch them!" Belin called to him.



"There are feathers and some fluff, but no eggs," Dorn said. "Can I take one of the feathers? There's a big blue one that came from a different kind of bird."



"If you can take it out without disturbing the nest," Belin instructed.



Soon Dorn climbed down, his fist clutching a bright blue feather that glistened with gold-green highlights in the sun. It seemed unlikely that it came from the small brown bird that Dorn's climbing had disturbed.



Belin examined the feather for signs of bugs but it seemed clean. "Could you fasten it in my hair like Kaigun does with his battle tokens?" Dorn asked when she handed it back to him.



"I can, but you must hold still."



She gathered a little of the longer hair that hung down to the tops of his ears and formed a tiny braid. He fidgeted only a little while she fastened the feather into the braid by splitting a section at the end of the father's shaft. When she was finished he hurried to a pool of still water near the brook and gazed at himself, entranced.



A moment later he jumped up and announced that this would be a fine place to find stones that they could use in case they were attacked. She went along with him, searching along the bank of the stream for pebbles that were smooth and colorful. Most of them were claimed by Dorn but she found several that were pretty enough to keep. They would be a small, permanent way to retain a memory of this charming, hidden valley when she returned to her home in Zedekla.



The sun dipped beneath the rampart cliffs that ringed the valley, but the twilight lingered. When the sky began to darken, Belin began to worry that Kaigun was lost or injured. By now he should have returned. Just as the sky took on the look of deep sea water, blue and fathomless speckled with stars, she heard voices from the direction of the opening of the cavern.



With Dorn in hand, she hurried toward the sound. When she drew closer she recognized Malon. He was lowering a line of linked bolikas into the cavern below him. One by one the other Mareklans emerged, followed last of all by Kaigun. Even Meropin and Dubalen were present.



"When Kaigun told us what Dorn had discovered, we knew we must follow him and see for ourselves," Matenil confided to Belin when everyone had gathered for the Evening Ritual and marked out a space for their camp. "Father ventured out of the mouth of the cache cave and brought Meropin and Dubalen back to join the rest of us or we would have been here before darkness fell."



The Mareklans settled down but there was a subdued excitement in them that was almost palpable. When morning came, Malon assigned four men to ascend to the top of the surrounding cliffs at four quarters of the valley. Each of them carried zylka cloth banners of red and yellow. "If you can see anyone outside on the plains or on the mountain-side, display the yellow banner. When all is clear, display the red," Malon directed them.



It was a precarious climb for three of them, but for the fourth, Meropin, it resulted in disaster. The cliff was sheer on the north side of the valley and he was only a third way up after several tries when he tried to support his weight on a loose rock. He lost his purchase on the rocky wall and fell amidst a cascade of stone.



With anxious cries, Matenil and Seral rushed toward the heap of stones that had followed Meropin down the cliff and buried most of him except for an arm and leg. Others followed close behind.



"He moved!" Seral cried as she worked with frantic hands to remove the stones. With many hands to help, Meropin's body was released from the burden of the fallen rock, but when Malon examined him, he found that one of Meropin's arms and both of his legs were broken. They seemed to be simple fractures that could be splinted.



Dosed with selan to help him bear the pain, Meropin became relaxed and drowsy as bandages were wrapped around his limbs to hold straight lengths of saplings in place for support while his fractures healed. A litter comprised of his cape and two Mareklan staffs was improvised to carry him back to the campsite.



The man posted on the eastern wall had hung a yellow banner but the other two were red. "We will not risk another on this climb," Malon decided. "Three men on the ramparts will have to suffice."



Seral stayed by Meropin's side and nursed him while others began to explore the valley. Matenil lingered nearby for a while until her sister urged her to go. "I will stay by his side and care for him. Our father will watch over him tonight," Seral said firmly. "Meanwhile, this is my duty as his betrothed."



It was Matenil who discovered another cave entrance, a narrow cleft halfway up the slope that led to the sheer cliff face on the north side of the valley. With the help of the others, she widened the opening and ventured inside. When she returned she reported that there were several large chambers linked by narrow passages just inside the entrance of the cave.



"If this cavern links to the outside, it could make a better entrance than the one that Dorn discovered," Dubalen said after a brief investigation. "It is too late for us to follow it today, but I feel that it would be unwise for us to settle here if there is only one way to gain access to the valley. It would be too easy for our enemies to box us up and lay an ambush."



"So you have decided to settle here?" Kaigun asked.



Dubalen looked around. "I am not the one to make such a decision, but I feel that this is the answer to the prayers of Mareklans since Irilik set us apart as travelers and preachers. Now that we are threatened by Orquians, the Radiance has granted us a home."



"This is a pleasant place indeed," his father, Malon, said when he overheard his son. "We could make this a primary retreat, but this is not what the scroll of Prophecy described. We must wander until the river returns and the Sons of Elianin and the children of Irilik are joined and the Incarnation of Yasa Dom is born."



"The scroll of History and Prophecy was lost a decade ago," Dubalen said. "Perhaps there was a reason for it to disappear. Should we be limited by what is now only hearsay depending on the memory of those who read the Scroll years ago?"



Malon shook his head. "I will recommend that we use this valley, but it can never be considered the home that was promised to our people."



From the expression on Dubalen's face, he disagreed with his father, but he was silent on the subject. Watching them, Belin sensed that this matter would not be easily resolved. The very prayers the elders uttered during the Evening Ritual would always remind them that they had not yet found a home. But what if those of a like mind with Dubalen prevailed. Would they alter the prayers and forget the vestiges of Irilik's prophecy?



First one, then another of the men who were keeping watch displayed the yellow flag. Finally the evening came when all the flags glowed red as sunset settled over the valley. The watchmen descended and gave Thalon their report. "The Orquians did not give up their search easily, but they seem at last convinced that they won't find us anywhere around Mount Vald. They set fire to some groves along the slopes and we fear they destroyed much of the brasswood we were hoping to harvest."



"They may have taken what they could before they burned the rest," Malon said. "We will know if that was their strategy if we find Orenese selling brasswood staffs. Whatever stands of brasswood remain will have to be preserved and kept."



"Tharek found brasswood bushes in the western part of Kumnora," Belin said.



"We were informed of Tharek's find, but a flood uprooted most of the brasswood in the gully he described," the Mareklan elder replied. "I should not be surprised that the Orquians set fire to the brasswood groves. It is in keeping with their greed and waste."



Exploration of the upper cavern that Matenil had discovered proceeded while the Mareklans waited for the Orquians to leave. An alternate exit from the valley was found and Malon decided to cover over the original opening that Kaigun had made. He gathered everyone together and explained his actions.



"If we decide to settle in this valley, it is important that the entrance remains a secret to our clan. Only a few should know the pathway through the upper cavern, and fewer still should know that there is another way to enter. I believe that I can trust all of you to keep this secret. Henceforth we will share it only with the elders of our clan. Will you swear to keep this secret, no matter what inducements are offered?"



There was a solemn air as all present raised their hands. Even Dorn made the sacred sign of pledge. He was too young to be held to his promise, but Kaigun and Belin exchanged a glance over his head and nodded to Malon, assuring him that he could trust the child.



With the Orquians well away, there was little reason to remain. The existence of the valley would be shared with Marekla's elders. It was likely they would share the sense that this could be a refuge where no enemy could pursue. Only one thing remained before they took the trail again.



"Meropin and Seral must wed," Malon decided. "The path is too rugged for us to carry him. We will leave them here where he can recover with her help."



Belin saw Matenil flinch just a little, as if until now she had hoped that something could intervene with her sister's marriage. Then Matenil fixed a brilliant smile to her face and hurried over to congratulate Seral. "I envy you your bridal month," she told the couple. Then she blushed, remembering just a little too late that Meropin was hardly in a state to enjoy the days of solitude that lay ahead.



The verdant valley supplied all that was needed for the nuptial feast. Fish, birds, and an entire bacal were roasted on spits over a long fire. The flat stone that Belin had used for matlas on her first day in the valley was one of several griddle stones that had been found. Piles of golden, fragrant matlas accompanied a variety of fruits and herbs.



Belin wondered at the abundance, a little worried that some would be wasted, but her prudence was satisfied when she saw that much of the meat was being salted and set aside and the main part of the matlas were baked a little longer to make good journey bread. Some of the preserved food was to be left behind with Seral and Meropin. The rest was packed to be used when the Mareklans crossed the waste that lay below Mount Vald.



Five days had passed since the morning that Dorn had wandered away and discovered the secret of Mt. Vald's hidden valley. When Seral exchanged vows with Meropin, Kaigun presided in the ritual. Malon had learned that Kaigun had priestly authority to perform a marriage. In symbol of their friendship and the sacred secret that they shared, he asked him to preside while he stood as witness.



It seemed that everyone but Meropin and Seral was bent on celebration. Belin watched Kaigun teaching Dorn how to dance to a melody provided by a hand-drum and a little set of pipes. Matenil in particular seemed intent on laughing and singing. She flirted generally with all the men except Meropin and Shirak. Meropin was too involved with Seral to notice, but Shirak seemed puzzled and perturbed by his exclusion. Several times he tried to engage Matenil in a dance, but each time he tried, she whirled away to trade steps other men.



"It is as if I am invisible," he muttered to Belin.



"You are simply accustomed to being to focus of every maiden you meet," she chided him gently.



Her own thoughts were directed in a different direction. Kaigun seemed to be avoiding her. He was willing enough to follow Matenil in a round of dancing, demonstrating some of the steps that Janakans use. A few minutes later, Dorn fell at Belin's feet, breathing hard but still laughing at the antics of Dubalen who had fastened a bird's nest to his head and was following Kaigun in a demonstration of an Algiran victory dance.



"I wish we could live here," the boy said when he finally caught his breath. "I will ask Kaigun to give me to Meropin and Seral."



"Kaigun would never give you away," Belin said. "You have become his son."



Dubalen tossed the nest aside and stopped in front of Belin. He clapped his hands to the music. "Come, I will show you how to dance." His smile seemed to promise that he would help her forget whatever had given her the pensive look that drooped her lips. He became her nearly constant companion through the rest of the evening, laughing and charming her until she wished that she felt more than mere friendliness toward him.



On the morning of the sixth day Malon led the way into the upper cavern. The caravan started late because of the festivities the night before. Seral walked with them to the opening of the cave, leaving Meropin sleeping in a hut of stones and branches that had been erected for the couple. It was near a little conical hill that rose near the center of the valley, not far from the stream.



"I will watch for you, but try not to hurry," she jested with her father. "Give Meropin a chance to recover and learn to walk again before you return."



Belin saw Matenil look back toward the shelter where Meropin slept, then the Mareklan maiden lifted her chin and looked back toward the entrance of the cave where her father was bidding farewell to his younger daughter. Matenil smiled warmly at Seral and gave her a one armed hug. "Take care of yourself little sister. We will return to spoil your idyll all too soon."



It took most of the day to make their way through the caverns to a place somewhat higher on the shoulder of Mount Vald than the original cache cave where they had hidden from the Orquians. The setting sun gilded the summits of the surrounding mountain range and cast the deep blue shadow of Mount Vald over the wasteland at its base.



"We will camp tonight just inside the mouth of the cavern," Malon directed the others. "In the morning we must assess the damage to the groves.'



Belin and Matenil rolled out their sleeping skins in a small alcove of the cavern that gave them some privacy from the men. After Malon performed the Evening Ritual, they ate a simple meal of journey food, still flavorful and fresh from being prepared the day before.



The two young women lay quietly waiting sleep after the exertions of the day, but the men still talked and joked among themselves. Belin could pick out Shirak's voice as he told a story on himself. "He's not quite as callow as before," Matenil muttered. "But he still has a long way to go before he is a fitting heir to Tharek."



When they emerged from the cavern they could see dark blotches on the slope below. One by one they were examined for live brasswood bushes, but the Orquians had been thorough in their destruction. They had heaped the dead branches that the Mareklans had intended to harvest for their staffs around the living wood, then they had burned the whole.



There were a few brasswood bushes that gave some evidence of life. Malon did what he could to nourish and protect the roots, but it was a wild plant and as far as he knew, it did not yield to cultivation.



Disheartened by the destruction, the caravan made its way down to the plains. "We must go to Timora and inform the elders of what we have discovered," Malon told Kaigun. "If you are still concerned about the Orquians, we will accompany you to Zedekla first."



"I believe that a small group will safe enough if, as your watchmen indicated, the Orquians have headed back toward the north," Kaigun said. "You must ask Shirak and Belin what they would have you do."



"I trust Kaigun to decide," Shirak assured the Mareklan elder. Belin nodded, affirming her brother's opinion.



They parted ways after they stopped and shared a meal at midday. As the Mareklans disappeared behind a copse of oil brush, Shirak turned to Belin with a smile. "I think she likes me."



"Matenil?" she asked, amused that all the young woman's abuse and deliberate disdain should have led him to this conclusion.



"She treated me most particularly," Shirak assured his sister.



"She thought you were just a callow boy," she told him.



"She was in love with Meropin, do you agree?" he asked.



"Yes," Belin agreed. "It was a great shock to Matenil when he chose her sister. Apparently he had a dream that sealed the choice."



"She ignored Meropin at the wedding feast. She ignored me at the wedding feast," Shirak asserted cheerfully. "I drew my own conclusion. As I said, she was particular. She treated everyone else to her smiles and she danced with everyone but me and Meropin."



"Meropin has two broken legs," Belin protested. "Matenil is at least two years older than the girls you usually prefer."



"The girls I used to prefer were immature. Matenil is Mareklan. My father's heir should marry a Mareklan. It will all work out perfectly."



Belin decided it would be fruitless to tell her brother that the course of love could be unreasonably bumpy and perplexing. In a perfect world, she would never look twice at someone like Kaigun. She would have liked to have loved Dubalen. He was clearly more suitable in every way. He had treated her with courtesy and a gentle flirtation had passed between them at the wedding feast in the valley, but when they had said goodbye to the Mareklans, she had no wish to extend the acquaintance.



Chapter 10 Ransom Refused





When Darm and Thrak finally reached the camp where the Orquians had been staying after the Zedeklan pilgrims fled, they found plenty of evidence of recent occupancy. Waste and debris lay in piles. The tents had been slashed and left in tatters. It was typical of Orquians to leave destruction in their wake and the track they left was easy to follow.



"They must have captured Kaigun and his captives," Thrak explained when Darm demanded to know the location of the Janakan. "We must follow their track and try to make a rescue."



"First we must be sure that we have overlooked nothing that might tell us if Belin and Shirak are still alive," Darm countered.



He looked to see if there was any evidences that an Orquian sacrifice had been enacted. There were several large stones in the area around the camp, but none of them were fouled with blood. Relieved at the absence of evidence, he looked further, finally discovering the cave where Shirak and Belin had sheltered.



A tiny scrap of dingy white cloth was the only clue that he could carry away, but the faded bloodstains on the floor matched Thrak's description of Shirak's wound. Footprints at the entrance of the cave indicated that a large Janakan had stood there. When Darm was descending back toward the camp, he discovered the disassembled litter that Belin had hidden in the bushes below the cave



Further investigation yielded the conviction that four people, including a child, had followed, not accompanied the Orquian evacuation of the camp. "I found the footprints of a child," he told Thrak who was pacing and worrying about the absence of any indication of Kaigun and Dorn.



"It was Dorn. He ran away from the other pilgrims when we left the camp and returned to Zedekla. He is just a gutter brat, a slave who Kaigun bought from Dashkar and adopted," Thrak said dismissively.



"I admire Kaigun for doing such a thing, even if it seems that I must try to kill him," Darm concluded. "Come, we are days behind them, but I cannot rest until I know what has happened to Belin and Shirak."



"It took you long enough to decide to follow," Thrak muttered.



They were only a few hours on their way when they saw four people coming toward them in the distance. The tiny figure in the lead was proof that they had found their quarry. Darm pulled Thrak into the concealment of nearby stand of trees and they waited while the four came closer.



Kaigun was first to see the two men waiting in the shadows of a grove of trees. He slowed and called Dorn back to his side while he searched the area for others. Finally one of the men stepped out from the shadows and he recognized Thrak. "It seems that we have company," he told Belin and Shirak who had not yet noticed what lay ahead.



A moment later a larger man stepped out of the shadows of the grove and stood by Thrak. A shiver of recognition went through Kaigun. Even dressed in a Tedakan tunic and shaven of his Algiran beard and braids, the hawk nose and high cheekbones of a kinsman betrayed the stranger's identity.



With a deliberate gesture, Darm twisted the staff he carried and slowly drew a straight blue blade that glittered in the sun. It could be none other than Tharek oc Baroka, the sword that Darm had forfeited to Tharek.



"I have come to pay your ransom," Darm called. "Release your hostages before we fight."



"What is this nonsense about a ransom," Shirak demanded, walking forward boldly. "What are you doing with my father's sword?"



"Get out of the way Shirak," Darm warned. "Your father and I swore an oath of brotherhood many years ago. I have chosen to stand proxy for him in this contest."



Kaigun was tempted to draw his sword and answer Darm's insistence on a fight. The light that coruscated from the fabled blade as it caught the sunlight on its edge called to his blood. This was the sword of his heritage, wielded by his ancestors for generations. Darm's age showed in the touch of silver at his temples and the furrows of anger above his brow. It should be easy to kill the man his clan regarded as a traitor and fulfill his quest for the sword of the wizard mmith.



He heard Belin call to Dorn to stand out of the way. Her voice touched something more powerful than his yearning for the sword. "I made no demand for ransom," he shouted across the space that lay between him and his uncle. "If you have come to rescue Belin and Shirak, take them. They are not my captives."



"Thrak said you required a ransom while he stood in the light of the Stone of Truth," Darm said. "Tharek accepted his message as verity. Do you claim that he was lying?"



"Do you believe that he was telling the entire truth?" Kaigun countered, still refusing to lift his hand to the hilt of the sword that lay between his shoulders.



"I think that both of you are devious," Darm said. "I will parley with you if you give your sword to Shirak and approach me unarmed."



Kaigun withdrew his sword and handed it to Shirak. He also removed knives from sheaths sewed into both of his buskins and last of all withdrew a long knife from a sheath tied at his side which he handed to Belin.



Satisfied, Darm finally approached, but he did not sheath the sword he carried and Kaigun felt an impulse to wrest the blade away and run. The look in Darm's eyes assured him that he would not succeed in such folly.



Darm finally sheathed Tharek oc Baroka in its staff sheath and began to examine the knifes that Kaigun had yielded up to Belin. His eyes narrowed and his face became grim when he examined the knife that Kaigun had taken from his belt sheath.



"This bears the mark of Orqu, even though you abraded it away."



"It is the knife that Chasona used to wound Shirak," Belin quickly explained. "Parval gave it to her. We were never Kaigun's captives. He has been our helper and guide. He risked his life to bring us food and medicine when we were hiding in a cave above the camp. I have no idea how Thrak was able to tell a lie to my father, but I can assure you that it is he who bears the blame for this misunderstanding."



All eyes turned to Thrak who was trying without success to look quite blameless. "I said you wanted a ransom because I could see that there was no other chance for you to win the sword," he told Kaigun. "Tharek was willing enough to pay the price, but Darm deceived him and locked him in his room."



"Are you blaming me for your contemptible deception," Darm demanded.



"I just wanted Kaigun to know that he could have won the sword from Tharek if you hadn't interfered," Thrak tried to reason. "I owe a lot to Kaigun. It seemed the friendly thing to do."



Shirak raised his brows and shook his head. "This knave has proved that someone can be deceptive and misleading in the face of the Stone of Truth if they have sufficient motivation. Tell me Thrak, did you actually see the light, or did you deceive my father about that as well?"



"I saw it at first, but when I decided to say that Kaigun wanted a ransom, the light began to dim. When I actually gave voice to my lie, it entirely darkened."



He turned to Kaigun with an earnest face. "I have never done anything more difficult. I only did it because you are a friend and I knew there was no other way for you to win the sword."



"So even though you told the lie with an altruistic motive, when you voiced the deception, the light died for you," Shirak mused. "Either the Stone of Truth is heedless of motive, or it is far more sensitive to results that I suspected. In either case, my father will want to know of this. I am placing you under arrest and order that you tell no one of what you know or suspect."



"Do you have that authority?" Kaigun asked.



Shirak nodded. "I have authority as a member of the Elite Guards which was established by my father years ago. I am aware that I was foolish to lead the pilgrimage away from Zedekla without adequate support from guards, and it was folly to disregard my mother's wishes, but in this I feel secure. Thrak must not be allowed to carry this tale to our enemies. As far as that goes, you also know too much about what happened to Thrak when he lied. I am sorry to do this Kaigun, but I must place you under arrest as well. You must come with us to Zedekla and submit to an interview with my father. Tharek will decide what must be done."



Darm seemed to concur with Shirak. Belin did not speak up to counter the decision. Even had he wanted to flee, Kaigun had given up his weapons. While he might be disinclined to use them against Shirak or Belin, he needed at least one knife to survive in the wilderness.



Thrak was not at all reluctant to return to Zedekla. He had been away from his home for many days, but he still had nothing to show for his adventures except the gem that Kaigun had granted to him on the first day they met. He would not relinquish it up to his pretty, greedy wife, so he must find some other way to make a profit that would please her. Perhaps Tharek would be willing to pay him for his silence on the matter of how he had defeated the workings of the Stone of Truth.



While there still a few hours left before nightfall, they neared the deserted campsite the Orquians had left in such disarray. Belin insisted that they must clear away the refuse and restore the area to its natural state as far as possible in the remaining daylight. "If we leave it like it is, we cannot be blameless. After all, we are the ones who originally set up the camp and abandoned it to be ruined."



Thrak argued, but when he saw the others working, he grudgingly joined them. His association with Kaigun had already given him an unnatural taste for cleanliness. He hoped he would not be so tainted when he returned home that he would begin to help his wife keep their house tidy.



Before nightfall they had buried or burned all the waste and salvaged several implements that had been left behind when the pilgrims first abandoned the camp. Thrak was particularly pleased to find several meat tongs of brass marked with the symbol of Zedekla's palace that had been left under a pile of discarded rugs. Belin refused to claim them after they had touched the lips of Orquians, and Thrak tucked them into one of his belt pouches.



They made camp downwind of the fires they had set to cleanse the campsite. Belin located a secluded stream through a narrow gully that widened into a pool. Darm and Shirak stood watch at the base of the stream while Belin bathed. Afterward, she prepared a meal while the men and Dorn bathed.



Sharing a few hours of labor seemed to soften Darm's attitude toward Kaigun. He approved of Shirak's suggestion that they should accept the Algiran's parole and restore his weapons. Clean and sated with the evening meal, Darm talked to the others while Shirak took first watch.



"Why did you follow the Orquians if Shirak was well enough to return to Zedekla?" Darm asked Belin.



"We had to warn the Mareklans," Dorn volunteered.



"Kaigun overheard the Orquians planning a raid on a small Mareklan caravan which included several maidens," Belin explained. "He told us to wait in the cave while he went ahead to warn them, but I knew that neither Dorn nor Shirak would consent to stay behind. Dorn had already risked his life to stay with Kaigun. He had to be rescued from the Orquians when they caught him and trussed him up."



"Was there a battle between the Mareklans and the Orquians?" Darm inquired.



"No, we hid until they stopped looking for us," Dorn replied.



"You hid?" Darm looked from Kaigun to Belin. Neither of them gave him any further information and he sensed a mystery. He turned to Dorn. "Where would so many of you find a place to hide?"



"I can't tell. I promised," Dorn said solemnly.



Thrak grasped at the feather that was dangling from a braid over Dorn's ear. "Where did you get this? You probably stole it. You are too young to wear a warrior's token."



"He earned it," Kaigun said succinctly, batting away Thrak's hand and pulling Dorn close to his side. "Dorn will make a fine warrior someday. He is brave and honest, and he knows how to keep a pledge."



Thrak stood up and glared at Dorn. "You are nothing but a brat and someday Kaigun will realize what you are. Then he will send you back where you came from."



"Don't send me back to Setalan," Dorn pleaded. "Okan will beat me and my mother won't be there to stop him."



"Okan!" Thrak exclaimed. "Is he the man you call your stepfather?"



The child nodded and moved closer to his champion.



Thrak turned to Kaigun. "I must tell you something that I never thought I would reveal to any man. Okan was a Margan warrior. He was disgraced by doing the forbidden. He wanted a woman of our clan. When she was taken by another, he sent messages to her. When she gave birth to her husband's child, he took them both away and left the mountains."



"How do you know these things," Kaigun asked, suspicion and hope warring in his mind.



"The woman was my sister, Falinta. They came to me to ask my help. I was just a child then. I was deceived into thinking that Okan and Falinta had a right to happiness, even though their behavior transgressed every rule and tradition. Now I can see that she robbed her son of his father and exposed him to evil no child should have to bear. I never knew that they had settled in Setalan."



"If what you say is true, then Dorn is my son," Kaigun said, looking down with wonder at the child at his side. Dorn snuggled close and looked upward into Kaigun's face with a look of adoration.



"If you were married to Falinta, he is yours," Thrak said. "You have a right to go to Setalan and claim her. At least she must acknowledge that Dorn is your son and allow you to take him back to Algire Clan."



"My mother is dead," Dorn said with a face so twisted with grief that Kaigun and Thrak fell silent.



"How do you know?" Belin finally asked.



"When the Orquians caught me at the camp, Dashkar told me. He said that Okan sold her to them."



Kaigun nodded. "I am sorry you found out in such a way. I learned that your mother and sisters were killed by the Orquians on the night that we left Setalan."



"Then you are free of her and can find another, better, wife," Thrak said.



With the resilience of a child, Dorn's face cleared of sorrow and he pulled away from Kaigun and hurried around the fire to Belin. The blue feather in his hair bouned merrily in response to his haste. "You can marry Kaigun, Belin!" he happily announced.



"We are Algirans, Dorn. Belin's father, Tharek, is our enemy," Kaigun stated with a grim, somewhat reddened face.



"You may be Kaigun's son, Dorn, but you haven't any manners," Thrak jeered. "Can't you see that you have embarrassed both of them?"



Dorn's impulsive declaration had broken the sense of ease that Belin had begin to feel with Kaigun. The constraint that had been so evident during the wedding feast in the valley fell heavily over the two of them again and they took pains to be polite but distant with one another during the rest of their journey to Zedekla.



Darm and Kaigun spent the evenings by the campfire talking about the years that Darm had been absent from Algire Clan. Darm recounted his confrontation with Tharek and Kaigun reluctantly agreed that Darm had little choice but to join ranks with the dispossessed Mareklan and leave Janaka behind. Since Tharek had refused to fight Darm for possession of the sword, and Darm would not accept the sword without taking it from Tharek's dying grasp, they had reached the best solution to the impasse by joining their fates and leaving their clans behind.



Although Belin and Shirak had heard the stories of the companions' adventures before, they were as willing as Thrak and Dorn to hear about how Tharek confronted the evil emperor Marnat and defeated Garvok, the hunter who had hounded him for years. "There are some things that I cannot tell you," Darm concluded one evening. "You have your secrets, I have mine."



"I have no secrets," Thrak protested. "None of the others have trusted me enough to say what they were doing with the Mareklans. I think Dorn's feather holds the clue."



Darm gave a faint smile and nodded. "Such feathers are found only in a few places, but birds can fly a long way seeking material to line their nests. I doubt that even Tharek could discern the secret these four have decided to protect."



Early the next day they reached a village on the banks of the Com river. A boatman with a load of grain to take to the city agreed to give them passage to Zedekla. The swift current carried them downstream. Though they were cramped in their small space between the sacks, they welcomed the rest from days of wearying walking.



The boat stopped at the tariff gate and while the boatman tossed ashore a few bags of grain that would pay the tax of the Tyrant, Darm and the others slipped ashore and made their way along the dock, hidden from sight of others by the piles of logs, grain, and other merchandise that had been collected as a levy.



"Your father was as wise as Saaden of old when he chose this place to settle," Kaigun told Shirak as he surveyed the tariff warehouse. "He is the wealthiest ruler in Okishdu."



"Much of what his men collect is used to support the army that defends the villages along the border of Janaka," Belin said somewhat tartly. "The palace is large, but our family lives in relative simplicity."



Her assertion seemed to be belied when they walked into a major thoroughfare and were immediately surrounded by a phalanx of guards dressed uniformly in blue tunics with gold breastplates gleaming in the sun. In spite of their fancy attire, every one of them bore the scars of battle. Some were lacking an eye or an arm and several walked with minor limps.



Kaigun was surprised and turned to Shirak. "Your father should have pensioned off these wounded men."



Shirak shook his head. "Those who are wounded in the service of the city are given a farm and a cottage, but even then, they volunteer to serve the Tyrant where there is a need. These men are part of my father's personal guard. You need not pity any one of them."



"Where were they when you started off on your ill-fated pilgrimage to Zedekla. I should think they would have kept you in your place."



Shirak grinned and nodded to acknowledge that Kaigun had scored a point. "I hope I have learned something about humility. In retrospect I can see how I was used. Through Jacla, Parval goaded me to act precipitously. I ignored the counsel of my mother and took advantage of the absence of both Tharek and his strongest, most able men. I diverted attention from my plans by sending other troops on errands away from the city. Pride blinded me. I did not want seasoned guards who might interfere with my prerogative of leadership. I am grateful to the Radiance that I was the only one who suffered for my folly."



Belin had been listening to her brother. "You were not the only one who suffered. You were just the only one who bled. What of Chasona and Jacla? It is true that they were pawns of Parval, but the girl was infatuated with you. I am convinced she thought that killing Kaigun would bring your gratitude and praise. Now I doubt that she will ever want to face you."



"Chasona, infatuated with me?" Shirak asked bewildered. "I hardly noticed her."



"That was her problem," Belin told him. "I hope you never forget what happened because you followed your pride instead of listening to those with wisdom you clearly lacked."



Shirak held out his hand to his sister. "If I ever seem to forget how foolish I have been, I am glad you will be there to remind me."



"I will not always be there to remind you," Belin countered. "Father has received appeals from several potential suitors. I expect that when we finally visit Timora, I will have my pick of swains."



Kaigun's mouth drew down and Dorn looked up and squeezed his new-found father's hand. "You could ask her to marry you," the child said.



Kaigun shook his head. "She is not for such as I. Her destiny lies far higher than a mere Janakan warrior."



"But I want her for my mother," Dorn whispered. His forlorn plea went unheard as the sound of varied zole horns filled the air. Just ahead was the plaza of the Shrine and not far beyond rose the gleaming gates of Tharek's palace.



The return of Shirak and Belin was cause for general celebration. If any noticed the trio of Janakans, they quickly dismissed them as a threat. The largest one was armed, but he looked so much like Darm that everyone assumed they were close kin. How could he be a danger if he still retained possession of his sword amid the most loyal of Tharek's men?



"Make way for the Tyrant!" a deep voice rang to part the crowd. As the last straggler hurried to the side, Kaigun saw a group of people standing in the opened gateway just ahead. On either side were assorted children. One he recognized as Belin's younger sister, Tarina, but his eyes were drawn to the tall man in the center. He stood face to face with Tharek, the Tyrant of Zedekla.



Chapter11 Pilgrimage





Kaigun had expected something different than the man who stood before him waiting for Shirak and Belin. Compared to Tharek, Darm seemed to show his age, his waist a little broader than in youth and his stance a little bent. Tharek's body was as straight and hard as any warrior in his prime. At first his sun-darkened face seemed grim and cold, but then he widened his arms and smiled and Belin ran forward to be encased by a father's fond embrace. She turned to her mother for another hug while Shirak moved forward to face his father.



Instead of embracing Shirak, Tharek's face resumed its stern expression. He held out his hand and grasped his son's shoulder. "I expected better of my heir," he muttered in a low voice that carried only as far as those closest to him. Kaigun was not surprised by Tharek's coolness toward his son.



He was surprised when he was given the right to retain his sword while he followed those who entered the palace walls before the gates were closed. As they walked toward a towering door, a woman who appeared to be a nurse came forward and collected the four younger children, leaving only Tarina with her parents and the group with Darm. Dorn huddled close to Kaigun, apparently afraid he would be borne away like the other children.



Belin's earlier claims for the simplicity of the palace seemed belied by the grand rooms that opened on either side as Tharek led them down the corridor and up a wide set of stairs. Once they had progressed beyond the public rooms, the furnishings were sparse and the rooms less daunting.



They finally reached a cozy room that reminded Kaigun of Malinkra's gather hall. Colorful hangings softened the stone walls and the floor was covered with fine Virdanan carpets. With a gesture, Tharek indicated that everyone should take a seat.



The furniture in the room was beautifully decorated with inlaid patterns of wood and shell. Kaigun hesitated for a moment to put his weight on the bench near Darm. "Tharek's work is sturdy enough to hold the two of us," his uncle assured him.



With a second glance, Kaigun recognized the maker's mark set subtly in the design of every piece of furniture. For a moment he was confused. Then he remembered that Tharek was a craftsman when he had the time to spare.



At the moment, Tharek seemed every inch the Tyrant, standing while the others settled in their seats. "Darm, you will explain your actions first."



Darm glanced toward Shira, Tharek's wife, who gave him a warm smile of approval. "I took Tharek oc Baroka with a brother's right. If I deceived you, it was in a greater cause. Your family is as dear to you as mine to me, and you have other responsibilities that none but you can fill."



"How is it that your nephew, Kaigun, is still armed and you have returned my sword to me? How was the ransom settled?"



"Kaigun required no ransom. He has acted only as a protector to both Shirak and Belin," Darm said. "Thrak deceived you. He knew that Kaigun had engaged to return the Sword of the Wizard Smith to his clan and he saw no other way that it could be accomplished."



"But he saw the Stone of Truth. I could see the light reflected, not only in his eyes, but in his countenance." Tharek turned to Thrak who cowered before him. "Explain how you deceived me."



"I saw the light, and then my heart conceived the story of the ransom," Thrak admitted. "When I decided to tell the lie, the light dimmed and died for me."



"You made this sacrifice for your friend?" Tharek asked, surprised. "I cannot conceive of giving up the Light for any other thing. I will admit that I have sometimes feared that something I felt forced to do might deprive me of the light, but to deliberately scheme-." Tharek shook his head.



"I put Thrak and Kaigun under arrest," Shirak said. "I knew you would not want the story of this deception to spread."



"Tharek looked at both of the men and slowly nodded. "This could have serious implications. I know of one way to resolve it. It is past time that all of us made a pilgrimage to Timora. Shirak and Belin are overdue to receive the blessings of Renewal Washings, I should have arranged a pilgrimage years ago. War will always be my lot, but there are others who can lead my army while we visit Timora."



"I visited Timora two years ago," Thrak protested. "I must return to my wife and child in Janaka."



"You forget your circumstances. You have no choice but to accompany us to Timora," Shirak said. "Provisions will be made for your family. From what you told me, I believe your wife would far rather live in Zedekla than stay in your village where her life is filled with drudgery."



Thrak thought for only a moment before he nodded. "If you can find a way to reach Margan village, I am certain that she will be easily persuaded."



Tharek finally settled into a chair and invited Belin to tell her family something of her adventures. "You can be unsparing of Shirak," he said dryly.



"In truth, Shirak improved once he was wounded," she began. "At first I wondered if he had it in him to become your heir. As you know, we started out against mother's counsel with an inadequate and inexperienced group of guards. When Parval stumbled into our camp one morning and warned us of an ambush by Orquians, Shirak decided against returning to Zedekla. In retrospect I can see that Parval knew how to manipulate my brother. Shortly after Parval warned us, Kaigun, Thrak and Dorn approached us and were taken into custody. Parval urged us to execute them, but Shirak finally made the right decision and decided that both Parval and the Janakans should be watched and guarded."



"How was Shirak wounded?" Shira asked. "Jacla's story was so garbled that I had little sense out of her."



"Parval persuaded Chasona that she would gain favor with Shirak if she killed or wounded Kaigun. She thought that Shirak had gone to his tent to sleep and she struck at the man she thought was Kaigun through the walls of our tent. Her aim was poor and the wound, though it seemed serious at first, was angled in a way that did not injure any of his vitals. He bled a lot, but Kaigun helped by providing a gunge weed poultice. I am certain you have heard how Parval escaped and the others returned to Zedekla. We stayed with Shirak to care for him. Kaigun and I watched as the Orquians invaded our deserted camp. Then we saw Dorn, Kaigun's son. He had evaded Thrak and returned to the camp."



"Dashkar caught me," Dorn said in a high voice that trembled with remembered terror. "He told me that he k-killed my mother and little sisters." Kaigun gathered Dorn into his arms and soothed him.



"Kaigun rescued Dorn by stealth, sneaking into the midst of the Orquians and carrying the boy away," Belin said. "He provided Shirak and me with food and medicine while we waited for the Orquians to abandon their search."



"Where did you find them, Darm?" Tharek asked his friend.



"They were returning from an encounter with Mareklans," Darm stated with a straight face, knowing his statement would pique Tharek's curiosity.



"Mareklans? How did that come about?"



Shirak spoke up and told his own versions of events. "Kaigun overheard Dashkar making plans to attack a small caravan of Mareklans. He brought Dorn to our cave and asked us to keep the boy safe while he tried to warn them. I was feeling well enough to join him, and Dorn and Belin were unwilling to stay behind."



Kaigun looked toward Belin who shook her head but remained silent. He spoke up and interrupted Shirak's story. "I asked Belin to keep Dorn and Shirak from following me, but she convinced me that it was not something she could promise. We passed by the Orquians and met the Mareklans."



"What happened then," Tarina asked. "Did you all stand and fight with the Orquians."



"We found a hiding place until they gave up the search," Kaigun replied.



"Where did you hide?" The words came from several people but Darm was the one who answered. "They will not tell you. Even Dorn refused to answer my questions."



"I made a promise," the child said.



"I think we could tell where they hid if we knew more about Dorn's feather," Thrak said with a speculative glance at the decoration.



Tharek shook his head. "If they made a promise, it is not my place to dishonor their pledge. Could you name the leader of the Mareklans?"



"It was a man named Malon," Kaigun replied. "He was not willing to risk either of his daughters, or Belin, by turning and fighting the Orquians. I supported his decision."



Tharek nodded. "I know of Malon. He is first cousin to Regnon, the High Priest of Timora."



"He has two daughters," Shirak said. "Seral is sweet, but she is newly married. I prefer his other daughter, Matenil."



"She believes that you are callow, but not so bad as when you first met her," Belin allowed with a smirk at her brother's pained expression.



A gong rang somewhere deep within the palace and Tharek stood. "I feel that I know less than I did when I began. Come, at least I'm certain that all of us are hungry."



"It doesn't take a prophet to know that," Thrak muttered to Kaigun as they followed Tharek from the room.



"You would do well to recognize a good and honest man," Kaigun returned sternly.



The family gathered at the table and Dorn quickly bonded with Tharek's two young sons. The other daughters, both a few years older than their brothers, seemed to prefer the company of Belin. Other than the family, Darm, and the Janakans, Finerik, Tharek's young scribe, shared the meal. "Chasona has not been seen in public since she returned," Shira told Finerik. "Could you visit her and see if there is anything that I could do?"



The young scribe blushed and looked down. "I doubt that Chasona would listen to anything that I might say. It would be better if those who really know her make a visit."



"Chasona needs to make a pilgrimage and if there is anything that we can do to encourage her, we must do it," Tharek said. "As for you, Finerik, You should have made a pilgrimage years ago. It's not your fault you never had the time. I have delayed this visit to Timora for too long. It seemed I always had some urgent reason to procrastinate the journey, but I set a poor example of the duty that I owe my lineage."



"There were always battles and requests for aid you could not ignore," Finerik said.



"There will always be battles," Tharek said. "I am not the only one fit to lead or I have not done my job as leader. Dagnet and several others are far more able than I."



Shira stood and signaled that the meal was over. "Tomorrow we will begin to plan a proper pilgrimage. I expect to leave Zedekla a week from now."



Tharek rose and stood by the side of his wife, taking her hand with a casual gesture and exchanging a glance so ripe with love that Kaigun dropped his eyes. Shira showed her age in the touch of silver in her dark hair and the fan of tiny wrinkles at the corner of her eyes, but her beauty still rivaled that of both Tarina and Belin. Tarina looked more like her father, but Belin was nearly the image of her mother.



Kaigun found that he had fixed his gaze on Belin as she stood to join her parents near the exit of the room. He shook his head and looked away. She was not for such as him. Even if he chose to marry again, a Janakan wife must be able to work in the mines and smelters producing the blades and tools that brought wealth to the clan. Even though Belin had been valiantly uncomplaining through the hardships of the past days, she was clearly in her setting here, surrounded with servants and able to live a life of gracious ease.



The next morning Shira and Belin left the palace with Shirak and two of Tharek's household guards. They walked past the inner wall and approached a gracious villa built amid the farms and cottages enclosed by the outer wall. It was the home of Dagnet, Tharek's chief general. He had chosen to settle here with his wife Tabla among the men who had remained loyal to him years before when he had accepted an alliance with the Tyrant.



Tabla opened the door to greet her visitors, but when they asked to see Chasona, she hesitated. "She has asked me to guard her from those who seek her. I am worried that she cannot forgive herself for her attack on Shirak."



"I need to speak to her," Shirak said. "We want her to join the pilgrimage to Timora that my father will lead."



"Tharek is planning to go to Timora?" Tabla opened the door and welcomed them into the foyer. "Come with me. Chasona spends her days in the gather hall and refuses to eat enough to sustain her."



When they entered the gracious room they saw a slender figure with drooping shoulders sitting near a window that looked over the central garden. Chasona did not raise her eyes when Shira went across the room to her and put her hand gently on her shoulder. She flinched away and huddled with her arms clasped around her ribs.



"Chasona, Shirak is here," Tabla said.



The girl looked up, startled. Her pale face suddenly turned nearly white and she swayed as if to faint. Shira supported her until she was able to sit up again.



"I cannot bear this. I am so ashamed," Chasona murmured.



"You must eat and grow strong," Shirak urged her. "We are leaving for a pilgrimage in seven days. This will be no ill prepared and under guarded debacle like the pilgrimage I led. Tharek is leading us to Timora."



Chasona shook her head. "I am unworthy of the waters of Timora."



"All of us are unworthy. That is why we are going to Timora," Shirak said brusquely. "I have greater cause that you to be ashamed. My pride and impatience led us into near disaster. I risked my sister's lives along with those of all the maidens in the pilgrimage. If it had not been for your actions that revealed the traitor, Parval would have led us into ambush."



"But I wounded you!" Chasona wailed. "I was Parval's pawn!"



"We did not know who to trust until we found the mark of Orqu on the knife he gave you," Belin said. She had been silent until now, but she could see that Chasona had emerged from her malaise and was reacting to their presence. "Why do you think we seek to be washed in the waters of Timora's sacred lake? Why do we call the ritual 'Renewal Washing'? It is because all of us have need to start afresh. You need to go to Timora, Chasona. You are sorry for what you did, but now you dwell in it."



"I have stained my soul," Chasona whimpered.



"You will be washed clean if you consent to come with us," Shirak pleaded. "The Radiance is not vengeful to those who keep the laws and accept his guidance. You will feel his presence in your life if you can overcome this guilt."



"I can be washed clean? I will forget my sins?" Chasona murmured with a faint hint of hope in her voice.



"The Radiance will forget your sins, but you should remember how you were deceived. Such as Parval listen always to the voice of the Liar and they are the tools of deceit. Now that you have known how it feels to obey that voice, you can be armed against falling into error again," Shira said.



"But first you must be washed and accept the forgiveness that is offered to those who follow Yasa Dom," Tabla said. "Believe me, my child, I have done things that make me cringe when I remember them. Tharek came with the Stone of Truth and I was able to put all those things behind me. I remembered the waters of Timora. That memory helped me set my course and I emerged from darkness."



Chasona looked around at all of them and saw encouragement in their eyes. Finally she nodded. "I will go with you to Timora. I want to be renewed and be made clean."



Belin rushed forward impulsively and took the other maiden in her arms. "Thank you, Chasona. We could not have felt right without your presence among us."



Shirak nodded. "My wound was not the worst thing that happened to me. It still bothers me that I caused your actions with my blind arrogance."



Tabla left the room and returned a little later with a platter filled with various delicacies. Although it was a custom to so provide for honored visitors, most of the tidbits were particular favorites of Chasona. Tabla had tried in vain to tempt her daughter's appetite, but now she ate with real hunger.



When the platter was nearly empty, Chasona looked around at the others and blushed. "I am sorry for my gluttony. I ate more than any of you. Suddenly everything seemed so delicious."



Shirak made a face. "I can forgive you for wounding me, but did you have to eat most of the pickled breadberries? You must know how I like them."



Chasona joined in the laughter of the others and Belin exchanged a look of gratitude with Shirak.



Kaigun, Thrak and Dorn were not visibly confined to the spacious room they were assigned. Their guards became evident only when they ventured out of the palace. Then their presence was subtle, but insistent. Kaigun knew he would not get far if he tried to leave the city. When he ventured along the beach that lay behind palace, he found that the rock quay that Thrak and Darm had used was now well guarded. He resigned himself to going to Timora with the others, although every day spent near Belin had become a painful blend of bliss and sorrow.



He tried to avoid her, but Dorn had ways of bringing them together. Once they were released from Tharek's custody he could take the child away with him and try to put memories of Belin behind him. Thrak seemed fascinated with the shops of the city. Day after day he persuaded Kaigun to join him as he explored the streets and alleyways where craftsmen produced a variety of goods. Merchandise from every quarter of Okishdu was displayed and sold in booths and shops.



All too often Belin joined them. Dorn would shift and try to get them to walk together, but Belin seemed just as unwilling as Kaigun to be paired and they usually walked on either side of Dorn and Thrak. Even so, Kaigun remained acutely conscious of her every word and gesture.



With the ease developed by marshaling armies to defend the dependent border lands, Tharek's preparations for the pilgrimage proceeded smoothly. Within the week that Shira had promised, all was readied. This was not a group that would tempt Dashkar and his cronies. They were guarded by Tyrant's personal contingent of battle hardened warriors.



Jacla was not among the group that set forth. Her shame at being Parval's pawn had sent her into a seclusion that not even Tharek could breach. Tabla brought her daughter to the plaza in front of the palace where the pilgrims had assembled. She looked around the group and waved to Finerik. Years before when Finerik was just a child he had helped Tharek rescue Tabla from the harlot, Beshamel. "Dear friend would you please watch after my Chasona?" she appealed to him.



Finerik could not deny her request and found himself walking next to Chasona as the company set out. Although he glanced at her now and then he could not summon up the courage to begin a conversation.A small stone in the pathway rolled beneath her foot and she lurched and nearly fell. Finerik reached out to steady her and somehow ended with his arms around her waist. As soon as her feet were firmly on the ground he released her from his grasp but she smiled up at him and thanked him with such warmth that his reservation melted. Soon the two of them were deep in conversation.



Chasona seemed to blossom under Finerik's attention. She had hardly noticed him when Jacla was her mentor. The ideas that she discussed with him while they walked together had never really touched her mind before. Her infatuation with Shirak had been nourished by ambition, as much Jacla's as her own. On the first disastrous pilgrimage she had anticipated enjoying the shops and markets of Timora. Now she looked forward to reading the scrolls in Timora's sacred library and visiting the shrines with Finerik.



Shirak seemed quite a different person as well. Although he could have spent the evenings with the members of his father's guard, he preferred the company of his parents. He was most particular in his questions about Mareklans. For the first time, he seemed more interested in his priestly heritage than in the means and methods of warfare that had previously engaged his interest.



Everyone walked except Tharek's youngest son, Panek, who spent most of the journey riding on his father's shoulders to keep him from lagging behind or getting into mischief. The pace was moderated to accommodate the children. Dorn had become the constant companion of Dolik, one of Tharek's younger sons, a boy near his own age who seemed in awe of the Janakan boy's adventures.



Within a short time Dorn lost his own awe of Tharek and when they stopped for the night on the second day out from Zedekla, he approached him frankly. "Sir, if you are Tyrant can you make people do what you say?"



Tharek smiled at the child and nodded. "Sometimes I can tell others what to do. It depends on what is needed."



"I need Belin to be my mother. I want you to order Kaigun to marry her," Dorn said flatly.



Tharek was tempted to chuckle, but he kept himself from giving any sign that the child might interpret as ridicule. "I will talk to each of them, but such things cannot be commanded. If Belin becomes your mother, she must do so because she wants to stay with you and love you."



"I think she loves me now! I think she loves Kaigun too."



"As I promised, I will speak to them, but they must make their own decision. In this I cannot play the role of Tyrant."



Dorn was not completely satisfied with Tharek's answer, but Dolik found a nest of ants and he urged Dorn to join him in examining the effect of dropping a line of matla crumbs along their trail.



With Dorn occupied for most of the day and evening, Kaigun spent his time with the men of the guard. The captain of the guard, Barken, had been with the Tyrant since his arrival on the coast when Tharek had challenged the gangs and driven out the Orquians.



Barken was full of fascinating stories about the founding of Zedekla as a city and the battles that followed. Although he was missing much of his left hand, his keen intelligence and knowledge of warfare, combined with physical hardiness, refuted Kaigun's initial reaction that men who had been wounded should retire from active service. In Janaka, a man who was wounded in a battle would often invite his foe to give a final blow, choosing death rather than to linger as a cripple.



Mingling with the guard had another benefit for Kaigun. It kept him out of the company of Belin who kept herself occupied with helping her mother keep track of the younger children as the pilgrimage proceeded.



They passed the campsite where the Orquians had destroyed the abandoned camp of the first pilgrimage. Tharek decided not to stop there, but Belin was grateful that they had taken a few hours to clean away the trash and wreckage. The trampled grass that grew between the stones of the rocky outcrop had already begun to cover the traces of campfires and offal pits.



After six days on the trail, they camped within sight of the hills that surrounded Timora. Belin walked a little away from the camp and watched the southern sky. She had been told that sometimes, near dusk, the sky over the vale would glow with the reflection of the waters of the sacred lake. The sky was lavender streaked with gilded clouds as the sun began to touch the edge of the horizon, then the sky over the vale took on a bluer tone than the surrounding arc.



"Belin?" Tharek's voice startled her from her concentration on the subtle colors of evening. She turned and saw him standing a little distant. His face was grave and for a moment she feared what he would tell her. She quickly searched her conscience, trying to determine if she had done anything to earn his disapproval.



From her early childhood, when, her mother had informed her, her first word was "Thek", she had regarded Tharek with all the fondness of a daughter. She knew that there were some who gossiped that she was his natural child, assigned another father to cover shame, but she was certain of Tharek's virtue. She waited for him to tell her why he had sought her out alone.



"I had a visit from Kaigun's son, Dorn, the other day. He wanted me to order you to be his mother. He claimed that you love him."



Belin nodded. "It is true. He is a scamp, but he has captured my heart."



"He claimed you also love his father."



Belin could not look into Tharek's face and tell a lie. She turned away and tried to summon words to deny her love for Kaigun. Finally she turned back to Tharek and nodded. "I love Kaigun, but I know that there is nothing more futile than love without return. I will not be like Chasona when she tried to get Shirak's attention with disastrous results. If Kaigun had given any indication that he shares the way I feel-," she could say nothing more.



Tharek smiled gently. "Did you never hear the story of my clumsy courtship of your mother? She was newly widowed when I first returned to Zedekla. At every turn she wounded me with words. I knew that I must wait for her heart to heal, but it seemed she did not even like me. Finally, when Tabla married Dagnet, Shira confessed her confusion. Even then she would not say she loved me until she served out her widow year. I have sometimes caught an expression in Kaigun's eyes when he looks at you that reminds me of the way I felt during that year of yearning."



"Why doesn't he speak?" Belin asked. "Before we learned that the wife of his youth had died, propriety prevented both of us from wanting what we knew could not be."



"Perhaps he has the habit of denying himself joy," Tharek said. "From what Darm has told me, Kaigun has had a harsh taskmistress in his grandmother, Malinkra. She would expect him to marry a proper Janakan woman, one who would learn to be a smith and miner as well as raise her children. Could you accept such a challenge? Do not answer too soon. I doubt you have any idea of the hardship that would fill your days if you married Kaigun and returned with him to to Janaka. Perhaps he could marry you and stay in Zedekla. He seems a good man and Barken has recommended him as a candidate for the palace guard. He could have no better advocate."



Belin nodded, but she did not envision Kaigun in the livery of Tharek. When she returned to the campsite she sought out Darm. "I want to learn something that only you can teach me," she said. He looked at her with puzzlement. She smiled. "I must learn to be a worthy wife for Kaigun."



I

Chapter 12 Destiny





By midmorning, the pilgrims from Zedekla had been joined on the road by many others. All were dressed in blue and white, but each city and town had its own interpretation of the pilgrim garb. Most, like Tharek's company, wore some variation of a white robe and a blue sash, but the colors of blue varied from the midnight shade of deepest night to the blue-green of nop leaves. Some wore vests of blue and some turbans.



They crossed the last pass and saw the vale below them in the morning sun. Timora's lake glowed like a shard of the upper sky at noon, tinted with the faintest hint of green. Orchards and gardens surrounded the lake, reaching to the woods that cloaked the hills.



In the distance, the city of Timora gleamed near the shore, its walls reflecting the light from pale granite that defied the ages. It was the beginning of the Festival of Founding and the fair field near the city was covered with the canopies of visiting traders from all the cities of Okishdu. Their banners were a bright motley of color against the dull blue of the nop groves that surrounded the field.



Kaigun and Thrak had been to Timora more recently than most in the pilgrimage, but there was something in the air of the sacred vale that made it all seem new. They passed a party of pilgrims from Janaka, all of the young men shaved and dressed in course white robes with blue sashes bound around their chests. The Janakans looked askance at the Zedeklan party and there were audible gasps when they began to realize that Tharek was present at the head of the pilgrims from his city.



While the Zedeklans were still some distance from the city of Timora, a procession issued forth from the gates. At its head came Regnon, the High Priest of the Radiance. His hair had whitened with the years, but his figure was still erect and stately. A group of shrine servants and priests followed close behind him. They had come to greet Tharek and his people.



"We have waited years for this visit," Regnon said after he had made a formal speech of welcome." The Mareklan elders have been meeting in council and Malon suggested we might see you."



"Your cousin seems to have the gift of prescience," Tharek replied. "I did not anticipate this pilgrimage until a short time ago."



"Malon told me what had happened to your son. I hope there was no lasting damage from his wound."



"Malon knows more than I do about how Shirak healed," Tharek said dryly. "They were together for some time."



Tharek recognized one of his old friends among the throng of shrine servants and beckoned him forward. "Fozli! It has been too long since I last saw you. Darm has visited me over the years, but you never left Timora."



"And you have stayed secluded in Zedekla," the Kumnoran scribe replied. "We have expected that you would come to Timora since your older children first attained the age of Renewal Washing years ago."



"I have hardly stayed secluded," Tharek said. "There have been battles along the border almost continuously since I vowed to defend the lands left helpless when Saadena's power waned."



Kaigun slowed his step and drifted back toward the rear of the crowd to avoid walking near Belin. Dorn stayed near him, the draggled blue feather still attached to the fraying braid that Belin had plaited in his hair two weeks before. "Take me to the fair field Father," Dorn pleaded.



The word 'father' still struck a sweet tone in Kaigun's ears. He took his son by the hand and led him away from the others of the pilgrimage. He was not surprised when two of the guards assigned to the pilgrim party separated from their fellows and followed him. Even here in Timora he would be guarded.



For an hour or so they wandered among the varied wonders on display. When they were hungry, they stopped at booths where every variety of food was available. Kaigun introduced his son to the spicy taste of real Janakan barbecue, piquant with herbs found only in the northern mountains and hot enough to bring tears.



"Did you ever taste anything like this in Setalan?" he asked Dorn.



Dorn shook his head and took another portion, even though the heat of the dish had forced tears from his eyes. It made Kaigun proud to see his son persist, willing to take the pain to gain the savor. He had the makings of a warrior.



Bells sounded from the city and Kaigun looked up, surprised. Then he remembered that it was the beginning of Enven, a time set aside for prayer and meditation, or for sleep for those not inclined to use the time for worship.



"Come son, I want to show you the Main Shrine." He took Dorn's hand and led him through the throngs that were streaming from the fair field toward the city. Kaigun's size and fierce visage gave him advantage over others in the crowd. The way parted before him and when he led Dorn up the steps of the Shrine, he found that they were among the first to enter the prayer hall.



"Take a mat son," Kaigun said. He took one for himself and the two of them walked to a place near the edge of the hall near a high window that let in air and light. "We will kneel and pray now. If you are too tired to continue, you may curl up and rest."



Eager to please his father, Dorn tried to concentrate on praying, but the only prayer he knew to say was a plea that Kaigun would marry Belin.



He had already told Tharek what he wanted, but even the Tyrant was not powerful enough to make it happen. The boy soon tired of kneeling. His head settled to the floor and his cheek flattened on the cool stone as he fell asleep.



After Enven, Kaigun picked up the sleeping child and tried to find one of the men who had shadowed him throughout the morning and early afternoon. Now, when he needed their direction to make his way back to the Zedeklans, they were absent. As he passed a matla shop, he saw the Kumnoran whom Tharek had greeted as a friend.



"I am looking for the Tyrant and his family," he said as he approached the scribe with Dorn nestled in his arms. "Could you tell me where to find them?"



For a moment Fozli studied him. Finally he nodded. "You must be the nephew Darm told me about. You have the look of him. Tharek has been given the use of a house while he is here in Timora. The Guardians of the city feared that if he tried to camp with the other pilgrims, there would be an incident. Come, as soon as I settle my bill, I will show you the way."



They went through wide streets and narrow alleyways, taking a course that Kaigun would have been challenged to follow without Fozli's help. The Kumnoran apologized as they shinnied over a fence. "This is not the route that others would show you, but I am naturally impatient with walls and barriers. Only my love of the written word makes city life tolerable to me."



They arrived at last at a surprisingly modest entrance, marked by a blue wooden door. Fozli reached up for the bell pull, but the door swung open before he could ring.



"Kaigun, we thought you had left us!" It was Belin, her face flushed with emotion. "Come, we are just sitting down for the evening meal."



As soon as they entered the house, Kaigun saw how deceptive the entrance had been. The rooms within were generous in size, in keeping with the station of their resident. They followed Belin through the hallway to the dining hall. A hundred eyes looked up when they entered.



"Fozli!" Tharek said. "I thought you were busy this evening. The messenger I sent to your home returned with no answer."



"My wife and our younger children are on their way to visit with our oldest daughter in Taleeka. She has just given birth to my first grand-child. In their absence I was eating at one of my favorite inns, but I will be happy to join you."



Among the other guests were Malon who acknowledged Kaigun with a nod, and his son Dubalen who seemed to stare a little defiantly at the Janakan. As the meal went on, Kaigun realized that there were several men present who seemed to regard themselves as suitors for the older daughters of Tharek's house, Belin and Tarina.



Kaigun recognized Matenil in the crowd, and although she was seated some distance from Shirak, a tension seemed to stretch between the two young people that Kaigun found all too familiar. Was his emotion as evident whenever he glanced toward Belin. Afraid that others would read his feelings for Belin as easily as he was able to discern how Shirak felt about Matenil, Kaigun avoided looking at her entirely.



The company left the dining hall at the completion of the meal and assembled in the spacious gather room. Dorn abandoned Kaigun's side to play with Tharek's younger sons and Thrak was busy talking to Dubalen. Kaigun moved solitary through the room until Tharek hailed him. The Tyrant sat in a quiet alcove of the large room surrounded by Darm, Fozli, and Regnon. Malon lingered with two other Mareklans just beyond the inner circle of old friends.



"Malon tells me that they have found a place to settle until the Orquians no longer hunt Mareklan daughters," Regnon said when Kaigun entered the alcove. "Without revealing where it is, he said that you were able to support him,"



Kaigun nodded. "There is such a place."



"No other men can claim it?" Tharek asked.



"There was no evidence of any other humans," Kaigun answered. "There is game and flowing water, and fertile ground. It is everything that he has told you."



"Could it be kept secure against invasion?" Darm inquired.



"If few men share the secret of its location, I doubt that any army could conquer it."



Fozli asked a question that made Malon frown. "Who discovered this paradise? Surely he, or she, should have the right to decide what must be done."



"My son was the first to see it and I the next," Kaigun said. "On his behalf, as well as my own, I renounce all claim in favor of the Mareklans. I am not looking for a place to hide. Janaka is my home."



"Thank you Kaigun," Tharek said. "Your answers have resolved most of our reservations. I have but one last question to ask you. It is the duty of Mareklans to travel through Okishdu and carry out their ancient calling of preaching and preparing the people to make pilgrimages to Timora. If they stay in this hidden place, how will they carry out this purpose?"



"With care and reasonable caution, they can preserve the secret of their shelter when they leave and return," Kaigun said.



"It is as I have said," Malon finally intervened. "The Radiance has answered our prayers and provided a refuge. You have been told how Tharek's daughters, and then my own, were hunted by Orquians led by Dashkar. Somehow the cult must be discovered and destroyed, but until then, we cannot risk living without protection. Tharek, you of all men know the evil that pursues us. To some extent it is your fault that we no longer enjoy the hospitality of Janakans. It seems more than coincidental that the Orquians began to prefer Mareklan maidens for their sacrificial rituals after you confronted Marnat."



"Do not blame Tharek for the evil of the cult," Regnon admonished Malon. "He has done more than any other to bring the Orquians into the light of day and destroy their hold on superstitious minds. This is not the place to argue blame. Tomorrow all of you will meet with me in the chamber of the Eye of Adanan. I hesitate to use the Oracle Device for every conflict and decision, but this could change the history of our people."



"Surely I am not included," Kaigun said.



Regnon shook his silvered head. "I sense that you have more influence on what happens in the future than you could know. Come to my study in the Shrine at the end of Enven tomorrow. It would be best if all of you have fasted when you meet with me tomorrow."



Tharek stood and the other men dispersed. Kaigun turned to walk away and Tharek spoke to him in a tone so low that no others heard him.



"Kaigun, I understand that today you slipped away from the men Barken assigned to guard you. Tonight you will stay here in the house with my family. Barken will assign you quarters to share with your son and Thrak. You may chafe at the imposition on your freedom, but I am unwilling to moderate my decision."



Kaigun nodded. There was a reason that Tharek was called Tyrant. It would do little good to argue. He found Barken with a few of the other guards. The captain greeted Kaigun with a smile of welcome and invited him to share a game of droka. "I am unfamiliar with the rules," Kaigun said.



"It is not so different from the game of lots that Janakans play," one of the other guards explained. "The board is much like your border fields. You can think of the pieces as warriors. Watch us a while we play a few rounds."



Kaigun quickly caught on to the purpose and play of the game, but when Barken invited him to join the players, he decided to abstain. It hardly seemed in keeping with his assignment from Regnon to stay up into the late hours of night pursuing a trivial pastime.



"Tharek said you would assign me quarters," he told Barken. The captain of the guard turned his playing pieces over to a colleague and beckoned to Kaigun to follow him down the corridor.



"Could you tell me how you evaded the men I sent to follow you this afternoon?" the captain asked as they walked along the hallway.



"I made no effort to evade them. I took Dorn to the fair field, and when the signal for Enven sounded, I took my son into the prayer room of the main shrine. He fell asleep early on, and when Enven ended, I carried him until we encountered Fozli. I asked the scribe if he knew where Tharek was staying, and we arrived shortly after dinner started."



"It is likely that the guards lost you in the throngs that were gathering at the Shrine," Barken said. "I doubt that they expected you to pray as pilgrims do. This is your room. As you can see, it is better than those assigned to the rest of us. I must confess that I am puzzled by Tharek's treatment of you."



"I am his prisoner," Kaigun explained.



"But he has left you with your sword," Barken said.



"I have given him my parole. Apparently, most of the time he trusts me."



"I trust you as well. I will leave you to find your son and Thrak. I want to get back to the game."



"You could have a winning hand, but your opponent is strong in the north sector of the board and I don't think that you have picked up on his strategy," Kaigun said.



Barken chuckled. "It is just as well you chose not to play against me. I should have known that a Janakan would have the edge in such a game."



Kaigun found Thrak with Dubalen. Thrak was questioning the Mareklan about the location of the vale in Mount Vald with little success. When Kaigun approached, the Margan turned and gave a mock scowl. "I mean no ill, I am simply curious. Can you blame me when even Dorn remains obdurate about sharing the secret?"



"Come, we must find Dorn and go to our room."



Grumbling, Thrak followed Kaigun. When they were out of earshot of Dubalen, Kaigun turned to the Margan. "Something has happened to you Thrak. You seem to be edging away from the honor that made us companions. You joke about serious things, you try to break the pledges of others. Did it start when you lied about the Ransom?"



Thrak stared at Kaigun and the sly smile that had lately become part of his expression began to fade. It was replaced with a look of bewilderment. Finally he nodded. "When I was willing to set the truth aside and watched the fading of the light, something seemed to sour my soul. I have excused my actions by claiming a virtuous cause, but can anything justify defying the light? Even now I feel like reviling you for pointing out my errors. There is something like an echo in my mind that whispers that you are a self-righteous prude with no sense of humor."



Kaigun nodded. "It is the Liar, seeking to have you as his own. If you let his voice lead you, soon you will be little better than the Orquians. If you can identify his whispers, you have a defense. Go to the prayer room of the Shrine tomorrow at Enven. Seek the Radiance in prayer whenever evil tempts you."



"You sound like a priest," Thrak said with a quick little laugh.



"It is my heritage, even though I have left it too long. I was ordained by my father. In time I must teach Dorn what I am and what he will be in his turn. Is there no priest in your village?"



"Only a cripple who is beyond being a warrior. It is Valdan. Do you know him?"



"Valdan was the greatest warrior that Margan village has ever produced. I had heard he was wounded. I thought he had retired to Janaka to join the council of elders."



"I have heard nothing of his abilities as a warrior. I only know that he condemned my sister Falinta when she eloped with Okan. At that time I thought he was wrong."



"Consider what I have said about your direction if you continue letting the Liar lead you. It is your choice, not mine. I cannot order you to think of Valdan as a hero, both as a warrior and as a priest. If you choose to see him as justified in condemning evil, it will help you find your way through this challenge. You could think of it as a battle. You have an enemy who has penetrated your inner perimeter. Will you fight, or will you cower and acknowledge him as your master?"



"I thought you a man of few words," Thrak said. "Perhaps you only save them until they are needed."



"You saw the Light Thrak. Think of how you felt when you saw it. I would yearn to see it again if I had lost it."



"I do sometimes wish that I had not persisted against the truth until I could lie to Tharek," Thrak admitted. "Now that you have prompted my memory, I recall that I felt wrenched when I lost the light. You are good for me Kaigun."



"Watching what has happened to you has made me more aware of my own failings," Kaigun said. "I have gained a son, but I yearn for more. I should be filled with gratitude instead of feeling deprived because I have no wife."



They found Dorn curled up on a bench chest sleepily watching a game of droka between two of the guards. Kaigun lifted him in his arms and carried him to the chamber that Barken had shown him.



When he had undressed his son and settled him between the quilt and the mattress, he extinguished the lamp and whispered a prayer. From the direction of Thrak's bed he heard a murmur and smiled. The cadence of the words reassured him. For the first time since they had begun their travels together, the Margan was praying.



When Kaigun woke, it was to the sound of Dorn yelling out the window. "Wait for me. I'll ask my father."



He turned with a bright face full of excitement. "Today the pilgrims will be washed in the sacred lake. Can I go with Tharek's family?"



"Pull your tunic straight and comb your hair and you can go," Kaigun said.



In his impatience, Dorn forgot the fraying braid that had fastened his precious blue feather. With a yank of the comb he dislodged it, but instead of stooping to pick it up, he ran from the room, eager to join his friends. Kaigun reached down and picked up the feather, absently tucking it behind his ear so that he could give it to Dorn when they met again.



The first time he had seen the feather had been in the hidden valley. The weeks since then had brought him the knowledge that Dorn was his son and Falinta was dead. He was free to marry at last. Unfortunately, he was now bound by his love for Belin. In time he would have to find a mother for Dorn, but by then his ardor for Belin would be cold and he could look to the future.



If he married a capable maiden, and Malinkra knew that she would finally have an apprentice to whom she could teach all her secrets, perhaps her anger would wane and she would forgive her male descendants. Kaigun's mother had died in childbirth before she could learn much of the craft of the smithy. Darm's wife and children had died in a fire. Perhaps it was not so surprising that the old woman was bitter.



Kaigun looked toward Thrak's bed. Dorn's excitement had not disturbed the Margan. He was still sleeping. Perhaps it was an indication of an easier conscience than the young warrior had enjoyed in some time.



"I do sound like a priest," Kaigun muttered to himself. He washed and dressed and went to find something to eat. Just as he lifted a crisp, fresh matla to his lips, he remembered that he would be fasting until after his appointment with Regnon that evening. Subduing his hunger, he pushed away the tantalizing stack of matlas and stood to leave the table where Tharek's palace guard was enjoying their breakfast.



"Is there something wrong with your food?" Barken asked.



Kaigun shook his head. "If someone needs to find me, I will be in the Sacred Library."



While he walked toward the library where the scrolls of the laws and the compacts were kept, he could hear the sound of hymns as the pilgrims returned from the pavilions of Renewal along the lake. He was tempted to stop and watch as they passed, but he knew that Belin would be among them. Surely it would be easier to banish her from his heart if he saw less of her.



After viewing the scrolls of the Law and the Compact and stopping for a moment of regret over the empty case that had contained the scroll of history and prophecy written by Irilik hundreds of years before, he wandered into the section of the library where other records were stored. His desire to eat and drink remained strong throughout the morning, but gradually he became so absorbed in the prophetic scrolls that he forgot the demands of his appetite.



There were numerous references to the Seers. He read that the first Seers in Okishdu had been none other than Irilik and his wife, Tarsha. After turning over the high priesthood of Timora to his seventh son, the prophet and his wife had become wanderers who appeared now and then to give counsel and prophetic warning.



Eventually others had been named to the seership, but none could tell where Tarsha and Irilik had been buried. Some wrote that they had ascended into the presence of the Radiance without tasting death.



Fascinated with the mysterious nature of the Seers, Kaigun searched in the most recent scrolls for mentions of their appearances. The messages they gave were always brief and cryptic, sometimes defying interpretation by any but the intended recipient, and sometimes only after years had passed were the words recalled and the prophetic nature of their warning aknowledged. The sound of bells signaling the beginning of Enven alerted him to the passage of time. He had spent hours immersed in his studies, but he found no certain answers about the existence of seers in the present.



He had been directed to meet Regnon at his study following Enven. He was tempted to go directly to the Shrine and spend the hours between in the prayer room, but he had not seen Dorn since early that morning. It would be wise to find someone willing to look after his son for the rest of the day.



He returned to Tharek's house and heard childish voices raised in laughter from the direction of the central garden. He could hear Belin's voice as well, but he could hardly retreat from his duties as a parent simply because he was shy of seeing her.



As it happened, he was mistaken. It was Shira, Belin's mother, who was watching the children. Dorn was teaching her young sons a game that he had learned as a fatherless urchin in the streets of Setalan. At first Kaigun felt some concern about the language his child might use, but Dorn seemed to sense what was proper. Instead of using the slang he had learned in the streets, he substituted words he had heard more recently. If anything, his language was slightly pedantic as he taught the other boys his game.



Shira looked up when Kaigun entered the garden. "You son is a delight. My sons follow whatever he does, and he keeps them occupied."



"Could you keep an eye on him until after I meet with Regnon?" Kaigun asked.



"Tharek will be at the same meeting I think. I would be happy to watch Dorn for you. If you would like, I will feed him and put him to bed with my sons if you come home late."



"I will obey her, father," Dorn said.



Kaigun put out his hand and ruffled his son's silky hair. The elegant shape of Dorn's skull under his fingers, the vitality that seemed to radiate from his young body, were gifts from the Radiance. How had Dorn survived such a childhood and come out healthy and fine?



There a suspicious moisture stung at the corner of his eyes and he turned to leave the room. A warrior only cried with good cause. Was this swelling sense of wonder at the son he had found again sufficient reason for tears?



It was nearing the end of Enven by the time he returned to his chamber and changed into a clean tunic. He moved counter to the tide of the pilgrims leaving the prayer hall when he entered the Shrine and asked a shrine servant to direct him to Regnon's study.



Malon and the other Mareklan elders were waiting outside the closed door when Kaigun arrived and he saw Darm and Fozli coming along another hallway. The door to Regnon's study opened and Tharek and Regnon stepped out. Finerik, Tharek's scribe, followed close behind.



Regnon looked around and nodded after he counted those present. "Come with me."



He turned and led them to the base of the stairs that curled upwards through the spire. One by one the seven men followed Regnon up the stairs, waiting at each landing while he unlocked a gate of filigree metal. Finally, they entered a room with a window facing west. An intricate box of clear crystals joined with strips of gold lay on the top of a pale stone pedestal in the center of the room. Benches were built into the wall on the southern and northern sides of the room. The eastern wall was covered with a screen that had an outline of the land of Okishdu with names of clan lands and land marks indicated. Kaigun was surprised to see that the coastline in the south was drawn. Most maps ended not far below the vale of Timora where the southern jungle began.



Regnon waited while the other men took seats on the benches. He stood by the pedestal and removed several small pieces of scroll cloth from a pouch. From where he sat, Kaigun could see that each of them was marked with a name. He was surprised to see his own among the others.



"Tharek and I have consulted together and made some preparations, but this will be a complex reading and we need all of you to think if there is any information that could be useful." Regnon instructed. "I want you to study these and tell me if you can add any others. Tharek and Finerik will keep a record of the reading."



When Kaigun stepped forward in his turn and examined the names on the various pieces, he recognized only a few of them. He was surprised to see Belin's name as well as Thrak's. He shook he head, thinking that he had nothing to add, then a tickling on his neck reminded him of the feather he had tucked behind his ear. He placed it on the pedestal alongside his own name. As long as Thrak would be represented, why not Dorn as well?



"Isn't that the feather your son usually wears?" Tharek asked. When Kaigun nodded, Regnon smiled his approval and both Finerik and Tharek made a notation on their scroll cloths.



As others made suggestions, the pile grew and Regnon seemed a little worried. From what Kaigun had read, there would only be moments to take a reading from the Eye of Adanan. He could understand the priest's concern that there might not be time enough to answer all the questions that were implied by the number of names that now lay on the plinth.



The golden sunlight streaming through the western window of the room reminded them that time was growing short. Regnon unlatched the side of the crystal case that faced the window and lifted it to reveal a delicate structure of gems strung on golden wires. For a moment they were only lovely jewels with sunlight sparkling from their facets. Then they began to flash with brilliant light and Kaigun's eyes were drawn to the eastern wall where colors of every tint and hue sparkled and glowed over the map of Okishdu.



He could hardly follow what happened as Regnon's fingers deftly manipulated the various names and signs. He did recognize the moment when Dorn's feather lay on the top of the oracle device. A brilliant spot of blue illuminated the region of Janaka where Algire village lay, the glow seemed to radiate over the entire region of his native land from the border with Kumnora to the sea on the west.



It was but an instant, but Kaigun knew that his son would have an important role in the destiny of his homeland. The urgent hiss of scribing tools was the only sound in the room as the light faded and the sun slowly set behind the western hills.



Regnon returned Dorn's feather to Kaigun before turning to Tharek and Finerik who were comparing notes. "This could take days to decipher," Regnon mused.



"Nonsense!" a raspy voice sounded from the entrance to the room and everyone turned to stare at the ancient little man who stood there. His hair was like a tuft of soft white feathers springing from the middle of his shining, age-spotted skull and his eyes were sharp with something akin to anger.



He lifted his staff and pointed to the Eye of Adanan. "This is a pretty little thing, and I sometimes found it useful in my day. But after all, it is only a training tool. If you used the sense the Radiance gave you, you would know what must be done. You, Tharek, have done well enough and I have never had to bother you. Regnon, you are called to put aside your other cares and take my place. As for the rest of you, the Mareklans will settle in their hidden valley regardless of the advice that I or any other man may give. Malon, you will stay here in Timora as High Priest. You will never see your hidden vale again. Your son, Dubalen, will take the Eye of Adanan and place it in a shrine that will house it in the heart of the mountain. In time to come your people will value safety more than freedom. In that day the Eye of Adanan will once again become important."



The old man paused to catch his breath and looked around at the others in the room who were all gaping at him. "I know why you are puzzled. A Seer is supposed to be cryptic and short spoken, but I grew impatient with your dithering. Time is of the essence. Dashkar threatens Zedekla, and through it, all Okishdu. You, Kaigun." the old man's staff pointed to the Janakan's heart. "You will serve Tharek for a year. You will either die by the hand of one who chooses to follow the Liar, or he will turn toward truth in time to save you."



With that, the old man turned and left the room. They did not hear his footsteps on the stairs.



One of the Mareklans leaped to his feet and started toward the door but Malon reached out and grabbed his hand. "You will not find him."



"Someone betrayed our secret," the other elder protested. "I must ask him where he learned of our plans."



"Did you not recognize the presence of a Seer?" Regnon inquired.



The Mareklans murmured to each other in consternation, but Darm and Fozli simply smiled with bemusement. Neither of them had been named by the Seer, but they would have a story for their children that few could equal.



Tharek took the notes that he and Finerik had made and crumpled them slowly in his hand. "He sorted us out. His message must be recorded in the Sacred Library."



"Surely you will not write the secrets he shared in a public place where anyone can read them!" Malon protested.



"You are of Timora now, Malon," Regnon said. "You must put aside the loyalty that you have owed Marekla, just as I did many years ago. Come, join me in my study. I sense that I have very little time to instruct you in your duties as High Priest."



"Who was he, before he became the Seer?" Kaigun asked Tharek as they descended from the chamber of the Eye of Adanan.



"I believe that he was the High Priest, Ovandin, who served in Timora seventy years ago. My father often spoke of him."



"Fifty years!" Kaigun exclaimed. "But that would make him impossibly old."



"Can you wonder that he grew impatient to name his successor?" Tharek replied. "Malon is a good man. Now that the question of refuge has been settled, I believe he will become a fine High Priest."



Chapter 13 Enthrallment







Kaigun resigned himself to returning to Zedekla with Tharek and his family. If he survived the dire prediction of the Seer, he would return with Dorn to Algire village at the end of his year of service to Tharek.



When he returned to Tharek's residence in Timora with the Tyrant, it was late. They had lingered for a while in the Shrine when Malon had asked them to stay and pray with him. Once again, Kaigun had felt out of place. Who was he to mingle with these men who held the destinies of cities in their hands?



He saw no sign of Belin the next morning when he went to find his son. Dorn was playing a game of tag with Tharek's sons under Shira's watchful eye. She looked up and smiled at Kaigun when he entered the garden. "Tharek tells me that you will stay with us in Zedekla for a while. Would you consent to let Dorn live with us while you search for Dashkar?"



Kaigun raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Did Tharek tell you everything about the Seer and what he said?"



She nodded. "The Seeress visited us and talked to Dorn at sunset, near the time that her husband entered the chamber of the Eye of Adanan. It is said that they always travel together."



"What did she say to my son?" Kaigun asked.



Shira shook her head and smiled. "Some messages are meant to be shared, others are private. I saw Dorn raise his hand in pledge and I suspect that no one will ever find out what she told him. He has been unusually happy since she spoke to him."



Dorn looked up and saw his father. With a crow of delight he left his playmates and dashed across the garden. Kaigun grabbed him in his arms and hugged his solid little body. Who was this child? How had someone raised with abuse and hatred earned the notice of the holy Seers?



"Would you like to live with Tharek and Shira this coming year?" Kaigun asked Dorn after releasing him from his arms.



Dorn nodded eagerly, then, without a word, he ran back to join his friends. Shira chuckled and shook her head. "They always surprise us."



"Perhaps he is afraid that if he says anything, he will be tempted to tell me everything," Kaigun replied. "When will we return to Zedekla?"



"Tharek plans to leave in three days hence. He must arrange our daughter's dowry. She has chosen to marry, but I insisted that they must wait a year. She needs to learn what will be required of her as a wife to a Mareklan."



Kaigun hoped his face did not betray the way he felt. He turned and left the garden, fearing that if he stayed, Shira might guess his distress.



With Dorn's situation settled, Kaigun looked for Thrak. He found the Margan playing droka with the off-duty guards.



Thrak looked up and the sly grin that bothered Kaigun slid across Thrak's face. "I hear that you and a bunch of your smug friends were together yesterday when you got berated by a weird old seer."



Kaigun stared at Thrak and frowned without replying. The Margan slowly lost his cocky smile and dropped his eyes. "It isn't easy Kaigun. How do I know the difference from the Liar and my own ideas?"



"If you can't learn, you will be lost," Kaigun said. "Some things should not be spoken of with disrespect."



He turned and left Thrak to his game. He was disheartened by the Margan's continued flippancy, but he could appreciate the struggle Thrak was making. At least he seemed to feel some shame at what he had said.



For the next few days Kaigun spent most of his time with the Guardians of Timora. They had wide experience of the mischief of Orquians. Since the days of Irilik they had watched and guarded to keep evil from the vale. He searched their records to learn as much as he could about the various ways that Dashkar's predecessors had tried to subvert the Guardians.



The use of clever lawyers who were willing to use their skill to exonerate murderers and tangle honest men in skeins of lies was one of the primary tools the cultists used. Vanity, cupidity, and lust had played a part in many of their schemes. To gain their ends, they often used extortion. The more Kaigun read about the history of the cult, the more he felt that he could do no greater thing than find Dashkar and bring him to answer for his crimes.



He was under no illusion that the death or imprisonment of one man would end the operations of the cult of Orqu, but it was clear from what he learned that now and then a leader rose who gave a focus to the evil. Dashkar was such a man. Although he had masqueraded as a merchant in Setalan, he was the current leader and high priest of the grisly sect.



Kaigun had several advantages over others who had tried to find Dashkar. He knew the man, not only from their encounters in Setalan, but from his reading from the records of the Guardians. He would have the power and influence of Tharek to back him, and other than Dorn, there was no one who could be hostage in an effort to subvert him.



He doubted that the Orquians knew that Dorn was his son, but that did not mean the boy was free of threat. Both Thrak and Dorn knew Dashkar's face, and Dorn had been witness to his crimes. It was likely there would be an effort to attack them.



Guards still kept track of Kaigun, but now he saw them as protection instead of feeling restrained. Barken assured him that both Thrak and Dorn received the same close attention. He took pains to avoid Belin by eating with the members of the guard. With so much to study, there were hours at a time when he hardly thought of her.



Darm and a few of his fellow Tedakans joined the Mareklans when they left the vale a day before Tharek's planned departure. Kaigun stood in an upper window of the headquarters of the Guardians and watched the caravan as it ascended to the pass. He was surprised to see Belin and Tarina walking with Darm and Dubalen. He had assumed the younger sister would be returning to Zedekla. Perhaps she had a suitor in Tedaka.



Duty made an imperfect anodyne for hopeless yearning, but Kaigun doggedly persisted. He had learned from previous experience that a broken heart could mend.



The next morning when Tharek's party set out for Zedekla Kaigun paused at the head of the pass to look back over the vale of Timora, but Dorn dragged at his hand. "Hurry, we will be left behind."



"Thrak and half of the palace guard are still behind us," Kaigun reminded his son.



"But Dolik and Panek are up ahead. I want to catch up to them," Dorn urged.



Kaigun lifted Dorn into his arms and moved swiftly along the edges of the column. As he neared the head of the caravan where Tharek and his family walked, he passed Chasona and Finerik. The girl's face glowed with something more than health and youth. Whenever she looked up at Finerik there was an expression in her eyes that matched the fondness in the young man's gaze. It appeared that she was fully recovered from her disastrous infatuation with Shirak.



Kaigun remembered the girl's stricken face when she had discovered that she had wounded Tharek's heir. He silently wished the couple well as he strode past them.



Shirak had stayed behind in Timora where Malon and his wife had settled with their unmarried children. It was generally assumed that Tharek's heir was interested in the sacred library, but Kaigun had often seen him in the company of Matenil. The Mareklan girl still treated Shirak with disdain, but at least she did not utterly avoid him.



Perhaps time would soften her attitude. They were well suited in every other way. The thought teased Kaigun with the incongruity of his affection for Belin. It was just as well that she had settled for Dubalen.



When Kaigun reached the vanguard of the column, he saw Barken conferring with Tharek. The captain of the guard looked up and caught sight of Kaigun and beckoned him to join them.



"Our scouts have located several Orquians who are waiting in concealment along our line of march," Tharek said. "I want you to go ahead with Barken and six other guards and see if you can identify any of Dashkar's men from Setalan. It would be wise for you to leave Dorn with us."



Kaigun looked around at the contingent of men clustered around the royal family. Tharek himself was armed with Tharek oc Baroka, although few would suspect that the staff he carried concealed the sword. This was surely as safe as any place he could leave his son.



As soon as Kaigun set Dorn on his feet, the child ran to join his friends who were walking with their mother, Shira. Dolik and Panek greeted Dorn with cries of welcome.



Kaigun turned to Barken. "Will you capture the Orquian spies?"



"We thought it would be better to track them. If you can identify them as Dashkar's men, it is likely they will lead us to him."



Barken led the way as the picked men broke into a run. Kaigun easily kept up with them and soon the slower caravan was left behind. After nearly an hour, Barken called a halt. "I see the leader of our scouts in the shadow near the knoll ahead. From here on we must use stealth."



The scout was dressed in a mottled dun colored tunic with the badge of his office small and discreet on the crossing of the halter of his sword. He was nearly invisible against the rock as they approached him.



"There has been a change since my man reported to Tharek," he told Barken. "The watching Orquians have scattered. Somehow they seem to have detected my men, or there is a spy among us who betrayed our plan. Two of my men are new. One is Magnor, the brother of another scout, the other, Palca ,was recommended by the same man. I will watch both of them until we know for sure if one of them has betrayed the Tyrant."



"Were you able to follow any of the spies?" Barken asked.



The scout nodded. "Two of them took the road to Orenon, but they may have been in pursuit of the Mareklans who passed here yesterday."



Only Kaigun knew that the Mareklans would be going to Mount Vald. The peak was near the pass that Orenese traders often used. Would the secret of the refuge be revealed if the Orquians tracked the Mareklans? He addressed the scout. "What of the Tedakans? They were with the Mareklans when they left Timora."



"The Tedakans took the pilgrim road north when they reached the fork not far from here." The scout knelt and picked up a stick to draw a map in the loose soil of the trail. "If we cut cross country we can intersect the road to Orenon before it rises to the pass south of Mount Vald."



"We must overtake the spies who followed the Mareklans," Kaigun told Barken. "Two of Tharek's daughters accompanied Dubalen."



The scout shook his head. "Only one of them went with the Mareklans. The other continued north with Darm and his party. Both groups are large enough to guard them. I doubt the Orquians would recognize either of the girls among the other pilgrims."



"If there is a spy in your ranks, they could know about Tarina and Belin," Kaigun said. "Dashkar has already tried to capture them. I doubt he will give up easily." He turned to Barken. "If no others will go, I will go alone. In either case, you must not reveal my movements."



Barken nodded. "We will try to intercept the men who followed the Mareklans." He looked up at the scout. "Stay here and keep an eye on Magnor and Palca. Tell no one but the Tyrant where we are going."



To Kaigun's surprise, the other guards removed their bright blue tunics and reversed them. When they put them on again, they were the same dun color that the scout was wearing. With the hardiness of battle-hardened veterans, the men with Barken did not spare their pace as they followed the route the scout had drawn. The pilgrim roads were suited to the weakest members of a caravan. The trail that Barken followed was little more than a trace across the rough countryside.



They finally rested when the last trace of twilight vanished. In keeping with their stealthy errand, they did not light a fire. Kaigun murmured the Janakan evening ritual before they ate their journey bread. They slaked their thirst and filled their water-skins from a nearby brook.



At the first pale light they started off again. The trail vanished in a savannah of shoulder high grass broken here and there by groves of trees. Barken slowed their pace, wary of paka warrens that might trap their feet. The grassland extended to the base of a low range of hills.



"We should intersect the pilgrim road before sunset," Barken said when he called a halt.



Kaigun surveyed the horizon near the hills and saw a low rise topped with huge stones. A brief flicker of movement caught his eyes. "There, by the hills on that rocky outcrop," he pointed to the rise and Barken nodded.



"I think we have located the Orquians," the captain told the others. "We will divide into three parties. Three men will approach them from the north, three from the south. I will go with Kaigun and take the center. Use the signal of an angry paka when you have reached a position four man lengths from the hill. When you know that we are all in range, charge the hill."



He quickly sorted out the parties and they separated, their bodies bent to keep their heads close to the level of the tall grass that surrounded and concealed them. The afternoon grew warmer and the grass bristled with tiny hoppers. They had not seemed so bad before Kaigun bent down to hide himself. Now they hit his eyes and crawled into his ears. He heard Barken spit and mutter. With a grim smile he uttered a brief prayer. Let this be the worst of their afflictions.



They came to a marshy place and Barken probed the muddy verges. Finally he located a firmer section of the stream bed that would support them and they waded through the water, still keeping low. As they passed, Kaigun harvested a few handfuls of water weed and put them in an empty belt pouch. It would help make the dry journey bread taste better.



When they were midway through the marsh, Barken raised his head to take their bearings and quickly held out his hand to stop Kaigun. He pursed his lips and gave the yipping bark of an angry paka.



Several minutes passed and the same sound came from first the south and then the north. There was no way to conceal the splash of their running footsteps through the water, but as soon as Kaigun raised his head above the surrounding reeds he saw that they were almost at the base of the hill.



With eight men coming from three direction to guard the sides and sweep the hill, the two Orquians were quickly taken. Both of them wore grisly trophies proving their devotion to the cult, but Kaigun was not certain that he recognized either of them as members of Dashkar's band.



With few words from their captors, the two cultists were bound and tethered to each other. "We will take them to Tharek for judgement," Barken said.



"Tharek has no authority over us," the larger of the cultists sneered. "We are men of Taleeka."



Barken gave a mirthless laugh. "I have heard what becomes of Orqu's devotees in Taleeka. If you would rather face the court of Feranal, we will give you escort. On the other hand, the pilgrim trails are in the jurisdiction of Timora."



"Who were you tracking?" Kaigun asked.



"We were on our way to Orenon to trade," the smaller cultist protested. "We know nothing of Mareklans, or any other who might come this way."



His companion scowled and used his bound hands to punch his crony in the face. Barken quickly stopped the assault. "Your confederate with our scouts misled you."



"I knew we couldn't trust Magnor," the smaller cultist growled. His reward was another blow from his bigger, evidently brighter partner.



Kaigun signaled to Barken and the two of them walked a little ways away from the other men. "If this Magnor is the traitor, he may be in contact with Dashkar. We should have these two men escorted to Timora. The Guardians there will keep them from talking to any of the other cultists. Meanwhile, I will try to befriend Magnor and see if I can win his confidence."



Barken shook his head. "You are known to be an enemy of the cult. If you approach Magnor, he may well send a message telling Dashkar where to find you."



"That might be even better and could work to our advantage," Kaigun said. "I will play the part of scapegoat, making an effort to seem vulnerable to attack. You can set trusted men to watch Magnor and those he contacts."



Barken looked down and rubbed his chin. Finally he shrugged his shoulders. "I will have these men escorted back to Timora. When we join Tharek again, you should tell him of your plan. I am not the one to make such a decision."



The hour was late and after making certain that the prisoners were securely tied, Barken's men settled down to rest. The next morning, the captain dispatched four of his men to take the prisoners to Timora by way of the same track the guards had taken to apprehend the miscreants.



"They must not have any contact with others who might warn Magnor," Barken cautioned. "Plan to arrive in Timora late at night and take them directly to the headquarters of the Guardians."



Kaigun was anxious to catch up with the Zedeklan pilgrims. If Magnor took orders from Dashkar, he could pose a threat to Dorn. Until Tharek was informed about the identity of the traitor, he would have open access to the boy. For that matter, none of Tharek's family would be safe.



He set the pace as they traveled to the west, his normally stolid face filled with dread. Barken finally called a halt at midday. "It cannot help to push all of us to exhaustion, Kaigun. Magnor is already under suspicion. I doubt that anything will happen before we reach Tharek's party and confirm his guilt."



Kaigun knew that Barken was only trying to allay his fears, but having gained his son after years of emptiness, he was only reassured when they finally caught up to the Zedeklan pilgrim caravan at evening three days later. Kaigun saw the children playing under Shira's watchful eye. When someone gave the signal that there were people on the trail, Dorn saw his father coming and gave a shout of joy. He jumped up and ran, leaping into Kaigun's arms.



By the time Kaigun put his son down on his feet, Tharek was coming forward with several other men. "Where are the other guards?" the Tyrant asked Barken.



"I must speak to you in private," the captain said.



Tharek nodded and the two men walked away until they were able to converse without being overheard. After a few minutes, Tharek looked up and summoned Kaigun with a gesture.



"Barken says you have a plan to find Dashkar now that we have identified a traitor in our midst."



Kaigun quickly explained his plan. "Three of us know Dashkar's face and all of us will be in danger until we find him and bring him to account for all his crimes. Dorn will stay with your family where he can have the protection of the palace guards. Thrak and I can stay together at an inn. Your men can be stationed to watch for strangers who might be loyal to Dashkar."



Tharek shook his head. "An inn would be too busy. I know of a small house not far from the palace. There is a secret access you could use when you visit Dorn. It would be far easier to guard. As for Thrak, the Margans have a clan hostel in Zedekla. He can stay there. I am wary of the two of you sharing quarters that give access to my palace. Thrak has been friendly with Magnor."



"I am sorry to hear of Thrak's association with the traitor," Kaigun said. "I will warn him against it."



"If you warn Thrak, Magnor might learn that we know what he is," Barken cautioned. "You must assume that anything you say will be passed along."



Kaigun recalled the cryptic words that had been spoken by the Seer. His life would hang on the turning of one man. Was it Thrak who would decide his fate?



He decided to visit with the Margan and see if he could encourage him somehow. He looked for Thrak without result until he saw a campfire glow beyond the edge of the camp behind some rocks. He found Thrak playing droka with two of the scouts. His face was flushed and his lips drawn in an angry line. With a look at the playing board, Kaigun saw the reason. Wagers had been placed and Thrak was losing.



When Thrak forfeited his turn with an unwise move, he looked up and saw Kaigun. He scrambled to his feet and drew Kaigun to the side where they would not be overheard. "Where have you been? I haven't seen you these past four days. I need a loan or I won't be allowed to play again."



"Never bet with borrowed money," Kaigun warned. "I would be a bigger fool than you if I supported your folly."



"I thought you claimed to be my friend," Thrak scowled. "Don't worry, I have other ways to get what I need." There was a sickly sour smell on his breath and Kaigun recognized it with a sinking feeling that made him almost ill. Thrak had been chewing docil root.



He returned to the main camp and looked for Barken. When he found the captain talking to some other men he hesitated. Finally he caught Barken's eye and signaled that he needed to speak to him.



Barken excused himself from the others and walked over to Kaigun. "You seem unhappy."



"I hate to be a bearer of tales, but I know that you are careful of discipline. A couple of scouts are gambling and I have reason to suspect there are drugs being used."



Barken's face was coldly furious as he looked around and finally located the dim glow of the concealed campfire. "There are a few of them who have been causing trouble since we hired them. In the hurry to leave on the pilgrimage, not all of them were vetted by Tharek. We are close enough to Zedekla to dispense with their services. Wait here while I fetch some of my men. We'll have this lot cleaned out and on their way before we sleep tonight."



"If Magnor is one of them, he might take flight before we have a chance to find out if he is Dashkar's man," Kaigun warned the captain.



"We cannot tolerate their breach of discipline. I can assure you that we will not lose track of Magnor. His haunts in Zedekla are well known."



"I found Thrak with them."



Barken's face grew solemn. "Your young friend is courting disaster. Your status has changed, but Thrak is still under arrest. He will finish the trip to Zedekla under heavy guard if necessary."



Barken turned back and summoned his men. Kaigun followed and waited nearby while the arrests were made. Barken confiscated the wager pile and ordered the two scouts and their baggage to be searched. They were carrying not only docil root but dass in quantities that argued that they were planning to sell the drugs.



To Kaigun's surprise, Thrak greeted Barken's men with an ingenuous smile of gratitude when they pulled him to his feet and searched him. "You have come in time to save me from grave error. These two villains offered me some wine and I had no idea that they had tainted it with dass."



"Did they force you to wager on the game?" Barken asked the Margan. "You must have known that it was against the rules to gamble on the pilgrim trail."



"They were the ones breaking the rules," Thrak protested. "I received no list of rules when you arrested me. These were your men. I only followed where they led me."



Barken turned away with an expression of disgust and saw Kaigun waiting nearby. "I leave him to you. I doubt he is worth the effort of assigning guards to him."



Kaigun stepped forward, wary of Thrak's reaction. He expected anger and resentment. In his experience, miscreants usually blamed others for their fall.



Thrak looked back to see the scouts being marched away. When they were out of range to hear him, he extended his hand to Kaigun. "Thank you for alerting Barken. Those two have been bothering me to wager with them for days. I tried to tell them I thought they were fools gambling so close to the camp, but they dismissed my fears."



Kaigun looked Thrak fully in the face, but the Margan avoided his reproachful gaze. Instead, he studied the area around the fire that still flickered. Something caught his eyes and he leaned over to scrabble in the rocky soil near where he had been sitting.



"Lucky for me they overlooked this," he murmured as he tucked a coin into his belt pouch.



Kaigun felt it would be futile to remind Thrak that all the money had been confiscated. He grasped the young man by the arm and urged him back toward the main camp. "We will stay together until we reach Zedekla. After that, you will stay in Margan clan house and I will have a small home of my own."



"So you think you are too good for me now" Thrak grumbled. "Now that you are friendly with the Tyrant, you can just stick me in some hole and forget about me."



"The clan houses are one of Tharek's charities," Kaigun said. "He provides a place for each clan where young people who come to the city can stay until they have success. You will be more comfortable there among people of your clan than if you stay with me."



Thrak made a rude sound and wrenched free from Kaigun's hand. "I have other friends to turn to. They told me you were just another self-righteous hypocrite. Until now I have defended you."



"I hope those scouts who gave you drugs are not your only friends," Kaigun growled, impatient with Thrak's continued absurdity. "I thought you wanted to take something back to please your wife. That lot will have you picked clean."



"They are more loyal than you are," Thrak protested. "At least they welcome me instead of shunting me off and ignoring me. You still haven't told me what happened when you went away with Tharek the other day."



"I cannot tell you," Kaigun said.



Thrak continued his abuse, but Kaigun knew that it did no good to argue with a man fuddled with dass. When Thrak finally subsided and fell asleep, Kaigun gave a long sigh of relief. He had little sympathy for someone who would put themselves in such a state. He gave no credence to Thrak's story that the errant scouts had deceived him into ingesting the drug. The stench of dass could hardly be concealed, even in the strongest wine.



The next morning, the excesses of the night caught up with Thrak. He held his head and moaned, protesting that he was too ill to keep up with the others in the caravan. "The pace is suited to a small child," Kaigun chided him. He had been given responsibility to make sure Thrak arrived in Zedekla, he could not let him subside to the side of the trail and sleep.



Kaigun put one arm around Thrak's waist and supported him while they walked along the trail. It was midmorning before Thrak stood upright and walked without support.



"I'll never do that again," he vowed when they took to the trail again after the midday meal. "I was warned against the evils of mixing wine and dass from the time I was a child. Old Valdan, the priest, kept us from visiting Jama when we went on pilgrimage. Now I know why he was so concerned. Magnor and Palca told me that the effects of the drug had been exaggerated by old men who feared to dream. The dreams I had last night were full of demons."



"I have heard that Orquians use dass in their rituals," Kaigun said. "You would do well to stay strictly away from anyone who offers it to you again. If Magnor and Palca gave it to you, they are not your friends. Do you know how it is made?"



Thrak shook his head, then groaned at the results of the movement. "I have never smelled anything so foul."



"Sometimes those addicted to it burn it in a metal bowl and inhale the fumes. That, if anything, smells worse," Kaigun said. "Dass is nothing more than the dung of corums who have grazed on certain plants. Those Kumnoran teamsters who have lost all sense of shame collect it for their own use or to sell to Jaman merchants. I understand that some Orenese have entered the trade."



The mention of the source of the drug he had ingested the night before was too much for Thrak's stomach. He reeled to the side of the trail and retched. Kaigun hoped the Margan was suffering sufficiently that he would avoid dass in the future, but he had heard too many stories of those who had become addicted to the drug after only a few experimental episodes.



Barken came for Thrak when they reached Zedekla. Kaigun parted from the Margan with reluctance. On the last day of the pilgrimage he had regained some of his old enthusiasm and spoke of how he planned to find an honest way to earn the baubles that his young wife wanted.



Kaigun had reservations about the success of such a plan. Thrak had never learned how to do anything but be a warrior. He disdained the crafts of mining and smelting and anything allied such as gold-smithing or tinker work. He thought that farming was women's work. Perhaps he might learn how to be a fisherman, but Zedekla's fishermen had practiced the trade since childhood. He could not serve as one of Tharek's soldiers with no loyalty to the Tyrant. His honesty was in question, making him a poor candidate for working in a shop.



With idle time and a tendency to fall too easily into the hands of villains, it was likely that Thrak would get into trouble. If it had not been for his promise to Tharek and the need to protect Dorn, Kaigun would have welcomed the Margan into his home. The young man needed more than guards to watch him, he needed someone who cared enough to warn him of his errors.





Chapter 14 Service





Before taking Thrak to the clan house, Barken gave Kaigun directions to the home that Tharek had provided for him. "It was erected by Dornak, the architect who designed the palace. When he built it, he thought he would need a small home fitted for a bachelor. After marrying, he required a larger home. It is a stone house with the mark of Dornak over the door on the third alley north of the plaza in front of the Shrine. Take this, it contains the builder's seal." Bargen handed Kaigun a metal device with design of mason's tools molded above a long, notched shank.



Kaigun tried to keep the directions straight as he walked through the city. He was tempted to stop and purchase a fresh matla, but he would do so after he located the place where he would make his home as he fulfilled a year spent in service to Tharek.



He mused on the irony of his situation as he studied the facades of various small stone houses and looked for the mark that Bargen had described. Kaigun had left his village with the plan of regaining the Sword of the wizard smith from Tharek. Now he served the Tyrant and was troubled with a hopeless infatuation with Tharek's adopted daughter.



He expected a modest house, one suited to a single man, but when he finally identified the mark of Dornak's seal over the door of a house in the third alley north of the plaza, he could hardly believe it was the residence that Tharek intended for him.



The house was not as large as other homes surrounding it, but the grace of the design set it apart. Kaigun was reminded of the structures in Timora which had been designed by the great builder and architect Barun.



There was a curious device set above the handle of the latch and Kaigun puzzled over it as he tried to open the door. Something was holding it fast shut against the frame. After examining it for a short time, Kaigun realized that it was locked and Bargen had given him the key. In most of the homes that he had lived in, fierce dogs and watchmen sufficed to keep things safe.



He inserted the notched shank on the seal of Dornak into the corresponding hole in the lock and twisted it around. At last he heard a clicking noise and pushed inward on the door. The entry hall inside reflected the graceful proportions of the facade, with doorways leading off to either side and an archway ahead that revealed a garden. The left hand door led to a storage room where bales and boxes filled most of the space, the other opened onto a gather room provided with benches and a hearth.



After shutting the door, Kaigun investigated the house. He immediately discovered that there would be no need to return to the streets to purchase matlas. A covered dish containing all he needed for an ample meal had been placed on a table in the kitchen. When he lifted the cover, the Janakan barbecue was still steaming.



He sat down immediately, curious about where the food had come from, but more interested in seeing how it tasted. Of course, it was neither as hot, nor as spicy as he liked it, but it far surpassed any other that he had tasting since leaving his village in Janaka.



The kitchen and work shop lined the west side of the garden where the heat and odors of cooking would not intrude on the other rooms. The two rooms on either side of the entry hall were matched with two rooms immediately above them. One held a bed and a bench chest. The other was furnished with shelves holding slates and scrolls and a work table with a well designed chair that tempted him to linger.



The stairs that gave access to the second story continued downward in a curling spiral to a the cellar where Kaigun found a bathing room with fresh water gurgling through a pool. A device constructed near the incoming stream seemed to be a means of heating water. The lure of washing away the dust of travel was too great put it off any longer just to have the water warm.



Bathed, dressed in fresh clothing, and with his stomach comfortably full, he set out to investigate the house more thoroughly. Tharek had spoken of an access from the palace. It must be somewhere below ground.



Kaigun searched the bathing room first but all the walls were solid stone except for where the water flowed into and away from the pool. The room lay underneath the gather room.



The storage room next to the bathing room seemed just as solid. The floor was clear of dust. That seemed strange in light of the drift of dust that lay on the floor of the gather room when Kaigun had first entered it.



There was one large box near the back wall that could not be lifted up or shifted. Finally Kaigun tried to tip it and on the second try from the opposite side, it swung up and open on a hinge, revealing a set of stairs that led into darkness.



He paused a moment, tempted to go down the stairs and see if he could make his way to the palace. The thought of ending up in the midst of a group of palace guards made him cautious.



After swinging the box back into place, Kaigun went up the stairs and waited in the Gather Room. Soon he heard the faintest creak of hinges and stood up. Someone knocked discreetly on the door of the storage room and Kaigun went down the stairs and opened it. Tharek and Barken stood within.



"I see that you discovered Dornak's secret," Tharek said with a gesture at the box. "We saw the light shining down into the chamber while we came along the passage. I would like you to come with us. Dorn is asking for you."



Kaigun looked around as they walked through the passageway toward the palace. There were intersections and forks here and there, enough for a man without a guide to lose his way.



"This system of passages was discovered by Dornak when he first came to Zedekla years ago," Tharek explained. "In places, it gives access to the dark pyramid. As far as I can tell, the Orquians don't know about the tunnels."



"You will be in jeopardy if the secret is uncovered," Kaigun said. "I am surprised at your trust in me."



"You have proved to be a man of honor," Tharek said. "It must have tempted you to accept the challenge Darm offered and fight him for Tharek oc Baroka."



They proceeded up a long flight of stairs more modern in origin than most of the passages through which they had been traveling. They came at last to a solid door and Tharek gave a signal, knocking with a patterned knock on a panel of the door. Moments later the door swung open and Shira stood on the other side.



She led them through a darkened room and down a long hallway. Kaigun tried to remember the way he had come, but it was almost as confusing as the passage through Mount Vald. Tharek's palace was vast and there were many rooms.



At last they entered a brightly lit chamber where a maid tended the children in Shira's absence. As soon as their parents entered the room, the children surrounded them. Dorn was quicker than any of them, running to Kaigun and hugging him.



"Can I come to your house?" he pleaded.



"I thought you liked staying with your friends."



"Sure, but we all want to visit you."



Shira nodded to the maid who left the room and closed the door, leaving Kaigun free to speak his mind. He shook his head. "I am hunting for Dashkar. If you to leave the palace, they might grab you and use you to trap me."



Dorn grew solemn and he nodded. "Please be careful, Father."



Kaigun wanted to reassure his child that nothing would happen, but he remembered the indefinite prediction of the Seer. Dorn had seen much sorrow. It would not be wise to give him false assurances.



"I will be careful. You can help by praying that will we bring Dashkar to justice."



Shira pulled a puppet from one of several belt pouches at her waist and began to tell a story that soon relieved the serious atmosphere. It was the story of a feckless fisherman who always seemed to lose his catch for one strange reason or another.



From where Kaigun was standing, he could see Shira's profile and he was struck again by how much Belin resembled her. For a moment he wondered if he would see Belin again before his year of service ended and he returned with Dorn to Janaka. He tried to arm himself against the thought. She was promised to another man. Even if she were free, he could not ask her to undertake the hardships of Janakan life.



When Shira finished her story she told the children it was time to go to bed. Dorn came to Tharek and hugged him before following Shira and the other children.



A servant entered with a tray of fruit and pastries along with cups of cala. While they waited for Shira to return, Kaigun studied Tharek and Barken as they talked about their concerns.



The reputation of the Tyrant had grown through the years. He was regarded with fear and awe from Janaka to Orenon. Few knew him as a family man with a modest manner that soon endeared him to those he chose as friends. Aside from his preference for comfortable and simple clothing rather than ornate robes, he had a way of seeking advice from others that made them feel that he valued their opinions. But after he made a decision there was no further argument.



Bemused by his thoughts, Kaigun did not at first hear the question that Barken addressed to him. When he shook his head, Barken repeated his query. "Do you think Thrak should be brought to the palace and confined for his own good?"



Kaigun considered the question while he took a piece of spiced, dried meat and chewed it. Finally he shook his head. "I will visit him now and then and try to give him encouragement. If there is some job he could do, it might help him avoid the enticements of Magnor and his cronies."



"I discussed the problem with Darm," Tharek said. "It is difficult to know what employment to offer him. We need him where we can watch him, but he is not suited to the ordinary work of most of Zedekla's citizens. Tell me Kaigun, does he have any talents or skills that might keep him occupied?"



"He did not object to helping gather food when we were on the trail. There are some warriors who would disdain to do even that. On the other hand, I realize that you cannot take him into your army or into your household as a member of the guards."



Shira had entered the room and she listened to their discussion for a short time "If Thrak were paired with someone completely trustworthy, he might be able to serve in the guard. I know you are concerned about his recent misconduct and his choice to tell a lie in defiance of the Stone of Truth, but if it is possible to help him, we should try."



Tharek nodded. "Is there anyone who you can trust to take on this responsibility Barken?"



Barken looked from Tharek to Shira and scratched his head as if his fingers could somehow stir up the answer to their request. Finally he nodded. "I can ask him to help me instruct some of my new men in the use of a sword. It would not give him access to any truly sensitive position but his skills could be engaged."



"Do so," Tharek said. "He will continue to live in the Margan clan house. We can watch his associates and determine if the Orquians are trying to use him in their cause."



Bargen took one last morsel of spiced meat and stood. "I will lead you back to your house now, Kaigun. Try to keep track of the path."



Tharek extended his hand in farewell. "You can visit Dorn whenever you have the time. Tomorrow I would like you to help me create a picture of Dashkar. We can distribute it among the men who watch the gates."



"How many gates give access to the city?" Kaigun asked.



"There are four major gates. Zedekla is relatively open, but most strangers come in the east gate or up from the docks along the river. Do you think you could detect Dashkar in disguise?"



Kaigun nodded. "Even if he wears a disguise, most people walk with a distinctive gait that reveals their identity for those who have seen it. I believe I will recognize him if I see him again."



Barken led Kaigun back to the room where they had entered the palace. It was likely there would be a servant available to direct him once he came this far, but when they descended into the tunnel he quickly lost his bearings. In the shadowed darkness with a flickering lamp a niche was indistinguishable from an opening.



They finally emerged in the storeroom in his house. Kaigun turned to Barken. "I doubt that I can make my way unaided."



Barken handed him a carved stone just large enough to fit his palm. "Only a few claim to know the passages without some key to follow. Dornak made this as a guide to find this house. There are others which show the way to other places using the ancient tunnels. If you ever have the need for one, ask Tharek. As you can understand, they are closely guarded."



Kaigun examined the surface of the stone. Lines were deeply incised that showed each fork and intersection of the route they had taken. He could see that he had forgotten quite a few of them. Without the stone he would have wandered with only luck to guide him.



"There is another thing that you should know," Barken said. "At each intersection the walls of the tunnel have been marked with grooves. If you will look at the guide stone you will see them. You will find them at the level of your knuckles on the right side when you let your arms hang straight down. If you become confused, they will help you know which direction the tunnel leads. It was Tharek's idea to have them carved. You will have to let me leave from your front door. Without the guide stone, I would lose my way inside the tunnels."



Kaigun opened the door and looked up and down the street outside. There were sounds of commerce coming from the plaza but the street itself seemed deserted.



With Thrak's situation settled and his own occupation clearly defined, Kaigun slept easily that night. When morning came, he found makings for a simple breakfast in the cupboards of his kitchen. It was still early when he made his way to the palace through the underground passage.



Once he left the room that gave access to the tunnels and entered the palace he soon found a servant and asked to be guided to Tharek. The woman gave him a sideways look of doubt and instead of taking him to Tharek, she summoned one of Barken's men.



The man apparently had no knowledge of Kaigun's status and both the guard and the maid, with broom held high, escorted him to Barken's office near the armory. After commending the officer and the maid for their care in keeping strangers from wandering in the palace, Barken introduced him. "This is Kaigun, father of Dorn. He is welcome and has entry to the Tyrant, but you must not tell others outside the palace of his presence when he visits here. I hardly need to warn you against gossiping about those who visit Tharek."



Barken turned to the housekeeper. "Has the Tyrant left his rooms and gone down to his study this morning?"



She nodded. "He asked me to bring a tray of cala and some pastries. I was on my way to the kitchen when I found Kaigun."



"Please show Kaigun to the Tyrant's study before you fetch the tray," Barken instructed her.



Like the man himself, Tharek's study was impressive, but somehow understated. The walls were tall and banded with a frieze of carved stone. A large window on the west side of the room gave a view of the sea and a smaller window on the eastern wall looked over the city. The furnishings were sparse but elegant in their ornamentation and form.



A desk, two chairs, a bench chest and a small table set between two stools under the larger window were the only furnishings in the large room. A long blue rug of glossy Virdanan wool ran from the entrance to just before the desk. There were no drapes over the windows, but the deep set openings let the sunlight flood the room without glare.



Tharek rose from his desk to welcome Kaigun. "I hoped that you would join me early in the day. I have my sketching materials in the bench chest. Come over to the table by the window and we will set to work."



"Your furnishings in this room remind me of the library in Timora, but I am not quite certain why," Kaigun said as he took a seat on one of the stools near the table.



"I used some of the same motifs," Tharek explained as he sat down. He ran his finger over a design inlaid in the table top. "This was one of the first things I made when I took up residence."



"How do you find time to make furnishings?" Kaigun asked.



"It is a way to keep my hands occupied while my mind is busy considering all the problems I took on when I came to Zedekla," Tharek explained. "As a Mareklan youth, I learned the crafts of carpentry and gold-smithing. Both of them appeal far more to me than the crafts of statesmanship and war."



Bemused, Kaigun sat and waited while Tharek unrolled a section of smooth scroll cloth and took up his scribing tool. "More than twenty years ago I made acquaintance with Dashkar, but the years may have changed him. Tell me, is he thin, or is he fat or chunky?" Tharek poised the scribing tool above the scroll cloth.



"He seems almost desiccated. He is thin-faced with the look of a bird of prey," Kaigun said. "His nose is prominent and bony, but not hooked or distorted. You can see almost a cleft at the tip over the nostrils."



Tharek had drawn a narrow oval on the scroll cloth. Next he drew the nose that Kaigun described. There was something wrong with the proportions and Kaigun considered them for a moment. "The nose is longer in the face. There is not much room between the nostrils and Dashkar's upper lip. His lips are full for someone as old as he is, and there is s mole on the right side of his upper lip."



Tharek amended to sketch to show the changes Kaigun suggested. "I begin to recall his face. His brows are thin and fine, like those you might see on a woman. His eyes- it is the expression more than the form that I remember. I would say that his eyes are prominent, but not so much because they are large as because they are set shallow."



Tharek sketched as he spoke. Kaigun looked at the sketch and realized that it reflected a much younger man than he had met in Setalan. "His eyes have dark pouches underneath and they protrude more than you have indicated."



With quick, deft marks, Tharek added shadows and lines until the eyes almost seemed to stare at Kaigun. "That looks like him," Kaigun said. "I could not see his chin. He wears the usual curled beard of the men of Orenon. As for his hair, he wore a turban when I saw him."



"His chin is small," Tharek said. "I will make copies of this drawing and let Barken distribute them as he thinks wise. Thank you for your help, Kaigun. I have received reports that Dashkar returned to Setalan for a few days, then disappeared. I think it is likely that he knows that you and your son are here in Zedekla. We will try to identify him if he comes to the city and observe his actions. It could help us identify his confederates.



"You could simply identify all the Orquians and imprison them," Kaigun suggested.



"In Zedekla there are no laws against the practice of any religion," Tharek said. "There are laws against murder, slavery and torture. There are various sects of the Orquian cult. Dashkar represents the most extreme. If we can locate those who follow him, we can bring them to trial for their crimes. Meanwhile, once Dashkar is judged and executed, the sects will fight among themselves.



"You, a Mareklan, are willing to tolerate Orquians?"



"I tolerate the less virulent versions of the cult," Tharek explained. "As long as they limit their sacrifices to an occasional corum or bacal, I order my men to observe, but not to interfere."



When Kaigun reported to the eastern gate the next morning, he saw a of the copy of the sketch posted near the narrow window that gave a view over the crowds of people who were passing through the gate below.



The legend on the sketch gave exact directions for the treatment of the culprit. "If you suspect you see this man, or anyone, man or woman, who resembles him, have him discreetly followed and send a message immediately to Bargen."



Kaigun was not comfortable with the idea that Dashkar would be allowed into the city. Tharek's idea of allowing any form of Orqu worship seemed dangerous. Who could say when the relatively innocent sacrifice of beasts to Orqu would turn to the despicable practices that threatened human life, particularly the innocent and pure.



After spending several hours of staring at the people passing through the gate below him Kaigun could understand why Tharek liked to work with tools to relieve his boredom. One of the other guards brought him a lunch of meat-stuffed matlas and a cup of nuka juice. He thanked the guard and asked him for a piece of wood, thinking he might whittle while he waited.



He had a small knife with an obsidian blade that he used for carving. Perhaps he would make a toy for his son. At mid-morning the number of people passing through the gate had dwindled from a steady flow to an occasional caravan or solitary traveler. Minutes would pass with nothing but the empty road for Kaigun to stare at.



The piece of wood the guard brought him was long and narrow with a definite grain and a couple of little knots symmetrical to each other near one end. Kaigun could see a lizard in the shape. He frequently looked out the window, but there was ample time to carve the form that he had seen before he started.



When he finished carving the lizard it was nearing sunset and the flow of people had increased, but now most of those passing through the gate beneath him were leaving the city. A guard came to relieve him. "Men are stationed below us near the road to look closely at any who enter before the gates are closed."



Kaigun left the gate house and made his way to the Margan clan house. The gatekeeper told him that his friend had only recently returned and sent a small boy running to find him. When Thrak appeared he was smiling.



"I am sure that I have you to thank for finding me employment in the palace," Thrak said.



"I wish I could claim credit, but Tharek's wife, Shira was your champion. She thought you needed something to occupy your days."



"Come inside and meet some of my friends," Thrak said.



Kaigun was curious to wanted to see what manner of men Thrak had befriended. He was introduced to three young men who were so like Thrak that they could almost be his brothers. All of them had moderated the fierce aspect of a warrior by letting their hair grow enough to cover their scalp tattoos and wore ordinary tunics instead of trophy vests.



Thrak introduced Kaigun. "This is Kaigun, the Algiran champion I told you about. All alone, with me to help him, he drove away a force of twenty men."



The young men seemed awestruck but Thrak quickly changed the subject. "I would tell you more, but we are confidants of Tharek, the Tyrant, who is now my employer. Today he hired me to help one of his arms masters."



The revelation of Thrak's new position seemed to make the other Margans forget their awe of Kaigun. They clustered around Thrak, asking questions and wanting to know if he could gain similar advantages for them.



Kaigun said a quiet farewell and slipped away as Thrak tried to explain that he was not quite in a position to be their benefactor. There was a real difference between an arm's master and a man who taught sword-play to new recruits, but Thrak's new friends did not seem to understand the difference.



Kaigun was looking forward to eating his supper, bathing, and visiting his son. With his attention absorbed in such pleasant thoughts, he hardly took notice of the people he passed in the street, but he had spent the day scanning faces for a particular set of features and when a veiled woman passed through an intersection just as he approached, her prominent eyes and delicate brows sent a signal to his mind. He studied her gait as she moved away and was certain that Dashkar was in front of him.



He had no way to summon help. He would have to follow the suspicious figure. He soon lost track of her in the warren of streets and alleyways. He knew that Zedekla was laid out according to a plan, but he was a relative stranger to the city. With some difficulty, he found his way back to his house and locked the door before proceeding immediately to the tunnel and making his way to the palace.



Tharek greeted him with a smile, but his genial expression faded when Kaigun told his news. "I am certain I saw Dashkar in the city. I spotted him in the midst of a crowd when I was walking home from a day spent looking for him at the eastern gate. He was dressed as a woman. I lost him when I tried to follow."



"I should not be surprised," Tharek said. "It is likely he has been here in the city for days. While we were lingering on the road from Zedekla, he had plenty of time and to gather his forces and plan whatever mischief he intends. It is good that both of my older daughters are away from Zedekla. We must strengthen our security in the palace."



Kaigun accompanied Tharek to the family gather room. After catching Dorn up in a hug he looked around to study the placement of the windows and entrances. Was there a weakness Dashkar's minions could exploit?



It seemed that Tharek was asking himself the same question. He walked from one window to the other, studying the ledges and approaches. The room was part of the family apartments, with guards on the doors but there were also panels leading to the servant passages. Were they secure against assassins?



As if Kaigun had spoken his thoughts aloud, Tharek turned to Shira. "Who has keeping of the servant passages. Are they locked on either end?"



His wife nodded. "As soon as I learned that there might be danger, I reviewed the plans of the apartments and consulted with my housekeeper, Pelmana. She had Dornak install locks as needed and she holds the keys. When any servant needs to use the passages, they must go to Palmena. She keeps a record of what is done and who has asked for access to our rooms."



Tharek nodded, seeming satisfied with the arrangement. "Kaigun has recognized our enemy within the city. He was alone and could not follow, but Dashkar was in disguise as a woman. Be sure Pelmana knows that any who apply for work as servants in the palace must pass the usual tests for those who serve us."



"Stay with the children and I will find her now," Shira replied.



She hurried from the room, leaving Kaigun and Tharek to entertain the children. Kaigun reached into a belt pouch for the lizard he had carved and handed it to Dorn. The child crowed with delight and turned to show the clever carving to his friends. They responded by running to a chest and bringing forth their own collection of tiny animals.



"You have a deft hand with a knife," Tharek said.



"I took your example," Kaigun admitted. "Today while I was watching at the gate, I found that time hung heavy and I found a way to occupy my hands."



"You have an eye for design. Do you think you could help me change the sketch I made of Dashkar yesterday?"



Kaigun nodded. As soon as Shira returned from her errand to instruct her housekeeper, the two men excused themselves and went to Tharek's study. Tharek lit a rack of lamps that hung over his desk and took several copies of his sketch of Dashkar from a drawer. "If you could indicate the changes Dashkar made, we could send these out tomorrow."



After Kaigun altered the first sketch, Tharek copied the changes he had made on another and soon between the two of them they had prepared several pictures of Dashkar in his masquerade. Every time Kaigun completed amending a sketch, he grew more certain that he had not been mistaken in thinking he had seen the Orquian in the street.



He stopped by to see Dorn before returning to his home. The child seemed to sense that he was worried. "Did you see Dashkar, Father?"



For a moment Kaigun hesitated, finally he nodded. "I saw him this evening. You know how dangerous he is. Do not let anyone take you away from the palace unless they are someone you are certain that you can trust."



Dorn nodded solemnly. "Should I tell the other children?"



Kaigun shook his head. "If their parents want them to know about the danger, they will tell them."



After returning to his home, Kaigun ate and bathed without real pleasure. His imagination was overactive, hearing threat in every noise. There was something to be said for having others in the house. A rattle near the window of the workroom sometime near midnight woke him from a restless sleep. He grabbed his sword, which was never far from his hand even when he slept, and sidled slowly across the floor of his sleeping room. When he opened the door to the passageway, the rattle came again and he froze in place.



Would an intruder risk such a clatter? Kaigun pushed the door of his workroom open and peered inside. Again the rattle came and at last he identified the source. It was a shutter, loose from its latch and disturbed by the wind.



He secured the shutter and returned to his bed, ashamed to have been so disturbed by such a simple cause. Even so, he did not fall asleep soon. Finally he got up and went through the house checking every shutter and lock. Only then did he feel free to go to bed and fall asleep.



The days that followed were filled with frustration for Kaigun. He went from one end to the other of the city. He checked the inns and eating places, the docks and plazas, searching for Dashkar. Barken's men went house to house in sections of the city where trouble seemed to gather.



Tharek himself searched the chambers of the ancient pyramid that the Orquians were wont to claim. There was no sign of recent activity of any kind. After making the search, the Tyrant made certain that the entrances to the structure were sealed and guarded.



More than two weeks had passed when Tharek spoke of his concern to Kaigun. "Today we received an urgent message from the Virdanan frontier south of Setalan. Troops are needed to repel an incursion of Janakans. Because of the location, we think this might be a feint to leave Zedekla relatively unprotected. Dagnet will take part of our army eastward, but with Dashkar still at large, I must stay behind."



"What does this have to do with me?" Kaigun asked.



"The report says that some of the warriors from Janaka are Algiran. A prisoner from your village was captured. He has been brought to Zedekla. I want you to find out if he is a pawn of the Orquians."



Kaigun was not surprised to see that the prisoner was Garvan, the young hothead who had urged his fellow warriors to seek wealth by attacking the villages of the plains. When the dungeon door swung open just enough to let Kaigun enter, Garvan stood up and lurched toward him. "How did they capture you, Kaigun? Did you try to take the sword?"



"Who led the men of Algire Clan to Virdana?" Kaigun asked the warrior.



"There is a warrior of Margan clan who came back from the dead. He has powerful magic from the rites that revived him. Only a few of Algire Clan had the courage to join his army, but we will be triumphant."



Kaigun had a suspicion about the identity of the allegedly revived Margan. "Is the warrior who led you named Okan?"



"He is chosen of the great one who will prevail over all others," Garvan whispered.



"Did Okan tell you the name of his deity?" Kaigun asked.



"He is nameless now, but when we are victorious, we will partake of the ritual of power and receive his mark and know his name."



"Okan is a tool of Dashkar, a priest of Orqu," Kaigun bluntly stated.



At first Garvan stared at him with disbelief, then he shrugged his shoulders. "If Orqu can save us from humiliation by the Tyrant, then I will gladly worship him."



"Would you do as Okan did and sell your woman and your little children to the priest for sacrifice?" Kaigun demanded.



Garvan blanched and shook his head. "I thought the Orquians killed Mareklans."



"Dashkar's cult prefers to kill the innocent and virtuous, but they think any human makes a better sacrifice than the beasts that other sects of the Orquians use. Would you give your little girl to Dashkar to gain power?"



Garvan shook his head. "But Okan was dead and now he lives."



"Okan ran away with Falinta, my wife. She was of the same clan. He hid in Setalan, beating her children and finally betraying them to Dashkar. Your hero is a fraud. Who can say? while you are here, your family may be in danger from the very cult you serve. How many of Algire Clan's men deserted the duties of a warrior to follow Okan?"



"Only a few of us. There are still enough men left defend our families," Garvan protested, but there was terror in his eyes.



"If you give me sacred oath that you will return to Algire village and warn others of the minions of Dashkar, I will see that you are freed," Kaigun promised.



Garvan's eyes grew wide with surprise then narrowed with suspicion. "You have power to release me from this dungeon? Okan warned me that you have become a traitor and joined forces with the Tyrant. Everything you told me is a tissue of lies. Leave me. I want nothing from you."



Disheartened by the failure of his plea, Kaigun signaled the guard to release him from the cell. It seemed Dashkar's plots extended widely in Janaka and the Orquians were fully informed of Kaigun's friendship with Tharek.



I am his friend, Kaigun realized. He had set out from his village viewing Tharek as his enemy. Now he trusted the Tyrant as no other man he knew. He still felt fully loyal to his clan, but it was such as Okan and Dashkar who were truly the enemies of the people of Janaka.



He found Tharek consulting with Barken and told him what he had learned from his interview with Garvan. "It is possible that Dashkar was heartened by the episode with Shirak. He found that he could manipulate you by causing your army to divide and leave the city relatively empty of defensive power."



Tharek nodded. "We must call upon the cities who have interests in keeping peace to help us. The Taleekans and the Tedakans have the unity and resources to support us. I suspect that the Watchers of Orenon would be pleased if my power declined, but even they would suffer from the chaos that would follow if Zedekla is destroyed. That was the purpose of Darm's visit. He came as an emissary from the Headman of Tedaka."



"Can the Mareklans offer any help?" Barken asked.



"They have carried messages for me, but they will not fight except to defend themselves. Now that they have found a refuge, their interests are turned away from Zedekla."



"But your son and daughters plan to marry into the Mareklan clan," Kaigun said.



"One of my daughters plans to marry a Mareklan, and my son has hopes of winning a wife of the lineage of his fathers, but I have known from the beginning that I cannot expect other aid from them. They must be free to move throughout Okishdu. If they enter an alliance it will destroy their purpose for existence. You know as well as any, Kaigun, what happened to their time-honored commercial relationship with Janaka's widow-smiths because of my removal of the sword of the wizard smith. I can assure you that plans are well underway to meet the current crisis. I will not be drawn out of Zedekla while Dashkar threatens."



One evening Kaigun had just returned from looking for Dashkar when someone knocked at his door. He peered through the grilled opening set in the middle of the door and saw Thrak standing outside.



As soon as he opened the door, the young man pushed past him and slammed the door behind him. "They are looking for me. You must help me. They already have Dorn."



"Who has Dorn? What are you talking about?" Kaigun demanded.



"I have been gambling and I got into debt. Magnor was to blame. When you were too busy to visit me, he invited me to gambling houses where they welcomed me and made me feel lucky. I won at first. Then I lost and they said that I could pay my losses by giving them information."



"You must show me where they took my son," Kaigun demanded.



"If they see me, I will be tortured and killed," Thrak pleaded.



"Where is my child!" Kaigun grabbed Thrak by the shoulders and shook him.



"There is a house on the south side of the river. It looks like a warehouse from outside, but inside it is full of luxury. There are women there-."



Thrak buried his face in his hands and gave a sob. Then he seemed to gain control. He lifted his face and stared at Kaigun. "I will not be a coward. Come with me. I'll show you where Dorn is being held."



Kaigun rejected the warning that sounded in his mind. This was a matter of his heart. Dorn was threatened. He would have to explain his hasty actions to Barken and Tharek later.



Thrak led him through alleyways and down a length of stairs to the beach that lay between the city and the ocean. A small boat was beached on the shore north of the palace and when Thrak led him toward it, Kaigun began to be suspicious.



His caution came to late. Three men rose from their concealment behind the boat and grabbed him. Thrak stood by and watched while Kaigun's hands were bound and a gag was thrust into his mouth. When Thrak turned and started to walk back toward the town, one of the men grabbed him.



Thrak tried to break free. "I have paid my debt to Nakala. I told her I would find a way to lure Kaigun if she burned my markers."



"Fool, no one frees themselves of our mistress. You have made yourself a felon by betraying the Algiran. Now that you have done her will, you are her servant."



Thrak made no further protest. He was thrust into the boat next to Kaigun and two of the men took the oars while the other stayed behind on the beach. The current carried them south beyond the mouth of the Com River and the two men rowed ashore near a block of warehouses.



They were met by a band of five bullies who lifted Kaigun from the boat and carried him along a narrow alley to what appeared to be a pile of rubbish. At a hidden signal, the pile swung aside, revealing a door in the side of the warehouse.



At first it was dark inside the structure, then another small door opened and Kaigun was shoved inside a room where lurid light from small hooded lamps illuminated a smoky scene. The stench of dass was heavy in the air. Men surrounded tables where various games of chance were being played. One or two of the men looked up when Kaigun, bound and gagged, was shoved through the room toward another door, but not nearly enough interest was evinced to give him any hope of rescue.



At the third door a password was given before the door swung open just enough for the two captives. It closed and Kaigun and Thrak were left alone inside a chamber. In the dim light of a solitary light, it was difficult to see the patterns drawn in scarlet on the purple walls, but Kaigun recognized the sign of the demon, Orqu.



Thrak was not bound or gagged, and he made no attempt to release Kaigun. He stared around and waited. Yet another door creaked open and a figure stepped through. "It is Nakala," Thrak whispered, but Kaigun could not mistake the face that he had helped Tharek to draw. With his mouth stopped with a binding cloth, he could not enlighten Thrak or make him see the doom that awaited both of them now that Dashkar had them in his power.



"You have kept your bargain with me Thrak. Now I offer you your life in exchange for the life of another. I had planned to eliminate you along with these others, but you have proved useful."



The deep alto voice of 'Nakala' deepened still further and the startled Margan watched as the veil was lowered to reveal a curled beard. "Dashkar," Thrak muttered.



"Yes, I followed your example Kaigun. It did not take me long to realize how you escaped from Setalan. No one expected me to disguise myself as a woman since I am known to despise them all. It has been useful, but now the ruse is ended."=



Two hooded men carried an altar of dark wood into the room. Another man entered carrying a sleeping child. It was Dorn. The boy's limbs were hanging from the arms of the hooded man like the limp arms of a doll. Kaigun felt a chill of despair. He had trusted Dorn to Tharek, but even in the fortress of the palace, Dashkar's minions had prevailed.



The man carrying Dorn put the child on the altar. The Orquian finished removing his disguise and stood before them dressed in his dark purple robes. He picked up a dagger and turned to Thrak. "Make your choice Margan. Follow me and gain the power of the demon, or join these others in death."



He touched the knife to the throat and then the chest of the child. "Slash here and here and take the trophy of his heart." He extended the knife to Thrak and stepped back to wait.



Thrak took the knife and looked up into Kaigun's eyes. There was a look of remorse in his eyes. Then he grasped the hilt of the knife and lunged for Dashkar. The priest screamed for the other men to rescue him, but none of them moved. Thrak thrust the knife at Dashkar's chest, but it did not penetrate the cloth of his robe.



"The knife is made of wood," a familiar voice said. Kaigun felt his bonds fall away and turned to face Tharek who had taken off the hood that concealed his face.



As soon as the gag was removed from his mouth and the bonds from his arms and legs, Kaigun ran to take Dorn into his arms. He felt the cold, stiff cheek against his own and realized that there was no sign of life. Had his son already died from whatever drugs his kidnappers had given him?



Tharek touched Kaigun's shoulder and pulled him back. "I would not risk Dorn," he said. "This is only an effigy of your child. Help us arrest these vermin, tomorrow morning come to my study and I will explain all."



More than fifty men were taken into custody. Most refused to answer questions, but the tokens of their bloody cult betrayed their guilt. Others, not so immersed in evil, gave evidence against the person they had known as Nakala who had lured them into vice. Where there was any indication of innocence, the prisoners were led away to the dungeons to be further questioned



It was nearly midnight when the guilty men were taken to the execution grounds on the mud-flats south of the city. Tharek acted as the judge of all of those who had been found with the marks and tokens of Orqu. Jacla made a brief appearance to give witness against Dashkar. With a grim face Tharek supervised their execution. Kaigun stood on the outskirts of the scene. He felt no sympathy for those who died. He knew their crimes too well, but still he felt a hollow sorrow at the waste of human life. These monsters had been born like any other child. Thrak could have been one of them if he had not chosen well at the end.



Kaigun was still unsatisfied about the way he had been used. He slept peacefully for what remained of the night, but he was up early and waiting for Tharek at the door of his study for nearly an hour before the Tyrant finally came.



Tharek's eyes were red with smoke and his face was grim. "I hate executions, but I would rather spend days questioning a man who has the slightest whiff of innocence than spend a second listening to the specious reasoning of such as Dashkar."



"I agree with you that there is no hope of salvaging such men, but I had begun to consider you a friend. How could you have let me think my child would die while I stood helpless?"



"I have known many men, Kaigun, and you have an air of honesty that few can claim. You try to keep your face stern and your emotions hidden, but I doubt that you could tell a willing falsehood and not have it detected. More than a week ago my housekeeper, Pelmana, came to me with a woman who was seeking a position in the palace. She claimed to be a nurse. As I always do with those who work directly with my family, I subjected her to a simple test of truth. She utterly failed to pass it."



"Was it Dashkar in disguise?" Kaigun asked.



Tharek shook his head and gave a weary chuckle. "I know that face too well by now to be fooled. I gave the woman a position just to keep track of her. She showed unusual attention to your son. She offered to take him walking in the city as a treat. Dorn steadfastly refused her lures."



"He kept his promise to be careful," Kaigun said.



"I was able to learn the truth from her. She planned to drug Dorn if other methods failed her and deliver your son to one of Dashkar's men. She did not know that her clients were Orquians. She thought that they were taking him for ransom to get payment for a gambling debt."



"Why did you proceed with your plan if you had everything under control?" Kaigun asked.



My greatest concern was Thrak. You have not visited him lately or you would have known that he became a desperate gambler. For some men, wagering can be addictive. He was closely followed by Barken's best men. When Magnor led him to the warehouse, we began to watch it closely night and day."



Kaigun looked out of the window that gave a view over the town. He could see the upper facade of his house."Was I watched as well?"



"We told you that you would be guarded," Tharek replied. "I am surprised that you did not guess that Barken's men were stationed in the houses on either side of you. Anyone who approached your house was followed. Thrak must have received your address from Magnor."



"Were the men in the boat yours?"



Tharek shook his head. "No, but I had observed the boat landing up the beach from the window in my study. We set men to watch them. When you were taken captive and Thrak was left unconfined, we thought that he was deep in the plot. I had prepared an effigy of Dorn. I carried it to the warehouse that Barken's men had already surrounded. In the dark it seemed convincing enough."



"I was fooled."



"I am sorry that you thought he would be harmed. You offered yourself as a scapegoat to catch Dashkar. You have also helped your friend Thrak prove that he is misguided but in the end was willing to give his life rather than accept Dashkar's offer. We have decided that he should share your quarters near the palace where he will be in better company."



"I doubt that I will need the house any longer. You can give it to Thrak outright. It seems my work with you is done," Kaigun said.



"I need a man of honor to act as liaison with the council of elders in Janaka," Tharek said. "Okan is still a threat. Without your help, he could become as much a problem as Dashkar. You promised me a year of service. I hold you to it."



Kaigun could not argue. Tharek's reasons were valid. There was really only one thing that made him want to leave Zedekla. He did not want to be there when Belin was married. It was one thing to know that she would never be his wife. It was quite another to see her exchange vows with someone else.



Chapter 15 The Apprentice





Belin assumed that she was strong and capable, but from the beginning of her apprenticeship with Darm, she realized that the year ahead would test her in every way. She had hoped to learn the secrets of turning tin and copper into bronze. Darm insisted that first she needed to learn how to mine.



While delighting in the jewels and metals that resulted once the craft of mining had been applied, she had never given thought to the process of removing raw materials from the ground.



On the first morning she woke in Tedaka, she was summoned early and put to work with other apprentice miners. Most of them were boys. Tedakan girls seldom choose the craft. Some of them smirked at her, bemused by the presence of a young woman in their midst.



The mine was small, but like all things Tedakan, well maintained. There were vertical shafts driven into the horizontal tunnels to provide both light and air. "You won't have these amenities where you are going," Darm said. "I am starting you in the deepest part of the mine where conditions are similar to what you will know."



Leaving the other apprentices behind in the lighted section of the mine, Darm led Belin further into the mountain where the air was stale and their oil lamps were the only illumination. Every step disturbed the dust that covered the stony floor and she felt her throat tighten against the insult of the tainted air.



"You must be able to identify the richest ore," the master smith said. "I rarely do any mining. I spend my time purifying the ore that others bring me and forging the metal into useful objects, but where you are going, you must be prepared to do it all."



Belin nodded. There was no guarantee that she would be accepted by the people who mattered, but if she did not prepare, there was no chance for her to make a life among them. She raised the veil of zylka cloth that would keep the grit from her lungs and listened to Darm's instructions.



"I brought you to this tunnel for another reason, aside from the conditions of darkness and ill air which better reflect those that you will know. Most of the ore from this mine is like this rock," he opened his palm and showed her a dull rock with lustrous dark clusters of crystals that looked like tiny pyramids. "When we smelt this ore we have no need to add tin to produce bronze."



He put the rock into his belt pouch and lifted the lamp to illuminate the rocky face of the mine in front of them. "This is the type of ore that you must learn to use."



He scratched at the surface of the dull gray rock and veins of blue and green appeared. "Of course, in the Janakan mines, the colors are more vivid and the ore is far richer than anything that we have here. Even so, you must learn to distinguish ore from dross. Every time you carry dross to the refinery, you cause yourself needless labor."



He showed her how to use the pick, tapping along the wall until a certain tone betrayed a weakness in the rock. Further taps loosened a chunk of blue-green ore and he worked it free and placed it in the basket. It seemed easy enough when he demonstrated the technique.



"I will leave you here to fill this basket," he said. "If the lamp begins to gutter, take your ore and leave immediately. I would not want you to faint from lack of air."



Belin lost track of time as she worked. The pick was made of bronze from Janaka, the best that Okishdu could provide, but even its strong metal seemed to dull as she tapped it repeatedly on the obdurate rock. At last she heard the dull sound of a fracture. Patiently, she tapped until the first rock fragment fell into her hand. It was a small beginning but she was gratified to have something for her effort. As the hours passed it seemed that she was making little progress.



Now and then she loosened a larger chunk that seemed to be little more than dross. She discarded most of them until one came loose that revealed a vein of bright green mineral at its heart and she realized that many of the other chunks might contain ore. For a while she abandoned working on the wall and squatted to crack open the discarded lumps. Many of them yielded nothing, but several repaid her effort handsomely.



The lamp above her wavered and dimmed. Almost too late she remembered Darm's warning. Picking up the basket and dropping the pick on top of the ore she had collected, she grabbed the lamp and hurried up the shaft.



When she emerged into the tunnels that were lit with light-wells, she found the other apprentices hard at work. Everyone of them, including the youngest, had filled their baskets nearly to the top with the faceted dark ore. She looked at her half-filled basket and felt discouraged.



The only man other than the young apprentices glared at her pointedly. She had been introduced to him the night before and now she tried to remember his name. Then it came to her. He was Dolca, the master of the mine.



"Darm warned me that when my lamp began to fail I should leave the rock face where he left me," she explained. "Could you tell me what I should do now?"



"He did not tell me what he planned to do with you," Dolca said. "It would be far more productive if you worked with these others, but since he seems to want you to seek green stone, there is another face that you can work. Fill your lamp and follow me."



She refilled her lamp from a ewer of oil and lifted her basket to her shoulder. The tunnel was narrow and the bracing heavy as they proceeded down the steep slope. "We haven't worked this face in years, but it still has traces of good ore," he explained gruffly.



When he bade her farewell, he tried to smile and Belin realized that his dour expression came from the scar that crossed his cheek, pulling down one side of his mouth in a permanent scowl.



A draft of air cooled the sweat on her forehead and she set to work, confident that the lamp would not fail. It took several more hours of steady work before her basket brimmed with ore. She lifted it to her shoulder after placing the pick on top.



Surely she had spent most of the day. It should be time to rest. She staggered up the steep slope of the tunnel, her breath coming heavy with her effort. She expected to see the glow of the light well as she climbed the narrow tunnel, but after some time, she began to wonder if she had somehow taken a turn into a side tunnel, even though she could not remember any forks.



The flash of other lamps ahead of her relieved her fears that she was lost without recourse. A moment later, Darm and several of the apprentices appeared in the gloom ahead of her. As soon as he was near, Darm explained his worry. "We have looked for you for hours since sunset. I was afraid at first that you had suffocated in the tunnel where I left you. When you were not there, I sent out an alert. Why did you wander?"



"The lamp began to gutter and I left the tunnel you first showed me. Dolca took me to another where the air was better. I have worked there since he left me."



Darm nodded. "He received an urgent message from his daughter and left the mine hours ago. I never thought to ask him if he had seen you. Come, you must be weary."



He did not offer to relieve her of the heavy basket. Instead he lifted it to her head. "Try to balance it. I can remember how my first wife, Belria, would balance a basket full of ore while carrying a child in either arm. The little ones soon learned to sort the ore and help their mother as I did myself when I was very young."



Belin raised a hand to the edge of the heavy basket and at first she thought her neck would bend and be injured by the strain. Then somehow she found a place of balance and the load seemed to lighten so that she walked with little strain.



Darm led her to a bin when they left the mine. "Pour your ore into this bin. When it is full, I will show you how to refine the ore."



The contents of the basket rattled into the bin and seemed to take up only a little space at the bottom. It would take at least a hundred baskets full of ore to fill the bin. She had worked hard for the entire day, and this was all she had to show for her labor. For the first time Belin wondered if she could succeed in the task she had set for herself.



She was a guest of Darm and his wife, Farla. That night, after eating a delicious meal and sharing the family's evening devotions, she indulged herself by lingering for a long time in the bath in the bathing room. Dust and grit seemed to be ingrained in every pore of her body.



She began to fall asleep and her fingers were puckering with long exposure to the water when she finally pulled herself from the tub and dressed in a soft gown provided by her hostess. Darm had assured her that she would be expected to keep a tidy home and teach her children if she persisted in the path she had chosen, but the luxury of heated baths was doubtful.



Day after day she returned to the mine. Her hands grew rough and her nails broke to the quick. Her hair and skin were stained by the ore she handled, but her rate of production increased. Soon she was emptying two, and then three baskets into the bin during a day of mining. The other apprentices no longer giggled. None of them could balance a full basket of ore on their heads. It seemed to be something that women were more fitted for.



At least she had that one advantage. All of the boys were stronger with their picks and hammers. She developed her technique, using less strength and more skill to find the hidden fractures in the rock.



After two weeks, her bin was one third full. She ate more than she ever had before. Her arms and legs grew stronger and less rounded. She learned to keep time by singing to herself. Two full renditions of the third psalm of Tedak was usually sufficient to fill a basket. One day she realized that she was happy in her drudgery.



On the day set aside for rest and worship she studied other sacred songs. At first it seemed ironic that she would sing of the Radiance while immured in near darkness, but there was subtle beauty in the ore. Soon her baskets contained very little dross.



At the beginning she had expected to spend many months filling the bin, but she steeled herself to make the sacrifice. After two months a day came when she tipped a basket in and the stones heaped and threatened to spill over, she almost felt a sense of loss.



It was time to learn the process of refining. Dolca and the apprentice miners surprised her with a little celebration in honor of her accomplishment. She had spent very little time with them, secluded as she was to her own end of the mine, but the sense of fellowship was real.



Dolca presented her with a pick. It was not as large as the one she was accustomed to using, but she saw immediately that it was better suited to her grip and style of mining. She wanted to return to the rock face and try it out, but it was time to move on.



Darm showed her through the refining mill that was used by the Tedakan miners. Great wheels of granite, turned by water power, crushed the ore. "You will not have such machines. I will show you how my grandmother, Malinkra, prepares her ore," Darm offered.



Without the strength that Belin had developed as she learned to mine, she could not have managed the crude equipment that Darm had set up especially to teach her the traditional methods of the widow-smiths. After some experimentation, she realized that brute strength was not the answer. With rich ore to work with, and little dross, it was not unlike the method of preparing meal from grain. A wide, flat rock, a stone cylinder to roll across it, and a sieve woven of leather root to separate the finer rock from that which still required crushing comprised her equipment.



Day after day she took her place at the grinding stone, first breaking down the larger pieces with a few well placed whacks with the blunt end of her new pick. Early in the process, while the pieces of ore were larger, she stood and used her feet to roll the cylinder. As the size reduced to finer pebbles, she sat and rolled it with her arms and hands. Once again she set her rhythm and disciplined her mind with song. She had crushed only a third of the ore when Darm said she was ready to move on.



"You have crushed enough ore to begin leaching out the copper. Here in Tedaka we use a different mix of ore and other materials than the smiths in Janaka, but the principle is the same. Carry the crushed ore to one of the carved stone vats near the smelter. Fill the vat to the incised line with water and add a basket full of gray powder from the second shed."



It was a relief to Belin's arms and upper body to be free from the work of crushing the ore. She stood and stretched and reached for her basket. By now she carried any heavy weight on her head. Soon all the ore she had milled was heaped into the rock vat and she fetched a wide bottomed pot to carry water.



"You walk like a Janakan woman," Darm commented when he returned in time to find her carrying the last potful of water to the vat. "It always amazed me how much a woman could carry once she learned how to balance burdens on her head."



After Belin had tipped the water into the vat, Darm handed her a bellows with a long snout on the end, and put a ladle in her other hand. "Stir the mixture of ore and water with the ladle, then insert the end of the bellows deep into the water and blow a stream of bubbles. They will rise to the surface with most of the pure copper ore forming a skim on the surface. Use the ladle to remove the bubbles to this next vat and repeat the process and add more water until you can see the color of the water turning dull.



"It is a little like making pickled breadberries," Belin observed.



"Much of metal making is like cooking," Darm agreed. "The recipes are important, but learning the proper method is vital to success."



Once again he left her alone to learn by trial and error. It was dull, repetitive work, just like mining and milling and once again she found that singing made it easier. When mining she had sung the rhythmic psalms of Tedak. The rowing songs her Uncle Turga had taught her seemed more suited to the rolling process of milling the ore. Now she made up a song that helped her pump the bellows at the chorus.



After hours of blowing and ladling away the brightly colored bubbles, the water in the vat still seemed full of color. Darm's wife, Farla came to fetch her when dusk began to fall. "It will take days to finish leaching the ore," the older woman advised. "You must learn to pace yourself."



Belin looked from the vat that was still nearly full of water to the vat that held the drying remnants of the flattened bubbles. For a moment all her work seemed nearly futile, but it had been nearly the same when she tipped her first basket of ore into the bin. If she had ever wondered at the high price fetched by a metal tool or weapon, she now repented of her error.



That night when she saw the tint of green in the water that she washed in, she splashed the water and swished it until bubbles formed on the surface. Each one held a tiny skim of familiar color. For months she had bathed each night and left a blue-green skim on the water. "Perhaps if I had saved it all, by now I could make an earring," she giggled.



Stir, bubble, skim. Again and again. In comparison, mining and milling seemed full of variety. Finally the remaining water seemed relatively dull. A layer of gray sludge covered the bottom of the vat and the vat into which she ladled the bubbles had formed a layer of bright blue-green crystals as the water dried.



Once again Darm knew when she had reached a critical moment in the process. He appeared at her side and watched her for a moment while she skimmed the vat. "You have reached the point of diminishing return for your effort. Let the leached ore dry and clean the leaching vat. When the ore is completely dry, we will roast it and then begin the smelting process."



"It seems like very little return for all the work that I have done," Belin observed.



"Do you regret taking on the task of learning to be a miner and a smith?" Darm asked.



Belin hesitated for a moment, then she shook her head. "I had a purpose in the beginning, and that purpose stands, but even if I meet rejection after all that I have learned, the learning itself has value. I will never again take metal tools for granted."



"I had you mill only part of the ore that you collected because I learned that Taleekan metal traders will soon arrive. I want you to meet with Taleekans who have tin to trade. You will need to know how to judge the quality of the tin they offer and bargain for what you need.



"I thought we would make the copper first," Belin said almost wistfully. She had approached each new task with the same sense that it might prove overwhelming, but mining and milling were only physical challenges. Dealing with the Taleekans would present a different problem.



"Adding tin to the copper lowers the melting point and reduces the heat needed to make a casting. It will be lunch time after you have cleaned the vat. Join us at our home for lunch. I have something to show you after we have eaten."



The incentive of ending her work at noon made cleaning out the vat more palatable. The weekly days of rest and prayer were always welcome, but a few hours of relief from drudgery in the middle of the week seemed like a blessing. After using the ladle for a while, she recalled seeing a plug at the end of the vat. Feeling more than a little foolish, she looked for it and found that it stopped a drainage hole. A pipe led from the hole. She stirred up the sludge and pulled the stopper from the drain hole. In less than an hour she had drained the vat and cleaned it.



A bath in the middle of the day was something she had begun to dream of. With her skin and hair relieved of greenish dust and her rough hands and fingernails smoothed and trimmed, Belin put on a dress she had not worn for several months since coming to Tedaka. When she joined Farla and Darm and two of their children at the table, she felt more like a guest than an apprentice.



"A runner arrived from Zedekla an hour ago," Darm said. "He brought several missives including a message for you, Belin. Would you prefer to have it now or after we meet in my study this afternoon?"



Belin hesitated. If the message brought bad news, it might disturb her concentration. If it was bad news about Kaigun, she could hardly bear it. "Did any of the messages you received concern problems with my family or the city?" she asked Darm.



"The news from Zedekla is hopeful. After the execution of Dashkar, much of the cult he led disbanded. Okan is still at large, but he has failed to unite the cult behind him."



"I will wait to read my message," Belin decided.



After they had eaten, Farla asked her daughters to help her in the kitchen and Belin followed Darm into his study. It was here that he designed the casts for tools and other devices. The decoration of the room was very simple except for a plaque hung on the wall opposite a window. The afternoon sun glittered from the plaque and Belin was drawn to examine it from close at hand. It was a map of Okishdu with the landmarks depicted in different minerals and metals.



"Tharek designed it for me," Darm said.



"Timora's lake is set with turquoise," Belin ventured. "Zedekla's shrine is alabaster, Janaka's fortress city is of bronze." One by one she identified the various materials. Gold and copper were easy to identify, but there were several silvery metals, each of a different hue and luster that puzzled her.



Finally Darm solved the issue. "Taleeka is marked with tin and zinc, Saadena with lead, and the isles of Arqua are made of silver in a lapis sea."



"You said that you would help me know the look of good tin. There must be something more than color and luster that I should look for."



Darm reached over to his work table and picked up several strips of metal. "These are samples of lead, tin, silver, and zinc, which is used with copper to make brass. Can you see the differences when they are close together?"



"This one has been polished. It is still bright. This one must be silver, I have polished enough tarnish to know." She lifted each one, then took the last sample and scraped away the dull surface with only a slight pressure of her fingernail. "This is lead."



"The bright metal is tin. Silver tarnishes, and lead never really takes a shine. Zinc quickly turns white in air. Tin stays bright. Listen!" Darm held the sample of tin up to her ear and bent it. A tiny squeaking noise resulted.



"None of the other metals makes a sound when it is bent. Each has its uses. Good tin is bright and similar in appearance to polished silver. It turns to liquid at a temperature not much above the heat of boiling water."



Belin nodded. "Surely the Taleekans can be trusted to sell good metal."



"The Taleekans can be trusted, but sometimes traders from Jama or Orenon try to fool the credulous with tinned brass or zinc." Darm reached into a shelf and showed her a shiny silvery sheet of metal. "It will crack when it is bent." He demonstrated what he meant, leaving a jagged break along the face of the sheet. "Pure tin will bend with a noise and it is not so brittle."



"I will have to make notes," Belin said. "What kind of metal did Algire use to make his swords?"



"He used what we call 'star metal'," Darm explained. "I have searched for years to learn his secret, and I have some ideas, but I doubt that I can provide enough heat to make it. It is neither tin nor zinc, nor any of the metals I have used. Did you hope to make a similar sword?"



Belin slowly nodded. Darm could see the flush rising on her cheek and guessed the reason. To spare her further embarrassment, he changed the subject. "You will have a few pounds of bronze when you have finished adding tin and subjected your ore to the smelter. You must choose how you will cast it. Do you want to make an ornament to wear, or would you rather make a tool to use?"



Belin looked around the room at the sketches Darm had posted. There were locks and keys and daggers, valves and spigots, picks and axes. One design caught her eye. It was not very complicated, but it would signal her commitment. "I want to make a ladle like the one I have been using. I have a pick to mine with. Now I need my own ladle."



Darm smiled. "A good choice. If you make it well, it will serve you for years and remind you of the things that you have learned."



He showed her how to make a model of the ladle in wax and cover it with plaster, explaining how the strange protrusion on the shape would serve for pouring bronze into the finished cast after the wax was burned away.



Filled with new information, Belin climbed up the stairway to her room. She looked for a piece of scroll cloth to make notes and discovered the message from Zedekla. It was from Dorn, the child's first written exercise. He wrote briefly and said he loved her. There was nothing said of Kaigun.



The next morning she scraped the residue of concentrated ore out of the kiln where it had been roasted and put it in a storage chest to wait until the Taleekan visit. Meanwhile she had charcoal to prepare. She cut the wood herself and built the fire to burn it black but not destroy it. The smelter master showed her how to regulate the fire. "When the time comes that you have your molten metal, you will want to have control of the heat around the mold."



Instead of fearing the appearance of the Taleekans and her first lesson in buying tin, she began to grow impatient. Everything was ready.



Meanwhile, she returned to the mine to gather more ore for her next project. Her year would be finished in three months. Although most of the ore she had already mined was still in the storage bin, she did not want to risk running short when she made the final casting that would mark the end of her apprenticeship with Darm.



Instead of mining all day long, she milled in the morning before the day grew hot and took refuge in the cool tunnels of the mine in the afternoon. This would be her schedule if she became a woman of Janaka.



At last the Taleekan caravan appeared. The Kumnoran teamster appeared first, preceding a line of dalas laden with boxes of lead and tin. The faces of the Taleekans who followed were familiar and Belin forgot her dusty work tunic as she rushed forward to greet Feranal and Marinin, two people she regarded as nearly family.



"Tharek wrote that you were here in Tedaka," Marinin said as she finally stepped back from Belin's eager hug. "We missed seeing you in Timora during the Festival. You may have heard that my sister became a grandmother. She and her children were our guests while she was in Taleeka."



Belin was about to exclaim that she had no idea that Marinin had a sister, then she remembered just in time that the former Saadenan princess was referring to Fozli's wife, Travil, who had once been married to Marinin's brother, the emperor Marnat.



Suddenly she remember her disheveled, dusty clothing and made a quick apology. Marinin quickly hushed her. "When I was your age I had a garden. I never could get the soil from underneath my fingernails. I imagine that working with the earth that yields metal to make tools and ornaments is much like working with earth to produce food and flowers.



Belin thanked Marinin for the lovely thought. "I have never worked so hard in my life, but I admit a sense of pride in what I learned and accomplished. That bin of blue rock that you see wasg entirely my product. As soon as I have purchased tin from you, I will begin working in the smelter."



Feranal was not quite so enthusiastic about Belin's enterprise as his wife seemed to be, but he had business with Darm and they left the two women alone as Belin showed Marinin her stash of concentrated ore.



"The ore is beautiful," Marinal said. She reached into the bodice of her dress and brought forth a lovely pendant of carved stone. Belin gasped with admiration, but she realized that it was more because of the deep, true color of the stone than its form or decoration.



"Is it Janakan?" she asked.



Marinin nodded. "I understand that in Janaka, such stones are considered rather common."



"If it were crushed, such ore would require hardly any leaching," Belin said.



Marinin hesitated, then she chuckled. "I understand the way you feel. Where others see a pleasant glade and shady walks, I see fertile loam and a lack of sun for certain kinds of flowers."



Although they were friends, Feranal and Marinin bartered for the tin with Belin in a way that made her feel respected. They demonstrated the purity of their product and instructed her on the pressures of the market. "Here in Tedaka we charge less for the same grade of tin than we do in Janaka. It is a matter of distance and danger. We must hire guards to carry our metal to the widow-smiths. If and when you go to live among them, you will pay as much as twice again the price we offer you now."



Even though the tin she purchased from them was carefully weighed to match the price she paid, Marinin slipped a gift into Belin's hands before they parted.



When the Taleekan caravan departed, Belin approached the task of creating her ladle. "You must put the cast into the kiln to heat it and melt the wax," Darm said. "It will take more than a day to reach the temperature that is needed. Meanwhile, you must add the tin to the copper concentrate and heat them with crushed limestone which will gather the impurities to the top of the molten mass."



He helped her prepare the retort and start the fire that would melt the ore. He watched with her for the glowing mass to bubble up the dross and nodded to signal that it was time to break the bung from the lower end of the retort. The purified bronze flowed into the heated mold. After so many months of patient drudgery, the final moments seemed to pass in a blur. Then they waited for the cast to cool.



After a day of cooling, Darm called Belin into the smelter and gave her a hammer. She cracked away the charred plaster cast from the metal casting and stared at it in dismay. The surface was dull. The opening where the molten ore had been poured into the cast stuck out like an ugly knob. This looked nothing like the elegant tool she had envisioned.



"Excellent!" Darm pronounced. "All it needs is a little grinding."



He said essentially the same thing two months later when she poured and cast her final project. The leaf-shaped blade with cast hilt was not as heavy as the usual Janakan sword, but when she held it in her hand, still warm from the cast, still rough and unpolished, she liked its balance. Would Kaigun like it? Would he accept her offering and understand what she had done and why?



Chapter 16 Farewell





Kaigun left the palace and returned to his home bemused and unhappy. Today Tharek had asked him to a meeting. Kaigun had expected another consultation about his mission to the elders of Janaka. Instead, there had been a number of other people and all they seemed to talk about was the upcoming nuptials of the Tyrant's older children.



By now he should not care. Time should have healed the need in his heart. He knew Belin was intended for another. He had known since the day when she had gone away to prepare to be married.



He had buried thoughts of Falinta, his first wife, easily enough. There was a dull ache when Kaigun remembered how she had put their child through devastating abuse and then been betrayed in the most awful way by Okan. Her desertion had injured his pride more than his heart, and her death had come long after he had almost forgotten her.



Why did Belin still rule his thoughts after nearly a year of absence? He could say that it was Dorn who kept him from forgetting. The child liked to recall his memories of their days together in Mount Vald. Kaigun was the only one whom Dorn could trust with the secrets he had vowed to protect. But Kaigun suspected that even if his son had never spoken, he would still be troubled with his visions of what could never be.



Regnon, now a Seer, had been present at the meeting with Tharek. He had greeted Kaigun and asked after Dorn. "The child is an important link with the destiny of all Okishdu," the Seer had said with typical obscurity. Kaigun still remembered how the Eye of Adanan had responded to the touch of Dorn's feather.



Although Kaigun had been self-absorbed as the others at the meeting made their plans, one thing he had heard clearly. Belin would be arriving in Zedekla soon. She was coming with Darm and his family. There seemed some incongruity in that arrangement. If Belin was intended for Dubalen, what had she been doing in Tedaka?



It was really no concern of his, Kaigun assured himself. He wished her well. He wished them all well. His year in service to Tharek had been very interesting and now that he was returning to Janaka, he was not really sorry he had been cozened into staying on for months beyond the time that he felt that he was really needed.



His mission to contact the elders of Janaka had been fruitful. The old men had very little real authority over the various clans, but they had accepted Kaigun's argument that the traditions of Janaka were being challenged by the effort to expand into the plains. They promised to use what influence they had to try to reverse the tide. One of them had suggested that it was past time that the clans of Janaka united into a nation, but that would need a leader who was capable of appealing to the wide dispersal of proud and independent clans. With the elder's suggestion, an idea had been born in Kaigun's mind. Perhaps his own son would have the qualities that such a task would call for. He was an amazing child considering the conditions of his life so far.



Dorn had blossomed under the love and care of Tharek and Shira. The boy could read and do sums. He had even learned to write a little, but he still wanted to be a warrior. Even now his favorite title was to be called the warrior's apprentice.



With Dashkar dead and the threat to all of them diminished, it was no longer necessary for Dorn to be kept at the palace. It was time to wean the boy away from his royal playmates and reestablish their relationship as family. Thrak had moved to a home of his own once his wife and child had joined him in Zedekla. Kaigun's house seemed lonely.



He set to work making a place for his son. Before finding a place to house his wife and child, Thrak had stayed downstairs in what had been the storage room, but Kaigun wanted Dorn closer to him. He rearranged the room next to his bedroom. Before attending a parlay with Janaka's council of elders, Kaigun had stopped in Setalan and retrieved his battle tokens from their hiding place. He knew that the old warriors would respect the display for what it was and not as a vain attempt to flatter himself. He had kept the collection on a set of shelves in the workroom, but with Dorn around it seemed wise to conceal them. He put them in the bench chest under the window and secured it with a simple latch, then he set up a cot for Dorn and some hooks for his clothing. Looking around the room, he felt that it was ready for his son and set out for the palace.



"We will always welcome you as guests, and of course, Dorn will continue with his lessons," Shira said when Kaigun told her of his plans. "But it is time for you to establish a proper family. When Dorn has a woman willing to be his mother, he should give his loyalty to her."



Kaigun had the feeling that he had somehow misunderstood her meaning. "I am sure that Dorn will not forget what he owes to you," he assured her.



When Kaigun took his son home with him, Dorn seemed happy with the new arrangement. He ran up and down the stairway several times as he explored the house from one end to the other. "I like eating all alone with you like this," the child told Kaigun that evening when they prepared a simple meal together.



Early the next morning, Dorn sat on a box on the chair near the table to study the lessons Shira had prepared for him. Kaigun sat down beside him and for a while they studied together.



"Will you wear your battle tokens to the wedding?" Dorn suddenly asked.



"How did you know I have my battle tokens?"



Dorn bit his lip and looked down at the table. "I was looking for my ball and it rolled under the bench-chest near the window."



"There is a latch on the bench chest. You peeked into the bench chest and saw what I had placed there," Kaigun said sternly. "Never try to shade the truth my son. Remember that was how Thrak got into trouble. You have kept your pledges to protect the Mareklan secret and I am pleased with you for that, but you will not truly be a man until you can state the truth and stand by it."



"Do you love Belin?" the child muttered.



Kaigun felt trapped. He had just finished lecturing his son, and now the topic of his lesson was turned back on him. Finally he nodded. "I love Belin. I have tried to forget her."



"Tell her that you love her." Dorn said with wide smile.



"She is intended for another," Kaigun replied. "I must keep my silence."



"Belin won't marry anybody else," the child assured him. "She wants to be my mother. If you don't tell her you love her, she will have to be alone."



Kaigun had many arguments he could have given about the reasons that it would be better to keep his silence. But the appeal in his son's eyes could not be dismissed. Kaigun was a warrior but this demand challenged his courage. Thinking that Belin was meant for another was painful, but if he revealed his feelings and she reacted with disdain, it would truly wound him. On the other hand, if he never spoke, he would never know for sure if he could have had her as his wife. He would have to risk the shame of rejection on the faint chance that she would listen kindly and not be offended at his plea of love.



"Father?" Dorn interrupted his churning thoughts.



"I will tell her," Kaigun promised.



On the day the caravan from Tedaka was sighted, Kaigun dressed in all of his battle tokens. It took so long to braid his beard and fasten each gem and trinket that the caravan was at the inner gates when he finally took Dorn by the hand and went out to join the crowd that had gathered to greet Darm's family and Belin.



Instead of riding in a litter, she walked ahead of the others in the caravan. There was something in her stride that was both familiar and strange. Then Kaigun realized that she was carrying a large bundle on her head, as if she were a Janakan woman, not a Zedeklan princess.



When Dorn tore loose from his father and ran to greet Belin, she stopped and gathered the child into her arms, still balancing her baggage on her head. With easy strength she lifted the boy up to her hip and continued toward Kaigun.



As soon as she reached him, he knew he must speak or lose the courage to risk rejection. "I know you are betrothed to another, but I love you Belin. No matter what it costs, even if I never return to Janaka, I want to marry you."



She smiled and touched his cheek. "I needed to prove myself before I told you that I want to be Dorn's mother. I knew that I must be able to be a proper Janakan woman if I expected you to marry me. I love you Kaigun. Darm has been teaching me how to be a smith."



"I told you!" Dorn crowed happily. "Now we can all go home."



"Not quite yet," Shira said. She had come up behind them to greet her daughter. "I thought it would be hard to keep your secret, Belin, but Kaigun never seemed to take the slightest interest in your whereabouts."



"I believed she was intended to marry Dubalen," Kaigun said. "I thought it would be unseemly for me to ask about her."



"Tarina is marrying Dubalen," Shira explained. "I thought we made that plain the other day when you met with all of us. I should have realized that you seemed distracted."



Dazed with happiness, Kaigun took Dorn from Belin's arm and put his other arm around her. He could feel the supple strength of the muscles she had added to her slender form. He could hardly believe that she had spent this past year laboring to become a smith.



He hugged her tightly to his side, almost disturbing the balance of the burden she was carrying on her head. She reached up to steady the bundle and Kaigun stepped away, abashed.



Belin chuckled and reached out to take his hand. "I was not quite certain that you would accept me as your wife. I would not be embarrassed even if everything I have was jostled loose and scattered on the road."



They linked hands as they continued up the road to Zedekla's palace. Now that Kaigun knew the truth of Belin's absence, he wondered how he had been so obtuse. There had been many clues, but his stubborn mind had rejected any hint that he might win her. Even now, with her hand in his and their shadows mingled on the path, he could hardly believe the blessing that had come.



The celebration that welcomed the return of Belin was also a celebration of their betrothal. Kaigun was surprised that both Shira and Tharek seemed to think that he was worthy of their daughter. They could have paid him no greater compliment.



Darm sought him out while Belin was speaking to her mother. "The people of Algire Village will not welcome your return, but Belin will be the key. She is worthy to become Malinkra's apprentice. It will not be easy. I disappointed my mother and it is likely she is bitter that none of her sons or grandsons have presented her with a woman she can train."



"Malinkra is bitter," Kaigun said. "I will not inquire how you trained Belin. As you know too well, such concerns are not the business of a warrior."



A few days later, the Mareklans came, bringing Tarina and Shirak with them. Shirak visited Kaigun often in the days that followed. "My father has told me how you have worked to dispel the danger posed by the fanatics. He said that I should take advantage of the time you still have with us to learn more about Janaka."



Shirak had matured in his year of of living among the Mareklans. The near disaster of his decision to lead the pilgrimage the year before had chastened him and Matenil's resistance to his courtship had taught him patience. It was evident to Kaigun that the youth had become a man. He would make a worthy successor to his father.



The day of the wedding passed in a blaze of celebration and feasting. Four couples were joined in Zedekla's shrine, each entering the nuptial chamber in turn with their chosen witnesses and a priest. Regnon presided at the weddings of Shirak and Tarina to Matenil and Dubalen. Tharek joined Kaigun to Belin, and Finerik to Chasona. Chasona's mother, Tabla had coaxed Jacla to emerge from her self-imposed isolation to prepare Chasona for her wedding.



It was the custom in Zedekla for the bride and groom to spend the first week after their marriage in a place of retreat, but Kaigun had suggested a different plan to Belin. Since they would soon be leaving for Janaka, they sent Dorn to the palace to spend the week after the wedding with his friends, Dolik and Panek, Tharek's youngest sons while they retired to the home Kaigun lived in.



When they were finally alone together, Belin unpacked the sword that she had made and showed it to Kaigun. "It is smaller than the sword that your grandmother made," she said. "I wanted a design that would use only the bronze I smelted, although Darm was willing to supplement my supply."



Kaigun lifted the slender, leaf-shaped sword and noticed that it had a blunt edge on one side near the hilt. He tapped it against the table. The sound was clear and true, like a bell. "It is a fine sword Dorn will use when he becomes a warrior."



"Perhaps he will prefer a longer weapon," Belin said.



Kaigun smiled and shook his head. "I know my son. He has learned to judge things well. I have heard it said that the women of Terifil make stronger blades than those of Malinkra, but they often have failures in the casting. The bell sound of a blade tells a warrior about the strength he can expect from it. This is an excellent weapon. Until you give it to Dorn, it will be yours to use. I will teach you how to wield it properly. We will be alone when we return to Algire Village. Okan is still at large and I am not certain of the welcome we will receive."



"My father would be happy to provide us with an escort," Belin said.



"It would only be seen as a sign that I am Tharek's man," Kaigun said. "Garvan, one of the younger warriors of my clan, became a follower of Okan. He was released to return to Janaka after Dashkar was executed, but he still thinks of me as a traitor."



Belin left the sword on the table of the workroom where Kaigun had placed it and showed him her ladle and pick. "The pick was a gift from the other apprentice miners when I finished my first bin of ore. The ladle was the first thing I cast. I wanted tools of my own to begin my new life as a Janakan wife."



Kaigun took the tools and looked them over, but Belin could tell he had no real interest. She laughed and put them back into her pack, then she took his hand to lead him from the workroom. "Come, we have only a little while alone before we retrieve Dorn from my parents and set out for Janaka. Surely we have better ways to spend this time together."



When their bridal week was finished, Kaigun and Belin packed up their essential belongings and prepared food for their coming journey. At mid-morning on the day they planned to leave, Shira and Tharek came to visit.



"The Mareklans will be leaving Zedekla today as well," Shira said. "Dubalen and Tarina will be leaving with them. Dorn has been packing and re-packing his things for the past two days. I think he would welcome your advise, Kaigun. Please come back to the palace with us for a last family meal before you leave."



"We are ready now," Belin replied. She turned back to the storage room and fetched her baggage bundle. It was lighter by the weight of the sword which she had fastened at her waist. When she sidled through the doorway with her heavy load balanced on her head, the sword swung against the doorway, ringing like a bell.



"That is a fine sounding sword, Belin," Tharek said. "Did Darm make it for you?"



"Belin mined the ore and smelted it herself," Kaigun said with pride. "She intended it for me, but I must carry the sword my grandmother made for me. This will be Dorn's sword when he is old enough to be a warrior. Perhaps it will start a new tradition for our clan."



Tharek nodded. "Years ago your ancestor broke tradition and created six swords. Now all of them have passed from your clan. As I carry Tharek oc Baroka, this sword will be known as Dorn oc Baroka in the years to come."



There was something in the way he said the words that sent a shiver up Kaigun's spine. It was easy to forget that Tharek was a prophet. His manner was usually so calm and genial that his other gifts were overlooked.



Shira looked at the load that Belin carried. "We would be happy to provide some guards and porters," she volunteered.



"I have learned to carry what I need," Belin assured her mother. "I can carry more than this if necessary. For some reason, it really isn't as difficult as you might think."



Shira's nodded. "I have seen the wives of fishermen carry similar loads with just such grace and balance."



When they arrived at the palace, Kaigun went to find Dorn. His son was still undecided about what he should take. "You will have to carry it yourself," the warrior warned his son. "I will carry our supplies of food and water, and Belin is already heavily loaded."



With reluctance, Dorn sorted through the heap of clothing and toys that he had gathered since coming to Zedekla. He kept a roll of scroll cloth and a scribing tool to practice the lessons Shira and Tharek had taught him. Panek and Dolik had each given him many things, but finally he chose a small dala carved of nop wood from Panek and a tiny boat that Dolik had given him. These he put aside with the lizard Kaigun had carved for him, a tunic and loincloth to change into and a fine, sturdy pair of boots. On the top of the pile was balanced the slightly tattered blue feather, his first token of valor.



Kaigun approved his choices and helped him wrap them in a sleeping skin and tied them into a pack to wear slung from his shoulders. Without a single regretful look at all he would have to leave behind, Dorn left the room and walked downstairs with his father to join the others in the family dining hall.



The sense of coming separation hovered over the gathering and words of love and appreciation mixed with genial laugher. Kaigun reminded himself that he was not given to tears, but there were other men at the table who were not so constrained. It could be many months for some, and years for others before they met again. There was a real possibility that Shira and Tharek would never see Belin and Dorn again. They had come to regard the boy almost as a son.



Word was sent to Dubalen and Tarina that the Mareklan caravan was forming up and ready to leave. Kaigun felt it best to accompany the caravan for a day or so until they reached the pass where he had watched the Orquians emerge onto the plain a year before. From thereon, he would be alone with his wife and son.



The Mareklans were on their way to Mount Vald. Faron, the leader of the caravan, was interested in Kaigun's assessment of the hidden valley. They walked together for much of the day. Kaigun had some ideas for protecting the secrecy of the access. "You should incise markings on the walls of the cave that contain a code that can be followed by those who can read it with their fingers in the dark. That way, even if your torches fail, you can find your way. Only a few should know the code for gaining access through the caves. Your chance of failure will be increased with everyone who knows how to find their way."



Faron nodded. "Once a man has proved that he was trustworthy as a trek leader, he will be taught the codes of the cave. It is an excellent plan. Indeed, if we make it possible for someone who knows the codes to lead others even when there are no torches, why not use darkness as part of the scheme? You have a good mind, Kaigun. It is a pity you are not Mareklan. I wish you were continuing on with us."



Kaigun knew that Faron meant his comment as a compliment, but it reminded him of the differences that separated the two of them. Mareklans had a sense of special destiny. They felt themselves to be the 'chosen' of the Radiance. Ironically, they treated even Tharek as an outsider now that he had removed himself from their tradition.



Kaigun walked a little slower until the end of the caravan caught up with him. Belin was walking with her younger sister, Tarina. When she saw Kaigun, she greeted him warmly. "I thought you had forgotten me."



"Faron was asking me about the hidden valley," Kaigun said. "He seems a good enough man, but Malon should be the one leading this caravan."



"Dubalen's father is adjusting to his office as High Priest," Tarina assured him. "He has even started a garden near the Shrine."



"How are Meropin and Seral doing?" Belin inquired.



"When we returned to Mount Vald a few months after you left them there, they were thriving. Meropin was still limping, but they had built a little house and laid the foundation for a shrine a little ways up the valley on the eastern side. By the time we found them, they had laid the first floor of the shrine. Meropin as been appointed as the priest since it is unlikely that he will ever go on trek again."



Kaigun exchanged a glance with Belin. Apparently the secret of the alternative entrance to the valley would be kept from all who lived in the valley except for the keepers of the Shrine. It was a wise plan. For Meropin and Seral to have accomplished so much under such conditions, they were clearly qualified to guard the secret way.



When the caravan camped just south of the pass where Kaigun and his family would separate from them, scouts reported that there were no signs of bandits or other miscreants. Kaigun was not so worried about what they might encounter on the trail as he was about what waited in Algire village. Malinkra might refuse him right of return and Garvan could stir up the other warriors against him.



He shared his fears with Belin. "Are you certain you are willing to take the risk. There is still time for us to stay with the Mareklans. I have reason to believe that Faron would be happy to take us with them."



"It seems to me that we must return Dorn to your people," Belin said. "I have heard that the Seer in Timora was most particular about his role. You told me that Regnon had made a similar pronouncement. And what of all my training as a smith? I really do look forward to working with Janakan ore."



Kaigun smiled and hugged her. "You have courage, which is more important than any skill. You will need it in the days ahead."



Chapter 17 Malinkra's Challenge





The next morning promised fair weather and the members of the caravan were up and ate breakfast early. Before Belin went to find Tarina, for a final farewell, she dug into her pack and found her pick. "I want you to carry this in your belt," she told Dorn. If there is ever any reason to think you are in danger, try to hide, but if there is no alternative, you must use it."



The child nodded gravely and Belin remembered that he was well aware of the dangers of the trail. It was easy to forget about his wide and rather awful acquaintance with danger when she had seen him playing so innocently with her little brothers.



The addition of the pick to Dorn's equipment seemed to make him walk a little more confidently as they started off up the pass that would lead them to Janaka. Belin had never ventured here before, but to Dorn and Kaigun, the mountains were familiar territory. The scouts' reports were vindicated when they reached the end of day with no sign of opposition.



The trail they followed was the same that Kaigun had used when he visited Setalan to reclaim his battle tokens earlier that year. Within a few days they saw the smudge that hovered over the town where Dashkar had first attempted to deceive him.



The inn at the sign of the paka was still under the management of Folsha, the Tedakan who had befriended Kaigun when his adventure first began. When the innkeeper saw them coming up the street, he stepped forward to greet Kaigun. "I am always pleased to see you my friend. This town has become a better place to live thanks to you. The vermin who followed Dashkar have all fled. Unfortunately, some have gathered to Okan."



"We made the trip from Zedekla with no trouble," Kaigun said. He turned to Belin and introduced her to the innkeeper. "This is Folsha, the innkeeper who helped us when we were in danger from Dashkar. Folsha, this is my wife, Belin,."



"Your wife?" Folsha said with surprise. "I had heard that the woman Dashkar killed was your wife."



Kaigun nodded grimly. "Then you know that Dorn is my own son."



"Surely the Radiance has led you," Folsha said. "Come in. If you would like your old room, I can make it ready for you. However, I have a better chamber on the second floor."



Folsha led the way up the stairs after calling his son to watch the door. After looking at the room which had a separate private cubby for Dorn and a good view of the mountains from the windows, Kaigun reached for his belt pouch.



"I will take both of them," Kaigun said. "My wife is learning to be a proper Janakan woman. She learned the crafts she needs in Tedaka from Darm, but she has never seen the inside of one of our mines. Even though the one below the inn is no longer considered worthy of being worked, Belin can get some idea of the bracing and mining methods."



"You are not Janakan?" Folsha asked in surprise.



"She is the foster daughter of the Tyrant," Kaigun said. "She knew that if she married me, she would have to know the crafts of mining copper and smelting bronze."



Folsha shook his head. "I was completely fooled, Belin. You certainly walk like a Janakan wife. I have never dared to ask one of them how they balance such a load on their head."



"I'm not certain myself," Belin admitted. "It is simply one of those things that makes things easier. With my bundle on my head, my hands are free. It really does not seem as heavy as it looks."



"I'm hungry, please," Dorn said quietly. He had learned manners along with his sums and signs.



Folsha looked down at the child with surprise. "If I had known that you would turn out so well, I would have kept you for myself young man."



Dorn sidled closer to his father's side. "I'm glad you didn't," he murmured.



"We will soon be serving our evening meal, but as soon as we go downstairs my son can fetch you some pickled breadberries. As I remember, you liked them rather more than most folks."



Dorn wrinkled his nose, but then he nodded. He had eaten far too many of the pungent pickles when he had briefly visited the inn before, but time had softened the memory. "I would like some," he agreed.



While Dorn was shown to the kitchen by Folsha's son, Kaigun showed Belin the way to the abandoned mine beneath the inn. The innkeeper gave them a lamp to light their way once Kaigun had pried up the loose boards from the floor.



Belin looked around, lifting the lamp to light the traces of ore. "I wish that I had brought my pick," she said. Kaigun climbed out of the mine and a few minutes later he reappeared with the tool. With a technique that had become second nature to her, Belin tapped the stone face of the mine not far from the opening. After a short time, a few rocks came loose and fell into her hand.



She tucked them away into her belt pouch and signaled Kaigun to follow her as she moved deeper into the mine. Soon she passed the braces where Kaigun had hidden his battle tokens. She stopped and tried the wall again, this time giving a small whistle of surprise at the quality of the ore she loosened with her pick.



"I could make a success of this mine," she muttered. "I am surprised that it was abandoned."



Kaigun looked at the rock she held. It was mostly grey with only a little color running through it. "I doubt that any Janakan would consider it worth the effort," he said. "Why bother with such traces when you can find boulders of the pure stone by extending your tunnels just a little?"



They climbed out of the mine and Kaigun borrowed Belin's pick and used the hammer end to reattach the floor. "If we are rejected in Algire Village, perhaps Folsha will let us rent this mine. Did you really make the sword from such poor ore as this?"



Belin nodded. "I can see why Janaka remains premier as the supplier of fine bronze even with their primitive methods of mining. Darm warned me that I would find a difference."



They spent a comfortable night in the inn and left the following morning with their packs supplied with plenty of good journey food. Folsha raised his hand in blessing. It was good to know that they had a friend who could give them refuge if they needed it.



It would take a little more than two days to reach Algire Clan territory. Kaigun gave wide berth to other towns, but there seemed no reason for particular caution. He planned to camp on the old Mareklan campsite when they reached the edge of Terifil clan territory. It would mean they would arrive at Algire village at midday.



To Kaigun's surprise, there were signs that the Mareklan campsite had been recently used when they approached it just a little before sunset. A heap of garbage rose in a careless mound near the corner of the clearing and half-burned wood filled the fire pit. A large stone had been dragged into the center of the clearing and Kaigun averted his eyes from the dark stains that betrayed its use.



"Back, we must take cover," he urged Belin and Dorn.



Without questioning him, they quickly followed him into the shelter of an overgrown bush. It was still too close to the camp to please him, but he could hear the voices of men coming near.



On the evidence of what must be a rude altar to Orqu, Kaigun was not surprised to see Okan lead a group of four men into the clearing. He was saddened when Garvan followed close behind, but none of the others were Janakan.



"When will we return to Setalan?" one of them growled. "You promised us a harvest of maidens, but three of our companions have died and we have nothing to show for it. For two days past we have had nothing to sacrifice but a few pakas."



Okan whirled to confront them, his sword raised in threat. "I will say what we do and when we will do it. If you had learned to fight like men, you would still have the others. Next time that you attack a group of maidens, make sure that they are not well guarded. You are fools. Did you think it would be easy to serve our master? The Demon demands more than any of you offer."



"We have given you our gold," one man protested.



"Gold!" Okan yelled. "Orqu gives me better than gold. He gives me power."



Kaigun signaled to Dorn and Belin. It might be best to make their escape while the cultists fought with each other. If he had been alone, he might have dared to fight them. Garvan was a novice and Okan was a pudgy bully well past his prime. The three other men hardly seemed to pose a threat, but whatever threat there was, he did not like the thought of taking any chances with his wife and child.



They had moved away from the bush and all seemed clear ahead, but suddenly another man appeared on the track in front of them. His head was bloody and he limped, but he still had a healthy set of lungs.



"Intruders!" he screamed. The breaking of twigs and the rush of feet behind him warned Kaigun that he could not avoid a confrontation. He concentrated his efforts on Okan, thinking that as soon as he dispatched the leader, the others might scatter.



Garvan grabbed Dorn in his arms and yelped when the child hit him in the knee with the pick. He could not get at the sword that he carried harnessed on his back while he wrestled to control the boy.



Two of the men joined forces to capture Belin, but she had loosed her sword and tossed her baggage aside. She easily kept them at bay with the skill of her swordsmanship. The other two men backed away and waited before committing themselves to risk of injury.



Okan was all bluff and bluster, taunting Kaigun and trying to make him lose his concentration. "We have you in our power, Tharek lover. Lay down your sword and we might let you live."



Kaigun wasted no thought on a reply. His great sword was in his hands. This man had betrayed his own children to Dashkar. All of Kaigun's strength concentrated in defeating Okan. The bully tried to parry with his own weapon, but it only knocked Kaigun's blade aside a little. Instead of cleaving him cleanly through his throat, it tore away the top of his filthy tunic and cleaved through his mid-section.



Okan tumbled to his knees and dropped his sword to clutch at his entrails with a final roar of expiring breath. The men surrounding Belin turned to stare.



"Put down my son, Garvan," Kaigun said. "If any of you move, I will bury you beside Okan."



While Kaigun held his sword to threaten the Orquians, Belin ripped a length of cloth from the bottom of her skirt and bound them hand to hand. Two of them were forced to cover Okan with a pile of stones.



"We must take them to the village for judgment," Kaigun said. "I have no doubt from what we heard them say, that they have made enemies among the clans, but Garvan is Algiran and he must answer to Malinkra."



"You are a fool to take me back to Algire Village," Garvan said. "Malinkra favors me. I told them all that you have turned traitor to your clan and to Janaka."



Kaigun did not answer, but Dorn prodded Garvan with the pick. "Move along," the child commanded the young warrior. With Kaigun still holding his sword and Belin on the other side, her baggage balanced on her head once more, and her sword still ready in her hand, Garvan finally complied. At the last moment, Kaigun asked Belin to gag the mouths of the prisoners. "They might try to call for help or raise an alarm when we pass through the territory of Clan Terifil."



The group of prisoners and their three unlikely captors reached the outskirts of Algire Village late that night. Most of the village was dark. Only one building showed light. The glow came from Malinkra's smelter.



"My grandmother often works late into the night," Kaigun told Belin. "It is probably just as well that we arrived when the other villagers are sleeping."



With weary steps, the prisoners staggered up the steep rise that led to Malinkra's smelter. From the smell that issued from the door, Belin guessed that Malinkra was in the process of burning out her casts.



Kaigun stood just outside the door and gave a signal at the set of bells that hung where visitors could easily use them. No one was allowed inside the smelter but the widow smith and her apprentice. It had been so for generations.



Malinkra peered out into the darkness. Garvan was the first to catch her eye and she hurried forward. "What has happened? Why are you bound?"



"He attacked my son," Kaigun said.



Malinkra whirled and peered up at him. "Kaigun! What brings you crawling back? I hear that you have turned traitor, just like your uncle."



"I am not the traitor, Grandmother," Kaigun said. "Did you not hear what I said? Garvan attacked my son. Under our law, he is guilty of a sin that cannot be tolerated."



"Let him speak for himself. Remove the gag," Malinkra demanded. She did not demand that they release Garvan from his bonds, and that omission gave Kaigun hope.



"Did you attack the boy?" Malinkra said as soon as Garvan was free to speak.



"He is not Kaigun's son!" Garvan protested. "He is just a slave who ran away from his master."



"Can a child be a slave?" Malinkra's eyes narrowed when she asked the question.



Garvan continued to condemn himself. "Okan told me how Kaigun took the boy. He was the child's stepfather and had the right to sell him."



"Okan?" Malinkra's squint narrowed. "What was the boy's mother named?"



"Falinta," Kaigun said.



Malinkra's face stiffened and she turned to Garvan. "Where is Falinta now?"



"Okan sold her and their children to the Orquians," Kaigun said. "It bought him favor with Dashkar."



"Where is Okan now?" Malinkra asked, her voice grown quiet and cold.



"Kaigun killed him," Garvan said. "He did it without honor. We heaped stones over him when he died with no prayer to speed his soul."



"Okan had no soul to speed with prayers," the Matriarch said. "You may think that I have favored you Garvan. I did not favor you, I only thought that you had married well. I had hoped to make your wife my apprentice. You have brought disgrace to all of us."



Garvan raised his head and gave the bark that would summon other warriors of Algire clan. Moments later, the men erupted from their homes, their swords already in their hands. Kaigun signaled Dorn and Belin to stand behind him. It was only a few seconds before the first of the warriors located the source of the signal and soon they all were running up the hill.



The light from the smelter was faint, but it was enough to show the Algirans that Garvan was bound along with several other men who were strangers to them. At first they did not recognize Kaigun. Then someone shouted his name.



"Kaigun! You have returned. What is the meaning of this?"



"Have you heard of the Orquians who raided maidens from some of the villages?" Kaigun asked. When several of the men nodded, Kaigun pointed to Garvan and the strangers who were cringing behind him. "Garvan is Orquian. We found him with Okan. We saw the evidence of their murders on the old Mareklan camping ground. Garvan attacked my son and his cronies battled with my wife."



"We took no women from Algire Village," Garvan protested.



Once again the words he said served to condemn him. Women and children were inviolate to most Janakans. However the men might battle with each other, there was no crime worse than killing their dependent families.



Malinkra had the last word. "I will send Garvan's widow back to serve her own clan."



Kaigun watched the men of his clan converge on the prisoners and take them away. He was too tired to inquire what they would do with them. Malinkra had just pronounced Garvan's death. His cronies almost certainly would share his fate.



"So, Kaigun, you have brought a wife with you," Malinkra said in a familiar sneering tone. "Which village was unwary enough to let you steal one of their maidens?"



"I am Belin, foster daughter of Tharek, Tyrant of Zedekla," Belin said as she stepped forward.



"Kaigun has wasted himself again," Malinkra said dismissively. "I need someone who can serve as my apprentice."



"Belin is a smith. Darm taught her!" Dorn protested.



"You will not speak that name to me!" the old woman demanded. "So, she thinks she is a smith. I will test her."



"We are tired and the night is late," Kaigun said. "I will take the house that once belonged to Darm. I'm certain that you have kept it empty."



"Take the house. It is filled with filth and vermin, but you will not stay in Algire Village unless this woman proves herself," Malinkra muttered. "I give her two months to make a simple tool. She'll have no help from me." She turned back into her smelter and slammed the door on them.



Dorn stuck out his tongue toward the door and Kaigun grasped the boy's arm. "You must not show disrespect to your elders. Malinkra will decide if we are welcome here. I am confident that Belin will meet her demands, but you could sour her acceptance with such an attitude."



"I am sorry father," Dorn murmured. "Can we go home now?"



The house that Malinkra had ordered shut and barred more than twenty years before when her son, Darm, had deserted to join Tharek, was not in such bad order as she must have thought. The building had been sturdily constructed with stone well chinked and even the earthquake that had destroyed much of Saadena had not disturbed the ground this far away. The window openings were covered tightly with translucent parchment. When Kaigun lifted the bar and opened the door, the inside was dusty, but there was no evidence of scat or smell of musk.



The mats on the simple cots in the two small bedrooms were easily turned upside down to provide a relatively clean surface where they could spread their sleeping skins. The tripod hearth in a corner of the main room was of good bronze and showed no serious signs of decay. The gurgle of a nearby stream promised a source of water. Belin nodded. "It will do."



Early the next morning, Belin set to work. When they had left Setalan several days before, Belin had noticed that the tailings of the mines contained more good ore than she had gathered in a week of chipping at the walls of the mine in Tedaka. There had been no evidence of leaching vats, but then, with such rich ore, the leaching process was hardly needed.



Belin found a large tub inside the house that Darm had owned, one of several such vessels. It was not as big as the leaching vat that she had used in Tedaka, but it would have to do. She made her own basket from some reeds she plucked from the bank of the stream. Now and then she caught the glances of other women and a few curious men, but she knew that no one would talk to her until she proved her skill and was accepted as a resident of the village.



It was getting dark when she set out for the abandoned mine she had noticed when she went to cut reeds. The timbers that supported the entrance of the mine had rotted and were falling inward. Kaigun and Dorn had followed her and when Kaigun determined her direction, he moved forward and put his hand out to restrain her. "You cannot go into that mine. It is too dangerous."



"I am not going into the mine," she explained. "The tailings heap will supply what I need."



Kaigun and Dorn stood by and watched her gather a basket full of ore and lift it onto her head. Neither thought to help her. It was woman's work.



When they followed her back to the house, her actions puzzled them even further. She dumped the ore into the tub and added water. Then she stirred it well.



"Are you going to cook it when you've stirred it?" Dorn inquired.



"Yes, I'm going to cook it, but not until I make a great deal more," she patiently replied.



Belin had no bellows, but she had a hollow reed. It took longer to bubble the mixture of ore and water, but the nearby pot where she kept the skimmed ore began to fill as she practiced the routine she had learned. "Stir, bubble, skim," she sang to herself while Kaigun and Dorn hunted and prepared their daily food.



In the curious economy of Janaka, a man could clean his house and build a hearth. He could hunt or cook a meal, but he could not farm or touch the ore and tin for making bronze. Both Kaigun and Dorn understood the bounds they must observe. It would do little good if Belin produced a tool in time to receive Malinkra's approval and they squandered her success by making themselves outcast for a single act of thoughtlessness.



At last the pot was full of bright ore. Kaigun had constructed a hearth and gathered plenty of wood. Dorn had hunted for bees and brought the wax for Belin to use to make her mold. When Kaigun saw her pulling the stingers out of Dorn's skin he made one small suggestion. "I have seen Malinkra using sand to make her molds."



"I have heard that it can be done," Belin agreed, "but I did not learn to use that method. Thanks to Dorn, I have enough wax to make my mold. I have no idea of where I might find plaster, but yesterday I noticed that there is a potter in Terifil. I will go to her and purchase clay."



Malinkra seemed to take no notice of Belin's activities, but there were women who stared at everything she did and sooner or later they seemed to make their way to the matriarch. Belin thought at first that they must all be her rivals, but then she caught a tentative smile on the lips of a young matron. When she smiled back, the other woman openly grinned and gave her a signal with her hand. It was a gesture of encouragement.



That simple gesture changed Belin's attitude. Hitherto she had been laboring for nothing more than Kaigun's acceptance by the others of his clan. Now she knew that she would gain friends and companions when her labor finished. Dorn would have the playmates he yearned for. He would never grow tired of Kaigun's attention, but the day must come when Kaigun was called away to battle or some other pursuit. Dorn was old enough to need someone other than a mother, however willing Belin was to fill the part.



Belin puzzled over which tool she should make. She already had the essential tools of her trade, but she would like a bell to signal Dorn when it was time to come home. It need not be too different from her ladle, essentially a bowl, but deeper. When she made the cast, she carved a delicate frieze of symbols around the edge. They represented the names of Dorn, Belin and Kaigun, linked together as she hoped that they would always be.



One of the women who regularly reported to Malinkra approached Belin as she finished setting up the kiln and extended a shining sheet of metal. Belin bowed to her and gave her thanks, expecting no reply. The gesture seemed too generous to quite believe. Belin took the sheet inside her house and tested it. It cracked instead of bending with a squeak. It was brass with a thin layer of tin plated onto it.



Amused at this attempt to sabotage her efforts, Belin buried the false tin under a pile of wood and returned to her work. One of Darm's last gifts to her had been an ingot that he had purchased from the Taleekans. Even now, after several months, it was shiny.



When Belin had cast her ladle and the sword, she had used a proportion preferred by Darm. Now she felt it would be wise to be conservative. Instead of adding one in eight proportion of tin to copper, she added one in ten. It would make a softer metal, but a safer casting.



She had made do with make-shift equipment, but at last she was ready to heat her clay retort and make the molten bronze into a bell. A crowd had gathered gradually throughout the day. All of them gave way before Malinkra who finally came to watch.



Some of the equipment she had assembled was hardly recognizable to women who had followed tradition for hundreds of years. The clever among them made careful notes. The foolish scoffed.



Belin silently thanked Darm for forcing her to do the final casting of her sword without his help. It increased her confidence now that the future of her family hung on what would happen when she finished Malinkra's challenge.



She broke the bung on the retort and tipped it. The molten bronze flowed into the cast, leaving the dross behind. Belin looked up and saw a crooked smile on Malinkra's face. She thinks I used the brass instead of tin. Belin thought.



The women, knowing it would be some time before the cast was broken and the truth of Belin's skill revealed, walked away. Their sons and husbands lingered for a while, but then finally dispersed in disappointment that the final decision must be delayed.



As if the women had been summoned by a secret signal, they were all present when Belin cracked the cast and revealed the bell that she had made. With educated eyes, she could see that it was nearly flawless. The only touch of dross made a cap atop the pouring blister.



Malinkra's eyes hardly betrayed her surprise when Belin lifted the bell and struck it with a stick. The sound was not loud, but it was true.



Malinkra slowly nodded. Then she turned to Kaigun. "I accept her as my apprentice."



The attitude of everyone surrounding them became suddenly ebullient. From hidden sources food and drink appeared. Women approached Belin to compliment her on her bell and when Dorn told them she had cast her sword as well, they eagerly questioned her about the methods she had used.



Malinkra caught her eye and Belin smiled and shook her head. "You know I cannot betray my teachers. Only my mistress may learn what I have learned before I came to her." It was just what she should say, and none resented her for holding with tradition.



That night, when Dorn had finally subsided and was sleeping in his own small room, Kaigun put his arm around his wife. "You have given me back my son and my home. I never guessed that when I refused the ransom Thrak arranged, I would win a greater prize.