Chapter 1 The Guardian
Irilik lifted his youngest son to straddle his neck and made sure the chubby child had a firm hold on the collar of his robe before taking the hands of his youngest twins. His other children followed after as their father ducked to kiss Tarsha's cheek before setting out on his daily walk.
He saw Ishabal coming down the path and turned a corner. He heard her footsteps hurrying to catch up to him and turned when she called. "Irilik, I have a question for you."
Her eyes were bold above the tilted smile on her lips. She took a stance that thrust her hip forward and somehow made the neckline of dress drop low enough to reveal the top of her bosom. Her face bore subtle signs of paint that enhanced the line of her brow and the length of her lashes. When he stared at her she dropped her lashes and smiled with satisfaction.
She could not know that instead of appreciating her appearance he stared at the lack of light surrounding her. It seemed as if she stood in a mist of darkness. "What do you want of me Ishabal?" Irilik asked curtly. "Everyone should know by now that this is time I reserve for my children."
"I wanted to tell you that some are murmuring about your lack of dignity," she said with a shake of her artful curls. "It is wrong to see the leader of Timora draped with children and walking around as if he had nothing better to do."
"I have warned against the evils of gossip," Irilik said.
"You are foolish to ignore propriety," she scolded before turning around and mincing away.
"She's not as pretty as momma," Marek loyally observed.
"You are wise for your age, my son," Irilik said with a grin. He pondered the problem of such as Ishabal as he continued his walk. The aura of darkness that surrounded her marked others as well. Tagnet's face was so dim and dark it was hard to distinguish his features on the rare occasions when they met each other. He had prayed about the problem but he only received the assurance that there would be a winnowing. How and when would it happen and how many of the innocent would fall victim to the snares of Tagnet before the sorting came?
He resolved to banish the worry. He had this hour to enjoy his children and give Tarsha much needed relief from their constant care. He led them up the path that led to the pass and showed them the glossy vines that grew rank over the hillside.
"Those are burn vines," he said. "You must not touch them. They sting like fire and make your limbs go limp."
"I know that," Vanek, his second oldest son said. "All of us but the little children know about burn vine."
"Why do we still let burn vine grow in the pass?" Marek asked. "Mother says it has been months since the Ogandash attacked."
"Father will know when the time is right," Vanek reminded his brother.
Marek, sensitive of the dignity of being eldest, punched at Vanek's head. Vanek ducked and lost his balance, evading the hit but falling on his rear.
Both of them laughed as Marek extended his hand to help his brother to his feet. Marek had a ready temper but Vanet had a readier tongue. Their frequent quarrels never lasted for more than a few minutes. Most of the time they were companions in mischief, all the more reason for this hour away from their busy mother.
Irilik had tried to explain his reluctance to root out the burn vine in the passes to older, harder critics. Wary of saying something that his children might repeat, he looked for a diversion from the subject and glanced around. "Who can see something blue with white edges?" he asked them.
"I see something blue and white by the tallest nop tree near the pass," Vanek shouted.
Irilik looked up and followed the child's pointing finger. "You have sharp eyes. I will have to tell Falga to hide himself better when he guards the pass." He turned and led the little caravan toward the lake in the center of the valley, knowing they would enjoy playing in the shallows while the sun shone hot above the vale.
High above them from his perch in the nop tree Falga saw the prophet and his sons run toward the lake, the youngest child bouncing merrily on his father's neck. He smiled and looked back toward the pass that led to Timora. Some day, the Radiance willing, he would have a family like that.
He used a rasp to smooth the stone bowl he had carved for Kalinka. He leaned back against the sturdy trunk of the nop tree and fought off the sleepiness that dogged him after a late night of courting. He smiled at the memory of Kalinka's dark eyes, bright with laughter, and languorous with longing. They would marry a month after the festival of Founding.
The sound of a waterfall, runoff from the snow fields above, promised that spring was ending, with their wedding not far behind. Kalinka had already gathered and prepared most of the furnishings needed to begin their life together.
Summer in the vale of Timora was gentled by the altitude and the snow-fed streams that wandered toward the deep oval lake in the center of the valley. Winter was almost as mild as spring, with only the highest of the surrounding peaks whitened by snow. Even here, high above the vale, only the faintest chill remained in the breeze. Blooming flowers scented the air, competing with the fragrance of the nop branches that surrounded and concealed Falga.
He used a silted cloth to smooth the bowl he had engraved with the image of a cluster of night blossoms while keeping his his gaze on the track that led to the pass. The sound of birds and insects stilled and Falga's body stiffened to alert attention. Something had warned the wild animals of intrusion. It was too early in the day for Janak's sons to return from the quarry.
Falga scanned the area, wary that intruders might be skirting the track and risking burn-vines. A faint sound of voices came from beyond the pass. The noisy advance reassured him. People approaching the pass into Timora so openly could hardly be the stealthy invaders who came in silence, usually at night.
As they came closer, he recognized the words of the song that one of them was singing and he grinned at the sound of the bass voice that joined in the refrain. It was Arnath, his older brother with his troop, returning at last from their expedition to explore and map the northern lands.
Falga stepped from cover and signaled Paran, the other watchman who lay hidden on the other side of the pass. The sound of creaking wood announced the response. A levered bridge of undressed lumber pivoted out of the copse that hid it and came to rest over the track, providing a crossing over the mantrap of sharpened stakes that lay concealed beneath vines and brush.
The caravan came in view as the bridge settled into place. For a moment Falga feared that he had made a mistake. Fifteen men had set forth on the expedition to the north, but there were more than thirty people coming up the track. He searched their faces and recognized Arnath in the forefront, but the men following immediately behind him were natives of Okishdu.
Had his brother been captured and forced to lead their enemies to Timora? Falga's hand rose to signal the removal of the bridge, but one of the natives lowered his arm shield, revealing a white and blue badge on his chest. A sign that he had pledged to the Radiance.
Arnath recognized his brother standing at the head of the pass and gave a shout of joy. "Falga! We have returned with many tales and many Sons."
Falga suppressed his answering grin. His duties required a more careful examination before he could admit the caravan to Timora. He summoned Arnath forward. "What password do you give?"
"Virda," his brother answered.
If he had been under coercion, he would have answered with the name of their father, Algunagada, who had called himself God-king of Kishdu. Falga extended his hand and they exchanged the signal grip that provided final proof that there was nothing to be feared. "Welcome back to Timora," Falga said. "I must stand guard for another two hours, or I would willingly go with you into the vale."
"I was surprised to find the pass still guarded," Arnath replied. "It had been more than a year since the last attack by the Ogandash cannibals when we left for the north last summer. Have there been any attacks since then?"
"The Ogandash and their ilk have been seen once since you left. Some argue that we should open all the passes and remove the mantraps and burn-vine," Falga said. "Irilik still detects some areas of evil influence and will not agree to end our vigilance."
"Who would argue against Irilik?" Arnath asked as they walked back to the main body of the expedition.
"There are some who argue against the Prophet, Falga answered. "Our brother Tagnet is still the most vocal of the critics. He does not challenge Irilik openly, but he spreads discord with innuendo and insinuation."
"Tagnet was always blind to the Light, Arnath said. "Has he given Ralk any trouble with the governance of our sept?"
"He tries to cultivate both Ralk and me with flattery and gifts. I am not deceived and I doubt he has fooled Ralk," Falga replied. "Ralk has kept your trust. You will find all things in order when you take up your responsibilities again."
Falga greeted the other men and women who had accompanied Arnath, then he went back along their track with a branch to obscure the marks of their passing. When the last had stepped across the hidden mantrap, he followed them and signaled Paran for the bridge to be removed. The bridge lifted and pivoted back to its hiding place with the pulleys designed by Tedak. Falga surveyed the area to make certain that no sign betrayed the presence of the mantrap before returning to his post by the nop tree.
He pondered his oldest brother's words. Arnath's casual assurance that he had doubted Tagnet from the beginning perturbed Falga. Their mother's last words before she died were an admonishment to cherish and protect their crippled brother. He had given his promise, but Tagnet was not an easy person to cherish. He took all that was offered as if it were his due. Most recently he had tried to gain Falga's aid in his campaign to prevent Paran from being accepted as a Guardian.
Paran had only recently been tested and accepted into the guardian society. He was the youngest of the men who had taken the vow to protect the valley with their lives. Tagnet's crony, Talar, had been rejected shortly before Paran's name had been put forth. Tagnet claimed that Paran would not have been accepted as a guardian were it not for Tedak's sponsorship. Falga had answered his brother with silence. It did no good to argue with Tagnet. He had a way of turning one's words around and using them to argue his own point.
Tagnet's most persistent complaints concerned Irilik and Tedak. Both of them were relatively young, not much older than Tagnet, yet Irilik, the prophet, was the undisputed leader of the council and community of Timora, and Tedak was first councilor to Irilik and headman of his own sept. Both leaders were well suited for their honors and responsibilities. Who but Irilik, the Prophet, who had rescued them from the wrath of the god-king's minions and led them to a new life in Okishdu, should be the leader of Timora?
Tagnet's jealousy of Irilik was chronic, but his resentment of Tedak was more vocal. Tagnet's virulence puzzled Falga. Everyone in Timora had benefitted from Tedak's cleverness. His workshops produced tools for farming and building and he had created refinements for many of the barriers left behind by the original guardians of the vale. Falga often worked with Tedak and it was in Tedak's home that he had come to love Kalinka, the younger sister of Lira, Tedak's wife.
Falga continued smoothing the carving that he intended as a briadal gift for Kalinka. When he started his period of watch that morning, he had looked forward to the hours of quiet watchfulness while his fingers polished away the rough edges of the stone. Now he chafed at waiting for his relief to come. Arnath's pack had bulged with unknown treasures. He was bound to have fascinating news from expedition, as well as samples of food and ore from the lands he had explored.
Each of the other expeditions that had set forth from Timora had returned with treasures and new insights about the wide land of Okishdu. The natives who had joined the Gathering as Sons had helping in planning the expeditions of exploration, but often they did not understand the particular viewpoint of the refugees from Kishdu who were interested in founding farms and cities like those they had known before following Irilik to the land they called Okishdu.
The hours following the arrival of Arnath's expedition provided Falga with time to reflect on the choices he would have to make in the months ahead. Three expeditions had been sent forth by the council. Arnath's was the last to return. Now the council could decide how to divide the land. Each of the twelve septs would be given a homeland to settle. Those who were already part of the government of Timora, such as the guardians and Shrine servants, would have a choice to stay.
He loved the vale of Timora, but like most of those who had come from Kishdu, he looked to find a new home in the lands that lay open to the north and west. Eastward lay great mountains and the barren plains that stretched to the sea. Southward lay the jungle home of the guardians who met Irilik when he first came to Timora. Even the fierce cannibal Ogandash had not dared to intrude on their domain once they returned to their ancestral homes.
Falga heard the lowing of one of the corums used as draft animals by the quarrymen when the sun was halfway down the sky. The line of men and animals approached the mantrap and Falga signaled Paran to pivot the bridge. He stepped out on the track to exchange the signals as soon as the end of the bridge settled. As expected, Kerek, oldest son of Janak, replied with the name of his mother, Mirla. He quickly exchanged the proper grip and Falga stepped aside to let the column pass. A sturdy narrow sledge piled with white stone provided proof of a day well spent by the quarry men.
While they waited for the sledge to cross the bridge two of the men engaged in an argument that became an exchange of blows. Their middle brother, Tarm, tried to intervene, and as usual he was pushed aside by both of them. He stood back and brooded while the brawl continued. As soon as the way was clear, the two men dropped their fists and began to laugh, pounding each other on the shoulders with blows that signaled their brotherhood.
The sons of Janak, a contentious brood notorious for their fiery tempers and boisterous jests, brawled casually and often. Those among the Gathering who chose to join Janak's sept shared the same temperament. Some of them were famous warriors before making the vows that bound them to the Gathering.
Falga wondered what would become of a land settled by the brawlers. A shiver of premonition raised his hackles as the last of the quarrymen passed over the bridge. He brushed away the signs of their passing and filled in the last few yards of the furrows left by the heavy sledge.
The daily trips from the quarry had carved a well-marked road up to the pass, but there was no need to advertise the exact beginning of the mantrap. While he was still replacing sod, Falga heard the two-toned signal that promised that his relief was on the way. He was tempted to hurry his task, but even though no recent attacks had been made, his vow as a guardian included taking care in the tasks he was assigned, however mundane.
Paran waited for Falga to finish his task and cross the bridge before winding the pulley that would pull it back into concealment. Their two replacements waited until the bridge once again rested in concealment before stepping forth to exchange the signs and countersigns required of a change of watch. Both of the night watchmen were natives of Kishdu. Kaldar, the elder of the two, had been the first native to join the people of Irilik. He was head of his own sept, but nominally a Son of Irilik. Broad shoulders and a pace that challenged others to keep up with him belied his age.
Menad, the younger man, had joined the Gathering only two years before, coming into the vale from the south as few had dared. That the people who lived in the dense forest had been willing to let him pass was proof enough that he deserved the trust of being a guardian, but like all who watched the passes and stood guard in Timora, he had passed the test of the Stone of Truth before taking his vows of service.
With the change of guard completed, Kaldar's stolid expression lightened into a smile and he winked at Falga. "Your brother, Arnath, will not speak of his expedition until the council meets this evening. Will you attend the meeting in my stead? When I retire from my watch, I will come to you for a full report. "
It was a generous gesture, bespeaking the close brotherhood shared by guardians. The chief waved aside Falga's attempt to thank him. "You have a good memory and an inquiring mind. I serve myself by asking your help."
Paran and Falga set off down the trail together after Kaldar and Menad took cover in the foliage near the track. Night watch was almost always assigned to natives of Okishdu. They seemed to have keener senses when it came to their traditional enemies, the Ogandash.
"You are fortunate to attend the council meeting, " Paran said. "My father will be there, but he shares nothing with me."
"Tedak will share whatever he can. The council members must be discrete. I know only too well of the efforts of some to distort what is discussed and decided, " Falga replied.
"Your brother, Tagnet?" Paran asked. Falga nodded. Sometimes he wished that Tagnet had wandered away from the Gathering years before instead of being rescued and returned by Kaldar. "He uses his crippled leg as an excuse for avoiding labor of any kind, and he exercises a disturbing influence among some of the original refugees from Kishdu. He applied to be admitted to the council instead of Arnath, claiming that his older brother disqualified himself by marrying a native born woman. Of the other members of the council dismissed the charge without a hearing, but Tagnet claims that only those born in Kishdu have a right to dwell in Timora.
"That's absurd!" Paran protested.
"Unfortunately, some believe him," Falga said. Tagnet claims that as a son of Algun, he and his other brothers, including me, have precedence over Saaden, Janak, and others who served under Algun when he was the leader of the rebels who claimed Renon."
Paran shook his head. "How could Tagnet be proud of Algun? When your father became Algunagada and claimed to be the god-king, his oppression was the very thing that forced us into exile. Surely Renon, and all who lived there, were destroyed by the broken star. "
"As far as I am concerned, my father died to me when his minions tried to kill my mother before he divorced her and married princess Calanin, " Falga said. "The evil gossip that Virda had eloped with Tolat, her servant, made a convenient excuse for the divorce."
"What does Tagnet think of the plot against your mother?" Paran asked.
"He denies that there was a plot to kill our mother. I fear that if Tagnet gains enough adherents to his cause there will be trouble. We guard against an enemy from without the vale, but it is the enemy within that we should fear."
"Have you spoken to Irilik or Tedak about your suspicions?" Paran asked.
"With the Eye of Adanan to warn him, Irilik hardly needs my tattling and you know how your father feels about gossip, even when it has a core of truth, " Falga said.
They crossed through the notch of the pass and the full view of Timora opened below them. Falga paused and looked around. He had come this way hundreds of times in the three years since he had been accepted as a Guardian, but the beauty of the vale never ceased to touch him. The city lay in the foothills beneath them. A shrine of shining white stone, now gilded gold by the setting sun, marked the place where Irilik had met the Guardians of Timora when he first entered the vale eight years before.
Gardens and orchards surrounded the holy lake. From where he stood, Falga could see the reason for the council's decision to establish new homelands for the various septs. Homes of stone and barns of timber climbed the hills and grouped together in villages that marked the sites that different septs had chosen.
The vale was not crowded, but the population grew daily with the birth of children and new converts to the Gathering from among the natives. The stone cutters could hardly keep up with the demand for new buildings. So far, sewage had been kept from polluting the lake, but if the population doubled, which was possible within the next few years, the sewage pits designed by Tedak would be strained.
Paran tugged at Falga's shoulder and he gave a start. "I'm sorry to keep you waiting while I daydream."
Paran shrugged. "My father often brings me here to see what is becoming of the vale. He fears that soon the lake itself will become dirtied by the refuse of men and beasts. I suspect that soon there will be villages built outside the vale, now that the threat of the Ogandash has eased."
For a moment Falga was tempted to tell Paran of the far more ambitious plans of the council, but his knowledge came from things he heard while guarding council meetings and must be confidential. The council made decisions on the basis of the experience and wisdom of the sept leaders, but even those decisions could be overturned if Irilik saw cause. Falga could not argue with the policy.
He had been assigned as guardian to the council meetings on several occasions when the Prophet had used the Eye of Adanan to settle a matter. With an oracle device to warn of danger and folly, it would be absurd to follow Tagnet's suggestion that the leader should be chosen by popular vote. As things now stood, the people would choose Irilik, but there were those who doubted that the prophet truly spoke for the Radiance. The Stone of Truth that lit the way for the exodus from Kishdu now lay in the testing chamber of the council hall, no longer providing a daily reminder of the presence of the Radiance.
"The council meeting will begin soon, " Paran reminded Falga. "You should change out of your green before you go. If you like, you could come home with me and borrow my civic duty tunic."
Falga quickly gauged the distance to his own home and the nearby compound where Tedak lived with his family, including Paran and Kalinka. There was only a slight difference in the time it would take to return to his family, but the attractions offered by Tedak's house were more appealing. "I accept your offer."
The pierced stone wall surrounding Tedak's villa had height and heft worthy of a fortress. The wide gate could accommodate a team of dalas. A bright-eyed child stood watch at the gate and signaled their arrival with a bell. Tedak came out of his workshop wiping grease from his hands with a sueded skin.
"Welcome home Paran, " he said. "Falga, Kaldar told me he planned ask you to sit in for him at the council meeting. Can you be ready to accompany me?"
"I'm letting him borrow my blue tunic, " Paran said. "He can return it when the meeting ends. "
Tedak smiled. "He can return it and give you news of what Arnath found in the north at the same time. "
"Don 't count on Falga to enlighten me, " Paran told Tedak. "He is as close mouthed as you when it comes to the business of the council."
"I have no doubt that is the reason Kaldar chose him as a proxy, " Tedak replied. "By the way, there is no need to look around for Kalinka. She is with Kapanadel this evening. A child wandered into the burn-vines at the edge of the vale. Your future wife gives promise of becoming a fine healer."
Paran grasped Falga's elbow and pulled him toward the back of the house where his quarters were located. "Come, you need to wash yourself before putting on my tunic."
The baths in the men's quarters were a work of beauty as well as function. Glazed tiles of the intense blue of Timora's lake lined the oval pool. Two springs, one hot, one cold, had been piped in to provide a range of temperatures within the pool itself.
Falga was tempted to linger, but Tedak entered the room and quickly performed his own ablutions. It would be unseemly to keep him waiting. Falga did not hesitate to help himself to the towels and clothing neatly stacked on shelves near the bathing pool. He was regarded as a part of the household since his betrothal to Kalinka.
By the time Tedak had washed and dressed in his council robes, Falga had shrugged into his borrowed tunic, finding it a bit tight across the shoulders and a little short. Before they left the house, Lira, Paran's mother, invited them into the dining hall where a simple meal of meat-filled matlas, fruit, and nuka juice waited for them.
"With Arnath home and full of tales of the new lands, I doubt either of you will be home before midnight, " she predicted.
"Thank you, my love," Tedak answered, grasping her hand with a fond gesture and pulling her closer for a kiss.
Falga blushed. It always surprised him to see the intensity of emotion that still burned between the couple. It promised well for his own life with Kalinka. He followed Tedak's lead, eating quickly and leaving some of the best matlas for Paran and his younger brothers and sisters. They would eat later, after Irilik performed the evening ritual.
It was still the custom for all who could to gather at the steps of the Shrine to hear the prophet make an invocation of blessing on the night to come. The family walked together toward the Shrine with others. Ralk and his wife, carrying their little boy, came from their modest home and joined the throng.
"I see you are wearing Paran's tunic, " Ralk said. "I told Moringa that you would not require her to prepare your civic duty tunic when Arnath told us you would be at the council meeting. Where is Kalinka? It is strange to see you without her."
"She is apprenticed to Kapanadel and a child wandered into the burn-vines this evening, " Falga said.
Ralk frowned. "I fear for my own small son. He is curious and apt to stray, no matter how hard Moringa tries to keep track of him. It seems we are in more danger from the hazards we keep in place at the passes than we are from the Ogandash."
"Your arguments are sound, but argument will not be sufficient to change the policy of sealing the passes," Falga reminded his brother. "Perhaps soon there will be changes that will surprise all of us."
"But they will surprise you less than others, " Ralk said with a grin that assured Falga he bore him no malice for his discretion. "I would be surprised if the return of the last expedition does not result in changes. Arnath hasn't told me anything directly, but I have wondered at the interest Irilik takes in the minerals and products of far-flung territories."
When the family reached the plaza, Irilik already stood at the head of the stairs that led up to the Shrine. A large crowd had gathered in the plaza below him. By virtue of the blue clothing they wore, Tedak and Falga were admitted through the close-packed ranks of the crowd, leaving their families to find a place to stand on the edge of the plaza.
Aside from Kaldar, all the members of the ruling council were stood on the broad stairs in order of when their septs were founded. Saaden, Janak, and Taleek, the first to be named as sept leaders at the beginning of the Gathering, Kumnor, who had been chief of his people even before the gathering, Arnath for Virda's sept, Thalonon, Zedek, Sangin and Kalmena, who shared the governance of their sept, then Garad. Tedak, then Falga in place of Kaldar took their places at the end of the line of councilors. A gap in the line between Kalmena and Garad reminded the people of Lamath and his sept whose ships had gone astray in the voyage from Kishdu.
Irilik had assured the council that those who had been lost had not died, but were living in a land meant for them. Falga secretly speculated that the impassable marsh in the south east that proved a barrier to others could have been a welcome landing place for those who had spent their lives in the fens of Kisdu before Algunagada's minions burned their home.
Irilik raised his hands and the crowd hushed until only an occasional murmur from a small child broke the silence. The prophet raised his hands and closed his eyes. Usually the words of the evening ritual came quickly and fluently, but several minutes of silence passed while Irilik waited. Finally he spoke, his voice intense and piercing. "Through the gate of Yasa Dom, we come before the Radiance of the Maker. Give us the wisdom to reject the Liar. Evil whispers in the hearts of many, blinding them to what is true. The land will be divided and a portion given to all, but for those who will not hear me, a sacrifice must be made. For many of my sons and daughters, there will be no rest until evening nears. Protect us from the scourges of ignorance and doubt that will bring war and destruction."
Muttering began in the crowd when they realized the Irilik had finished the Evening Ritual and was summoning the council to join him. The prayer of the Evening Ritual often followed a pattern. Irilik usually mentioned blessing the children and protecting the sick, a comforting litany. The prayer he had just offered seemed a strange and ominous warning.
Falga realized that Irilik had been speaking with the voice of prophecy. Speculation began running through the crowd behind him as Falga climbed the stone steps of the shrine along with the members of the council. The council seldom met within the Shrine unless Irilik intended to use the Eye of Adanan during the meeting.
Falga followed the others past the lofty prayer halls and ritual rooms and onto the coiled stairwell that led upward into the spire. Irilik's wife, Tarsha, the high priestess, waited for them in the small room where a window let in the light of the setting sun. A stone pedestal held the crystal case of the Eye of Adanan.
Tarsha had laid out tokens representing everyone present. Falga was surprised to see not only Kaldar's name, but his own, on small pieces of scroll cloth along the edge of the pedestal. The council sat on benches that formed two crescents on the north and south sides of the room. On the east a wooden panel held maps of Timora and the new lands explored by the expeditions now completed with Arnath's return.
The sun dropped the notch of the western pass, just on the verge of setting. The time had come to activate the Oracle Device. The palm-sized crystal case lay dormant with the gem prisms and lenses inside it dimly sparkling. Irilik reached out and lifted the side of the case to admit the parallel rays of the sun. Bars of brilliant light flashed, illuminating the maps with varied colors.
Irilik worked swiftly, setting different tokens on the top of the case and watching the results. The lights danced with every change. Sometimes they were dull and mottled with the scarlet and purple of death and war. Sometimes they were clear and intense. Irilik murmured as he worked and Tarsha took notes of his observations.
Falga had seen the Oracle Device used twice before, but neither time had involved such a complex exchange of tokens and the display of corresponding colors. The area near the coast where the exodus had landed continued dull blue with streaks of purple and virulent spots of red. Irilik looked around, letting his hands fall on the tokens seemingly aimlessly. The dampness of his forehead betrayed his tension. His hands must have been damp as well, because when he reached for the token of Kaldar, the slip of scroll cloth bearing Falga's name stuck to the edge of his palm and fell onto the Eye of Adanan. The dull blue along the coast was suddenly mottled with clear, light yellow. Irilik seemed surprised by the hue and he glanced down to see which token had caused the change.
The prophet nodded when he saw that Falga's name lay on the case. The sun settled deeper into the notch of the pass and the light that flowed from the Oracle Device began to dim, becoming mere shadows of the gems and prisms suspended on wires of gold within the crystal case. The reading had ended. As with one throat, the assembled council members inhaled with a sigh. Everyone in the room had held their breath in suspense during the complex reading.
Falga glanced out the window and saw that the sun lay half hidden by the notch of the pass. The sky was rosy with sunset fire, and the lake of Timora, usually a blue so intense that even the finest turquoise could not compare, appeared like a great amethyst centered in the valley. Pavilions of white stone extended into the lake. Even now, with a faint chill in the evening air, a few people could be seen gathered near one of the pavilions for Renewal Washing.
It seemed likely that they were the natives who had returned to the vale with Arnath. None could be forced to swear the oaths that would bind them to obedience. When the people had first entered the vale years before, some had held back, but others had accepted but taken the vows lightly. Tagnet had been one of those who quickly forgot the promises he made, if he had ever intended to keep them.
"Are you coming?" Tedak prompted him.
Falga turned to see that the room had nearly emptied in the few moments he had been musing over his brother's apostasy.
"We will gather in Irilik's audience hall to hear Arnath's report, " Tedak reminded him. "The meeting will not start until all the septs are represented."
Trying to hurry but at the same time maintain the decorum required of those who served in the Shrine, Tedak and Falga walked rapidly down the spiral stairs and along the hall to the High Priest's audience chamber. The other members of the council were already seated in the circle of seats drawn up to a round table at the end of the lofty room. A glowing alabaster lamp gave a luster to the scene, augmenting the fading twilight that entered through high windows on the south of the room. Irilik directed Falga to take the chair that was carved with the eagle crest of Kaldar while Tedak took the chair to the right of Irilik. All eyes were on Arnath who wore a pendant of green and blue stone.
Tarsha entered the room carrying the maps from the oracle room. Irilik stood and helped her spread them on the table where everyone could see them.
"Some of you have already forecast the decisions that will be made when we divide the land of Okishdu between our various clans, " Irilik said. "I deliberately delayed making the reading that would provide us with an indication of the most favorable allotment until Arnath returned with his report. As you know, the Eye of Adanan responds to every clue provided. Some of the things we saw this evening surprised me. I did not think there would be a settlement on the coast where we first landed. The resources are limited and the location is remote. However, we must heed the clues provided by the Eye of Adanan. Falga, please stand and kneel before me."
Falga looked around. In his surprise at hearing his name called, he half expected that there was some other by the same name in the room. Gentle laughter greeted his surprise at being called forth by Irilik. He stood and made his way to the Prophet who was now standing to receive him. He knelt and felt the light pressure of Irilik's hands placed on his head. He had knelt thus once before when he had been set apart as a guardian. He listened closely to the prophet's prayer, considering the purpose of the unanticipated blessing.
"By Yasa Dom, the Radiance, I ordain you as a priest and set you apart to become a priest and father to a people who will wander from the path of truth. You must be strong and willing to sacrifice even that which is most precious in order to bring to pass the growth of a righteous portion. Do not be discouraged when fools rant and hardships threaten to destroy. You will be a hidden seed, sprouting in suppression and thriving in waste places."
After Irilik lifted his hands and helped Falga to his feet, murmuring started among the others in the circle. The blessing had been as threatening and obscure as the prayer Irilik had pronounced when he performed the evening ritual less than an hour before. Arnath stared at his younger brother with sympathetic eyes. Falga returned to Kaldar's chair but Irilik reached out his hand and stopped him. "You will have a chair of your own. From henceforth, you and your heirs will have a seat in the council, but none but those of us who have a right to sit in this circle will know of your responsibilities and your priesthood. The time will come when you will understand the need for reticence." Irilik carried a chair to the table for Falga and invited him to sit down as part of the council in his own right.
After the prophet returned to his seat he turned to Arnath. "We are all eager to hear what you have learned in your travels. " Arnath hesitated. The questions raised by the ordination of his brother teemed in his mind and for a moment he did not respond to Irilik's request.
After a brief pause he got to his feet and lifted the pendant that he wore on a thong around his neck. "This carved stone was presented to me by one of the natives who accepted us and joined the Gathering. It was responsible for our delay in returning to Timora. Perhaps Janak would like to tell you what this pendant means."
Arnath lifted the pendant from his neck and handed it to Janak. The older council member was noted for his understanding of minerals and mining. A wide smile lit his gnarled features as he examined the pendant. "This is rich copper ore. Were you able to determine the source of the rock from which the pendant was carved?"
"When I asked about the stone from which the pendant had been carved, I was led to mountains far to the north where there are caves encrusted with stones such as this. The natives prize them for their beauty, but with copper from such ores, and the tin that has been discovered in the hills north of Timora, we could make bronze."
"Are the mountains habitable?" Janak asked.
"There are lovely small vales and good water is plentiful, but it would take a hardy people to settle such a land, " Arnath said. "A far better land for those who wish to farm is found in the land near the great river that the natives call Comor. There are wide, grassy plains that would produce good harvests. We traveled upriver to the head of the Comor where two smaller rivers, the Com and the Or, combine near the base of mountains to the east. There is a plateau at the fork of the rivers that contains the ruins of a city."
"What of native populations?" Irilik asked. "I would not want to displace others."
"Most of the lands we explored were empty. They were held by the Ogandash for generations. But few of them survive. Kapanadel suggested that their cannibalism could have caused the epidemic that has nearly destroyed them. Vast tracts of land lay empty where they once held sway. The other tribes we discovered welcomed us. They seem to credit us with the end of the Ogandash."
"Demonstrate on the map." Irilik said. He placed a long wand with a piece of charcoal bonded to the end on the table. Arnath picked it up and began to sketch the triangles of mountain peaks on the blank area of the north west. "This is where the ore is found, " he said. Next he drew a wandering line from the western coast to the middle of the map which had the eastern coast indicated along its edge. "This is the Comor. Here is where it forks. From thence we returned to Timora, tracking through mountains and hills richly covered with fine stands of hardwood."
"Thalonon explored the lands further to the west until the western coast and Talleek explored immediately north and east of Timora as already indicated on the map, " Irilik said. "I want each of you look at the reports they made and study the new information provided by Arnath. The time nears that we must find new places for settlement. As Arnath told us, the Ogandash have been depleted and no longer provide a threat. " He looked around the table and acknowledged Saaden who had raised his hand to the level of his chest.
"We should clear the passes into Timora of the hazards that kept the Ogandash from invading, but we should continue to support the corps of guardians," Saaden said. "There is still a need to maintain peace and safety from those without, as well as within the vale."
"Such is my intent, " Irilik replied. "The greater threat to Timora is now from within. There is heresy and apostasy lurking to poison the hearts of our people."
"If you would tighten the laws and demand imprisonment of those who speak against your rule, or against the council, the murmuring would end," Kalmena said.
"The murmuring might not be heard in the marketplace, but it would not end, " Irilik said. "My birth city of Oliafed was destroyed by treachery in the highest places. On occasion I have been given the gift of seeing the state of a soul, but it is not a constant talent. Sometimes I have seen the same dark aura that marked the slavers and pirates of Tashvad surrounding some of our local citizens, but I would not jail them on such evidence."
"It is sobering to know that we harbored traitors among us when we set forth to settle our new lands, " Thalonon said. "Is there no way to winnow out the evil?"
"You use the Stone of Truth to test those who are selected as guardians, " Arnath said. "Perhaps everyone in Timora should be required to pass the test."
Irilik shook his head. "The Stone of Truth was given as a means to gather the pure in heart. When we use it to test the Guardians, they must take a vow to keep the method secret. If we used it on the general population, the method of testing would soon become common knowledge among those least worthy to pass the test. "
Taleek remembered how hard it had been for his own wife to see the stone at first and raised his hand to speak. "We all know men and women who have been unable to see the light at times, yet they were able to change until they saw the light again. If we reject those who cannot see the Light in a moment of anger or jealousy, we would lose many valuable souls."
Irilik nodded. "I have suffered through times of discouragement and fear that made me unable to use the Eye of Adanan. The two devices work through a similar principle. I fear it would cheapen the Stone of Truth if we used it in such a manner."
Garad raised his hand and was acknowledged. "We have been led from a land filled with violence and fear to a land of freedom and plenty. The same god who led us to Okishdu will not be deaf to our appeals for guidance. Irilik has mentioned his ability to discern the state of a soul, and at times I have experienced it for myself. When we disperse across Okishdu we must rely on our own judgment. If all of us pray for the wisdom to lead our people, we will be given help against those who murmur and deny the truth." The others signaled their agreement.
Tedak returned their attention to the map. "Tell me more about the wooded hills to the southeast of the Comor, Arnath," he said.
Arnath chuckled. "I thought you would be interested in that tract. There is little more to say about the hills, other than that there is plenty of water and the soil seems deep and good."
The leaders of the other exploratory expeditions answered questions in the hour that followed. Notes were made on the map according to their reports, but each of them remembered the display made by the Eye of Adanan. Long experience had accustomed them to recognizing the signature color displayed in response to their tokens and saw a high degree of congruence between their choices and the areas indicated by the Oracle Device.
Of all those who were seated around the table, only Falga remained uncertain of where he would go and what he would do in the months and years ahead. It perplexed him that he had been ordained to the priesthood and set apart as virtual head of a new sept. He was only a little older than Irilik had been when he led the people from Kishdu.
For the first time he truly commiserated with the young prophet who had been given the task of leading a fleet of refugees over a sea that some claimed ended in a void. Who were the people he was expected to lead? Why had Irilik given such dire hints about waste places and suppression and warned that he must keep his patriarchal priesthood secret?
His mind still teemed with questions when Irilik brought the meeting to a close. "The hour is late. Begin to offer hints of what we have discussed in council this evening when you return to your homes. Even though we discourage gossip, I am certain that the people will soon be prepared for the division of the land and your departure for your new homelands. "
"How much can we tell our families?" Thalonon asked.
"Give them a general indication of what your choices are," the prophet said. "There are still matters to be settled. Where boundaries are shared, a record must be made so that the threat of war can be assuaged for generations yet to come,"
Garad offered a benedictory prayer and the council members stood. Here and there they formed clusters, continuing their discussions of the exciting prospects that had finally been fully realized. Falga slipped away through a door that led to a parapet that surrounded the upper room of the shrine. Looking upward into the night, he offered up his heart in a prayer for courage.
Chapter 2 Kalinka
Tedak saw Falga slip away from the room and followed him. The young man had become like a son to him in the years that had passed since they had come to Timora. A near constant companion to his own adopted son, Paran. An orphan after the death of his mother, Virda, with only older brothers in his home, the boy had spent most of his daylight hours in Tedak's home, eating with the family as often as not.
Tedak saw that Falga was standing in the posture of prayer and lingered in the archway of the door until Falga lowered his head, signaling an end to his supplication. He walked over to the pensive youth and laid a hand on his shoulder. "You have an interesting life ahead of you, young man."
Falga's rueful smile acknowledged his mentor. "I hardly know how to proceed. Only this afternoon, while I was standing guard on the pass, I wondered whether to stay here in Timora as a guardian, or join with Arnath when he leads our sept to our new homeland. It seems that I will do neither."
"I can only offer the consolation that you must be much beloved of the Maker," Tedak replied. "Yasa Dom offers his greatest challenges to those whose hearts are right."
"I am willing to do whatever is required," Falga said. "But I cannot ask Kalinka to face such uncertainty. I must protect her from the hardships that seem my lot. I must tell her that our betrothal is at an end."
Tedak frowned. "Do you think so little of my wife's sister that you would discard her at the slightest threat to comfort and security? Those who bear the patriarchal priesthood must be married, or the office is incomplete. What other maiden is more fit than Kalinka to stand beside you and meet the challenges you face?"
"I could not bear to marry another woman, " Falga said, "But neither can I ask Kalinka to face a future with all the implied threats that Irilik forecast."
"Be careful of what you say to Kalinka, " Tedak warned. "It is just as well that you will not see her until tomorrow. You may be surprised at the answer she gives if you tell her why you are so full of fear."
"How can I tell her if I am adjured to secrecy?" Falga asked. "If we were already married, I could share my soul with her as well as I already share my heart, but betrothal does not carry the same privilege of full disclosure."
"If you can give me a suitable candidate of someone you are willing to marry, then I will permit you to discard Kalinka, " Tedak answered.
"I could never discard her! " Falga protested. "I mean only to protect and shield her from difficulty."
Tedak shook his head and chuckled. "You are still an innocent in the ways of women. Do not be deceived by their soft skins and slender wrists and ankles. The heart of a woman is strong beyond your measure. You feel you cannot ask Kalinka to face uncertainty, but surely you had planned to raise a family together?"
"What man does not dream of strong sons and sweet daughters to teach and nourish?" Falga asked.
Tedak gave an incredulous grunt. "Have you never seen a woman struggle through the last few months of carrying a child? She bears a burden that she cannot set down, neither waking nor sleeping. Then, when the time is near, she must go alone along a path of pain that is greater than most men will ever know. Her body is wrenched asunder with each birth."
Falga held up his palm to stop Tedak from giving an even more vivid description of childbirth. "Surely Kapanadel has herbs and exercises that minimize the pain and struggle."
Tedak shook his head. "There are ways to ease childbirth, but the long months that precede the final struggle for a new life can be difficult. My wife, Lira, has borne four children to me since we married ten years ago. After the first time I vowed that I will not cause her to experience childbirth again. She thought I had stopped loving her when I did not share her couch. When I confided my worry, she chided me. It is her joy to bring our children into the world. You will find yourself in the same case with your own wife, whoever you decide to marry. You will watch her suffer and seem to nearly die, but you will become her lover as soon as she is whole and healthy again."
Falga felt his cheeks burn. His vision of the future had not taken into account the very real sufferings that he would impose on any woman he married. For a moment he wished he could forgo fatherhood, then he remembered the counsel Tedak had offered and gave a shaky laugh. "The Maker must love women a great deal to have chosen them to be mothers. In order for human kind to continue, children must be conceived and born. Could it not have been designed to be easier?"
"Childbearing is a sacrifice of love that women are willing to make, but with certain disciplines, it can be almost serene. As an apprentice to Kapanadel, I am certain that Kalinka will be well prepared when her time comes to give her husband children. Can you say the same of any other maiden you might marry?" Tedak asked.
"There is no other maiden I am willing to marry," Falga conceded. "Your words have only complicated the matter. I had never really considered the sacrifices I would be asking her to make to become my wife and the mother of my children."
"Then it is well that you think of them. Remember your own mother and what she was willing to do for the sake of her husband and children. As I recall, the sickness that finally killed her was started when she ate poison intended for Algun. She might have recovered but for the chore of carrying Tagnet's baggage as well as her own on the trek to Timora."
"I tried to share the load, " Falga said. "She would not let any other take Tagnet's burden. I think she suspected even then that he was malingering. "
Tedak looked around and realized that they were alone in the chamber. The other members of the council had departed to their homes while he was talking to Falga. It was his duty to quench the lamps and secure the doors before leaving the meeting room. "Come, help me secure the shrine for the night and we can walk home together. I am surprised that neither of your brothers has spoken to you about the realities of becoming a husband. "
Falga began straightening the seats around the table while Tedak doused the lamps. Soon the room was dark with only the glow of moonlight to guide their steps. They walked through the silent shrine after securing the door to the meeting room. Several people still knelt in silence in the prayer hall, their hands raised in supplication. The light from an alabaster globe gave soft illumination to the room.
Tedak turned into a narrow corridor and poured oil into the reservoir of the lamp which would burn throughout the night for any who sought the comfort of the Radiance. He was silent until they reached the outer doorway of the Shrine.
"Perhaps it is best for you to pray in the Shrine as these other penitents and petitioners are doing. Sometimes I find that my life is so busy doing my duty to my family and governing my sept that I forget the necessity of spending time on my knees in communion with the Maker."
Falga looked down at the ceremonial tunic that Paran had lent him and hesitated to turn back to the prayer hall. Tedak smiled. "If you are worried about soiling the tunic when you kneel, use one of the small rugs that are provided in the anteroom."
Falga nodded and turned back toward the wide entry. A soft, lilting voice stopped him.
"Falga, " Kalinka murmured as she hurried up the steps to him and took his hand. "I hoped I would find you before you went home."
"He was preparing to go back to the Shrine and pray, " Tedak said.
Kalinka smiled. "He must have sensed that I had the same intention. The child we treated today has need of our prayers. Kapanadel did what she could, but he is very small and there are welts over most of his body."
"I will set crews to root out all the burn-vine as soon as the sun rises, " Tedak promised. "It is past time that we eliminated every leaf."
"You have the authority to do this without the approval of the council?" Kalinka asked.
"The council has long wanted to disarm the passes and destroy the vines, " Tedak said. "This evening, Irilik gave his implicit approval."
Even in the pale light of the moon, Falga could see the delighted sparkle in Kalinka's eyes. "At last the land will be divided between the septs and we will build our first home in a virgin territory," she exulted.
"What if Falga chooses to stay in Timora as a Guardian," Tedak asked her.
Kalinka gave a little laugh, "Then I will probably have my choice of some of the finest homes that have been built since we found Timora. Surely you will be eager to find a forest to tame," she teased.
"How do you know so much about the plans of the council?" Falga asked.
"There are few who have not expected that the return of Arnath's expedition would mean a change for all of us, " Kalinka said. "Who can say where rumors start, but the rumors have been even more detailed this evening. When Kalinka and I stopped to look in on Tarsha's new baby, she hinted that the division of lands was imminent. "
"It seems that Irilik has been setting an example for the rest of us, " Tedak said. "He told us to give a gentle nudge to the speculation that has already bloomed with Arnath's return. Tarsha wasted no time in passing along what he told her."
"Then it is not mere rumor any longer?" Kalinka teased with a grin that revealed her dimple.
"I cannot confirm whatever Tarsha told you, " Tedak said. "Neither must I chide you for gossiping."
"If you will not chide me for gossiping, then the hints Tarsha gave us must be true," Kalinka said.
Tedak flicked her cheek with the tip of his finger and shook his head. "I will not confirm or deny your guesses. Perhaps you will have better luck with Falga."
Kalinka looked at Falga, eyes wide open in silent appeal but he shook his head. "You know I cannot reveal the things I overhear when I stand guard at council meetings," he said. "Come. If you want to pray for your small patient, we should go inside. Tedak has other things to worry about."
Falga guided her with his hand on her upper arm. The slight contact felt so sweet and familiar that his heart protested any plans to give her up. Tedak's words had half-convinced him that he could keep her in good conscience, however murky his future seemed, but he would not speak to her again until he had spent more time in prayer.
He deliberately distanced himself from Kalinka who was already kneeling with her hands raised and her eyes closed when he entered the prayer hall with the small rug that would protect his borrowed tunic. Even so, she lingered in his mind and he was acutely aware of her even though several arms' lengths separated them.
His early years had been spent in the temporary camps of the rebel army as it marched from city to city in Kishdu. It had been a rough environment, and his mother's self-imposed duty of protecting her husband had often called her from the family tent he shared with his brothers. He had come late to the discipline of prayer, and even now he found it difficult to control his wandering thoughts and concentrate on the attitude of devotion.
The silence of the prayer hall was broken only by the sibilance of someone's whispered prayer. The sound was too low for Falga to recognize words, but the ritual phrases and pauses were enough to let him follow the sense of the plea. He was grateful for the prompting. A sweet sense of gratitude began to fill him as he named his blessings and gave thanks.
At length he no longer heard the whispered prayer of another, but only the welling up of his own soul. When he had finished his praise of the Radiance, he fell silent, his being open to a sense of lightness and relief. Instead of asking the questions that had plagued him after hearing Irilik's foreboding warning, he saw himself in vision. He was old, his hair thin and white as snow. Someone stood by his side, a son, well grown and holding a child of his own. A woman stood next to him and he knew she was his wife, loving and beloved, but he could not see her face. There was only a sense of long familiarity and content that said they had shared a life together in mutual support and challenge. Was it Kalinka? The urge to find out burst through the peace that supported his vision and he suddenly became aware of the pain in his knees from kneeling for a long time in the same place.
Falga looked around and saw that he was alone in the prayer room. He stood and staggered slightly as he made his way to the anteroom where he left the prayer rug. He did not expect to find Kalinka waiting for him. It was evident that he had been praying long past the time that she would need to return to her home without causing undue concern to her older sister. Timora seemed nearly deserted when he made his way back to his room in Arnath's home. A lamp shown in the window of a house and he recognized the home of the boy who had wandered into the burn-vines. Tomorrow he would volunteer to root out the stinging growth that had outlived its purpose in protecting the vale from invaders.
Perhaps when he went to Tedak's house to join the crew, he would see Kalinka and tell her of his doubts about their future together. Had she been the woman next to him in his vision of the distant future? His heart yearned that it might be so, but there was nothing in his memory of the scene to encourage the belief that they were destined for each other.
Kalinka stood in the shadow of her room and watched Falga pass. His steps were slow and his shoulders slumped. Why did such a weight seem to hang on him? She was tempted to call out to him and invite him for the morning meal, but after staying up so late, she doubted he would be up as early as he would need to be to eat with her family. It would not be long before the sun rose Why had he lingered so long in his devotions that she was finally forced to leave him alone in the prayer hall?
She had been given an insight into the future and it had amazed and puzzled her. She had been only nine years old when her parents had joined the Gathering in Kishdu, but she would never forget the awful night only a day or so after the ships had landed on the coast of Okishdu. A great wave had destroyed the fleet and cut off all hope of escape from the harsh, desert cliffs above the beach except to trek toward the mountains in the west. Her mother had never been happy with her father's decision to join the Gathering, and the loss of any hope of returning to Kishdu made her bitter. Kalinka had always associated her mother's dwindling and eventual death with the desert coast, even though Makia had not died until several years after they arrived in Timora.
In her vision she had been living on the cliff above the coast, familiar from the stream that sprang from the cliff and made a green pathway across the beach. Instead of being bleakly deserted, the beach was covered with domed huts. The ribs that supported the walls were constructed from the great jawbones and ribs of whales. Among the huts were wooden towers. Kalinka was reminded of the watchtowers of Renon that she had seen when she was very young.
Veiled women hurried about on their daily tasks and children laughed and played in the sun. Her own children were busy in the shade of a home built on the cliff above the town. Their voices raised as they recited some half-familiar verse to a man who stood with his back to Kalinka. She sensed that he was her husband and felt it must be Falga, but he did not turn and let her see his face. Who other than Falga would she marry? The urgent thought broke through the quiet contemplation that supported her vision and she had found herself alone in the prayer hall with Falga who was still in the posture of prayer.
Her vision of the future had been strange, but she was more disturbed by Falga's apparent depression of spirit. What had he seen that had brought such oppression? Would he confide in her? He had seemed a little distant and distrait when she had joined him on the steps to the Shrine. What had transpired in the council meeting to cause him such distress?
The questions teemed, but she knew she could not get an answer from Falga if it involved the confidential business of the council. Once they were married, he would be free to confide in her. A wife was regarded as her husband's first and most valuable confidant, a pattern established by Tarsha in her marriage to Irilik.
The hints that Tarsha offered when they visited her home that night had not been a breach of her trust. It was evident that Irilik had given her permission to let others know that a decision about the division of the land between the septs was imminent.
Perturbed, Kalinka returned to her cot next to the bed that held her three young nieces. She thought that sleep would evade her, but as soon as her eyes closed, she began to lose the thread of logic and soon began to breathe with the regular cadence of deep slumber.
Against her expectations, Falga was at the table the next morning when she entered the dining hall with Lira to serve the morning meal. He turned his face to her and smiled with a distance in his eyes that chilled her heart. He explained that he had come to return the borrowed tunic to her nephew, Paran, and insisted on joining the crew Tedak was mustering to clear away burn-vine.
"I have been working on building a lattice wall in Tagnet's garden, but he has no real call on my services, " Falga said. "Somehow he seems to expect others to help him without recompense or return, and many are willing to do so. I help him to relieve others of the tasks he sets."
"He plays on their sympathy, " Lira said. "He has no children that might require an extra hand to help, but the council has not reprimanded him for keeping women who are virtually servants to care for his every whim. Few in Timora live in bigger homes because men are not proof against his wheedling and whining."
"You are dangerously close to committing the sin of gossip," Tedak cautioned her.
Lira uttered an impatient growl. "I abhor gossip, but when some among us burden the others with needless, thankless tasks, it should be addressed by the council."
"It is Arnath's duty to reprimand his brother should the need arise," Tedak reminded her.
"I saw my own mother fall prey to Tagnet's poison complaints against Irilik and the Gathering and I spare little sympathy for those who coddle him," she replied tartly.
She turned to Falga. "For the sake of Kalinka I am happy that you are more like your brothers Arnath and Ralk. They are worthy of your mother. I fear that Tagnet is more like your father, Algunagada."
Tedak said nothing, but his firm lips and slight scowl prompted his wife to end her complaint against Tagnet. He stood and invited Paran and Falga to join him. "I have sent out word for men to bring mattocks and hoes. Kalinka, we need your services to care for those who are careless while we work. Lira has supplied a bundle of rags to cover our legs and arms, but there are always those who let their enthusiasm for the task overcome their good sense. "
"Kapanadel heard of your plans and she sent over a supply of salve and rags, " Lira said.
Kalinka added. "She makes the salve by grinding up and diluting burn-vine leaves until they leave only the faintest tinge of green in the corum grease she uses as a base. "
"In my youth our grandmother was a famous healer," Lira said. "She had a recipe for snakebite that called for grinding up the tongue of the snake that bit you. It was seldom tried. "
"Were her methods unsuccessful?" Falga asked.
"Few snakebite victims are up to catching and cutting out the tongue of a viper, " Tedak reminded him. Falga's cheeks reddened when the others chuckled, but he joined their laughter.
Lira had packed an ample meal of meat-filled matlas with fruit and water for their midday meal and Falga secured it in his pack. When they left the gate of Tedak's compound, they found a crowd of men and boys eager to join them. There were few families who had not had someone burned by the lush growth that protected the passes. It required constant vigilance to keep it from spreading to the fields and orchards of Timora.
A day or two of labor rooting out the vine would be repaid in days to come when children could be trusted with the task of weeding. They headed for the main pass first and spread platforms of dry wood near where the growth began. Leather gloves protected the hands of those who grasped the vines and began to tug them gently from their fragile purchase in the soil. It would do no good to try to burn the vines. The toxic smoke could be as bad as contact with the leaves themselves. When a vine yielded to pressure it was tossed on a wooden platform to dry. Long practice in their own fields and gardens had made the older men expert in eradicating burn-vine, and the relief of destroying it here, at its source, kept them busy through the morning.
More drying platforms were laid down as the morning progressed and soon the ground at the lower entrance to the pass that had once held a verdant growth of burn-vine was covered with piles of wilted green leaves. Kalinka was kept busy applying salve to the less experienced and careless members of the party. Some of the younger boys began to compete at tearing vines from the soil and finding that the rags around their arms and legs slowed their movements, they cast them aside. When they wreaked the inevitable harvest of their folly, some of them screamed with pain. The laughter of their elders soon silenced them. With tears welling in their eyes, they stoically kept silent as Kalinka dressed their welts with pale green salve.
Tedak called a pause for the midday meal and stood to stretch. Falga looked around him. The piles of wilted leaves and vines that stretched away toward the vale gave witness to their long hours of hard work, but when he turned to look further up the pass, it seemed that it would take more than a week of steady labor to clear this pass alone. His eyes lifted to the groves of nop trees that stood clear of the twining mass of burn-vines. Why did burn-vine never grow beneath the trees? He had never found it necessary to weed the watchman's covert where he kept watch on alternate days.
"Nop and burn-vine never grow together, " Tedak said and Falga realized that he had voiced his question aloud. "When we wanted to extend the area where burn-vines grow in the passes, we had to cut down the nop groves or the vine would fail to thrive. "
"If there is something about nop trees that keeps the vines at bay, perhaps we should reverse the process and plant nop where we want the burn-vines to die, " Falga suggested.
Tedak's face split in one of his rare smiles. "It would save us many weeks of work if your idea succeeds."
"Could it be that the needles that carpet the ground beneath the nop trees play some part in the process?" Falga asked. "I could take some men to gather bunches of nop needles and spread them across the denser growths of burn-vine that we encouraged to grow at the notch of the pass."
Kalinka had come near and waited while they talked. Perhaps one of them could answer a question that had puzzled her. "How were the Ogandash kept at bay by the burn-vine? Surely they could have done as we are doing. They could wrap their limbs in rags and walk unharmed into the vale."
"The cannibals disdain to wear anything but tattoos and the skin of their victims, " Tedak explained. "It s against the cult of their warriors to wear cloth or the skin of beasts. Burn-vine remained a potent protection against their incursions for many years. It is fortunate that disease has decimated them or we could not settle the lands beyond the vale of Timora."
"Kapanadel believes that they died because they ate the flesh of mankind, " Kalinka said with a grimace of disgust.
Tedak nodded. "Arnath's information that they no longer remain in the north and west of Okishdu is welcome to all who fought them when we came to Timora years ago. "
"I remember the battle, " Falga said. "Boys like me were set as runners to carry messages from place to place along the palisade. I didn't see the Ogandash, but I heard their howls."
Kalinka shivered at the memory. "I was kept busy comforting my mother during the battle. She never recovered from her fear of the cannibals. Even after we were safe within Timora with the passes safeguarded and watched, she would wake at night and stare into the darkness. Tagnet fostered her fears. Whenever we returned from carrying meals to him she would stay up through the night and make sure that every opening in the house was shut and barred. "
"It is little wonder that you decided to live with your sister while you were still little more than a child, " Falga said.
"Lira asked her mother to come and live with us, " Tedak revealed. "But she refused. Instead she sent Kalinka. With twins to care for and all the other work Lira had, her sister was a welcome addition to our family. "
Kalinka smiled. "Lira may have presented it to you as a need for my help, but I was far less cumbered when I came to live with you than when I was living with my parents. It was a joy to care for babies and learn the skills of housekeeping from Lira instead of helping my mother cater to Tagnet's fussy tastes and whining demands for care. How is it that you are so different from your brother Falga?"
"How is it that every conversation turns to gossip about Tagnet?" Tedak asked with a thoughtful frown. "I approve your idea of spreading nop needles on the burn-vines up in the notch, Falga. Do you think some of the boys who have burns would be useful for the task?"
"We could use several helpers to disarm the mantrap as well as spread nop needles, " Falga answered. "The boys who have been careless would likely be more careful of the vines, and there is less skill involved in gathering nop needles than in pulling burn-vines. "
"I should probably accompany you if you are taking the boys, " Kalinka offered. "I will leave a supply of salve here for any who suffer burns, but if Falga plans to disarm the mantrap, someone will be needed to supervise the youngsters and care for those who are foolish enough to be burned again. "
Tedak nodded. "I will announce your plans and call for volunteers as soon as we have finished eating."
When the time came to ask for volunteers there was no need to single out the youngsters who had been injured earlier. Without exception, they raised their hands to join the group that would venture up the trail and gather nop needles. The change of tasks was seen as a welcome relief from the tedium of pulling burn-vines.
An air of holiday prevailed among the group that set forth. Recent experience had taught them respect for the verdant growth of burn-vines that edged the narrow track worn by the quarry sledge. Falga showed them the entrance to the path that led to the nop grove that overlooked the top of the pass and Kalinka led the youngsters up to the grove after Falga whistled a signal that would warn the watchman who still manned the viewpoint until Irilik officially gave word to end the duties of the watch.
The watchman was Garad's son, Polman. He welcomed them to the grove and volunteered to supervise the gathering of nop needles once he saw what was intended. "You can keep watch for me Kalinka. The view over the pass is clear. If you see anything that worries you, just call me back with this signal. " He softly whistled a three tone bird call.
Kalinka nodded. From this vantage she could watch Falga and his crew working at disarming the man trap. She was still puzzled by his attitude since meeting with the council. He had been friendly, but he had not tried to hold her hand or meet her eyes with his usual loving glances. She must find a way to meet him alone and find out what had come between them. He would have to offer a good explanation for his change of attitude.
Her eyes were keen but her thoughts had wandered and at first she thought she must be imagining the sight of Janak's sons retreating up the other side of the pass fighting as they drew back from a horde of naked warriors. She forgot the signal Polman showed her and gave a piercing scream. Falga dropped the mattock he was carrying and searched for the source of her scream before she realized her error.
"Battle in the pass, " she cried, pitching her voice to the same piercing pitch as her scream. The men who were working near the mantrap reacted immediately. Skirting the pit, easily passing through the verdant burn-vine in their protective clothing, they rushed forward with their mattocks and hoes aloft. Those who had no tools ripped lengths of burn-vine free and carried them like whips.
They passed through the quarrymen and met the enemy with shouts of challenge and swinging metal. Encouraged by the appearance of unexpected allies, Janak's sons rallied and reversed their retreat. Kalinka heard Polman call for volunteers among the young men who were gathering needles and all of them were eager for the fray. She heard them leave the grove and saw them cross the bridge that had been swung into place at Polman's signal. They soon joined in the battle that was raging on the far side of the man trap.
The Ogandash were armed with stone axes and spears but they were fighting as desperately as the men they faced. She saw one of the youngsters she had treated for burn-vine welts go down under a blow from one of the naked warriors and knew that she was needed.
She ran down the path to the main track and made her way over the bridge that had been swung into position by the other watchman at Polman's signal. When she reached the clearing where Falga and his men had joined the battle, there were only a few bodies to mark the site. Most of them were Ogandash, but she recognized the youth she had treated and rushed to his side. At first she feared that he had died, but a quick examination showed that he was still alive.
He had a crushed shoulder from the blow he had taken, but other than a swollen bruise on his forehead, he had suffered no other wounds. His breath was weak but steady and she decided to leave him while she examined three others who had been part of Falga's crew. Two of them were dead from crushing blows that had split their skulls. Kalinka controlled the urge to retch and leaned down to shut their staring eyes.
The third man was alive but needed immediate care. A spurting wound on his upper arm was spilling his life blood into the trampled sod. Kalinka applied pressure to the wound and wrapped a bandage tight around a pad of moss from her belt pouch. She gave silent thanks for the practice of carrying a kit of remedies and bandages with her and finally turned her attention to the bodies of the Ogandash to make certain they were not alive.
She was fully prepared to dispatch any who still breathed. She soon discovered there would be no need. The Ogandash had seemed gaunt from a distance, but the dead warriors were skeletal, their bones barely covered by their tattooed flesh and stringy, starved muscles. An unwonted feeling of pity surged in her breast, but it was soon replaced by disgust at the tangled human scalps and other grisly remnants of their victims that formed their belts and armlets. She returned to the wounded and made sure they would suffer no further harm if she left them before following the battle.
The boy with the head wound was awake and whining with pain and fear. She quickly reassured him and gave him a dose of one of Kapanadel's remedies that would bring him sleep and ease. She turned to the other wounded man. His eyes were open and he tried to thank her. "Lie still, " she said. "I have bound your wound to stop the bleeding. The best thing you can do is swallow some nuka juice and wait for me to return."
"The others?" the man asked fearfully after he had swallowed most of a flask of the restoring liquid.
"They have forced the Ogandash to retreat," she assured him. "I am going to follow and care for others who might be wounded. There are several of your comrades who have died in this clearing, as well as dead Ogandash. There is also a boy that I dosed with selan. You must have heard his cries."
The wounded man nodded and closed his eyes. Kalinka rose and hurried down the track, pausing only to make certain that the other Ogandash she found along the way were truly dead and not merely waiting for another opportunity to attack the men from Timora. The track was littered with their gaunt remains, but she encountered only one more dead Timoran. It was Polman, his body hacked and battered. She knew he could not be alive, but she stopped to make certain and wondered how he been so viciously attacked. He must have been completely surrounded by the enemy to have been so battered. Tears streamed down her face and she wept bitter for the death of a young man she had known since childhood, but she had no time to stay and mourn for him.
Where were the youngsters he had taken in his charge. Had they played some part in Polman's death? The familiar ululations of the battling Ogandash warned her that she neared the battle. She topped a small hill and saw the fighting below. The men from Timora no longer shouted as they fought. They had circled the enemy and were grimly silent as they closed around the last screaming Ogandash warriors.
One of the Timorans fell and rose again to stagger away from the line of battle. Kalinka rushed to his side. He had several cuts that he had ignored to pursue the battle, but the worst wound was a cut across his ribs. She stanched the flow of blood and bandaged him, then turned her attention to his other cuts, unheeding of the battle that raged only a few arm lengths from where she labored. Before she had finished her ministrations, the last dying howl of an Ogandash warrior rang out, then silence fell.
"We have come too late. The battle is over! " someone said from behind her. She turned and saw Tedak running down the hill from which she had first viewed the final stand of the Ogandash.
"It is finished, " Falga said. "This must have been their last, desperate effort. "
"I think they knew they had no hope of living through the attack, " Janak's son, Kerek, said as he prodded the gaunt remains of a dead enemy with his foot. "They were dying of starvation and disease. I cannot blame them for choosing this death instead. "
"Where are their women and children?" Kalinka asked. "These warriors are all mature men."
"They would have eaten the women and children before making such an attempt, " Tedak said with a grimace of disgust. "The warriors were known to consume their favorite children to harden them against weakening sentiment. "
"How did you learn these things?" Kalinka asked.
"I told him, " Menad said. "I am the last of the Ogandash. My father was the high chief who lies dead in the clearing where we turned them back. When I balked at killing and eating my youngest brother as a sign of accepting the way of the warrior, I knew I would meet the same fate from one my father would consider more worthy."
"You were a cannibal! " Kalinka exclaimed in revulsion.
"Only the warriors eat human flesh, " Menad explained. "My mother was a captive from one of the other tribes, spared and taken as a concubine because of her beauty. She secretly taught me the ways of her people, risking death if her subterfuge should be discovered. When I decided against joining the warrior society, even at the cost of my own life, she helped me escape."
Kalinka stared around her at the battered bodies of the Ogandash. Her stomach lurched with the knowledge of what they had been. Then she steeled herself against the desperate urge to retch and turned to Tedak. "I have treated three of our men and left two of them in the clearing near the notch. Are there any other wounded who could use my help?"
Falga watched with pride as Kalinka set about ministering to the wounds of those who had ignored the cuts and welts that marked their heads and bodies. He had a minor cut on his arm, but with so many in worse case, he joined Kalinka and asked what he could do to help her.
"We need to treat the worst wounds first. Go along the line of men and sort them out. Men and boys with flesh wounds should be given this ointment. It will discourage the fevers that often result from cuts, When you have finished with that, have some litters constructed. There are at least two men who will need to be carried back to Timora for further treatment, and I suspect we will find others who will need to be carried. "
Tedak overheard her directions and volunteered to make the litters. With the battle over, looking after the wounded was the priority and as healer, Kalinka had the right of command. When the litters were ready and those with minor wounds treated, they mustered to collect the dead Ogandash. "I suggest we put them in the pit that was dug for the mantrap, " Menad said.
"We had intended to fill it in. " Tedak said. "We can pile them on the quarry sledge and push it to the mantrap."
He turned to Kerek. "Were your dalas killed when the Ogandash attacked you at the quarry?"
"No. The Ogandash feared corums, even those who have been gelded. I will fetch the sledge and the dalas and some boards we use in the quarry. It should make short work of carrying the Ogandash to the pit. "
"What of those of our own people who have died?" Kalinka asked. "Polman and two men back in the clearing deserve to be buried with full ceremony for their sacrifice. "
"We will prepare litters to carry their bodies back to the vale along with the wounded, " Tedak assured her.
The line of men waiting to be treated dwindled to only a few as Kalinka worked deftly to care for their immediate needs. She had sorted out five men and boys whose wounds required them to rest while others returned to help clean up the battle site. Paran was among the wounded, but he argued against being carried in a litter.
"Don 't forget I am your aunt and a healer. I have authority to say what you must do, " Kalinka reproved him as he struggled to stand. "I will be the one who will have to care for you if you get wound fever by ignoring me now. "
Paran subsided and let her dress his wounds and put a splint on his broken shoulder. He was secretly relieved that she had removed the burden of pretending greater stamina than he really felt. Who could have guessed that one who had sometimes been his playmate in their youth could be as stern and efficient as his mother when the need appeared? While she strapped the splint around his shoulder, she asked him a quiet question. "How did Polman die?"
"One of the youngsters darted into the midst of the battle and Polman rushed forward to protect him from his folly. The boy was able to get back to our line with only minor wounds, but Polman paid the price of his brash action. "
"Who was it?" she demanded. "He should be held up to the others as an example of foolishness."
"I won 't divulge his name, " Paran told her. "He must bear the burden of knowing that Polman died as a result of his thoughtlessness. If he is exposed to public shame from those who have not even witnessed a battle, let alone shed their own blood, it could drive him away from Timora."
"Is he one of those whose wounds I have been tending?" Kalinka asked.
Paran nodded. "After Polman died, the boy he saved set an example of prudent bravery. He turned aside the blow that would have split my head instead of merely leaving me with a broken bone in my shoulder."
"I will not pursue the matter, " Kalinka promised quietly. "If he acquitted himself with honor afterward, his memory of Polman's sacrifice will be sufficient punishment for his folly. "
After she finished treating Paran, she turned to the last of the wounded who still required her aid. His head was bowed so low between his knees that she could only see the top of his head When she gently raised his chin to examine the cut on his brow she saw that he was one of the youngsters who had been with Polman. His eyes were red from silent weeping but he did not flinch or whimper as she pulled a broken finger straight and stitched up a deep cut on his leg. She resisted speculating that this was the youth for whom Polman had given his life. It could as easily have been any of the twelve boys who had submitted to her sometimes painful ministrations.
By the time she finished treating the wounded, Kerek and his brothers returned with the dalas and the sledge that had been broadened with several wide boards. The bodies of the Ogandash warriors were piled on the sledge and the stolid dalas did not flinch at the gruesome load as they were urged up the pass to the pit.
"Is there any ritual you could perform to mark their passing?" Tedak asked Menad when the bodies had been covered with soil and the pit filled in.
"I acknowledge only the rituals of the Gathering and the supremacy of the Radiance. If I were still an Ogandash, I would curse the grave to keep their spirits from wandering. That is the way of my father, but it is not my way. You know better than I what should be done."
"This is the final resting place of human beings, however evil their practices, " Tedak proclaimed in a voice that carried to the others who had gathered to help with the burial. "May the Radiance receive any who were not completely lost to Him. May the Liar who was their mentor claim all else."
He turned away and addressed the other men. "We will erect a memorial that describes what they had become, and the cost of their perfidy, lest any others be tempted to follow the whisperings of the Liar." His pronouncement seemed more than sufficient ceremony for the burial of the warriors whose bodies lay beneath the soil.
Those who had been led to the battle late by Tedak lifted the litters of the wounded and dead Timorans. The youths who had been led into battle by Polman formed an honor guard beside his litter. Only Janak's middle son, Tarm, remained behind at the side of the grave of the Ogandash. His brothers chafed him for delaying their return and he finally joined them.
It was late in the afternoon when they reached the vale. Runners had sped ahead of the main body of the returning workers and people lined the way, cheering the return of the victors and mourning the dead. Polman and the two other men who had died were taken to the Shrine while the wounded were returned to their homes where wives and mothers could care for them.
Kalinka accompanied Tedak while he walked at the front of the litter that carried Paran. The news that the Ogandash had been vanquished and would never again trouble the people of Timora sped to every corner of the city. Many had heard the rumor that the Ogandash were no longer a threat but there had been some who feared that they lurked in secret, waiting for the passes to be cleared. They were finally reassured that the terror had ended.
Lira ran from her home and met them as soon as the litter carrying Paran came in sight. When they entered the gate, they found the healer waiting inside. Lira had summoned Kapanadel to advise her on how to care for her son.
"I would trust you with my own life, Kalinka, " she explained as they waited for the healer to finish examining Paran's bandaged wounds, "but you have been busy most of the day and it is time for you to rest and be cared for."
Kalinka did not resent the presence of her mentor. She turned to Falga who had accompanied them home. "Do you need more ointment for your cuts?" she asked.
"If I need anything more, I will ask Kapanadel. I have something else to ask of you. Can we go up to the roof?"
She nodded and led the way to the small flat roof where they had privacy to talk. She sat on a low bench that edged the terraced roof and overlooked the garden below where Lira grew flowers and herbs. Falga paced the terrace as he summoned up the words he wanted to say to her. Finally he stopped and touched her shoulder. When she turned her head to look up at him, he met her eyes with the warmth she had missed the night before.
"Yesterday in the council meeting I was given new duties," Falga confessed. "I face challenges that I cannot tell you until we share the bond of marriage. After learning of the shadow on my future, I was reluctant to burden you with sharing such an uncertain destiny, thinking only to protect you from danger and disappointment. Today you knelt only an arm's length from a battle to succor a wounded man, heedless of your own safety. Three men died, but there are others whose wounds would have killed them without your care. I saw how strong and brave you truly are and I no longer fear to share my life with you."
Kalinka smiled wryly. "Yesterday I would have been insulted by your attitude, but I am not as strong as I used to think. I panicked when I first saw the Ogandash fighting the quarry men. Instead of giving the signal Polman told me to give, I screamed in terror."
Falga smiled and took her hand. "Your scream did more to raise my fighting blood than any other signal could have done."
"You dropped your mattock," she teased.
"But I promptly took it up again. It is surprising what a good weapon it made. " His face became grave and he pressed her hands between his own. "Will you forgive me for doubting that you are the woman who should be my wife, whatever we must face together?"
She nodded as tears welled in her eyes. "I doubt that we will see another day as dreadful as today," Falga assured her. "This seems to have been the final confrontation with the Ogandash. What else could be as threatening to our peace?"
Kalinka's face had taken on a pensive frown. "We could have decided not to gather nop needles and the quarrymen would have been slaughtered by the enemy. The watchmen could not have alerted us in time to save them if we had not gone in force to clear the vines. Janak would have been bereft of all his sons and who can tell what damage the Ogandash could have done if they had broken through the pass."
He nodded. He was amazed by the coincidence of his decision to take a work party up to the pass, just in time to save Janak's sons from death. It was likely that the desperate Ogandash would have braved the burn-vine on either side of the man trap once they had fixed its location. If they had invaded the vale, they could have taken many lives before being killed. He shared a dreadful vision of what might have been in silence with Kalinka.
Tedak appeared in the garden below and looked up at them. "Come down and join us. We are going up to the Shrine. Irilik will perform the funerals for the fallen after the evening ritual."
With their hands clasped together, Kalinka and Falga descended the steep stairway from the roof terrace. It seemed that their love had been tested and proved and nothing would ever divide them again.
Chapter 3 Tagnet
A soft breeze stirred the leaves and tendrils of vines growing on the trellised walls of Tagnet's garden. The murmur of a fountain provided a soothing background to the chatter of his servants. Tagnet lounged in a steaming pool fed by a hot spring that had sprung forth when the foundations of his villa had been dug. Ingra, his only native servant, bent over the edge of the pool; her strong hinds stroking and pressing at the withered muscles of his lower right leg.
She claimed that in time he could regain much of the function of the leg and for that hope he bore with the pain of her manipulations and her race. She was a short woman with long dark hair and high-cheeked features that discomfited him. He hated the natives who were insinuating themselves into the families of those who had emigrated from Kishdu. When he had the rule of Timora, mixed marriages would be banned.
Few in Timora had servants, but Tagnet had appealed to the council for extra help in his household on the basis of his crippled leg. He had been granted a dispensation soon after the people of the Gathering had found the valley of Timora. Now and then someone complained that all of Tagnet's servants seemed to be attractive women, but such matters were left to the head of the sept by the conventions of the council and Arnath had been charged by their dying mother to be tolerant of his younger brother's weaknesses.
Whenever Arnath began to lecture him about the state of his household, Tagnet would obsequiously apologize and remind his brother of their mother's request. He always claimed that reports of misbehavior were mere gossip. Gossip was discouraged by the covenants of Irilik that the people had vowed to observe. Having put Arnath in the wrong for listening to rumor, Tagnet would quickly find a way to excuse himself from his brother's presence before more probing questions could follow.
The voices of men walking by in the street outside drew Tagnet' s attention from the servant's ministrations. He relaxed against the backrest of polished stone and studied the two men through a veil of leaves as they drew near. He recognized Thalonon, his head grown white with age, but the other man had his head turned away. As soon as he made a reply, Tagnet recognized the voice of Tedak, Irilik's former servant. Their hands were waving in emphasis to their excited words. Fortuitously, they stopped walking as they neared the trellised wall that concealed Tagnet.
"The mapping is complete," Tedak said. "On the Day of Remembrance, when we celebrate the founding of Timora, Irilik will divide Okishdu between the clans. I have asked for the hills south of the fork of the Comor. They support fine forests and will be excellent for growing orchards."
"I suspected you would want to take your people to the wooded hills as soon as Arnath described them. You know my choice. I have my eyes on the peninsula that lies to the west of Timora. It has a warmer climate than the vale, but there are several sites where excellent harbors could be built." Thalonon said. "Zedek prefers the western coast further north, and Sangin will lay claim to the islands. We have spoken to each other and Irilik knows our preferences. Now that the Ogandash no longer present a threat, my people are eager to set forth."
The men moved on, leaving Tagnet in a dark mood. It was insufferable that Tedak should be the head of a clan with the right to mark out territories of his own choice. If the plans of the council continued without stay, Tagnet would be forced to share whatever leavings Irilik assigned to his mother's heir, Arnath. Tagnet despised his older brother as little more than a lackey to the prophet, dancing attendance on Irilik and approving every suggestion he made. It was past time to rectify the mistake that an accident of birth order had caused.
It had long since been evident to Tagnet that he was the true heir of his father. His brothers were too weak to claim pride in their descent from a man who had been acclaimed as both king and god over the land of Kishdu. When Tagnet came into his power, he would let them share the benefits of rule, if they acknowledged him as pre-eminent. After all, he had no sons and the blood of Algunagada must be preserved.
He had counted on having more time for the plans he had laid. It would be at least another year before he had sufficient adherents to challenge Irilik's supremacy. In the first few years after the people of the Gathering had settled in the Vale of Timora it had been easy to identify those men and women who were unwilling or unable to see the alleged light of the Stone of Truth. In the evenings when the people had gathered in the great plaza in front of the Shrine for the evening ritual, some glanced around furtively at the others until they were able to determine where to focus their attention. Tagnet had approached them one by one and won converts to his cause. It had not been difficult to convince them that the light of the stone of truth was a clever illusion that Irilik had imposed on others by hypnotism or some mind trick he learned while apprenticed to the Noncil Wizards.
In time, those who listened to Tagnet came to believe that they were wiser than those who believed that the Stone of Truth glowed with holy light. They celebrated their freedom from Irilik's illusions and burned small animals as sacrifices to Algunagada under Tagnet's tutelage. Tagnet's greatest success had been among the rising generation, who had come to Okishdu as children of the Gathering but who had somehow ceased to see the light as they grew to adulthood.
When the practice of displaying the Stone of Truth openly every evening ended, it was possible to seduce even those who would otherwise have been resistant. Tagnet formed cells of the disbelievers, never more than ten to a group. Secret signs and hidden tattoos were their only way of identifying those outside their immediate band of rebels. Those who believed in Tagnet's claims were few compared to those who followed Irilik and the members of the council, but the mystery with which Tagnet surrounded his proceedings convinced his followers that they were greater in numbers than the true believers. Some of the signs and signals Tagnet had given them were similar to casual greetings that were common to the people of Timora.
It had been a deliberate deceit that fostered the feeling of the cult members that there were many who would rise to join them when Tagnet gave the sign of his ascendancy. Most of the men and women of Timora would accept his rule once he eliminated the leaders of the who restricted their enjoyment of such petty pleasures as gambling and flirting.
Judging others by his own emotions and behavior, Tagnet detected active malice in any mild annoyance. Every whisper of discontent with the council's rulings was an indication of rebellion to his twisted mind.
He brooded on the unwelcome news that Irilik would soon announce a dispersion of the people who had gathered in Timora. His success depended on a concentration of population.
Familiar voices intruded on his preoccupation with his plans. Women were talking to each other in the street beyond where a broad tree gave shade that invited rest.
Tagnet lurched upward in his bath. "Send for Talar," he hissed at his servant before pushing her aside. He moved to crouch beside the trellis, the better to observe the three women who stood at the crossroads. He ignored Lira, Tedak's wife, and broad-hipped Begna who ruled his brother Arnath's home. The voice that had drawn him to kneel by the trellised wall belonged to the third woman, Elianin.
Elianin was still the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her lithe figure belied the birth of four children, one of whom clung to her skirts while another nestled in her arms. She should have been his, she would have been his if he had not stumbled on the night of the mutiny.
When he became the ruler of Timora he intended that the former princess would become his chief wife. His greatest pleasure would come when he rid the world of Tolat, the scullion who had dared to marry her ten years before.
Tagnet was still puzzled that Elianin had accepted the humiliation that had been dealt her when Irilik chose another bride. By the time he had found his way to the main camp of the gathering, the double wedding had been performed only hours before. Elianin had been surrounded by others whenever he tried to get close to her and offer rescue from the humiliating match.
Later, after crossing the sea, when he had planned to abduct Elianin from the cliff camp and return with her to Kishdu, he had fallen and nearly perished in the storm that raged the night he planned to sail. A careless step while he was making his way through the brush beyond the camp had crippled him.
Tagnet laid it to Irilik's account that his scheme for the mutiny had failed. Fuming inwardly at the old injuries, first to his body, and then to his pride, he heard only a few of Lira's. When Elianin replied, he paid closer attention.
"Saaden hopes to build his city at the pass where two rivers join. It will give him access to river traffic for trade and he can guard against invaders from the wild tribes to the northeast. There is fear that they might come down upon the plains."
"They cannot be as fierce as the Ogandash we recently defeated," Begna said. "Doubtless Saaden sees beyond the immediate hardships of his choice. It will be a rich heritage for his successors, your sons."
Elianin laughed with a youthful trill that belied the infant in her arms and the tot clinging to her skirts. "You may be certain that Saaden sees more than most men would when he lays his plans. I would have preferred the rich lands that are watered by the Comor."
Begna nodded. "Arnath has chosen the plains in the valley of the Comor for himself and his brothers. We will be nearly neighbors if his preference is granted. "
Elianin's reply betrayed a hint of sadness. "Neighbor is a term best reserved for those who can expect to see each other now and then. Once the settlement goes forth, we may have few occasions for meeting. I hope we will sometimes meet in Timora after the dispersion. "
"How can we expect to meet in Timora when all our energies will be swallowed up in taming the new lands we are given?" Begna asked.
"Irilik has plans to link the sacred city to the other lands we settle, " Lira said. "Each clan will be responsible for building roads that will lead to the borders of near lands so that everyone can make pilgrimage to Timora to be washed in the lake and read for themselves the words of the laws and the covenants. Tedak tells me that they have been working on a third scroll that includes the prophecies of Irilik and the history of the Gathering and the settlement of Okishdu."
Elianin smiled and nodded, the gesture setting the tendrils of her golden hair afloat and distracting Tagnet from her next few words. He caught himself and leaned even closer to the trellis. "- - sacred library will draw all to Timora at least once before they die. I hope to come yearly. Saaden has set himself the task of guarding and maintaining the roads that link the various clan lands and setting up a corps of guards to keep those who use the pilgrim roads safe from bandits."
Begna gave an ironic snort. "Bandits may be a problem, but surely it would be bad precedent to give one clan precedence over the guardianship of the roads. It seems to me that Saaden's foresight will eventually make his clan ascendant. He who controls the roads controls trade. Saaden will be no less than any king in old Kishdu if he succeeds in his plans. Tolls will make Saaden's descendants wealthy."
"I doubt that was his intent when he chose his lot!" Elianin protested.
"Saaden could no more keep from seeing the strategic importance of the Comor pass for both trade and defense than you can keep from looking like a princess even when you are draped with babies, " Lira said. "Thank the Radiance that it is Saaden who has chosen the site. Others might not be so wise or beneficent."
"Some such as Tagnet, " Begna hissed while she rolled her eves "I do not trust him or those who keep his company. Things are whispered about him. Kumnor's wife, Kapanadel is suspicious that he has never called on her to help him with his alleged pain. She is more expert than any of the other healers. Knowing how she despises him, I would not be certain if she would heal him or poison him. Perhaps he senses her antipathy. "
"You forget yourself, " Lira reproved Begna. "Gossip is a vice that leads to sorrow. I will not credit Kapanadel's hatred of Tagnet could lead her to break such an important covenant."
Elianin nodded. "He has suffered for years with his withered leg. Even if he were one of those who intended to abduct Irilik and sail back to Kishdu, years have passed since that youthful folly. He has paid with pain from the injury he received."
The women moved away and Tagnet let out the curse he had been holding back since Begna first revealed her suspicions. He had ignored his older brother's native wife. Now he realized that she could be a dangerous enemy. He must not delay his plans any longer, but what could he do when there were yet so few sworn to his service? He groaned in frustration.
Large hands encircled his waist and lifted him upward. "Master Tagnet!" Talar cried. "You are ill! What is to become of us if you are stricken?"
Tagnet opened his mouth to yell at the large young man who held him up as easily as if he were a child, then he swallowed his angry reproof and gave another groan. "I have heard evil tidings, Talar. My enemies are abroad and seek to destroy me. We will never see the Holy face of Algunagada if they succeed in their plot."
"Who are your enemies?" Talar cried. "I will find them and destroy all of them!"
Tagnet gave a nervous glance at the trellised wall that had let him hear the voices of others. To his relief, the road outside was empty. It would not do to let others overhear what Talar said. It was a pity the young giant was so stupid. On the other hand, there was none more dedicated to the cult of Algunagada than Talar. Once recruited, he had brought in many of his friends. They formed the core strength of Tagnet's secret combination of ill contents and apostates.
"Carry me into the sanctum," Tagnet urged. "We must prepare for the overthrow of those who rebelled against the God-king and led us away from Kishdu."
Talar hefted Tagnet over his broad shoulder and loped toward the inner room where none but the chosen few could enter. He placed Tagnet on the cushioned throne that stood at the head of the room opposite the door, then turned to secure the door and check the walls for any sign of tampering. It was a routine Tagnet insisted upon, even though he had no reason to doubt the loyalty of his servants. In times to come, when he ruled in Timora, such safeguards could well save his life.
When Talar finished checking the security of the secret room, he turned to Tagnet with his shoulders rounded and his back arched in obeisance, an expectant look on his face. He was careful not to utter anything until his Master spoke. His brow began to furrow as minutes passed with no word from the man he worshiped nearly as devoutly as he did Algunagada.
Finally Tagnet spoke, and his words surprised and disconcerted Talar. "I will make a feast for my brothers and their wives."
"But none of them is sworn to the cult!" Talar said.
"You have no idea of who is or is not a member of the cult of Algunagada!" Tagnet reproved him sharply. "The men in your cell of ten are the only members of the cult whose names you know. The sons of Algunagada do not forget Renon and the land of Kishdu. I would honor my family. I would honor my brothers before all the important men and women of Timora. Send out the word to your band. I need them to prepare a feasting floor. I will give my feast on the eve of the Festival of Founding."
Talar, always eager to obey his master, began to walk backward through the room. He had reached the threshold before Tagnet stopped him.
"I have not dismissed you," Tagnet screeched.
Talar stood upright in surprise, then cringed into the required stance when in the presence of the high priest of Algunagada. He took a few steps forward toward Tagnet's throne and humbly waited for further instructions. He began to shuffle his feet before Tagnet completed his scheming. "You must bring the healer of your tribe to me," Tagnet said. "Tell her I suffer great pain and have need of her remedies."
"The wife of Kumnor has spoken against you! She would as soon end your life as ease your pain," Talar protested. "I will find you another healer. Indeed, I could not bring Kapanadel to you without risking the dangers of the southern forest. She left this morning with one of her apprentices on an expedition to gather herbs."
Tagnet whimpered slightly and rubbed the knee of his withered leg. As he expected, Talar flinched and leaned toward him with an expression of concern. "I would have no other attend me. Kapanadel is named the best healer in Timora. It is past time that I asked her to help me," Tagnet said. "Bring her here in secret when you have found her, but do not delay."
"I will summon others to prepare the feasting floor. After I have brought them to you, I will undertake the summons of Kapanadel myself," Talar said. He retreated toward the door again.
"Stop," Tagnet demanded. "Have you forgotten that only those of the cult can enter this room? Carry me out to the gather room."
Talar lurched to a stop and walked toward the throne where he scooped up Tagnet and carried him to the gather room where he set him down gently on a padded chair. Then he retreated with the greatest deference, his forehead nearly knocking his knees as he bowed his way out of the room.
Tagnet gave a grunt of dismissal. Talar was the most faithful and unquestioning of his disciples, but his enthusiasm for the cult was offset by his oafishness. Falga would have been a far more rewarding convert, being both quick and adept, but Falga had begun to avoid his brother. It had been more than a week since he appeared to ask if there were anything he could do. His tendency to hang on Tagnet's words had been troubling since he first began to court Kalinka. It must have been his role in defeating the Ogandash that had given him new status in the vale.
Tagnet's spies reported that his younger brother was usually in the company of members of the council when he was not serving as a Guardian. Falga had been making an addition to Tagnet's trellis wall, but the stones remained in a heap near the end of the garden. Doubtless self interest would convince him to join Tagnet's cause when the plot against the council succeeded.
The Festival of Founding was only four days away and Tagnet fretted that there was so little time to make the preparations needed. His plan for gaining ascendancy had come to him almost complete and he was confident that it would succeed if he could maintain secrecy.
If the targets of his scheme suspected his aim, it would come to nought. There was really no one he dared to trust with the details. He waited impatiently for Talar to return with his band. Deprived of the ability to pace because of his shriveled leg, he knocked his knuckles on the polished surface of a table Falga had carved for him. His servants found various excuses for avoiding his presence. Finally he heard the voice of Talar demanding entrance from the gate man.
The men and boys who followed Talar into the gather room were as varied as their backgrounds. Telon and Fraga were hardly more than boys with rangy shoulders that belied their youth. Four of the men were gamblers who had rebelled against Irilik's condemnation of the time they spent in gaming. Ponswit was as old as gray haired Thalonon. He had been recruited along with his son, Parlak, when Tagnet noticed that he was prone to grumble at the rules imposed by the council.
"We will meet in the inner chamber," Tagnet directed Talar. The youth hefted his leader reverently and carried him along to the sanctum where none but those sworn to the cult could enter. It was hung round with images the flaming star that had been the symbol of the god-king. After Tagnet had been placed on the elevated chair that served as his throne of office, he summoned the other men closer."It is time to take our rightful place at the head of the government and prepare for our return to our homeland," he announced. "I will give a feast for all the leaders of Timora,"
There were gasps of surprise, but none dared offer any contradictions. Tagnet smiled and nodded with satisfaction at their unquestioning faces. "It will be the finest celebration that anyone has seen since we left Kishdu. Others of my people will help with food and drink, but you will be the first to aid me. I want you to dig up the trees of my orchard and make it into a feasting floor. Do it by night so that the surprise will be the greater when my brothers see what I have sacrificed to honor them."
Talar did not speak, but his eyes went wide. To destroy an orchard for the sake of making a feast was an awful deed, worthy of the priest of the god-king. It violated so many of the rules of the city of Timora that he could hardly comprehend the repercussions of such a bold act. Truly the time of Algunagada was drawing near. He brought his left hand to his brow in the forked sign of the cult and began to chant the praises of the god-king. The others joined him, their voices low to keep the sound from penetrating past the insulated door of the room. It would not do to let others overhear the potent oaths of the chant.
Tagnet clapped his hands together and ended the droning chant when it had gone on long enough to suit him. "Talar, you have another errand to perform. Choose one of these others to go with you."
Talar looked around at the other men of his cell. The unseasoned boys such as Telon and Fraga would be a hindrance in the jungle, but Ponswit was prone to use his age as an excuse to argue and countermand any order. Finally Talar nodded to Parlak who stepped forward to join him. The two men backed from the presence of Tagnet, their bodies bent nearly double in obeisance to their leader as they sidled from the room.
Parlak knew better than to question Talar about their errand. He followed after the other youth silently, even when they headed away from the settled area and began to follow the river that led out of the vale to the south. They left the orderly orchards and fields of the vale of Timora behind them and entered thick forest. Parlak glanced nervously from side to side. He clutched at the knife that was thrust through his belt and hoped that the stories of fierce animals and fiercer men had been fables to keep him from wandering as a child. He stumbled and nearly fell as the track grew steeper.
They traveled on for several hours and Parlak began to wonder when Talar would stop and give him a chance to rest. He wanted some explanation of the need for entering the forbidden home of the forest guardians, but Talar forged ahead in silence.
Heedless of Parlak's struggle to keep up with him, Talar's attention was focused on the thread-thin trail left by Kapanadel and her assistant. The light had begun to dim when he finally halted, unable to discern the telltale signs of bent grass and crushed leaves the two women had made earlier that day.
"We will have to camp here tonight and continue our search for Kapanadel in the morning," Talar said.
"Kapanadel?" Parlak murmured. "What would you want with the healer? It is no secret that she is one of those who doubt and distrusts the Son of the God-King."
"Tagnet has reasons of his own to seek Kapanadel. Perhaps he is willing to risk her scorn in order to take advantage of her skill. He seldom lets such as you see the suffering he endures, but I have seen him falter with the pain of his wound."
"How can we camp here?" Parlak asked."It would be best if we return to Timora and gather supplies."
"I did not think you a fool," Talar snorted."We could not have come this far if the people of the forest did not believe that we were part of Kapanadel's company. She is one of the few who are allowed to intrude on their domain without danger."
"But I am hungry and we have no bedding," Parlak whined.
"Remove the thong that holds your knife sheath in place and make a snare," Talar suggested. "I have a few crumbs of bread in my belt pouch. If you use them skillfully, you can trap enough meat to satisfy both of us."
"It is a chancy thing to trap small animals," Parlak said. "We would do better to eat the crumbs ourselves. Surely we will return to Timora as soon as the sun rises and we can see our way again."
"We might be in the forest for several days. How long would the crumbs satisfy you then?" Talar asked. "You lay the snares while I fetch some water. I hear the murmur of a watercourse not far from here and those leaves will serve as cups for carrying what we need."
Parlak nodded. Talar was usually casual and good-natured, almost a buffoon, but his new, stern mood suppressed Parlak's objections. He was also more than a head taller than Parlak and a capable wrestler. It would be best to stop arguing and do what he said.
The baited snare was more successful than Parlak had hoped, and by the time Talar returned with a large leaf folded to hold water, Parlak had gutted two cories and spitted their small, plump bodies on a stick."Do you have a fire starter, or must we eat these raw?" he asked Talar.
"We can make a small fire to cook the cories, but it would be wise to keep it from smoking," Talar replied as he unhooked the fire starter from his belt. "The forest guardians must know we are here, but if we disobey their rules, we will feel the sting of their weapons."
"How do you know so much about the forest guardians and their lore?"
"I am of the tribe of Kumnor," Talar said with a shrug."My people know the wilderness more surely than they know the timid ways of the town. Some of my kinsmen run herds of corums in the pastures of the southern uplands."
"I thought you hated the people of your clan," Parlak said.
"I am too big to ride a corum and I would not be less than the others," Talar replied. "I have given my loyalty to Tagnet for other reasons, but he tells me that in Kishdu the cattle are large enough to provide mounts for such as me."
Parlak gaped at his large companion. "You jest! Surely you must crave a return to our homeland for more glorious reasons than the thought of finding cattle that are big enough to ride without crippling them?"
"It is as good a reason as I need," Talar countered. "From what I know, you only seek the company of other cultists because they seem to overlook your faults."
The comment was too close to the mark to allow any reply. Parlak turned to tending the tiny fire that Talar lit. The night was soon on them, falling dense and fast with little of the sunset display they were accustomed to seeing in Timora. Talar's training from childhood had prepared him for spending a night without shelter, but Parlak shifted and turned, trying in vain to find a comfortable resting place on the stony ground of the small ledge they had chosen for their camping place. When he finally fell asleep, it seemed only moments before Talar shook his shoulder to wake him.
"We must get underway soon," Talar warned. "A storm is coming and the track of Kapanadel and her apprentice will soon be washed away."
"This is a hopeless quest," Parlak whined. "My mother does not favor my father's devotion to Tagnet. She will berate him if I stay away from home much longer."
"Your father is not much of a man if he cannot defend himself against a wee woman like Falan. Come, we must descend further into the forests and find fruit to ease our hunger. I can see a wild nuka tree with fruit that is nearly ripe."
Parlak stared behind him at the steep trail that led back to Timora. The temptation to desert Talar could not overcome his fear of being lost if he attempted to return alone. He was not quite certain of the way back to the vale. He could end up wandering in the wilderness until either hunger or the guardians of the forest caused his death. He turned and found that Talar had nearly disappeared in the forest, rapidly descending the path toward a low tree that gleamed with the gold of near ripe nukas. Parlak hurried after him even though his mouth puckered with the thought of the juice of a nuka fruit that had not quite matured.
When he caught up with Talar the other man had stopped to harvest hands full of fruit. The bigger man had the reach and height to choose the best of the fruit and Parlak was forced to take the bright yellow globes that betrayed their immaturity with hard skins that would not yield beneath his fingers. Hunger and thirst overcame his memory of the taste of unripe nuka fruit and he managed to eat several before giving up the effort.
"You will suffer a bellyache if you eat any more of yellow nukas," Talar warned him.
"You have eaten all the fruit that is nearly ripe," Parlak sullenly replied." I risk having a bellyache either from hunger or from eating unripe fruit."
Talar gave a grunt of laughter and finished eating the last golden nuka."Come, I think I know where Kapanadel might be. There is a cliff not far from here where she harvests wild herbs."
They set out across the tangled jungle, pushing through vines and circling great trees that stood high on arching roots. Parlak saw some burn vine draped from one of the hanging branches and ducked away from the glistening leaves. Talar was not so lucky and gave a yelp of pain when the leaves brushed his cheek.
"Why were you silent when you saw the vine?" he yelled at Parlak.
"I was bent over from the bellyache I got from the unripe nuka," Parlak answered insolently. He ducked a cuff from Talar who ignored him afterward. The Kumnoran youth had but one thought; to find Kapanadel and get a remedy for the burn vine. Their pace increased as he crashed through the foliage like a maddened corum bull.
Their headlong rush nearly ended in disaster when the floor of the forest disappeared at the edge of a steep drop into a wide gorge. Talar skidded to a halt and knelt to peer over the edge. Parlak joined him and gave a faint whistle. They could see two women far below. They were working at grinding a gray substance on slabs of stone that must have fallen from the cliff face.
"Hail Kapanadel, it is your kinsman, Talar," the Kumnoran yelled. The women looked up and Parlak caught his breath. The healer had several apprentices, but no other was as lovely as Kalinka. The girl was looking upward with her hand shading her eyes, but even so, Parlak recognized the face that had long ensorceled him. If he had known that Kalinka would be with Kapanadel, he would have been more eager to find the two women.
"The trail down the cliff is narrow and I fear that it might crumble under your weight," Kapanadel called. "Follow the edge of the cliff to the east and you will find a broader trail."
"I have been wounded by burn vine," Talar shouted. "I will risk the cliff trail." He turned to his companion. "Come, Parlak, go ahead of me."
Parlak hesitated. If he preceded Talar and the trail crumbled, the big Kumnoran might carry both of them down. His indecision was ended by a huge hand on his shoulders that forced him onto the narrow ledge that marked the beginning of the downward path. His fright made him shudder and his feet slipped on the trail. Finally Talar gave a grunt of impatience and shoved him aside onto a tiny shelf of stone and began to lead the way.
Talar's downward progress was swift and sure until he was two man heights above the women who had stepped well out of the way. A friable patch of stone broke and crumbled away under his weight and he scrambled for a hold on the vines and bushes that grew from crevices in the face of the cliff. The effort slowed his fall, but did not stop him from plunging the down to sprawl at the feet of Kapanadel.
Parlak clung to the vines on either side of him and tried to see if there any part of the trail remained intact after Talar's fall. He stepped out on a shelf of stone and began to inch downwards.
"Stay where you are! " Kalinka cried. "I will come up the trail and guide you down." He did not argue. In moments he felt her tugging at his left foot.
"I will place your foot on a secure hold," she offered. He unlocked his frozen limbs and let her guide his foot. Step by step. She placed his feet on secure holds. It was easy enough for him to find new purchases for his hands. They worked to the left and soon he saw the ruined track plowed by Talar in his fall.
Parlak's feet were finally released from Kalinka's guidance and in a few seconds more he was standing on the floor of the gorge. "Th-Thank you," he stuttered. He lowered with embarrassment at being treated like a child. When he glanced up, he saw laughter in her eyes and blushed with shame. He had tried to gain her notice for months before her betrothal to Falga had been announced. Now she had seen him in the worst possible light, as a hapless fool worthy only of pity.
Kalinka shrugged when he avoided her eyes and turned away from her. She hurried over to Kapanadel who was examining Talar for broken bones and sprains. The healer stood just as her apprentice approached. "He will ache for a few days, but there is no need to send for porters to convey him back to Timora. I will give him a dose of the selan mold we have gathered. It should make him comfortable until our work here is done."
"I will bring a dose for him," Kalinka said. She pinched up a few grains of the powder they had been collecting from the grinding stones and asked Talar to open his mouth. He hesitated, then stuck out his tongue to receive the anodyne on the tip.
"Soon you will feel none of your wounds," she told him."You may be sleepy as well. It is best if you rest while your body repairs the results of your folly."
"I still hurt from the burn vine," Talar objected.
"You will find that selan eases all your hurts," Kapanadel assured him."There is no more effective treatment for pain."
"It must be a valuable product," Parlak muttered.
His comment was either unheard or ignored by the two women. Talar was already yawning and stretching as sleepiness overcame him. When the two women returned to their grinding stones where they were crushing the dull grey, crusty mold from which selan was collected, Parlak sidled closer to the bag from which Kalinka had taken the dose for Talar.
He was successful in removing enough of the selan to fill a small pouch that he usually used for fishing lures. The lures were a small loss compared to a drug that could work such magic on a wounded man. Surely Tagnet would welcome the gift and reward him accordingly.
As the day passed Talar snored and Parlak huddled in the shade of a large tree gazing at Kalinka and Kapanadel as they made their havest.
Kapanadel shaded her eyes and looked at the sky with worry. "I had planned to stay in the forest for several days, but I'm worried that Talar and Parlak might be subject to the fever that strikes those who are unprepared to venture into the forest."
Kalinka nodded. "We will run low on supplies of food and water with the four of us here."
Parlak coughed and rubbed vigorously at several insect bites, confirming their fears that he could take a fever. Kapanadel checked his forehead and observed his pallor.
"We should start back to Timora now or we will have two invalids to care for," she murmured to Kalinka while they tidied up the site and packed away the products of their long hours of work.
"I thought we had gathered more than this," Kalinka remarked when she folded up the packet of selan.
"It is tedious work, but well worth the result," Kapanadel assured her."Now you know what to look for if you return without me."
Talar woke from his rest and seemed fit to help them carry their burdens. Kapanadel knew the way and their return to Timora was much swifter than the passage the two men had made when they had ventured out into the jungle.
Parlak lagged behind, complaining almost constantly of one thing or another. Kalinka tried to encourage him. "We are only a few hours from the vale. If you can keep up with our pace, we will be there before nightfall."
"Let me rest for just a moment," Parlak pleaded."Tell the others to go on."
Kalinka hesitated, but it was evident that Parlak would be lost without her guidance through the forest. When Kapanadel glanced behind her, Kalinka waved her on. It was up to her to keep the young fool safe and take him home.
Chapter 4 The Feast
Talar's gang began to clear the orchard as soon as night fell. The gamblers were so often out late at night that their wives hardly noticed their absence. Ponswit enjoyed being boss of the others and saw to it that they all kept busy, even while he lounged and criticized their work. The moon was full but they were forced to work without lamps lest others notice what they were doing. The young orchard was not difficult to destroy since many of the trees were only a few years old.
Two of the cells of the cult were made up mostly of errant youths who were little more than boys, most of them still under the protection of their parents' roofs. Tagnet called them to meet with him after Talar had been dispatched on his errand, breaking his usual rule of keeping the cells separate.
When they had finished with the ritual of obeisance and oath taking, Tagnet stared around at them. "The time has come to show your devotion to Algunagada with something more than mere words. Most of you still live with your parents. For the next two days you must gather food and crockery and conceal it until you can bring it here. Never take so much that it might be missed."
"My mother watches every grain of meal and drop of oil," one boy complained. "There is no way I can take something without her notice."
"Conceal a leather sack under your tunic and when you eat, take more than usual, or if your mother is even careful of such things, eat less than what you usually eat, and put the excess in the sack. I am surprised you need me to tell you how to steal."
"I sometimes sneak out of my room at night and go in other people's houses. I could get a lot of things that way and my mother would never suspect what I am doing."
Tagnet smiled and nodded."You others, learn from this one. Your parents would beat you if they knew what we do here. They are your enemies, as are all but those sworn to Algunagada. Go now. I will give a feast for my brothers in a few more days. If you hear that I am honoring the members of the council, know this, few of them will leave my house alive."
It was a dreadful secret and they knew that it was worth their lives to share it. With such a heavy guilt as complicity of murder already weighing down their souls, they found it relatively easy to engage in the far less serious sin of purloining food and oil from stores their mothers had put by.
Some ventured into their neighbor's homes at night, delighting in the forbidden quest for loot. Not all of them limited themselves to food and crockery to furnish the feast. They took whatever knives and trinkets that were not guarded and put away. The petty thefts perturbed their victims who usually assumed that it was merely their own carelessness that had resulted in the losses. No one cultist brought in much, but the accumulation soon filled the larders of Tagnet's house.
Wine was less easy to obtain. Under the Laws and Promises promulgated by Irilik and accepted by most of the people of Timora, wine was kept in the storehouse of the Shrine and reserved for ritual and medicinal purposes. The priests who served under Irilik remained true to their vows and resisted any bribery.
Tagnet called Ishabal, one of his five concubines to meet with him. She was the only woman who was allowed within the secret room, and then only blindfolded. The cult of Algunagada had no place for women in its ranks, but she had a subtle mind and was willing to do things that other women scorned.
In some ways she was very like Tagnet's corps of wild boys, delighting in breaking conventions and causing trouble, but willing to be ruled by one who claimed arcane powers. "I have an errand for you Ishabal," he said. "I need a quantity of wine and as you know, the prudery of Irilik forbids it to ordinary citizens in volume. The only major stores are in the hands of the healers and the priests. Kapanadel is away from the city, but I doubt that even you could convince Kumnor to let you near his wife's storeroom. You might have better fortune with one of the priests."
Ishabal laughed and nodded. "I have wanted an excuse to try the virtue of Pardan, the youth who prepares the ritual wine for Irilik. On the surface he is as wholesome as a fresh nuka, but I 've noticed that he has a wandering eye. I 've seen him blush when I walk by the Shrine each day, and I have developed the habit of passing just to see the charming glow that lights his cheeks."
"Then you should enjoy the task I've set you," Tagnet chuckled.
That afternoon Ishabal walked past the Shrine as usual. Instead of passing on after taking delight in Pardan's furtive gaze, she turned toward him, darkening the blush that was rising on his downy cheeks. "Tell me Pardan, have you ever wondered what it would be like to kiss me?"
His eyes grew wide and his red cheeks blanched. "A-are you a magician that you can read my mind?"
"I am no mind reader," she chided him playfully. "I have wondered what it would be like to be with you. When will your duties end?"
"I must transfer wine for the evening ritual into a cruse for Irilik, then I am finished," he said.
"May I go with you and watch you work?" Ishabal asked him.
Pardan hesitated, then glanced around to make certain they were not observed. He nodded. "Come quickly before someone sees us together. It is quiet in the storage room where the wine is kept and no one will observe us."
Ishabal smiled and gave a little shrug that made her low-cut dress drop down a little lower. She watched his color mount again before he turned and led her to the entrance of the cellar.
He gestured her to hide in the shadow of a column while he unlocked the door. Looking around again, he waited until a group of women passed. As soon as the way was clear he grabbed her arm and pulled her into the passageway beyond the door. She followed him down a long corridor that led to the cellar of the temple.
The wide, high cellar was cool and dim, lit only by a faint glow from grilled windows set near the foundations of the outer walls. There were several great vats of wine along the wall. Pardan unlocked a cabinet and took a golden cruse from one of the shelves. Ishabal glimpsed other golden vessels stored within the cabinet and conceived a plan to enrich herself after she had met Tagnet's requirements for wine.
Pardan opened the stopcock on of the vats and filled the cruse, careful that not a drop of the liquid would escape onto the floor. He set the cruse on a table near the vat and turned to Ishabal expectantly.
"Have you ever wondered how the wine tastes before Irilik submits it to the ritual?" Ishabal asked.
"The blessing does not change the taste," Pardan said. "It is still rather like the juice of bread berries that has been left out overnight." Pardan observed.
"You wicked boy. You 've tried a taste!" Ishabal giggled. "I want to try some for myself. I never come to evening ritual anymore and even then, there is hardly more than a little taste for each who would partake."
"Will you give me a kiss if I give you a taste?" he asked with more daring than she expected of him.
"I will give you a kiss, and maybe more if you will give me more than a taste," she dared him.
The room was dim, but even so, Ishabal could see by the darkness of Pardan's face that he was blushing again. She reached into the large basket she had been carrying and removed a 3jars. "Fill these jars for me and I promise you will never forget this hour."
Pardan seemed to hesitate, but she walked toward him with a seductive stride, holding out the jars and smiling. He took a jar and filled it to the top with wine. Ishabal took it from his trembling hands and sealed it before extending another. After sealing the last jar she put it in her basket on the floor and slowly stood to smile at him.
"It is time for your reward," she whispered.
"Perhaps I should not-" Pardan muttered when Ishabal moved closer, but she twined her arms around his waist and drew him near. She kissed him twice and then pushed him away just as he began to take the initiative from her.
"Is that all you will do for so much wine?" he questioned plaintively when she picked up her basket and turned to leave him.
Ishabal turned back to him and laughed. "You seem to think I hold myself cheap Pardan. If you want all I have to give, it will take gold and not mere wine. One such as you could never afford me, unless, perhaps you are willing to dare more."
She walked toward the cabinet where the golden ritual vessels were stored, then turned and smiled at him with pouting appeal. "You have the keeping of the cruses, Pardan. If you gave me one or two of them, who would ever notice?"
Pardan lifted the golden cruse and began to lift it toward her, then he stopped and stared at her in dawning horror at what he had been about to do. For once Ishabal had miscalculated and overreached her appeal. She recognized his expression and hurried from the cellar with the wine before he could call her back and take it from her. He was little more than a boy, but even a youth could easily overpower most any woman. In Pardan's haste to be alone with her, he had failed to lock the outer door and she was quickly through it and on her way back to deliver her prize to Tagnet.
Talar returned to Tagnet's house that night when it was dark enough to escape notice. His face and body were marked with scratches and insect bites, but he had Kapanadel in tow, her hands bound beneath her cape and a gag tied around her face to keep her from screaming for assistance. He had ambushed her when they were nearly into the vale, once they were well ahead of Parlak and Kalinka and beyond the point where any forest guardians might interfere.
She was unable to speak, but she stood defiantly upright at the side of cringing Talar. Her eyes sparkled with enmity when she saw Tagnet.
"I have long suffered from the pain of my wound," Tagnet whined. "I would have you prepare a remedy for me. Make it strong to keep the pain away. I am sorry that you were brought here in such a state. I would not have you discomforted or insulted."
He turned to Talar and slapped his cheek. "Why have you insulted the healer? Remove her bonds and bring her food and drink."
Confused, Talar hesitated to perform his master's bidding. Tagnet sidled closer to Talar and whispered into his ear, reassuring him. "She can do nothing for me with her hands bound, and I would speak to her."
"She will scream and summon others. Then she will accuse me of abduction before the council once she gains her freedom," Talar said.
"Her cries will not be heard beyond the walls of this room," Tagnet reminded him. "As for what she does once she is free, I will deal with that in time."
Reassured that his master had thought of all contingencies, Talar quickly released the bonds from Kapanadel's hands and face. Instead of screaming or trying to escape, the healer studied Tagnet with open contempt.
"You have never sought my help before," she said."Why did you send your bullies to abduct me?"
Tagnet sighed and massaged his knee. "I have heard that you hate me. It was enough to keep me from seeking your help before, but the pain continues, no matter what remedies the other healers offer me."
Kapanadel moved closer to Tagnet and examined his withered leg. Her strong fingers probed at the joint that was knotted with old scar tissue. He winced and she shook her head. " should have had the care of this when you were first injured years ago. Your stubbornness has cost you years of needless pain. There are exercises that might help."
"The other healers promised a surcease of my pain, but none has done any good," Tagnet said. "Soon the people will disperse and you may be far away. I am able to move about a little, but the pain never leaves me. I have to admit your superior skill."
Kapanadel gave him a questioning stare, then nodded. "Send word to my husband, Kumnor, that I will be home in an hour or so. I will send for wine to make an infusion."
"I have some wine, purchased for just such a purpose," Tagnet lied. "I will provide whatever you need to make your preparations."
"Most of the ingredients I need are in my pack," Kapanadel said. "I will need a tripod hearth and a stoneware vessel for heating the wine."
"Bring what she has asked for," Tagnet told Talar. He turned back to Kapanadel. "I have made provision for you to make an ample supply. If the remedy you make is successful, I want enough to last me when the dispersion comes and you are no longer available to help me."
Kapanadel set up the tripod and begun to heat the wine from the jars secured by Ishabal. With singular concentration she added various amounts of dried herbs and roots to the steaming brew. The odor of the mixture was pungent, but pleasing to Tagnet who watched in fascination.
Was Kapanadel brewing poison, as he expected she must, given her long held antagonism toward him, or was she carrying out his wish to make an anodyne for the pain that had plagued him for years? She paused only to eat a simple supper and later to sleep on a pallet he provided at her request, rising now and then to stir the mixture she was making.
It was dawn before she finished. "This supply should be sufficient for you for years to come," she said when the brew had cooled and she had poured it back into the jars that Ishabal provided.
"It is potent and must be cut with thirty parts of water. Take a dose of three spoonsful each evening just before you sleep." She gave a yawn and began to tidy up the bags and pouches she had used. "Now I must go and tell my husband I have returned."
"If your remedy is a harmless anodyne, then you will be as happy as I will when it relieves my pain," Tagnet said. "Talar, wake up! "
The Kumnoran leaped to his feet, then cringed into his accustomed posture in the presence of Tagnet. "What will you have me do Master?" he whimpered.
"Bind her again," Tagnet said.
The healer tried to avoid Talar but she was weary from her forced march out of the jungle the previous day and the long hours she had spent preparing the concentration. He easily contained he escape attempt, taking her in his great hands and subduing her efforts to wrench away. He was larger than her husband Kumnor and fresh from the sleep he had taken while she worked.
With one hand he held Kapanadel, and with the other bound her arms and legs. She screamed for help, but when Talar ripped off a section of her skirt and began to bind her mouth, Tagnet touched his hand and stopped him.
He slapped Kapanadel lightly, surprising her into momentary silence."No one can hear you while I keep you in this room," Tagnet boasted."You claim that you have prepared a medicine to ease my aches. I will find out if it is a potion to ease me, or a poison to kill me. Open her mouth, Talar."
Talar put his thumb on one of her cheeks and the forefinger of the same hand on the other side of Kapanadel's face, forcing her to open her jaw. She watched with dread as Tagnet dipped a spoon into the potent concentration she had prepared and dripped the dark fluid into her mouth. Talar held her nostrils shut and she had no choice but to swallow before she could gasp a breath.
The effect was almost immediate. Her struggles against her bonds abruptly ended and she settled to the floor in an inert pile of unresponsive limbs. Talar gasped but Tagnet laughed in bitter satisfaction.
"She could have provided me with a surcease to pain, but I knew that her hatred would overcome her scruples," Tagnet said. "Instead of killing me, she has provided me with the tool I need to conquer my enemies. Hide her body until I have completed my coup."
Talar obeyed his master's orders, but the seed of rebellion had been planted in his mind. The obligation to protect and avenge the death of clan members, but especially of women and children was deeply ingrained in Valdasians. It had been difficult for Talar to work up the will to take Kapanadel captive, but to know that he had aided Tagnet in killing his chief's wife provided the breaking strain.
He left the room with unsteady steps, staggered not by the limp body of the woman, but by the weight of his crime. He carried Kapanadel's lifeless body through the house and placed her tenderly on a cot in a small room where a window overlooked the wall. It could offer her no escape now. He placed her hands together on her bosom in the attitude of the dead and muttered a traditional Valdasian prayer for the guidance of her soul.
He did not appeal to Algunagada as Tagnet had taught him. Somehow it seemed indecent to send Kapanadel on the journey into death with what she would consider little better than a curse.
Distraught, he made his way out of Tagnet's house and tried to find one of his cronies to bolster up his belief in the cult. None of them had time for him. They each had tasks to perform before night fall when the feast would be held. No one could recall seeing Parlak since they had gone into the forest together.
Everyone in the council except Kaldar had received an invitation to honor Tagnet's brothers. Tolat and Elianin were the first to arrive at the gate of Tagnet's house that evening. When his steward invited them to wait in the spacious gather room they stared around, openly amazed at the luxury Tagnet had managed to gather. Woven hangings adorned the walls where they were not painted with scenes of Kishdu. Tagnet remained hidden, enjoying the look of longing that filled Tolat's face.
Elianin was not so easily impressed. After looking around at the soft padded couches and polished floors, she turned to her husband with a frown ."I knew that Tagnet had been allowed a few servants to help him, but this household is the product of many hands. How did a man without a child accumulate so much when there are some families who make do with little more than a common room and a loft?"
"Doubtless much of what we see was borrowed to decorate his home in honor of the feast he has prepared for his brothers."Tolat speculated."You cannot fault him in that."
Elianin's mouth tightened, but she did not disillusion her husband. It was evident that he could not see that the room had been the product of many months or even years of careful craft and accumulation, but she had spent her early life in the luxury of the palace of Renon and this display of craft and art betrayed long effort.
Elianin's air of disdain ruined Tagnet's enjoyment of Tolat's awe. He had planned to do her the honor of making her his chief wife when his plot succeeded, but Ishabal had already made him promise that she would be given the privilege of ruling his house in return for her silence.
The scorn on Elianin's face when she looked around Tagnet's house pricked his pride. He would let her live, but she would have to willingly agree to all he asked. Otherwise, he would make her the lowest of his servants. She could have been the bride of Algunagada himself if she had not chased after the chimera of Irilik's alleged Light of Truth. Now she would have a second chance at glory. If she refused him, she would be set to scrub latrines and haul waste.
Tagnet smiled widely a moment later when he entered the room. He ignored Elianin and her husband and turned to welcome other guests who had begun to arrive as hour for the feast approached. Irilik and Tarsha were among the last to arrive, accompanied by Kumnor. Tagnet smiled at the thought that the burly chief's wife lay dead somewhere within the house. She had earned her death, but through her perfidy, he had gained the tool that would give him power.
Ishabal's signal that it was time to begin the meal caught Tagnet's eye. He clapped his hands twice sharply and gained the attention of the guests. "The meat is hot and the fruit is chilled. It is time to feast in honor of my brothers, Arnath, Ralk and Falga. Welcome to my feasting floor."
The doors were thrown wide and many in the company gasped with surprise at the display of food that loaded the long table. Tedak gazed with dismay at the border of cut boughs that gave evidence to the feasting floor's recent function as an orchard.
Lira saw his frown and drew close to him."This is a disgrace, but you can bring the subject up in council. Tagnet is a fool to make all of us witness to his willful destruction of an orchard, but this is not the time and place to dwell on his crimes."
Tedak nodded but his eyes met the gaze of Irilik who also appeared dismayed by the wreck the boughs betrayed. He nodded and turned to his wife, Tarsha, to lead her to the place that Ishabal indicated. The guests were quickly seated according to guidance provided by the concubine. She caught Tagnet's signal as Elianin passed him and led her to one of the few seats at the table that would not be served with food that was seasoned with the potent sauce she had prepared from Kapanandel's concentrated poison.
Tagnet waited impatiently while Irilik invoked the ritual of blessing. This would be the last time he would have to suffer through the arcane references to Yasa Dom, a god he did not believe in or acknowledge. Tomorrow the cult of Algunagada would be fully installed as the official religion of Timora and Okishdu. As soon as all was within his command, he would order the building of a fleet and initiate the long desired return to Kishdu.
He watched with anticipation as the guests received the first course from his servants. Ishabal had done her work well. The roast of corum gave forth a savory odor that was so appetizing that Tagnet felt a moment of regret that he would never taste it. There was no hesitation by the guests. Elianin, Arnath, and his younger brothers, Falga and Ralk, were the only ones who did not express pleasure and curiosity about the taste of the sauce. They glanced around with puzzled frowns at the murmurs of delight from all sides of the table as they tasted the mundane meal they shared with Tagnet.
The effects of the poison were soon evident. Slurred words and dulled eyes signaled the onset. Elianin looked around her with surprise when her husband Tolat slumped against her and laid his head on the table. Most of her other dining companions had slumped in their seats and some had fallen off their chairs at nearly the same time.
She glanced around the table and saw that only Tagnet and his younger brothers were spared the strange malaise that had overtaken the other diners."What have you done?" she cried. She leapt to her feet and ran toward Tagnet who had begun to titter. Her impulsive rush was stopped by Ishabal who stepped forward and grabbed her arm and wrenched it up behind her in a painful hold. At the same time four of Tagnet's bullies grabbed his younger brothers to restrain them.
"I have taken the right that is due me," Tagnet crowed."I am the son of Algunagada, and now, with Arnath dying, I will be his heir. I shall rule from Renon."
"It is an empty boast," Elianin said."Algunagada was destroyed by the flaming star, and even if he somehow survived, the city of Renon was doomed. We have seen it in the Eye of Adanan! "
"The Eye of Adanan?" Tagnet mocked."If it were truly an oracle device, Irilik would not be dying. He would have foreseen the results of accepting my invitation to this feast. I have spared my younger brothers, Ralk and Falga and you, Elianin. You will live as the consort of a king now that I have all power in my hands."
"I would rather die than marry one as mad as you must be! " Elianin stated with icy disdain. Her rebuke ended with a cry of pain as Ishabal put pressure on her arm.
"You will regret I let you live," Tagnet snarled."I should have realized that you are not a woman who could serve me well."
He raised his hand and gave a sign of condemnation. "Take her out of my sight Ishabal. Lock her in the room where Talar stored the body of Kapanadel. She will be your servant when I have control of the city and have gained the sworn loyalty of the people of Okishdu."
He turned to his two surviving brothers. "I have saved you from death. Do you swear to support me? Or do you prefer to suffer Arnath's fate."
Falga bowed his head and seemed to ponder what he would do. Tagnet smiled with glee at the thought of the persuasion he could use. He turned to Parlak. "Bring out Kalinka in her bridal finery."
Falga's gaze was riveted on the figure that was dragged resisting into the room. Kalinka had been decked with baubles and bright cloth that did more to reveal than conceal her graceful body.
"You thought Kalinka was in the jungles with Kapanadel, but as you can see, I have her here. If you join me, Falga, she will be yours to do with as you will. Otherwise, she will become another of my concubines until I tire of her and give her to Parlak. He has lusted after her for many months. It was all he could do to keep from ravishing her while I waited your decision."
Falga gazed at Kalinka and thought of how confident he had been only a few days before that nothing could ever part them. He yearned to do whatever he could to save her from the fate Tagnet decreed, but he could not accept his brother's offer.
Kalinka seemed to read the message in his eyes and tilted her head in a tiny nod when he turned to Tagnet and shook his head."I will not be a part of your treason, even if it means my death."
Their younger brother, Ralk, faced Tagnet with his mouth turned down and silent. He turned his face and made the sign of renunciation."Very well. You have sealed your own doom. I would have made you great, but you will be less than the dirt beneath my feet by your own choice," Tagnet sneered. He gave a signal to the four men who had taken charge of his brothers. They bound their hands and mouth and led them to the side to join Elianin.
"Parlak, your yearning for Kalinka will be answered here and now. I will perform the first marriage ceremony of my reign in Timora.
"By what authority do you pretend to marry me to anyone?" Kalinka sneered.
"Guard your tongue, woman," Tagnet snarled. "If you will not marry Parlak, you will serve all of my men."
"I think we have seen enough," a voice said from the boughs of ruined nuka trees that decorated the edges of the feasting floor. Kaldar stepped forward from concealment, followed on every side by many others dressed in the blue tunics that marked them as Guardians of Timora.
Tagnet stared at them, then he tried to dart away to the stronghold of his ceremonial hall where he had a hidden exit. He was hobbled by his withered leg and the guardians quickly took him into custody. Those of his servants who had aided his plot were secured in bonds.
One of the guardians freed Falga, Ralk, and Elianin. "I charge you and your cronies with foul deeds of treason, Tagnet. You will be imprisoned until you can be judged and sentenced by the council."
Tagnet began to laugh hysterically."It will do you no good to imprison me. I have many men sworn to my support. They will set me free from your flimsy jail. I cannot be judged by the council because there is no council."
"You are a fool, Tagnet," a woman's voice stated and Kapanadel stepped through the doorway behind which she had remained concealed until he had given sufficient witness to his crimes. "I prepared a potent and effective anodyne for you. Of course it made me swoon when you gave it to me full strength. These others who you thought to poison will wake well rested and free of any pains that may have plagued them. You have wasted all of the potion that could have eased your misery for years to come."
With Kapanadel's appearance, whole and rested, Tagnet finally realized that he had failed in his venture. He lurched toward her with a snarl on his lips, but he was easily restrained. Even now considerate of his crippled leg, the guardians carried him out of the room where Kapanadel began to wake his drowsy guests.
It was growing late, but some of the boys in Tagnet's cult were still out and roaming through the streets waiting for the signal to gather at Tagnet's house and help conceal the evidence of his fatal feast. When the guardians carried him out of the house and marched up the hill toward the place of confinement, Tagnet heard a gasp and looked up to see one of his cult members staring at him.
He made the sign of appeal with his free hand and saw the youth hurry away with a purposeful stride. Before a sufficient force could be gathered to attack the guardians and free him, he was secured and well guarded.
Tagnet brooded in the narrow cell. Without the hot baths and massage Ingra provided, his crippled leg burned with pain. A knocking sound on the wall at the rear of his cell finally attracted his attention. It was a coded signal he had prepared and taught his followers.
He gave the response and heard the signal that there were those who would help him. Talar and others of his most devoted cadre of followers had not been taken into custody. Surely they would find some way to rescue him. His failure to kill the members of the council had been a setback, but he would not be utterly defeated.
The next morning a boy came with his breakfast and he recognized a member of the cult. "My mother has the job of cooking for the jail," the boy explained. "Tell me who I should contact and we will attack the jail and release you."
"I only need a few of my best people," Tagnet said."I will give you their names and you bring me word of what they say." In truth there were not many left that Tagnet felt that he could trust after his defeat. He gave the boy five names. It was likely there would be some falling away of those who had wavered and not entered into the plot wholeheartedly. Perhaps it was just as well that he winnowed out the weak and unsteady.
Chapter 5 Division
The Festival of Founding had grown each year, beginning with the first anniversary of the arrival of the refugees from Kishdu in Timora. That first year the festival had been a spontaneous gathering inspired by Tarsha's generous invitation for all to join her in a feast to celebrate the birth of her first child.
The weather in Timora permitted a year-long harvest, but many people remembered the harvest festivals of their homelands and when the next anniversary of the Founding came, it served the purposes of a harvest festival, a time of thanksgiving and celebration. The plans for this year's celebration had been set in motion many weeks before. The victory over the Ogandash and the widespread anticipation of the coming division of the lands had given impetus to elaborate plans for the fete.
Competitions of all kinds from races to cooking had everyone but Tagnet's cultists busy practicing their skills. Indeed the successful thefts of food and crockery of Tagnet's young thugs had been aided by the distraction of many of their parents as they practiced everything from songs to tumbling in preparation for the celebration. When day dawned on the morning of the Festival, the word soon spread that there was even greater reason to give thanks and celebrate. The story of the ill-starred coup that had failed late the night before soon spread to every corner of the vale.
Tarsha was up early, a credit to the antics of her youngest son who bounced upon her middle until he roused her. She found that Irilik was already up and readying his robes. Fortunately he had not been wearing his best robes the night before when he had tumbled insensate into the dirt of Tagnet's ravaged orchard. He had saved them for this day of festival.
His tunic and the robe that covered it were snowy white and gleamed even in the small dim room where he was boiling some water to steam out any wrinkles from their storage in a chest of sweet nop wood.
"This task belongs to me," Tarsha chided him mildly as she took the steaming kettle from him and set it on the hob. "You must go to the Shrine and check to see that Pardan has prepared the ritual offering of meal and wine."
I have already seen Pardan," Irilik said. "The poor boy asked to be released from temple duty and it took me most of an hour to change his mind. The wine for mixing with the potion Tagnet gave us came from temple vats."
Tarsha nodded. She knew that Irilik was distracted or he would not have shared as much as he had about the problems confided by Pardan. It seemed he had somehow saved the situation and convinced the young man to stay on. She was all too well aware of the youth's wandering eye, but it was hardly unusual for a young man to begin to notice women.
She checked her memory for a suitable maiden who could be brought to notice the shy acolyte. There were many youths and maidens who had followed the light as children and grown in the years since to adult age.
"I think you should encourage Kalinka and Falga to bring forward their marriage plans," Tarsha advised her husband."Their example would set others to thinking about the delights of marriage. When you divide the clans, it would be best if the young adults were paired and ready to begin a new life together in the new lands."
Irilik chuckled, then his face grew grave."I have another reason to have them marry as soon as possible. I sent Marek to Falga with a message only minutes ago. We soon should hear his answer."
The bell above the door in the main room sounded and Tarsha hurried to bind a sash around her waist and pushed her abundant hair under a scarf while Irilik went to welcome two guests into the house. She lingered long enough to greet Kalinka and Falga before taking her son Marek with her to the other room to fix breakfast for the younger children.
Irilik invited Falga and Kalinka into the robe room where he set the steaming pot beneath the post where he had hung his robe and tunic. The room was small and secluded from the main part of the house and Tarsha would protect their privacy.
"Please take a seat on that bench chest by the door," Irilik indicated when he turned back to them. "I have asked you here to make a request."
"I will do what you ask," Falga assured him.
"Both of you must agree or it cannot happen. I want to see the two of you married today."
Kalinka blushed and looked away. The events of the past two days had frightened her. Parlak had been rough when he turned on he and bound her hands and mouth. He made no secret of his plans to ravish her as soon as he had taken her to a shed near Tagnet's house.
When Tagnet ordered him to leave her unmolested until he used her to tempt Falga to join his cause, Parlak had nearly rebelled. Falga seemed once again to know what she was thinking when she turned away."Kalinka has just suffered a threat that could hardly make her welcome such an abrupt event. I will give her the choice of what she thinks is best."
"There must be a good reason why you ask such a thing," Kalinka said. "Perhaps if you would tell us why, I could agree."
Irilik frowned and rubbed his brow. "There are so many reasons you should marry soon that I hardly know where to begin. This morning Tarsha mentioned that when the division comes and the septs go forth to settle the new lands, it would be best if the many youths and maidens who have delayed their courting were given an example. She thinks that if we move your wedding ahead, it would inspire others to lose their inhibitions about marriage."
"But I have been planning my bridal furnishings for many months and there are still so much left undone," Kalinka muttered.
"You have to be ready to leave Timora on an hour's notice with nothing more than what the two of you could carry on your backs, and take a path where both food and water are scarce so that much of what you take must be provisions for the journey," Irilik warned her.
"In fact, regardless of the date of your marriage, I would advise you to begin to select what you can carry away instead of planning what you want to gather in order to furnish a permanent home here in the vale."
Kalinka grasped Falga's hand and he put his other arm around her shoulder. "I should have realized what the division would mean," she said. "I can remember how little any of us had when we came to Timora. It will be the same again."
"Not for all," Irilik assured her."Kumnor has provided us with many dalas. They should provide some transport for necessary furnishings such as looms and other tools, but you and Falga will be different from the others. If you are married, he can share his destiny with you. Parlak has not been seen since we took Tagnet's other men. I fear that he might abduct you if you have no protector."
Kalinka silently ticked off the reasons for her sudden marriage on her fingers. Irilik had mentioned three. She could add several others. Finally she nodded. "You may announce our marriage when you give the prelude to the festival. I will go home now and prepare. At least I my bridal clothing is complete and ready for the marriage ritual."
"I will walk with you until you reach Tedak's home, then I have preparations of my own to make," Falga said.
It was midmorning when the festival began. The people gathered in the great square before the Shrine. Irilik stood on the porch at the top of the wide stairs. The Shrine shown like a pearl behind him, but the brilliant white of his robe and the prayer scarf the color of Timora's lake set him apart like a crystal set in the center.
He raised his hands. The noise of the crowd dimished and silence ruled the square when he began the ritual prayer of thanksgiving and supplication that opened the celebration. When he lowered his hands, a hum of murmuring began, but he effectively stilled it by summoning Falga and Kalinka to stand before him.
Only a few knew that the wedding had been brought forward by a month or more but almost everyone approved. There was something very romantic about this sudden fruition of their plans. The couple joined Irilik in the wedding room of the Shrine. Tedak stood with Lira as the two required witnesses. When the ritual was concluded they stepped out to the wide porch of the Shrine and Kalinka raised her veil in signal that the covenant was complete. A roar of approbation broke out. Irilik waited for a while then once again signaled for silence.
"You know that by midsummer when these two had planned to marry, the septs will be separated over the face of Okishdu. If you are a youth or a maiden who has been too shy to speak to the person of your choice, you may never have the chance again. By the time this day is ended, I expect to see more than a few of you following the example of this pair."
There were chuckles and shouts of laughter approving his bold speech. Some were not so happy about the admonition to pair off. Parlak listened from a covert of blossoming vines. He had watched the marriage announcement with angry eyes. He had hoped it still might be possible to abduct Kalinka and compromise her, forcing her to marry him. There were old stories whispered of such a plot that had nearly succeeded years before. When she appeared on the porch of the Shrine and lifted her veil he knew his plot was futile. Before anyone could notice him, he slunk away.
Irilik summoned the other members of the council to meet with him late in the afternoon when the last laughing child had finally lost the energy to engage in games and had fallen asleep in the shade of a young nop tree. The prophet had slept little after stumbling back to his home the night before with the help of Kaldar. The other members of the council had each required the help of the guardians to reach their home. Almost the entire troop of Guardians was involved including those who had taken the rebels into custody.
Saaden was a little drowsy from the feasting of the Founding celebrations, but he asked the question that plagued all of them."Why did you not warn us that Tagnet intended to kill us all?"
"I consult the Eye of Adanan whenever there is an important decision to be made," Irilik explained. "Lately I have used it often while I planned the division of Okishdu among the clans. I knew there was danger involving Tagnet, but I was uncertain of the details. When Kapanadel escaped, she warned me of the means Tagnet planned to use and we alerted the Guardians."
"But Tagnet might have killed you while you were unable to defend yourself," Tedak said.
"The oracle device indicated that there was no real danger if I proceeded as I have," Irilik said. "I thought that it would be best to keep the secret of what he intended. Some of you might have urged that he be imprisoned on nothing more than the evidence of the oracle device. I wanted him to incriminate himself beyond all chance of doubt. His actions have long troubled me. He has the aura of evil, but as you know, I will not condemn men on such evidence alone."
"All of us have had difficulty observing the rules against gossip when it came to the issues raised by Tagnet," Janak said."He has been like a burr, irritating but clinging. Some of my sons have reported that he approached them with treasonous ideas."
"His abuse of the right to keep servants and the possibility that more than one of the women in his household serve as concubines is another concern," Kalmena added."There is ample cause for us to censure him, but his attempt to murder us is reason enough to condemn him to death."
"We have been blessed that such a necessity has not arisen before now," Saaden said.
"I am wary of the followers of Tagnet that we have not identified. Even if their leader dies, they will remain among us like a hidden disease."
Irilik stood and paced the council chamber. Years of responsibility for leading Timora had given him an air of gravity that belied his relative youth. He stopped and turned to face them. "I don't like the thought of performing an execution within the precincts of Timora. If Tagnet is sentenced to death, we must not display his body or deprive his dependants of a living place."
"I will take responsibility for Tagnet's dependants if he is found worthy of death," Arnath said. "Why did he think to rebel against us? He was granted more privileges than any other man. He would have received a full share in our family inheritance."
"He thinks of himself as the son of a god-king," Saaden said. "It seems that he has nourished the delusion that his father would welcome him if only he could return to Kishdu. I have long suspected that it was he who planned the mutiny before the ships were wrecked."
Irilik nodded and turned to the guardian who stood at the door."Bring the prisoner Tagnet to stand before us and answer for his crimes."
The council room was silent while they waited for the guardian to return with the prisoner. Falga slipped away to avoid his brother's notice. Each of the councilors had a reason to resent Tagnet's various intrusions on the rules and laws, both written and unwritten.
Tedak had been incensed when he found that Tagnet had sacrificed an orchard for the sake of show. Most members of the council suspected that Tagnet's female servants were largely consigned to concubinage by their master. It encouraged other men to evil practices that were against the laws and compacts that formed the basis of Timoran society.
When Tagnet limped into the council chamber, firmly held between two guardians, an angry buzz of muttered contempt erupted. Irilik held up his hand and signaled silence.
He addressed the prisoner."You are accused of attempted murder and treason. Do you have any answer to the charges that might soften the punishment we decree?"
Tagnet glared around at all of them and bared his teeth in a snarl of contempt. "I hold myself unbound by the laws of your city. I am a son of Algunagada, the chosen of Heaven and do not answer to your pretended powers and authority."
Saaden leaned forward and glared at his nephew. Tagnet had been a trial to his mother for many years until Virda had died, leaving her son Arnath as her heir and head of her clan.
"Your claim is false. All of us know that Algun was nothing more than pawn of the Noncil Wizards who duped him into betraying the ideals of the rebellion. He sent you away from his presence after marrying Calanin. If he survived the scourge, he doubtless is raising her first son to be his heir and would never acknowledge you."
His words made the traitor wince, but he soon recovered his audacious stance and sneered at the members of the council. "Hundreds are sworn to me. If you murder me publicly, they will rise against you."
Irilik turned and faced the others so that Tagnet could not see his eyes. "I will not soil the ground of Timora with an execution. Four days hence this traitor will be taken past the portals of the vale and made to pay for his crimes. Only a few men need be present to witness his death."
"This is irregular! " Tagnet shouted. "There must be a vote."
"Those who consider Tagnet guilty should so indicate," Irilik said.
To a person, the members of the council raised their hands. Tagnet looked around at them and spat on the floor where the mosaic formed a symbol of Timora that Irilik had received from the first guardians. "I see that my older brother joins in condemning me to death in spite of his promise to our mother. You will pay in blood if you carry out your sentence."
"Take him back to the prison and do not mistreat him," Irilik directed the two guardians. "After you have secured him, announce our decision throughout the city."
None of the council contradicted his orders while Tagnet was still present, but as soon as the great carved doors of the council chamber had swung shut behind his guards, Saaden stood. "I think we should have executed Tagnet without a public announcement. As it is, his minions will try to overcome the guards we set over him."
Irilik smiled and turned to his right. "Kaldar, you have been given charge of the Guardians. Are there any recent candidates who failed the test of the Stone of Truth?"
Kaldar nodded and stood to reply. The years had left only a slight trace of accent in the way he spoke, but he had learned the habit of slow enunciation to make certain he was understood. "Recently a number of young men have passed every test but the most vital. I have the names of four of them that I was about to notify of their failure."
"Hire them," Irilik said."Give them a few days of training, then put them in charge of Tagnet's execution detail."
"What folly is this?" Thalanon grumbled. "If they are part of his cult, they will aid his escape."
"Tagnet is not our only problem," Irilik reminded the others. "He has built a secret cult, many of them unknown even to one another. I doubt they are nearly as numerous as he pretends or he would have moved against the council openly instead of trying to poison us. If they liberate him and flee into the wilderness, as the Eye of Adanan has given me reason to expect, we will be rid of the worst of our problem."
His answer was followed by murmuring as the council considered his unual strategy.
Kapanadel had accompanied Kumnor to the council to give evidence if it were needed. Her eyes glittered with glee when she considered Irilik's plan to let Tagnet escape. "It will be like drawing the infection from an open wound. I doubt that any of Tagnet's cronies will stay in Timora once he flees.
"We will set guardians to watch the homes where those suspected of supporting his ambitions dwell," Irilik said. "Many innocent women and children will be forced to accompany the villains into exile, but perhaps, in time, they will help to moderate the hatred Tagnet has fostered. We will meet again on the evening that has been chosen for the execution. The Eye of Adanan will show us the fate of our traitor and his band."
"Is there anything else we can do to soften the blow of such a hurried exodus," Tedak asked the prophet.
"Be generous with gifts to those who may be forced to join Tagnet and his followers," Irilik said.
Saaden stood and turned toward the door to take his leave. He was stopped by Janak's broad hand on his shoulder. "We were to learn disposition of the lands of Okishdu on this day. Will you leave our assembly before you find out what inheritance has been assigned to your clan?"
Saaden turned and glared at his old friend."I had not thought Irilik would care to mix such matters with Tagnet's trial for treason."
Thalonon settled the issue."It would seem most efficient for us to settle the question of settlement while we are all met together. If you think it unseemly to mix the matters, then I propose we break for the evening meal and convene again within the hour."
Irilik turned to the other members of the council. "Are any opposed to Thalonon's suggestion?"
There was no dissent and soon the council members had adjourned to Irilik's house not far from the Shrine. As usual, Tarsha was prepared to provide them with an ample meal. Somehow she anticipated such digressions from the normal routine of the council and made shift with extra water in the soup, a few handfuls of seasonings and borrowed bread.
Her own brood of hungry sons, her oldest, Marek, three sets of twins and a rambunctious toddler, were swept off to dine with Kapanadel's children.
When the council reconvened, they were in a companionable mood. Irilik had received their requests and suggestions for settlement and had prayed and studied an equitable distribution of the resources of Okishdu. The threat that Tagnet represented had united their spirits. There were no petty disputes over minor boundary changes. They had only praise for the subdivisions Irilik displayed on a large map of Okishdu.
"We have no right to dispose of the lands to the south. They are the province of the people who once kept the vale of Timora from pollution by the cannibals and other wild tribes. The eastern coasts are not included in the division. None have asked to settle on the beaches where we first landed, and from what I have been able to determine, the marshes are already claimed."
He looked up at the other members of the council with regret in his face. For a decade he had hoped to receive some word of the people of Lamath. The Eye of Adanan indicated that they had found a refuge in the marsh, but no other proof had been provided that they had survived the storm that had ruined the fleet assembled for the crossing from Kishdu.
Irilik cleared his throat and continued."Janak has asked for the mountains in the northwest where there are indications of mineral wealth. I grant his clan the inheritance of the northern mountains, from the northernmost parts they can penetrate to the foothills on the south." He indicated the boundaries of Janak's inheritance and the doughty old soldier smiled.
"Kumnor and his clan have chosen the grasslands on the plateau east of Janak's inheritance. We have reports that great corums live there as well as fierce beasts that will challenge the bravery and resourcefulness of even such as Kumnor and his people."
Irilik moved his staff to indicate the pass at the foot of the eastern mountains where two rivers joined to form the broad Comor.
"Saaden will take his people to settle the plateau at the fork of the Comor. We must have fortification there to prevent the incursion of the wild tribes that would not see the Light of Truth."
Saaden nodded. He was not surprised by the assignment. It would be generations before his wisdom in choosing such a site would bear fruit, but in time it would make his people powerful. He uttered a silent prayer that they would use their power wisely.
The clan of Virda under the leadership of Arnath received title to the fruitful plains of the Comor. Tagnet was not there to warn them that in time they might find themselves vassals of Saaden's heirs. For the immediate future, theirs seemed the most desirable lot.
Tedak was granted his desire to control the wooded hills south of Saaden's inheritance. He had looked at the future with a keener understanding than Virda's sons and had appreciated the advantage of a defensible territory. With judicious handling, his people would be self-sufficient and not easily conquered. Tedak had seen enough of war to make him wary of promises of perpetual peace.
Taleek had traveled to study the low mountains that lay south of the broad valley of the Comor. Lead and tin seemed ample in the seamed rocks. It had not the same potential for wealth as the northern mountains, but neither was it as remote from Timora, nor as harsh. He was well satisfied when Irilik granted him what he had asked.
Sangin, Thalonon and Zedek were all pleased with the territories Irilik marked out for them. When the final assignment was made, Saaden studied the map and turned to Irilik."I see that you have left the valley of Timora for your own clan. It is fitting that you do so."
Irilik shook his head."I claim no land for my clan. Timora belongs to all the people who followed the Light of Truth. Kaldar's clan will stay here as guardians of the Sacred Vale along with any others who prefer to join him."
"Where will your people dwell?" Saaden asked.
Irilik lowered his gaze. The question had troubled him for many days once he had seen the necessity of preserving Timora as a sacred city for all the people. The answers that had come to him resonated with the ancient prophecies pronounced by Jaroth and Omnikar. They also explained the attraction he had once felt toward Elianin."I will write my scroll of prophecy in due time and you will be able to read the answer there. For now, and for generations yet to come, my people will dwell in tents among the other tribes. It will be their duty to remind others of their covenants to keep the laws and promises and to guard them on their pilgrimages to Timora. Those who live in Timora will serve in the Shrine and the sacred libraries, but they will have no more right than any other people to settle here and raise their families. They will be itinerant until the conditions for their settlement are fulfilled."
There was a grave silence as the others of the council considered Irilik's words. Tarsha broke the mood of reserve with a chuckle."I would welcome such a life. It has been my lot since childhood and I miss the joys of a nomadic existence. Unfortunately, I fear that Irilik will be the first of many to be condemned to continue living in Timora because he is the prophet and cannot be spared from his duties."
Irilik nodded."Tarsha has seen the truth of it. I cannot claim Timora as a territory for my clan, but I must continue on here, serving all." He looked around and smiled a little sheepishly. "In truth, I love Timora and welcome my duties if it means I can make this vale my dwelling place."
Smiles greeted his admission. Saaden stood. "I suggest that we adjourn this meeting and go to our homes. It is best if we will keep our plans for resettlement private until the matter of Tagnet's treason and the problem of his followers have been resolved.
During the next few days a fever of suppressed excitement ran through the city. Rumors flew and gossip flourished. Some women appeared at the homes of their parents with red eyes and fervent vows that they would remember what they had been taught, but they dared not reveal the causes of their sorrow. They borrowed packs and foodstuffs as their husbands had directed them.
Talar moped and vacillated in his loyalties. Kapanadel had not reported him for abducting her and conspiring in her supposed poisoning and he felt he owed her a debt. On the other hand, Tagnet's other trusted cronies seemed to blame Talar for the failure of the plan to poison the members of the council.
When Sangin approached him and said he had been accepted as a member of the guardians, he found a sop for his injured feelings. It was Tagnet who had suggested he make application to the elite group of men who were responsible for keeping the wild tribes from intruding in the vale, but he had not expected to be accepted.
His loyalty to the son of Algunagada wavered and waned as he found a new way to gain acceptance. When he was chosen along with a few others to guard Tagnet, he welcomed the chance to prove himself.
On the day chosen for the execution, the council gathered and waited for Irilik's plan to bear fruit. The guardians reported that suspected traitors, along with a few others who had never raised suspicions about their loyalties, had begun to pack their belongings and prepare for travel. They were fewer in number than Tagnet had bragged, but still more numerous than any of the council except Irilik had suspected.
The prophet could have named them to a man. There was a darkness about them that no others seemed to notice. As the time appointed for the execution drew near, Irilik and Tarsha prepared to take a reading from the Eye of Adanan.
While the other council members watched, Irilik placed tokens with the symbols of Tagnet and others who had been identified as members of his cult on the map where the light of the activated Eye of Adanan would shine.
Moments passed as the sun sank lower. The lenses and prisms of the oracle device began to glisten and shine as light danced and coruscated over the surface of the map in changing hues, concentrating purple and red around the tokens of Tagnet and his followers. When Irilik moved the tokens away from Timora, the colors of death and violence followed them. He moved them north and south with the same results. Finally, he moved them eastward and the colors changed to more promising hues.
The sun moved downward and the beams that scintillated from the Eye of Adanan dimmed and darkened until only the dim surface of the map was left. The council members left the narrow room in the spire and gathered in the council hall. "What does the reading mean?" Saaden asked.
"We must drive the traitors to the coasts where we first landed," Tedak mused."It has been Tagnet's stated goal to return to Kishdu. Where better to stage the attempt?"
"But there are no trees suitable for building ships on the eastern coast," Sangin said. "Furthermore, none of those identified as Tagnet's followers are competent sailors. A few of my younger men have joined the cult, but they know nothing of sailing. At best, they can feed themselves by fishing and gathering seaweed."
The sound of urgent voices at the door of the council hall ended their speculations about Tagnet. One of the guardians entered with Kapanadel close behind. It was Talar, his tunic dirtied and torn and a great bruise staining his brow.
"The traitor has fled," he cried. "When we were leaving the jail where Tagnet and the other members of the cult were confined, we encountered a crowd. They forced us back into the jail and released the other prisoners. The other guards were in league with the mob. When I tried to keep them from freeing Tagnet, they turned on me and beat me."
"How did you escape alive?" Kumnor questioned him. "Surely they must have known you would report what had happened."
Talar hung his head. "They thought I was dead," he muttered. Then he looked up and tried to reassure his chief. "I waited only until they had made their escape before coming to report."
Irilik caught the young guardian in his arms as he faltered and began to fall. The prophet staggered under the youth's great weight, only to be relieved by Kumnor and Kapanadel who set to work tending Talar's wounds.
Irilik turned to the others of the council. "We could easily pursue and intercept Tagnet and his fellow conspirators, but I am certain it is best to let them escape in the direction we choose. It would be a disaster if they settled in the fork of the Comor or some other redoubt. You have seen the indications of the Eye of Adanan. We will have peace if they can be driven to take refuge on the eastern shore."
"Rather than drive them directly, I think we should harry them with the help of those of our people who are natives of Okishdu," Saaden suggested. "If they suspect our aim, they might rebel against going where we choose."
Irilik nodded. "Summon those of your clans who would suit such a task," he informed the council. "They must be ready to leave Timora at daybreak before Tagnet has determined what course he will take. We must keep them moving to the east without an opportunity to plan."
Chapter 6 Orenon
The people who had mobbed the jail to release Tagnet and his cronies from captivity were well prepared for their flight from Timora. They had even procured a litter for the transport of their crippled leader. While Tagnet was carried over the eastern pass and through the darkness of the deepening night, he refined the plans he had been making while he waited for the members of his cult to rescue him.
The night was dark, but pale stones marked the trail ahead. Tagnet was determined to make his home at the fork of the rivers that formed the Comor, remembering the revelations of Elianin that Saaden preferred that location and Begna's reply that it had a strategic advantage from which to establish a base of power.
He had only a vague idea of the way that they should go, but one of the members of the cult was Janak's middle son, Tarm. He had made a copy of the map his father possessed and he was also one of the few who knew something about conditions outside the vale.
"Bring Tarm to me," Tagnet ordered the runner who accompanied his litter. The boy ran off and soon returned with the brawny young man at his heels. Tarm easily kept up with the pace of the litter bearers while Tagnet conferred with him.
"We should go on as far as possible tonight, but once we pass the quarry, the marking stones will stop," Tarm said. "Old Ponswit claims to remember the trails from when he came here years ago, but it might be better to make camp at a place I discovered one day while my brothers were shunning me and took no notice when I wandered off."
"You were brave to leave their protection when the Ogandash still wandered near Timora," Tagnet said.
"The Ogandash were not my enemies," Tarm said. "The place I 'll lead you to was once one of their camps."
Tagnet's eyes widened but he did not want to pursue the questions Tarm's revelation raised. Even he was loathe to accept a cannibal among his people, but Tarm was too valuable to spare. Whatever the sullen young man might have done as a friend of the fiendish warriors, it was over and buried with the Ogandash.
Tagnet ordered men to follow at the end of the troop and erase the signs of their passage, but in the darkness it was a futile task. Tarm led them up a rocky slope and across a ridge until they found a narrow canyon.
"I doubt that even my brothers could find us here," Tarm confided to Parlak when everyone had found a place to settle down and sleep.
"I doubt they 'll even guess we've gone for good until well into tomorrow morning," Ponswit said. "I spread the rumor that we were going out to gather wild nuka fruit. They 'll find that fool Talar when they go to the jail to feed the other prisoners. I wonder why he turned against us at the last."
"Have you noticed any others of Kumnor's sept who chose to join us?" Parlak said. "They are all too stupid to see the truth of what Tagnet teaches. Irilik's magic tricks and vain imaginations have them captive."
Tagnet sent someone to tell them to be quiet and only Tarm was left to keep the watch. He looked around him in the dark and seemed to see the ghosts of the five warriors who had found him two years before when he was just becoming a man. At first he though they would kill him, but they talked to him instead. They said they had watched the quarry and had seen how he was outcast, never quite the same as the other brothers. Their chief offered him a chance to make a new family of the Ogandash. He met with them whenever he could sneak away. He was initiated into dreadful secrets, and taught the ways to invoke the demon Orqu with special herbs. In return for his life, and acceptance into their warrior order, he had promised to help them enter the vale secretly and take vengeance on Menad, their most hated enemy since his desertion earlier that year.
He had dreamed of sharing their bloody vengeance, but he had failed. In the end his courage had deserted him and when the last warriors had gathered to make their final rush, he had blurted out a warning to his brothers who were walking into ambush. There was only one way to assuage the warriors ' angry ghosts and he had sneaked out to the pit where the last of them were buried and vowed to give the demon what he needed.
Now he seemed to hear their voices prompting him. He reached into the pouch where he kept the herbs they had given him and took the acrid mixture on his tongue. He chewed and soon the visions came.
When morning came Tagnet called for Parlak. Someone remembered that they had last seen him in company with Tarm. "He grew frightened of the unknown challenges we face," the youth explained to Tagnet.
Disgruntled with the desertion of one he had come to count on, the leader looked around. "Are there any more among you who are weak and would go back? Step forward."
There was something in his eyes and voice that warned even the most timid of the folly of responding to his challenge. There was near silence in the camp as they turned to their tasks of readying themselves for the journey that lay ahead.
Tarm was tired but still filled with memories of the night. He was not certain where the visions ended and where his own actions began, but it had been easy enough to lure Parlak to return to the burial pit with tales of buried treasures. The sacrifice was made and for a while he would be free of ghosts.
Before the end of the second day on the trail, the harassment by natives began. They did not show themselves, but fired arrows and threw rocks and spears from the shelter of rocks and trees.
Tagnet's company traveled north once they left the canyon, crossing a series of low hills in the afternoon. It was not one of the routes marked on the map, but Ponswit said he remembered the way. At nightfall they topped one of the higher hills and saw a mountain range blocking their way in the north. As soon as they made camp, Tagnet called a council of Ponswit and Tarm along with several other men including Bushat and Poran, his burly litter bearers.
"The way to Saaden's choice of lands will not be easy," Tagnet said."Should we attempt to find a pass through the mountains, or should we circumvent them by traveling to the west?"
"We should have brought a native," Ponswit said.
The comment earned such a glare from Tagnet that the old man quietly retired from the council. Finally it was Tagnet's decision to go west and avoid the possibility of becoming lost among the ridges and valleys of the looming mountains."We will push our pace and travel without stopping," he said, confident that he would continue to be carried by the strongest of his men.
The first problem with his plan was the presence of many women and small children among the people who followed him into exile. His own practice of concubinage had been imitated by most of the men who were attracted to the cult of Algunagada. It impeded the swift march he had intended to make.
"We should leave those who cannot keep up the pace or we will be overtaken by our enemies from Timora," Tarm observed.
Tagnet nodded."Tomorrow I will give the order that only the most hardy of the women will accompany the leading force. Children are a liability in the wilderness and should be left behind with the less sturdy women."
Bushat, a sailor from Vishang, one of Tagnet's litter bearers stood and glared around. "I have followed your example Tagnet. Otherwise, I would not have three women and five small children out there in the camp. Rather than leave them undefended, I will return to Timora."
"Kill him Tarm! " Tagnet ordered, but before the burly youth could draw his knife, Poran hurled himself in front of the standing man and drew a knife.
"I think you will find that most of us would rather desert you than leave behind our families," Bushat said."From what I have seen, you would be left with little more than a pack of brawling boys like Tarm."
Tarm had recognized the folly of attacking both men once Bushat's burly companion leaped to defend his friend. Tagnet was useless in a fight and the two other men had edged backwards out of range, clearly unwilling to aid him against the litter bearers.
"You can 't afford a rebellion now," Tarm said. "I would readily sacrifice a woman to necessity, but others are not as strong in their belief in Algunagada."
Tagnet's eyes darted around the dim confines of the tent. Of the five men he had asked to join him in council, two were staring at him defiantly, two were avoiding his eyes. It seemed that only Tarm supported his position, and Tarm had an scheme of his own that was not always congruent with Tagnet's interest.
"We will keep the women and children with us as long as they do not slow our pace," he finally granted.
"We can assure you that they will be able to keep up with your litter at least," Bushat said with a smirk."Unless, that is, you want others to serve as your bearers."
Tagnet held back a snarl. It would do no good to further antagonize one of the few men with the skill to handle a litter easily. He had tried to recruit a other men of equal ability, but Bushat and Poran were the only skilled litter bearers who saw advantage in accepting the cult. Both of them were men hung between loyalty to the women they had married and other women who had caught their eye. In the practice of concubinage, sanctioned under Tagnet's rules, they found a way to have both.
"I will select those I think will make the best warriors and train them to fight," Tarm offered. "They can hold off the attacks of the natives until we find a place of refuge."
"Do so," Tagnet said. He should have reprimanded the boy for making a declaration of his intent instead of asking permission, but at the moment Tarm was the only sure ally he could count among the men gathered in the tent. He reached for the dark cloth that he used to conceal his face and mumbled the ritual of obeisance while the men all bowed flat to the earth before him. It was an imitation of something he had witnessed among Algunagada's wizards in Kishdu, but without the devotion he had received from Parlak and Talar it all seemed hollow. In Timora he had ruled his cult without counsel or councilors. Now he was forced to seek the advice of others and it grated on his self conceit to do so.
He was enraged that virtually every one of the men who were bowing so obediently at his feet had defied him in one way or another within the past few minutes. He wondered why Talar had turned against him. He had been such a willing dupe and strong enough to cow the others into submission. When he dismissed them and they filed out of the tent, he brooded over the loss of power he had suffered. Finally he sounded the whistle that would summon Ishabal.
She entered the tent on her hands and knees, but more because of the low door than from any act of obeisance. She gave him a calculating look that was so close to contempt that Tagnet snarled and hit out at her with his cane. She easily evaded his attack and took his feeble weapon away to set it near the wall of the tent.
"Do not blame me for your troubles," she said. "You must have known that it would be unwise to try to leave the women and children behind."
"How did you learn of the secret discussions of the council?" Tagnet demanded. "Doubtless Bushat and Poran were all too eager to tell how they defended their straggling harems."
"Both of them were quiet about what happened, as was Tarm," Ishabal said. "It was one of the others who broadcast your shame. I can tell you that it was just as well you backed down and did not try to enforce your order on the entire troop."
"I should have given the order without letting anyone know ahead of time," Tagnet insisted.
Ishabal shook her head."You would have found yourself abandoned by all of the family men. What good would it do you to lead a troop of boys into the wilderness with your well-known abhorrence of native women. You might have waited and raided the other septs when they settled, but even a whole man would have been challenged to keep those delinquents ensorceled with dreams of Kisdu when they were hungry and had no prospects of anything but banditry."
Tagnet growled in his throat, but he was forced to admit she had seen the flaw in his plan. Those men willing to abandon Timora for the sake of gaining Kishdu had a different point of view from the wild younger men who saw only an opportunity to rebel against the strictures of their parents. The family men all had memories of life in Kishdu and for them it was Irilik who was the upstart who had unsettled their world. They were unbelievers from the beginning, usually recruited as part of the soldiers who had followed Algunagada's trusted generals into exile.
They formed the core strength of his cult and had been responsible for planning the exodus from Timora in an efficient and orderly manner. He could not spare them. "My leg is aching," he complained, trying to distract Ishabal with an appeal to her pity, a ploy he had found useful in the past.
"You are the one who decided you would not let us bring Ingra along just because she was born in Okishdu of native parents. I will do what I can, but I never claimed skill as a healer. It is unfortunate you did not set one of these oafs to kidnap Kalinka. She has as much skill as her mentor Kapanadel by now."
"If you can 't give a decent massage, at least spare me the edge of your tongue," Tagnet muttered. In spite of his rude reproof, she chuckled and began to work on his knotted muscles.
Alone of the women he had managed to seduce into his service, she retained a spark of independence. Ironically, she was the only one of his concubines who had followed him into exile he cared to spend time with. He found himself relying more and more on Ishabal. She had more cunning than most of those he had enlisted in his cause, but nothing could overcome her basic handicap of being born a female. The thought of Ingra reminded him of another woman who had been left behind.
"Why did my wife, Farol, refuse to join you," he asked Ishabal.
"I didn't think to tell her," she answered with a shrug. "You promised me that I would be first among your women. What need have you of such a weakling?"
"Farol is Calad's sister," Tagnet said. "I'm surprised he didn't tell her what was planned."
"All who knew our plans were sworn to secrecy. Calad is one of the few that you can truly count on for honoring your father as a Godking, he would not betray the cult, even to his sister."
Tagnet pouted for a moment. Farol had been the first to offer him succor when his mother died. The years had aged her and Ishabal was far more attractive, but he wondered briefly if Farol would try to follow him into exile.
Tarm worked to turn the boys into warriors, but they lacked an essential requirement of an effective army, they resented discipline and worked at evading duties. It seemed the natives were more interested in driving Tagnet's people away from their lands than they were in capturing or killing them.
The attacks were never fatal, but they ensured that the exiles kept moving without an opportunity to recoup and plan. The days passed without making any progress toward the goal of the fork of the Comor. The attacking natives seemed to come from every side, but most especially from the north and west. Tagnet began to worry that they would run out of food before they attained their goal of finding someplace they could settle. He would not call a council again, fearing to lose whatever authority he still had.
The harassment grew more intense and for two days and three nights it was unrelenting. Tarm's discipline over the younger men utterly failed and the entire troop fled like stampeding corums along the line of least resistance. The attacks finally eased. When the troop finally came to a halt, they were too exhausted to do much more than drop to the sand and cover their heads before falling asleep.
Tagnet had slept as he needed in his litter and he was the only one left awake in the haphazard camp. He looked out over the featureless wasteland and consulted his map but he could make no sense of it. Tagnet suspected they had passed close to the route that marked the way to the fork of the Comor on the second night when the harrying of the natives seemed endless.
Sometimes it seemed almost as if his people were being herded, but he dismissed the thought. Surely, if Irilik had wanted to intercept them, he would have sent Saaden and a troop of trained soldiers.
The people slept for hours after the sun rose with only the mothers of small children rising to find something for their babies to eat. The food stocks were nearly exhausted, but skills of gathering wild bulbs and small animals were not forgotten and there was enough to take the edge off the hunger of everyone by the time the entire camp was awake."Now that the natives are gone, where do we go?" Ishabal asked.
Tagnet struggled out of his litter and limped to the top of a rise. He looked around at the all too familiar scrub land that surrounded him. The whisper of surf came from the direction of the rising sun.
Ishabal climbed the small rise to join him."I remember this place, we are near where we landed when we fled Kishdu. I was a girl, not yet old enough to catch the eye of any man, but somehow I was saddled with the task of carrying younger children on my back. What do you intend to do now? How will we survive?"
Tagnet refused to answer her insolent question. She had become a common nag, her once luxurious hair limp and dusty and her lush figure reduced by the constant forced march and short rations of their journey. He pushed her aside and limped back to his litter. "Poran, Bushat, come and carry me."
His bearers carried him to the edge of the cliffs that guarded the beach below. A stream ran across the beach, emptying its fresh water uselessly into the briny sea. Tagnet raised his hand and summoned his people forward."We will make our stand on the beach below. Those who have been trained by Tarm will fight if natives come against us. Those of you who have tools will build a holding pond for the stream. The others should gather food. In time we will build a ship and return to Kishdu."
"How will you build a ship, master?" one of the men asked."There is nothing but driftwood on the beach."
"We will gather whatever wood there is and save it until we have enough to build a ship," Tagnet said. "Until we have enough to build ships, we will build towers with the wood we find and keep watch for Algunagada. If he comes for us, we have no need for ships. Until then, we will dwell here in a place I will call Orenon."
He set some of the men to work gathering drift wood and when there was sufficient for a tower, Tagnet directed that it be fashioned to resemble the golden towers of Renon. Other men who found wood kept it to build watch towers of their own, competing with one another to achieve the tallest structures. As the days passed the beach was marked with the ungainly structures.
While the men and boys worked on their towers and talked of the glories of Renon, their women went about the business of clothing, feeding, and housing their families. The stream provided enough fresh water to drink and cook with. Poran's wife, Janala, was a native of Taliafa, a fishing village in Renon, and she had knowledge of how to exploit the bounty of the coastal waters which were filled with seaweed and fish of every kind.
The stones of the fallen cliff that Tarsha had crossed on her wild journey to rescue Irilik were laced with tidal pools where shell fish grew in abundance. A couple of skeletons of great sea creatures had been cast ashore. The men disdained using the bones to build their towers, but when the few tents they had brought with them began to wear out and ravel, the women gathered sand and bound it with a glutinous excretion from sea creatures that clung to rocks near the shore. They constructed domed structures supported on the ribs of whales and covered with a felt made of crushed reeds and seaweed.
It was the work of desperation to survive, but when the demands of sheer necessity were met, craft and art entered the field and beauty became a value to be considered again. Within a month of settling in Orenon, the desperate camp blossomed into a community
Chapter 7 The Journey
In Timora the leaders of the teams sent to harass Tagnet and his followers reported back to the council. Kaldar had directed the campaign. "I doubt Tagnet will attempt to return and take the fork of the Comor, but it would be wise for Saaden to secure the plateau before the wild northern tribes descend and take it for their own."
"How are your plans progressing?" Irilik asked his old friend.
"We should be ready to move by midsummer," Saaden said. "I could almost thank Tagnet for the impetus his rebellion gave us. Those families who lost their sons and daughters to his cult have mourned their loss, but it is as Kapanadel predicted. Those left behind seem more determined to seek the truth. The defection of a child to evil is one of life's terrible burdens, but there are few parents who have not tasted the pain of youthful rebellion."
Janak nodded. He was a hard old soldier, but his eyes were suspiciously moist. He had been proud of his sons and had harbored a secret sense of superiority to Saaden whose only son had rebelled and committed a terrible crime before they left Kisdu. Now he repented his pride and recognized his error. Tarm had been quiet and not as much trouble as his boisterous brothers, but evidence was accumulating that he had long been a tool of the Liar.
It was Tedak who had discovered Parlak's body shallowly buried above the Ogandash in the pit that had once guarded against their invasion. Menat had detected the signs of a ritual sacrifice on the body and discovered the name that was carved on the chest.
"The old evil I hoped was dead is alive and the worship of Orqu continues," he confided to the others where were summoned to witness the scene.
Janak had been with his other sons coming back from the quarry when the grisly remains were discovered. He stopped to examine the scene from mere curiosity, but his gaze was drawn to the scarf that had been used as a garrote to stun the victim. He could not ignore the symbol that his wife had embroidered in the corner of the scarf she had made for her middle son.
The only septs that had not suffered a loss to the cult were those of Kaldar, Kumnor and Irilik. The community united in reviling the practices of the cult that Talar revealed. Once returned to the fold of his family and accounted a hero by all, he had become a pattern of virtue, almost too zealous in his attempts to prove himself worthy of trust.
He dogged the steps of Kapanadel, offering her his apologies until she was almost ready to box his ears. Kaldar had assigned him to watch duty while most of the guardians were involved in herding Tagnet's people to the eastern wastelands. He reported every infraction of the rules to the council until Irilik had finally pulled him aside and counseled moderation in pursuit of his duties.
"We have rules and laws, but we must use common sense as well," the prophet said when Talar reported a couple for public indecency when he had seen them stealing a kiss in a secluded bower. "I am trying to encourage courting We want many marriages made before the settlement begins. I suggest you find a young woman who pleases you and pursue her with the same ardent energy that you have spent on prosecuting the law."
The prophet's words were law to Talar and soon he was betrothed. He chose Tagnet's native servant, Ingra, for his bride. He knew better than most that she had remained a maiden while in Tagnet's house.. He was married soon after and there was general rejoicing. In addition to those who simply wished the young couple well, there were those who felt Ingra would distract Talar from his over zealous approach to his duties.
While others proceeded with plans meant to come to fruition within a few months, Falga and Kalinka were refining the contents of the packs the prophet had warned them to prepare. It had been a little more than a month since the attempted coup and they felt a sense of urgency increase with every passing day.
Kalinka gathered a sampling of various substances and herbs and followed Kapanadel around asking questions about symptoms and remedies. Falga spent every spare moment that he was not serving to curb Talar's enthusiasm in copying the various sacred books and the laws and promises in small replicas of the scrolls that Irilik used for his scroll of history and prophecy.
Tedak prepared a fragrant box of nop wood just big enough for the rolled scrolls that encompassed his copying. "I pray you will not need the disguise of a box shaped like a loaf," Tedak said with a smile of reminiscence. "I know that few would count me an old man, but it seems ages ago that I fled from Oliafed with Irilik carrying the sacred words of the old prophets in boxes carved like bread."
One afternoon Irilik summoned the couple to come to the Shrine an hour before sunset. He greeted them warmly and led them up to the small room where the Eye of Adanan was usually consulted. Instead of removing the oracle device from its resting place on a shelf in the pedestal, Irilik took a seat on one of the crescent-shaped benches and indicated to Kalinka and Falga that they should sit down facing him.
"I could make a reading, but I don 't think I will," the young prophet said. "It can become too easy to begin to depend on instruments and other external signs. I have been reminded of this recently by Talar's zealous pursuit of the letter of the law. You will be going to a place where you will have no law but your covenants with the Radiance. You will have no devices or stones to affirm the truth. You will have to depend on the light of truth within you, and there will be great darkness trying to draw you down and destroy your mission."
"We are going to Tagnet in Orenon," Falga stated. The truth had come to him by increments, but something inside of him finally witnessed that this was the answer to the hints he had been seeing since Irilik named him to the council.
Irilik nodded."The first time I began to glimpse the truth of your destiny Falga, was when an accident that was no accident led to the reading of your path when the council was gathered. It was not the Eye of Adanan or the Stone of Truth that let me know you should be ordained and assigned a sept. It was the whisper of the Radiance in my soul."
Kalinka nodded. She had also guessed that Tagnet's refuge on the coast would be their home. "Tedak and I have talked about the risks that Falga and I will face. He said that one of the cultists is worse than all the others. It seems that the cult of Orqu is still alive. Someone among the people gathered on the coast is a cannibal."
Irilik's smile faded and he bowed his head. When he looked up again, his face was grave. "It seems old evils never die. There is reason to believe it may be Tarm, Janak's middle son. When you go to Orenon, you will have no official capacity to interfere with him. You may meet with persecution and imprisonment. I cannot guarantee that you won 't die. Knowing this, are you still prepared to go?"
Falga reached for Kalinka's hand and squeezed it. They nodded with one motion of their heads. "We have gathered all we need," Falga said. "We will begin our journey as soon as you tell us to go."
"You must begin tonight," Irilik said."I have felt this pressing on me, but I have waited until the Radiance spoke to my soul and said it was time."
Falga and Kalinka left quietly after the community had gathered for the evening ritual. Ralk, Arnath, and Tedak walked with them for the first few leagues of the track that led from the vale. They paused at the top of the pass and exchanged last words of affection and advice. The night was warm and clear. The light of a full moon reflected from the white stones that lined the pathway and they glowed with light.
"We will probably make camp in a few hours when we grow tired," Falga said. "The maps we carry are the best that could be made, but there must be some reason Irilik urged us to start tonight."
They said their farewells and started out along the track. In the past weeks the marked path had been extended well beyond the quarry as part of the planning for the settlers. Several hours passed but neither suggested they should stop and make camp. It was Falga who finally called a halt. "We should rest now or we will be too tired to walk tomorrow. We 'll make better time when it is light."
Kalinka yawned and stretched and turned to face Falga. Her eyes were caught by a flickering light. "Someone is already making camp out here. Perhaps we should see who they are."
"They could resent our arrival at such an hour," Falga cautioned. "It must be nearly midnight."
"There is someone moving near the fire," Kalinka said. She squinted and gasped."The person by the fire has fallen. Come, they must be in need."
Falga followed after her as she dashed toward the flame that had suddenly leaped brighter. He tripped in the darkness but he rose and helped support his wife when she also lost her footing. Only a brief time passed before they ran into the camp where a woman struggled to put out the flames that rose around her, consuming her clothing.
Kalinka ripped off her over skirt and wrapped it around the woman while Falga tried to beat out the flames. They swiftly doused the fire, but Falga's hands and the woman's lower body were both burned.
Kalinka poured cold water on their burns to take out the heat, then she reached into her pack and removed a small bladder of ointment. She had been wearing a second skirt under the first as a means of saving baggage. It had been too warm for the fair weather, but now she was grateful for the caution.
The woman was shuddering and shocked. Kalinka did what she could to calm her, and by the time she had treated all the burns with ointment and given her an infusion of selan to drink, the stranger fell asleep. Falga's burns were not deep, but they were painful and he willingly took a dose of selan at Kalinka's urging.
"This must be why we were warned to leave tonight," Kalinka said."We will have to wait until morning to find out who the woman is and why she is out here all alone."
Falga barely nodded. Kalinka made a bed for him of piled grass and laid his bedding out. She had already provided for the comfort of the woman. By the time she had completed preparations for the morning and lay down by Falga to sleep the other woman and her husband were asleep.
She woke to the sound of the woman moaning and quickly rose and fetched water from the nearby spring to prepare another dose of selan. It was light enough to see the extent of the woman's injuries this morning and Kalinka was relieved to see that most of the burns were superficial. Unfortunately, the worst burns were on her legs. It was unlikely she would be able to walk for some time. Usually Kalinka used moderate doses of selan, but in such a case she felt justified in giving a dose that would make the woman fall asleep again so that she could examine her wounds and dress them without causing further pain.
Falga woke when she was nearly finished."Do you have some more of that medicine you gave me?" he asked with a voice made tight with pain.
"I will give you a small dose," Kalinka said, "but this woman may need most of what I have. She has burns on her legs that will take some time to heal. Your burns are more painful than dangerous. You could gain some relief with another remedy I have that will take off the edge of the burning feeling."
Falga gave her a wavering smile. He craved the ease of the more potent medicine, but he knew Kalinka would not ask him to make such a sacrifice without good cause."Bring me some of the lesser kind if you please."
"If you soak your hands in the spring it will help to cool them," she advised."When you are more comfortable, come back and I will treat your burns again."
He lingered for a long time letting the icy water of the mountain stream take the heat and hurt from his hands. When he finally lifted them from the water and looked at them, he saw that Kalinka had assessed them correctly. He would suffer for a day or so, but they were not charred, merely blistered and red.
By the time he returned to the camp, Kalinka had breakfast prepared and was waiting for the woman to wake. "It is Farol, Tagnet's wife! " Falga muttered with surprise. In the night it had been too dark to recognize her face, and this morning he was more concerned with easing his own pain than trying to recognize her swollen face.
"Yes, I realized who she was this morning," Kalinka said."The rebels left her behind, but she tried to follow. It seems she has barely managed to survive out here alone."
"You would think she would have recognized that she was better off without him."
Kalinka shrugged. For herself, she had never seen Tagnet's appeal, but there was ample evidence that he had more than most men. Otherwise it would be difficult to explain the number of women who had been willing to become his servants and concubines.
When Farol woke, she looked around and groaned."My clothing caught fire and I thought it was the end."
"You left Timora weeks ago," Kalinka said."I am surprised to find you only hours away from the vale."
Farol hung her head and began to weep. "I have tried to find the way, but I am lost. Once the path of stones was left behind, I wandered without knowing where to go. I must find Tagnet and tell him my good news."
"Good news?" Kalinka asked with raised brows.
"The years since our marriage have been barren and Tagnet blamed me. It was the reason that he turned to other women. In truth, the only one he usually favors is Ishabal, and she was the only one who went into exile with him. For a long time I believed I was at fault, but for two years no other woman he has known has conceived. Four months ago I visited Kapanadel."
Farol looked toward Falga and suddenly blushed. "This is not fit for other men to hear." Falga's hands were beginning to hurt again and he stood and left the two women alone while he returned to the cool water of the spring. As soon as he was out of the camp Farol continued her confidences to Kalinka.
"You know your mentor's skills and knowledge of herbs. You will hardly be surprised when I tell you that she gave me something to put into Tagnet's food before I purchased my wifely rights from Ishabal for seven nights." Farol gestured toward her waist where the swelling of her body was already visible and Kalinka nodded that she understood. "When will the child be born?"
"In five or six more moons I will give Tagnet a son," Farol declared proudly. Her head lifted and she smiled with grim satisfaction."When that happens, Ishabal will fall from grace."
"Perhaps she will conceive as well," Kalinka warned.
"Kapanadel told me that it was unlikely that her remedy would work, and certainly without it Tagnet is barren," Farol said. "Where do you think Ishabal would find the means to achieve what it took so long for me to do?"
Kalinka was torn with indecision. She had sworn to care for those who were sick and use her skills to heal. On the other hand, she felt that Tagnet's sterility had been a blessing. "Your burns are grave. We should return you to Timora."
Farol shook her head."I will die rather than let you take me back. Where are you going? Perhaps you could let me accompany you for part of the way."
"We are bound for the eastern coast where Tagnet and the other rebels settled. You will not be leaving this camp for many days until your burns have healed," Kalinka said. "We will stay here until you are better."
"No!" Farol said."We will go on. With the herb you gave me, I can stand and walk for a a little while. When the time has come for me to bear my child, I must to be with Tagnet."
"Very well." Kalinka moderated Farol's demand."We will rest here today and tomorrow, and then we will go on as you have said, a few hours at a time." Once she had agreed to the other woman's plan, Farol seemed content and accepted some food and water. When Falga returned from the stream Kalinka told him what had been decided. He shook his head at the thought of continuing so soon. His own burns were improved enough by afternoon that he was able to do some hunting. It seemed wise to extend their supplies to cover the three of them for some time to come.
For two days they camped and Falga tried to moderate Farol's insistence on continuing on to the coast. She refused to listen to anything he said and spoke only to Kalinka. After Farol fell asleep on the second night, Falga and Kalinka spoke.
"I had planned a quick trip to join my brother's people," Falga said. "It will take months instead of days if we must suit ourselves to the pace that she can keep."
"There must be some reason this has happened," Kalinka reminded him."If we had not set out exactly as Irilik said, we would not have been here to rescue her. I know it seems against reason and compassion to make a pregnant, injured woman walk so far, but it is her own choice. I cannot say whether her motivation comes more from gaining advantage over Ishabal or pleasing Tagnet, but she is stubborn and insistent about what she wants. I will not leave her unattended in any event. If you feel it is necessary to go to the coast immediately, then go ahead and look for us to join you in a few months."
"You know I can't leave the two of you alone without protection," Falga said. "I realize that you must stay with Farol, and I must stay with you. We might as well save the energy we 'd spend in arguing."
They set out the next day at Farol's insistence. It was not quite noon when she could no longer abide the pain. It was another two days before they could continue. The weather was fine and game plentiful. Falga's burns were soon entirely healed. Farol was not so fortunate. Her injuries might have been given a chance to heal if not for her stubborn insistence on continuing until overcome with pain.
Days passed, then weeks as they traveled north east. They had not yet gained the shadow of Mount Vald. Falga wondered if the trains of settlers would catch up to them before they crossed the pass that led to the grasslands that remained unclaimed. For Kalinka and Falga, it was a leisurely journey. They had no urgency to plunge into the intrigue that would meet them once they reached the coast where Tagnet ruled. Only duty drove them and their desire to care for Farol, stubborn as she was, was more urgent than the other need.
They had not expected to endure cold weather, but by the time they reached the mountains there was a chill of autumn in the air. They made camp for a few weeks while Falga hunted for wild corums to provide them with meat and wooly pelts. Kalinka kept busy every hour of the day setting meat to smoke and weaving a few warm blankets from the excess wool of the pelts. Falga bound the hides into a tent against the growing cold.
One evening they delighted in what seemed a milder turn of the weather. Falga and Kalinka left Farol inside the tent and found a sheltered covert where they could enjoy a few private hours with each another. Falga woke at midnight to the sting of falling snow on his face. He woke Kalinka who was nestled up against him and hastened her into shelter. When morning came the world around them had turned white and snow piled knee deep around the tent.
Farol became listless and dull-eyed even though her burns were healing. "I will never reach Tagnet in time," she mourned. "I will die in the wilderness with my child."
"Not if I can help it," Kalinka vowed."There are two months left before you give birth. By then we will be over the mountains and down to the coast."
She insisted that Farol eat. But the days of snow fall continued and the snow piled so high that they were forced to stay inside and rely on their stores of wood and meat. At last the weather broke for a few days.
"We should try to reach lower ground while the snow holds off," Falga suggested.
"Farol is too weak to make such a journey," Kalinka murmured.
"We can fold the tent and put her on top of it. I will pull her over the snow," Falga insisted. "If the snow is so deep this early in the season, who knows how high it might drift. We could be suffocated in our tent."
Farol seemed indifferent to their efforts. She mutely followed Falga's directions and huddled on top of the collapsed tent with bedding heaped on top of her. Kalinka took turns pulling the makeshift sled across the plateau and down the first milder grades of the pass, but when they reached the steeper slopes, Falga walked behind the loaded hide and braced himself to keep it from descending too rapidly. At last they struggled through the high drifts to lower ground where the snow was sparse.
It had taken them most of a day to make the journey, but it seemed that they would soon make better time now that they were on the grasslands. Falga shook the ice and snow from the hides of the tent and set it up again.
"We will camp here for a day or two and then make a drive toward the coast," he told the women.
"We must go on tomorrow! " Farol insisted."I can wait no longer. The child is coming."
"It is too early. At least a month or so remains," Kalinka protested.
"I hoped I was wrong," Farol moaned, "But I have been experiencing waves of pain since we started down the pass. You must give me something to stop the birth."
"There are certain herbs that might have helped you, but I did not think I would need them right away. Kapanadel told me I could find them near the coast."
Farol gave a groan of pain and frustration."I wanted Tagnet to witness that this is his child from my body. Now he will accuse me of getting it from another woman and trying to trick him with a stranger's son."
"We will tell him that you bore the child," Kalinka tried to reassure her.
"Why should he believe either of you?" Farol asked. "He offered both of you a place beside him, but you refused to acknowledge his ascendancy. Save me the humiliation of your guarantee. I would rather stand alone and take my chances. I will fight to keep this child from being born too soon."
She tried to sound defiant, but her voice had died away as another of the birth contractions overcame her. The vessels in her face swelled as she fought against it.
"I should have prepared you to endure," Kalinka muttered. "Do not fight the pressure, relax and let your body work. It will be easier if you do."
Farol did not listen. She seemed to count Kalinka as her enemy and deliberately ignored her counsel as the night wore on and morning came. Falga tried to give what assistance he could, but his presence disturbed Farol and he decided at last that he would serve both women better by occupying his time with useful tasks. He gathered branches from the low shrubs surrounding them to feed a fire and lured a few cories into a trap to provide tender, freshly roasted meat for the evening meal on the second day of Farol's struggle against giving early birth.
"You are weakening yourself," Kalinka pleaded with Farol as the hours wore on. It was nearly midnight when Falga heard a thin wail from the tent and shortly afterward Kalinka cried out his name. He rushed into the tent and found Kalinka holding the tiny baby. It was almost blue in color and seemed still and lifeless. He was shocked to see Kalinka slap it sharply on the back but it coughed and gave another cry.
"Take the babe and keep it warm." Kalinka commanded as she shoved the child toward him. It seemed hardly larger than the conies he had roasted and he stepped back in recoil.
"This is no time to be squeamish, Falga. I must fight for Farol's life. She is spilling her life's blood."
Falga picked up one of the blankets Kalinka had woven and wrapped it around the tiny boy. This was his nephew, and he felt the kinship tie. He had never liked Tagnet, but this was Virda's grandson. It was almost as if his departed mother was standing at his shoulder and giving him counsel and comfort while he tucked the bundled infant under his tunic and held him close to his chest. With one finger he stroked the tiny, downy cheek and felt the baby nuzzle at his knuckle as if to find something to eat.
Kalinka needed to focus all her attention on Farol and Falga left the tent and found shelter near the campfire he had lit. Hours passed and the child seemed willing enough sleep quietly nestled against his uncle's body. Once he woke and began to root around until Falga put the knuckle of his little finger near the baby's cheek. The child began to suckle strongly and push his petal hands against his Falga's arm.
"You 've got the will to live," Falga chuckled. "It is too bad you 've such a father. You 'd almost be better off an orphan."
"He is an orphan now," Kalinka muttered wearily from the opening of the tent.
Falga looked up and saw her settle slowly to her haunches."I failed to save her. She was already weakened and she fought the birth so hard that there was no strength left in her at the end."
"Do you think her scheme to win back Tagnet from Ishabal would have succeeded?" Falga asked.
Kalinka shook her head. Then she looked toward the tiny lump he held beneath his tunic."I 'm almost afraid to ask. How is the baby?"
"Virdun is doing very well," Falga pronounced.
"You 've given him a name?"
"It is one Arnath decided not to use. Otherwise, it would have been the name of the first male grandchild in our family. This little boy has much to face. At least he should be honored with my mother's name."
"But the name 'Virdun ' also honors your father," Kalinka protested.
"So it does. I will honor what Algun was before his head was turned by the lure of power. Tomorrow we will give his mother a funeral and officially give Virdun his name. Until then, what should we feed him? He has been trying to get something from my knuckle."
"Your knuckle should suffice for a day or so at least. What his mother would have given her baby in the first few feedings would have been little enough in volume that he will hardly suffer the lack. I will make a suckle pouch for him and you can try your hand at finding a corum cow with a calf and taking her alive. That should occupy your time for a day or so at least."
The next morning after he had performed the funeral ritual for Farol and the naming ritual for Virdun fortune seemed to favor Falga. He lit a pyre to burn the body rather than dig a grave in the frozen soil and left Kalinka sleeping with the infant nestled in her arms.
He topped a rise and saw a herd of corum. Only a few raised their heads and stared at him, incurious from nearly a decade of ruling supreme in their land. He lowered himself to his belly and crept closer, armed with a weapon that only the guardians had learned to use. It was a tube formed of several sections and the darts he blew from it could be tipped with either poison or a stunning drug.
A young, relatively small cow with a late born calf grazing near enough the edge of the herd made a convenient target. Falga edged closer to make sure of a good shot. He lifted the tube and inserted the dart, then blew it with a quick, forceful puff of breath. For a moment or so it seemed he might have missed and the cow went on grazing placidly. She took a step forward and her knees buckled. After she fell, her calf began to nudge at her and bleat.
Falga stood and waved his hands and snarled like a wirra. The lead cow startled and began to run. All the other corums followed after her in a stampede away from Falga. The calf hesitated, then ran a few steps with the herd. Falga gave the low call of a cow corum and the calf came to a halt and returned to its mother.
Kalinka was just waking when Falga returned to the camp leading the calf on a line. The cow followed close behind. He held up one of the small bladders that Kalinka had emptied of medicine and cleaned some time earlier while they were still camped in the mountains. "I got some milk from the cow while she was still stunned. Do you have a suckle pouch ready?"
"I hardly expected you to return so soon!" she said as she hurried forward. "I'll prick a hole in the bladder and use it for now."
After tethering the calf some way from the camp, Falga brought bushes and wove them together with raw hide to form a compact corral. The cow was skittish at first, but she would not abandon her calf and when Falga tethered the calf inside the corral and lured her near with piles of grass, she seemed willing enough to accept the confinement of the corral.
"We might as well camp here until we are sure Virdun is thriving," Kalinka said when they had finished their various tasks near sunset.
Falga nodded. "I am no longer in a rush to get to the coast. We could easily pass the child off as our own if we linger here for another month or so."
"It would mean we would have to pretend that we had anticipated our marriage vows," Kalinka said. "It is hardly a way for a healer and a priest to begin their life in a new community."
"We could also turn back to Timora or join one of the other settlements and tell them the truth about Virdun."
Kalinka shook her head. "We have been given the charge to go to the coast and become part of Tagnet's community. I think the timing of our exit from Timora was ordained so that we could find Farol. I would rather risk my reputation than go against the leading of the Radiance."
Falga nodded."We will go to the coast. We will tell the truth to Tagnet. He will doubtless accuse us of lying about Virdun's parentage. But for the next few weeks, we will camp here and I will learn to milk our corum cow without stunning her with poison first."
Virdun was suckling with more eagerness than ease at the bladder. Finally he opened his mouth and let it slip from his lips, then stirred and gave a surprisingly noisy burp. A good portion of what he had taken came up and spattered Kalinka's one remaining skirt. Even so, she felt no real regret. It was almost as if the tiny boy had been born of her own body. Someday soon she would bear children of her own, but Virdun seemed somehow to be flesh of her own flesh.
A dull orange flicker from the nearby hillside was all that remained of the pyre that had burned through most of the day. It reminded Kalinka of the night after they left Timora when she had seen Farol's campfire almost as if by accident. The mother had finally died, but the child lived. What would he become with such a beginning?
Chapter 8 The Son
Weeks passed in the camp where Kalinka tended Virdun while Falga hunted for food and tested the skills Tedak had taught him by making a cradle and a back sling for the baby. The nights were cold but the days were warm from the shadeless sun. Falga's attempts to tame the corum cow so that she would allow him to take milk from before her calf suckled sometimes seemed futile, but he was able to get enough to feed the baby even though more was spilled in the process than he saved.
One morning he set forth with his cup expecting another bout of chasing the recalcitrant cow who still lingered near the corral where Falga kept the calf. The cow was grazing from a stand of spear leaf, somehow eating without suffering from the plant that left burning stings on Falga and Kalinka unless they were careful. Falga moved around the cow gingerly, trying to avoid the leaves himself.
To his surprise, she only stamped her hoof once or twice when he knelt to strip milk from one of her udders. Then she stood quietly and munched the spear leaf while Falga filled his cup. He let the cow into the corral to feed her calf and returned to Kalinka with the cup held high.
"I 've done it! The cow is nearly tame. Look, not a drop spilled."
Kalinka looked up at his exultant face and chuckled. "Give me the cup and I will prepare a suckle pouch for Virdun while you go back and peel some spear leaves for us to eat. I can see why Irilik enjoyed them so much when we were on the trail to Timora. It's too bad that the vale is too temperate to support their growth "
Falga put on gloves with gauntlets to protect his arms while he harvested the leaves. He had learned that the best leaves were those halfway up the plant, which were slightly sweet and delicately flavored. Younger leaves were bland and older leaves were tough and acrid. He had learned by experience to peel the leaves as soon as he broke them from the woody stalks and deftly made a slit lengthwise up the back and front of the leave, keeping as far from the toxic outer edges as possible, then peeled back the two halves with another quick movement. He soon returned to Kalinka with several of the hand sized cores and they ate them raw like fruit while Kalinka fed Virdun the corum milk.
Falga ate more than half of the spear leaf cores before he felt replete."If we could find a stand of these plants near Tagnet's village, we would not go hungry even if he refuses to share food with us."
Kalinka frowned."You seem pessimistic about our welcome. Perhaps it would be better if we made a home here until Virdun is older and can better stand the hardship we might face."
"Is that really what you want to do?" Falga asked. "You know I would not force you to
go on to the eastern coast and face the dangers Irilik forecast."
"I was a girl without the responsibilities of a child when Irilik warned us about the challenges of a life with Tagnet's people. Now that I have a baby to care for, I see that I was arrogant to put our children at such risk."
"It would be better for us to return to Timora or join my brothers in their village than to stay here alone if you prefer not to face the insecurity of the life I chose."
Kalinka put Virdun over her shoulder and patted his small back. He had grown chubby and had begun to grin and wriggle with joy when he saw either of them. A warm response rose in her whenever she saw his smile. It was a joy that she had never expected to feel for another woman's child.
She had enjoyed these weeks of closeness to Falga and Virdun with no other distractions, and it was difficult to face the uncertain future that she had once welcomed in her ignorance of what exile from her family would mean. She tucked a sleepy Virdun into his cradle without immediately replying to Falga's offer.
It might have been easier to rebel against Falga if he had given any indication of insisting that they continue on to the coast when he had tamed the cow enough to milk it dependably. Now that he left the choice up to her, she remembered Farol's anxiety that Tagnet acknowledge his son and her own resolve to accompany Falga wherever he was called to go.
"Virdun is Tagnet's child," she finally acknowledged. " Farol gave her life in the effort to take him to his father. It is a poor thing to wish on such a tiny mite, but he seems to be as stubborn as his mother. It might work well for him when he faces challenges."
Falga nodded and put his hand on her shoulder. He had been having second thoughts himself. Perhaps it would be better to break camp before both of them lost courage to leave this cosy refuge and face the people who had followed Tagnet into exile.
"We will go in three days, after Shrine day," he decided."We haven 't been observing Shrine day since we left Timora. It was my error. I must live up to every ritual requirement and not let myself become a slacker, or how can expect anyone to acknowledge me as their priest?"
"It would also be nice to have a day to rest before we leave this camp," Kalinka said. "Unfortunately for any plans I might have had to simply pray and take it easy, I must do the same for Virdun on Shrine day as on any other day of the week."
"I could help you care for him," Falga volunteered. "After all, there is no reason I can 't feed him and walk him and change the moss in his swaddling cloth."
Kalinka smiled and turned toward him."I really don 't count the things I do for Virdun as hard work. They are simply so relentless. Imagine what it will be like when I have children of my own to care for. I never really respected what Elianin and Tarsha have done, raising large families of active youngsters and still helping their husband's with their responsibilities. I can remember seeing Irilik with his sons on Shrine Day back in Timora and wondering why Tarsha could not take care of them and give him peace to worship. Now I see that he was setting an example for others."
"I don 't think Irilik thinks about setting an example when he takes care of his sons," Falga said. "He seldom has much privacy from those who want to gain his blessing or opinion on every petty concern of their existence. The boys serve as an effective deterrent when he has all of them with him."
Virdun stirred and began to whimper and Kalinka reached out her hand and rocked the woven cradle where he slept. A finger held before her mouth warned Falga that he should be silent until the baby found his fist to suck on and fell asleep again.
He nodded and left the tent. It was time to let the cow out of the corral where she could graze and prepare the campsite for the night to come. The next three days seemed to have half the hours that were required to prepare all that would be needed now that they had a child to care for. It was a challenge to observe Shrine Day in full measure when there was still so much remaining to be done, but from the rising of the sun until it finally lowered beneath the peak of Mount Vald, Falga and Kalinka restricted themselves to only those duties that could not be ignored. With Falga's help, Kalinka found herself relieved of many of the tasks of caring for Virdun and for the first time in weeks she truly relaxed.
They set out for the coast before noon the next day. Falga found that the calf was easily distracted once he let it out of the corral and at length, instead of trying to tie a leading rope around the neck of the calf, he tied it around the neck of the corum cow who had become accustomed to following Falga when he took her to the corral each night. There was much they had to leave behind. The cradle was impractical to bring along, and the cradle board that Kalinka had expected to wear was cumbersome. She resorted to tying Virdun next to her body in the front with a shawl. The baby had always enjoyed being walked, and he seemed quite content to sleep and eat the hours away as they walked toward the east.
Burdened as he was with the contents of both his own and Kalinka's pack so that she could carry the things required by Virdun, Falga was not able to hunt or gather as they traveled. They stopped early each night and made camp, leaving him time to hunt for food. They took a winding path, following the growths of spear leaf bushes that offered fodder for the corum and food for themselves. The liquid in the cores seemed almost sufficient to satisfy their thirst and Falga's skill at milking steadily improved until they lived on little more than milk and spear leaf cores as they made their journey to the sea.
Falga consulted the map every night and took bearing on the stars as Irilik had taught him. "We will be north of the landing site when we reach the sea," he told Kalinka. "Once we find the coast, we will follow it south."
"I wonder how long the spear leaf bushes will hold out before we have to resort to other food?" She mused. "I can 't remember seeing any when we were here ten years ago, but everything was strange to me then. I was trying to find things that looked the same as they did in Kishdu and I found so few."
"I remember being warned to stay away from certain plants and animals by my mother,"Falga said. "It seemed the entire landscape was filled with danger."
"I suspect that Virda wasn 't really sure of what was dangerous or benign. My sister did the same, warning me against nearly everything until we had some reason to relent. For all I know, Tagnet's village may be surrounded by spear leaf on every side,"
"If it is, he is doubtless doing what he can to uproot and destroy it," Falga said. "He has little patience for those things that require care and work."
Two days later they came within sight of the sea. Kalinka had forgotten how vast it was, reaching out to touch the sky and turning dark and light in dappled patches as the clouds passed between the water and the sun. The spear leaf continued in patches for as far as she could see toward the south, but it was more sparse than it had been near the mountains. She found herself counting the bushes and hoping they would continue to their destination.
The topped a rise where spear leaf bushes grew like a little wig on top of a bald pate. Below them they could see a cluster of huts and weathered tents. Several spindly towers lifted along the beach. Kalinka gave a gasp of amusement and Falga turned to her."What's wrong?"
"The year before we joined the Gathering and left Kishdu, Lira took me to Renon where our uncle had a trinket shop. I remember the golden gate towers that stretched so high that it seemed that giants had made them. Look at the constructions along the beach. They are like shabby little copies of Renon's wonderful gate towers."
Falga nodded."I remember thinking that we would never be able to take Renon. From far away the city did not seem so impregnable, but that was before I understood the scale of the gate towers and realized that our mightiest machines of war would not even reach to the first row of portals. It seems Tagnet retained the vision of the towers as well."
He looked around at the hill where they stood. The corum cow was munching on the lower leaves of a spear leaf bush and its calf was dining as well. "There are still several hours until nightfall, but this seems a likely place to make camp."
Kalinka nodded. If it were possible to do so, she would gladly wait another day or so before approaching Tagnet. Falga's rejection of Tagnet's offer at the feast had been a rude blow to the older man. He might well be vengeful now that he was the undisputed leader of this small community.
As a caution, Falga built their campfire on the back of the small rise where its flame could not be seen from the beach below. Even though the night was mild, Kalinka shivered and Falga put his arm around her. "All will be well eventually. I feel that this is where we are meant to be. Thank you for having the courage to come with me. These people need a priest of the Radiance, but I doubt that any will acknowledge their need. On the other hand, they have a need for a healer and you will be a person of prestige in the community. They may let me stay to keep you here."
"Tagnet has never been concerned about marriage vows. I fear most of all that they will hurt or imprison you and I will be given to one of Tagnet's favorites."
"We should hope for the best and be prepared for the worst," he agreed. "Settle in your own mind what you would do in every circumstance, and hold to it. You will then be armed against any threat they make."
Kalinka once would have asserted that she would rather die than serve as slave to any man, but now Virdun had changed her priorities. The tiny child depended on her. His welfare must come first. She huddled into Falga's arms and silently prayed that she would not be faced with losing either her husband or the baby that was hers to care for.
Late that night when their campfire had guttered out and they were sleeping soundly, Virdun's wild cries woke Kalinka to the sight of masked men rushing into the camp.
"Falga!" was the only word she was able to scream before a hand clamped over her mouth and a gag was pushed between her teeth while she was wrestled to her feet. Virdun was thrust into one of her arms and the other arm was bound behind her back. The moon had set and it was too dark for her to see what had happened to her husband.
She was dragged toward the edge of the cliff above the beach and for a terrifying moment she thought she would be pushed over. She remembered the frantic scramble ten years before when the people of the Gathering had rushed to leave the beach, some of the men ascending time and time again to carry those who were too weak or small to make their own way up the ropes. "Watch your step, there is a ramp here," someone warned.
"She doesn 't understand what you are saying," another man growled.
"Did anyone catch that corum that was spotted earlier today?"
"No, but it's a good thing we went up to find it or we would have missed these spies."
Kalinka concentrated desperately on keeping her footing. With no hand to catch herself without letting go of Virdun, she teetered precariously. The man leading her growled at her to hurry up, but at least he did not yank at the rope he had tied to her waist. Finally she felt the incline level off and the hardened earth of the cliff gave way to sand.
"What should we do with these two?" the man leading her asked.
"Put them in the jail until tomorrow and we 'll take them to Tagnet and claim our reward."
"I 've heard that Tarm is offering a good price for captured natives."
"If Tagnet doesn 't want them, we can take them to Tarm, but I think I 'll keep the woman for myself in either case. I 've enough saved up to begin my harem. This one has a child, so at least I know she's fertile."
"It's too bad we don 't have a healer here among us or your second wife might have survived the sickness."
"We should have kidnaped Kapanadel or that other one she was training."
"Ishabal claimed she knew enough to serve as healer, but she is a stupid woman with no skill."
The conversation was interesting, but it suddenly ended when Kalinka and Falga were thrust into a narrow cave that had been dug into the face of the cliff. A door woven of reeds shut on them. Kalinka set Virdun down and felt for Falga. She struggled to remove his gag but the knots were tight and it seemed impossible to remove it one handed.
They had not removed her belt pouches and there was a small obsidian blade that she used for delicate cutting inside one of them. She found it quickly and fumbled it free with only a nick on her finger.
Falga gasped with relief when she finally sliced through the gag that closed his mouth. "I should have anticipated that guards would be set."
"It wasn 't lookouts that took us. They were after the corum."
"I tethered her in a thick stand of spear grass after you were asleep. She should be well provided for some days to come and I doubt that Tagnet's people would dare the hurt they would get to bring her out, even if they discover where she is."
"You must not underestimate them. The younger boys especially are up to any prank, especially if it holds some reward for them."
"We should probably try to sleep," Falga advised. "Tomorrow we must face Tagnet."
"It is already growing light outside. I can see a glow through the weave of the wicker. I would just as soon be awake and on my guard when they come for us," Kalinka said.
Virdun began to whimper and suck at his hand. Without the bladder that had been left behind when they were surprised, there was nothing Kalinka could do to stop his cries. The sound became continuous. It was torture to endure the infant's piteous appeal for food when there was nothing she could do. "Feed your child woman or I 'll stop his cries!" a voice threatened from just beyond the door.
"I have nothing to give him! " she yelled."Bring me some milk or fish broth, or a woman with a nursing child of her own. This is Tagnet's son."
The door was wrenched away and the dazzling light of the sun fell full into the cavity of earth where Falga and Kalinka were confined. At first Kalinka was too blinded by the sudden light to see the face of the man who stood glaring at her. "Tagnet has no son! "
Kalinka recognized Ponswit, one of the older men among Tagnet's cultists. He clearly did not recognize her. It had been months since he had seen her and her skin was darkened by the sun and her hair was lank and bleached around her face. Her clothing had been shared with Farol and what she had left was little more than rags.
She gave a mirthless chuckle at the sight she must present."Bring me something for the child if you would have him quiet, but if you harm him, you will answer to Farol's ghost! She died trying to bring Tagnet his son."
"Kalinka?" Ponswit ventured as he finally recognized her.
"Yes. The men who took us from our camp last night didn 't bother to determine that Falga and I are the only member of Tagnet's family who are willing to cast our lots with his. I think you will find yourself well rewarded if you tell him we have come."
Ponswit seemed to waver. His eyes squinted when he looked toward Falga who had been trying to calm Virdun and keep him quiet. Then his gaze returned to study Kalinka. Finally he nodded. "The men who captured you last night will be surprised and disappointed. One of them had marked you for his own. Tarm will be cheated of a victim for his nasty little games, and I will be the beneficiary!"
"Stop counting your rewards and take us to Tagnet," Falga advised. "The men who put us here will soon return."
"They paid me to stand here and act as guard," Ponswit protested.
"Then they will receive the reward of bringing us to Tagnet," Falga reminded the old man.
The threat persuaded Ponswit. He had been told that the two prisoners were bound and gagged, but he decided not to ask how their bonds had fallen away. He was a superstitious man, and while some might choose only to acknowledge Tagnet as the Son of the God-King, Ponswit knew very well that Virda had borne Algun four sons, and who could say what powers they might have?
"I put you on parole of honor that you won 't try to escape," Ponswit said when he stood aside and let them leave the narrow crevice in the cliff. "We should leave the infant in the care of Balinra. She has twins and feeds them both. What is another one to such as her?"
Kalinka nodded. She knew Balinra well enough and while she never had been close to the woman, she respected her skills of mothering. Virdun would suffer no harm in her hands. They found Balinra hanging fish up to dry along a line. There was a child sleeping in a basket nearby and one in her arms suckling. She whirled on Falga when Virdun began to cry again. "What are you doing to that child?" she demanded.
"I cannot feed him," Kalinka said. "Ponswit thought you might serve as a nurse until we can find a substitute."
Balinra set her own child down to play in the netting near her feet and abruptly took Virdun. He had only eaten from a suckle pouch and it took a few frustrating moments before he was blissfully oblivious to anything but Balinra's ample milk supply. Kalinka felt a sharp stab of jealousy, and just as quickly subdued it. Who knew what might happen to Falga and herself? At least the baby would be tended zealously. "Come along," Ponswit urged them once Virdun was settled. "I can see the men who captured you coming up the beach. Any moment they will discover that you 're gone."
Tagnet's quarters were as grand as time and circumstance would permit. The stones for its walls had been chipped away to fit one to another with an impressive degree of accuracy. One of the exiles was the mason, Barun. It must have taken most of his time along with several other men to prepare such a structure in less than a year. The roof of woven reeds and the floors of beaten sand were marked with the craftsmanship Barun was known for. Two men guarded the door and they raised spears to prevent Ponswit from passing with the prisoners.
"Stand aside," he ordered them. "Tagnet will rejoice when he sees this man and woman."
"What are you doing with them?" one of the guards challenged Ponswit. "They must be the natives Garfal captured on the barrens above the cliffs last night?"
"You young fool!" Ponswit sent a worried glance down the beach toward the crevice in the cliff where Garfal and his companions had gathered. "This is Falga, Tagnet's brother, and this is Kalinka, the healer."
"He speaks the truth," Falga added. "You are Pelat, and that is Wodar. I chased the two of you from Tagnet's orchard last year when you were boys."
Pelat blushed and glanced up at Wodar who nodded. They waved the trio into Tagnet's house. Two large holes had been left in the thatching of the roof and they gave light to the luxury within. Gleaming disks of shell were inset in patterns in the pounded sand along the edges of the floors and affixed to the back of a stone bench that ran round the perimeter of the room. Shells in the pattern of the Flame of Algunagad decorated the wall behind a raised dias with a long bench set on it.
"Tagnet may not be here for some time," Ponswit said. "It all depends on how his night has gone. This sea air seems to make his leg more painful."
"I am surprised he confides such things to you," Falga murmured.
"It is common knowledge that when the air is damp he becomes easily irritated and annoyed," Ponswit replied. " I wish you could have come when the wind blows from a different direction."
"Could we sit while we wait?" Kalinka asked. "We had very little sleep last night."
Ponswit looked around. In the far side of the room there was an alcove where the women usually sat on the few occasions they were permitted in the hall. It was shadowed and without any decoration. "Come, we will sit over there. It would be best to be discreet when Tagnet first appears."
While they waited in the concealment of the dim alcove, several men entered the room at intervals and seated themselves in the brightly lighted areas of the hall. Ponswit began to mutter, "It was a mistake to bring you here. I'll just get blamed for taking you from the others." He kept his complaint low and none of the men looked in their direction.
It was well into midmorning before Tagnet entered the hall. He leaned heavily on Ishabal who walked at his side. It was evident that he was in pain and the scowl on his face advertised a sour disposition that might well take vengeance on any convenient target. Some of the men who had been waiting for some time got up and sidled out of the hall, evidently willing to delay their appeals until the wind blew from a more favorable direction.
Only a few remained to witness what happened when Tagnet was finally seated with Ishabal hovering at his back. He glared around the hall. "Who has business with the Son of Algunagada?"
The sour tone of his voice discouraged the few who had remained from standing up and stating their reason for coming. Ponswit cowered back, but Falga and Kalinka stood.
"I have come to see you brother." Falga said as he walked from the dim alcove into the glare of the sunlight from the open ceiling.
When Kalinka joined him, Tagnet's face flushed red and he lurched forward. "Why have you come here? Is it because you have seen my glory and my possessions and you think to make yourself my heir?"
"I have come to serve your people," Falga answered."I bring my wife, Kalinka, to be your healer."
"I am the healer in Orenon! " Ishabal proclaimed harshly.
"I have come to bring Tagnet his son," Kalinka spoke for the first time, her voice low and intense in contrast to Ishabal's screech.
"Tagnet is barren! " Ishabal cried."He has five concubines and all of them have failed to produce an heir."
"Do you remember Farol's purchase, Ishabal?" Kalinka challenged. "She paid you well for a few nights with her own husband and with Kapanadel's help, she was able to produce a son for him."
"Farol lies!" Ishabal screamed.
Tagnet turned to her. "Be quiet woman. I know only too well how you kept Farol from me. It is no secret that you coveted her place. I left her in Timora where your ambition cannot harm her. Meanwhile, I am amused by the claims my brother and his wife present."
He turned back to Falga. "Where is the child?"
Ponswit could see that his fortunes still might be improved by his association with the scheme and he jumped up and volunteered his services. "We left the child with Balinra to be fed. I will bring him to you."
Ishabal laughed ironically. "A nice touch, to require the services of a nurse. I am surprised that Farol herself is not at hand to press the claim. Is she so frightened of me that she would not show her face?"
"Farol is dead," Kalinka said. "We rescued her just before she was consumed in a fire. She had tried to follow you and was lost in the wild. Her injuries were grave and I advised her to turn back to Timora, but she refused."
"How long ago was this?" Ishabal challenged.
"We started out to join you six months ago," Falga replied."We found Farol just a few hours beyond the vale of Timora. She was near perishing for want of food. Her skirts caught fire and I saved her."
He held out one of his hands where a white scar along the wrist was the only reminder of his heroic effort.
"Six months!" Ishabal taunted him."It does not take six months to travel from Timora to Orenon."
"We were slowed by Farol's condition and her burns," Kalinka explained. "We reached the mountains too late in the season and were snowed in for another month or so. Farol died after she gave birth a few days after we left the mountains."
Ponswit entered with Virdun in his hands. The baby wriggled and reached for Kalinka when Ponswit brought him near her.
"Bring him to me," Tagnet demanded. Ishabal reached out to take the child but Tagnet shoved his elbow backwards and sent her reeling into the glittering depiction of the Flame behind his throne. When Ponswit handed the baby to Tagnet, he stared at the little face that was staring back at him with a fierce scowl. The chubby fists of the baby beat at his father's wrists and he let out an angry howl.
"Take him away. He looks just like my father in a rage, but that shouldn 't surprise anyone. After all, he is the grandson of Algunagada. What do you call him?"
"His name is Virdun," Falga replied. "Then you acknowledge him?"
"What do you want of me?" Tagnet demanded again.
"I want to serve your people as a priest of the Radiance," Falga stated plainly.
Tagnet began to laugh and Ishabal's shrill giggles joined his rude gaffaws. Finally Tagnet's laughter stopped and Ishabal's titters dwindled to an occasional snort. Falga waited patiently for a reply. "You really thought I would accept your story that this is my child?" Tagnet asked.
"I almost admire your effrontery," Tagnet said. "I can guess easily enough how little Virdun came to be. Doubtless you and Kalinka anticipated your wedding vows. It must have been almost unendurable to know that you would face the censure of those prigs who rule Timora. Doubtless that is why you cooked up your story about Farol and the magic herbs of Kapandel that made her fertile for a few days."
"Think what you will, the child is your son," Falga declared.
Tagnet leaned forward and stared at the chubby infant who was nestled in Kalinka's arms staring back at him with equal force. Ishabal took courage from his silence and began to demean Kalinka."You have failed to pass this child off as Tagnet's son. If you don 't want him, give him to Tarm."
"I told you to be quiet, woman!" Tagnet hissed. "You try my patience daily. Next time you speak of Tarm, you may be pleading with him to spare you from his games."
Ishabal stepped back and glared at Kalinka. Her hatred spilled like acid from her eyes, but Kalinka knew where the power resided. "I have remedies that could relieve your pain. Kapanadel has given me the directions for making the potion you wasted on the feast you gave. I want to be the healer for your people and live here with my husband. If you would like, I could continue to care for your son."
Ishabal made a noise of protest but Tagnet's hand rose in reproof and she kept her silence. The others in the room were still as they waiting for the issue to be decided. Ponswit shivered with anxiety.
Finally Tagnet nodded. "Perhaps this is my son. It could very well be as you say. I saw the scars of burns on Falga's arms. I spent several nights with Farol at a time that would make this child my son. On the other hand, he could be Falga's son by Kalinka. From what they say, there are no other living witnesses either way."
"You cannot accept this by-blow! " Ishabal howled in anger. "Even now I am increasing with your child."
Tagnet glanced toward the door where Garfal was hovering and he smiled evilly. "I would not accept a child of yours as mine, Ishabal. I know too well your habits. They were amusing to me for a time, but I suggest you find shelter in the house of another man before your child is born. At least I can be sure that Virdun is my kin. Whether from my loins, or from my brother's, he is the son of a Son of the God-King. You never knew my father Ishabal,or you would see that this little boy is the image of Algunagada."
"Then you accept him as your son?" Falga asked.
"I will accept him as my son," Tagnet nodded. He looked toward Ponswit who could barely restraining himself from dancing with excitement. "As for anyone else associated with this farce, if there is ever any hint that Virdun is other than the child of Farol, my legal wife, and myself, I will know where to look to take my vengeance."
"I will stay in your household and raise your sons together," Ishabal said with a return of confidence.
"We all know the story of Marenla, the concubine who murdered her husband's rightful heir to preserve preference for her own child," Tagnet said. "Surely you must not expect me to put you in charge of my child when your own would have everything to gain by his death? You must leave my house by the time the sun has set or I will call on Tarm to take you."
"I will care for Virdun," Kalinka offered.
"I do not think that would be wise," Tagnet said."I will let you stay near Orenon if you provide the remedy you promised, but you and Falga are not welcome in Orenon. You must live in the wasteland above the cliffs and only come down to the beach during the day. Balinra will keep the child for me. I would see him daily and know that he is thriving."
Kalinka clasped Virdun closer to her. She subsided against Falga and he supported her. Tears welled in his eyes at the thought of relinquishing the child to the care of another, but who better than Balinra whose twins were near the age of weaning.
"May I be a priest to your people and build a Shrine?" Falga persisted.
"Only women and children would care to listen," Tagnet giggled. "Do what you will as long as you do not do it in Orenon. If you build a shrine, it must not have a tower. Towers are for the Watchers who look to see the return of Algunagada. Someday my son will inherit all my power and possessions. I won 't have him contaminated with your superstitions."
"Are we free to go now?" Falga asked.
Tagnet did not answer him immediately. He summoned Ponswit to step forward. "Bring Balinra and I will turn the child over to her."
In a few minutes Balinra entered the room. Without looking at Tagnet for permission, she hurried over to Kalinka and gently lifted Virdun into her arms. "I will look after him as if he were one of my own," she murmured.
Kalinka nodded. She touched her finger to the baby's chubby cheek and relinquished him completely. Her eyes were glittering with tears when she stood straight to hear what Tagnet had to say now that he had bruised her heart almost unbearably. "If Kalinka's remedies help me bear the pain of my wounds, the two of you may have the wasteland as I promised you. Otherwise, you must leave Orenon and never return under pain of death."
Kalinka shook her head. "How do I know that you would keep your word? First you took the child which we brought to you at a great risk. Still you threaten us with death unless I take away your pain. I have several remedies that might help your ills over time, and one that might make your mind weak but would relieve you almost instantly. Unfortunately, I used most of the latter remedy on Farol when she was burned and I need to replenish my supply. Do you mean for us to stay in that stinking crevice of a jail until I heal you?"
Tagnet stared at her, perplexed. It had been months since anyone had spoken up to him other than Ishabal. He had the power of life and death in Orenon and he had exercised it several times since settling his city. Tagnet leaned forward to study Kanlinka and in doing so he unwittingly put weight on his injured leg. He barely repressed a groan."Bring me scroll cloth and a scribing tool," he told one of his servants."There will be a document that you can show to any who doubt your right to settle in the wasteland if you can ease my pain."
The materials were brought and Falga inscribed the document at Tagnet's dictation. When it was read back to him, Tagnet nodded."I will guarantee your right to settle as I said. Now you must attend to me and give me medicines that works, Kalinka, or this contract will have no effect."
They had come too far and given too much for her to plead the excuse that she was exhausted and not quite certain that she had what he needed. There was still a tiny portion of selan in her belt pouch, but there was another remedy that might prove more effective in the long run. If she used the selan, the pain relief would be immediate, but it would not last the night with the amount she had.
"You must take this powder stirred into warm water," she said, deciding on the less potent remedy."It will take more than an hour before you feel relief, but it will give you peaceful sleep throughout the night and you will have a better day to follow. I will give you what I have on hand. It should last you for three nights."
Ishabal tittered."Tagnet has never had a peaceful night. I think you may have overstepped your training and ability."
Tagnet stared at Ishabal until she lost her smile and frowned uncertainly. He turned to see if there were any others who shared her unwonted mirth and noticed Tarm lurking in the shadows watching what went forth. Tagnet nodded at the young man and a tiny flutter of his fingers indicated his concubine. Tarm's lips drew back slightly in a feral smile..
"Come with me and give me your remedy Kalinka," Tagnet said. "For the next three nights you and Falga will sleep in your camp up in the waste. If I am able to sleep peacefully and t, you will be left to make it your home. If your remedies fail, you will be driven away. I make this promise to you before all these assembled and set my hand to this contract that will stand for generations henceforth."
It was an extraordinary thing for Tagnet to give guarantee in such a way. Other men who watched began to wonder what benefits they might exact from their leader if they could get such a contract. Without realizing that he had just committed an act that put an end to his role as unquestioned leader of Orenon, Tagnet stood and let his brother lead him from the hall.
Falga had always known just how to support Tagnet to ease the weight on his damaged leg. For a moment the older brother was tempted to renege on his order that Falga and Kalinka would not be allowed to live within the precincts of the town. If they stayed here with him within the walls of his spacious home-. He shook his head and chuckled at the direction of his thoughts.
"I was almost tempted to ask you to stay here with me," he confided to Falga after they were well away from the others who might overhear. "Of course, it would not do. You are as fanatic about the Radiance as that fool Irilik. I cannot tolerate your daily presence or I soon will doubt myself."
Falga only nodded. He helped his brother lay down on his wide, well-padded bed and stepped aside to let Kalinka tend to him. She gave Tagnet the remedy as she had described, then she braced her hands against the knotted muscles of his leg and prodded while he groaned. "This hurts, I know, but it will help to ease the tension for a while," she explained.
He nodded."I had a native servant, Ingra, who knew how to relieve my pain with such massage. Perhaps I will send for her."
"She is married to Talar, your former disciple," Falga said.
Tagnet's frown deepened and he turned his head away. "Go! In three days I will let you know if you can stay near Orenon or face banishment."
Kalinka left the doses of the remedy near his bed. "Take this before you try to sleep. I would recommend you try to sleep alone. I doubt that Ishabal will encourage your rest."
"While you are on your way out, send young Tarm to me," Tagnet said.
Kalinka glanced at Falga, her face grown pale. Irilik had warned them about Tarm. Was Tagnet planning to set him on them if she failed?
"We will send him to you," Falga replied. He took Kalinka by the arm and led her out. When they were well away from Tagnet's hearing, he turned to her. "I fear we may have taken on more than we knew. If Tagnet is in league with Tarm, and he the heir of Ogandash secrets, then Orenon is truly doomed. How can a priest of the Radiance have any sway where evil rules?"
"Evil?" the word was spoken in a gloating tone and Ishabal glided up to them. "I will walk with you to make certain that you do not try to visit the baby you have sent to Balinra. How did it feel to sacrifice your first born son to such a cause, Kalinka?" she gloated.
Tarm was close behind Tagnet's concubine and he grinned at her gibe. "I will come with you and make sure you do not linger in Orenon," he volunteered.
"Tagnet wants you to attend him," Kalinka gasped, more fearful of his presence with them than the consequences of his visit with Tagnet. Falga gave her a startled glance, but before he could say anything, Ishabal had grabbed the two of them by the elbows and began to urge them to leave the house.
As soon as they were clear of others, Ishabal began to berate them. "You thought you could foist your child off as Tagnet's son, but he will send you fleeing for your lives when your medicine fails to give him rest. You would be wise to leave now, as soon as you have reached the summit of the cliff."
"I have confidence in my remedy," Kalinka replied with forced calm. "I will not flee on your advice."
"Beware, Ishabal," Falga warned the woman. "We know of Tarm's ways. I think you have strained your powers over Tagnet. He is no longer on your leash and may well ask Tarm to relieve him of the task of discarding you. Several times today he lost patience with your wiles."
Ishabal tossed her head and laughed at his warning, but there was a flash of terror in her eyes. Suddenly she seemed to have her fill of taunting them. She whirled and ran back along the sand toward the town.
"Do you think she will heed your warning?" Kalinka asked.
"One way or another, I doubt she will still offer any threat to Virdun when tomorrow dawns," Falga said. "Tagnet is uncertain if Virdun is his son by Farol, but in dying, his wife put a seal on him that may be difficult to break. With one sentence Ishabal asserted that he could not father a child, and with yet another, she claimed she carried one of his fathering. She is notoriously promiscuous. It may be her attempt to make another man's child his heir that has made him tire of her."
For a while they did not speak. The ascent of the cliff was not an easy task since they had fasted through most of the night and day. They were faint with thirst when they reached the wasteland above the beach. The knoll where spear leaf grew so abundantly promised them surcease and they hurried to the first of the growths.
Falga had grown expert in harvesting the middle leaves and he had soon peeled one for Kalinka before he cut another for himself. For a few minutes they feasted on the succulent flesh of the spear leaf cores. Finally they were replete, both their hunger and their thirst satisfied.
They rested on the sandy soil in the shade of the spear leaf bush and considered their choices. "I spoke brave words to Ishabal, but perhaps it would be best for us to leave this afternoon," Kalinka said. "But I had hoped to visit Balinra and make certain that Virdun is doing well."
"Our presence here in Orenon is not a whim," Falga reminded her. "We must believe that we were meant to stay and somehow teach the people."
"How can that be if you are not allowed to carry out your preaching in the city?"
The sound of the corum bleating brought them scrambling to their feet."I forgot that we left the corum tethered," Falga said."She has grown used to giving more milk than her calf alone can take. I need to milk her."
"I love spear leaf, but milk would be a welcome change," Kalinka admitted.
They made their way to the covert of tall bushes where the corum was tethered and the cow seemed to welcome them. Falga had no difficulty drawing milk from her. Her grazing had divested most of the nearby bushes of their lower leaves and he tethered her in a new location with her calf following to stay nearby its mother.
"It might be better if we left the cow untethered," Kalinka suggested."If something happened to us, I would hate to leave her stranded where there was not enough to sustain her life for more than a few days."
"She would pull loose before she would go hungry," Falga assured his wife."The tether keeps her from wandering out where the Orenese can see her. They would kill her for her meat and probably the calf as well."
She nodded. The night ahead of them might be their last on the eastern coast, but they prepared their camp well as if they anticipated many days. It was sundown before they finally rested from the many tasks of setting up their tent and preparing a permanent camp. Although they always slept in the open when nights were fine, the threat of evil seemed to rise like a miasma from the town below. There was no way they could be utterly secure, and with only the two of them, it seemed impractical to set a watch. At least the tent provided some illusion of security.
When they were ready to retire Falga raised his hands and prayed, giving praise to the Radiance for preserving their lives and providing a trustworthy caretaker for Virdun. Kalinka missed the baby more now that her hands were not busy. She lay by Falga's side and felt the absence of a chubby little body wedged against her breast.
Sometime in the night an animal called out with shrill protest and Kalinka woke and grasped at the empty space where Virdun usually slept by her side. For a little while she lay and wept in loneliness for the lack of the little bundle of need and love who had been a center of her daily life for months. Where was he now? Was Balinra as good a mother as she appeared? Was she willing to share her love with another woman's child?
The questions nagged at her, but finally she forced herself to meditate and still her restless mind. Kapanadel had taught her how to ease her spirit this way on sleepless nights. A healer could not waste her energy in tossing in her bed when she might go nights without sleep in order to save a life.
Below in Orenon Tagnet retired to his room and locked the door. He had requested Balinra to attend him with the child and she had replied to his note with something that dangerously resembled a snub.
"I have too many mouths to feed and too much to do to provide for my children and your son to obey Tagnet's whim," she told his servant. The man had tried to put her reply in a more diplomatic frame, but in the end, Tagnet had the essence of her message out of him not long after he finished speaking to Tarm about Ishabal.
He knew that Balinra was the best choice to raise his heir, whether Virdun was his son or his nephew as he suspected. It would not be wise to set himself against her. Ishabal had sealed her doom by questioning his choice to accept the child. He had given her several warnings, but she had persisted in meddling in his meeting with Falga and Kalinka.
After taking a dose of the remedy that Kalinka had set out for him, Tagnet indulged in a spate of sentimental melancholy while he dredged up memories of Farol in her youth. The death of Farol had reinstated his wife in his esteem and now he could see clearly what he had chosen for several years to ignore. Ishabal had manipulated him to her own purposes. He had been seduced by her beauty and daring and had put her ahead of all his other concubines. Now he had the bitter harvest of his lust. He loved Farol in her death as he had never really cared for her in her life past the first few months of nuptial enjoyment.
It was she who had comforted him when his mother died, turning a deaf ear to those who whispered that he might have hastened Virda's death by letting her carry his pack along with her own. It was all Ishabal's fault that he had not been good husband. He drifted to sleep with tears of self-pity on his cheeks and his lip jutted out petulantly.
Tarm stalked Ishabal, amused at her attempts to avoid him. From a crevice in the wall of her room, he watched her pack her belongings, trying to stuff all she had into a bundle she could carry. Her avarice defeated her good sense and she staggered under the weight of the pack that she carried into the alleyway outside the south door of Tagnet's house.
Tarm guessed that she planned to return for it later after feigning that she had retired to bed. Next she made an attempt to visit Balinra and sow discord. The sturdy woman was tending Virdun in the tiny yard of her hut while her own children tumbled at her feet. When Ishabal approached, Balinra warned to keep her distance."These youngsters will be out of my sight and down at the beach if you unlatch the gate," she said.
"I could relieve you of the care of Tagnet's heir for a few hours," Ishabal offered in a cajoling voice.
Balinra let out a hearty laugh that started Virdun so that he let out a squall of anger. "I would as soon trust an adder with a nest of birds' eggs," the woman chuckled."You must think I am a fool."
"You are a fool if you look for some reward for caring for the child," Ishabal said. "Tomorrow Tagnet will realize his error and turn against the boy. You will be accused of aiding Falga and Kalinka in their plot to turn his heart against his own true son."
She patted her middle which bulged slightly in a form Balinra knew well from her own pregnancies. "Tagnet is no fool to raise his brother's son to be his heir."
Balinra studied Virdun's face and smiled complacently. "You forget, as most have, that Farol was my husband, Calad's, sister. This child looks too much like my own dear little ones to be any other than their cousin."
"But Tagnet says he looks like Algun-agada," Ishabal said, quickly tacking on the honorific in a rush of syllables. "Most babies look like Algun did," Balinra admitted. "I saw the man when I was young. He was chubby and balding."
Ishabal snarled with frustration as she pressed open the gate to snatch at the child. Balinra easily countered her move, shoving the gate shut with one long leg while she fended one of her sons away from an attempt at escape. She set Virdun down on the fine sand and grabbed Ishabal by the shoulders. "You have not been unobserved, you fool," she said quite calmly. "I will guard this child as I would one of my own. If I were you, I would leave Orenon before Tagnet wakes from what I am certain will be a night of peaceful sleep."
Tarm's lip tilted in a grin at the outrage on Ishabal's face when she was ejected from Balinra's yard. It was growing late and Balinra's husband had been cooking fish and seaweed in the fire pit behind the house. He came to announce that the food was ready and helped Balinra gather up their family. Tarm often wondered how such a mild little man as Calad had joined Tagnet's group. Perhaps he was one of those who had pitied the cripple and let that pity mislead them into discipleship. There were several of that kind among the members of the cult.
Tarm prided himself on being more clear sighted that the others. He had come to Orenon for a greater cause. He knew the cult of Algunagada for a silly pretense that gave the others who could not see the Stone of Truth coherence in their doubt. As for himself, he was something far more potent, a devotee of true power and dread. The feeling of the demon's hunger swelled in him as he tracked Ishabal.
Tagnet had all but specifically commissioned him to take her to his cave and slake Orqu's demand for blood. It was growing more difficult to find victims without rousing antagonism among the other people of the town. So far he had served a function somewhere between executioner and assassin and his congregation of acolytes had grown to twenty other youths who had developed an appetite for the dread secrets of the cult.
While he gloated on the prospect of the coming ritual, he lost sight of Ishabal. She slipped away into the darkening night. Panicked at the thought of failing Tagnet's veiled instructions and the anger of his cultists if he failed to produce the promised victim at the midnight hour, he rushed to the alley where Ishabal had stowed her bulky baggage. He found her there, struggling to lift the load.
"Where are you going with such a heavy burden?" he asked her with a silky voice.
"Help me carry this load of clothing to the edge of the sea," she said. "I cannot trust the other women to properly launder my fine clothing, but I am loth to let them see me engage in such a humble task. I do it when the sun is down to preserve my pride."
Tarm admired her ready tongue and decided to play along with her. It would serve his purpose to take her captive in a more secluded place where her screams could not be heard. He lifted her baggage in his arms and followed her as she led him southward on the beach. They passed the darkened shadow on the cliff that marked the entry to his cave. It would be hours yet before the other members of the cult assembled. By then he would have her trussed and waiting for their arrival at the cave.
They continued a little further until she came to a large rock that lay half buried in the sand."You can put my things down here," she said.
He tossed her baggage down onto the sand and blocked her from picking it up. "We are far enough from Orenon now. Scream if you like, I like the sound of terror."
Ishabal turned and her face grew stark with the realization of his intent. "I will pay you well to let me go," she offered Tarm.
"You can offer me nothing that could equal what I have now," he smirked. "I have you and all you value. Can you deny that you intend to leave Orenon?"
Ishabal hung her head and twisted her hands in her skirt. Tarm closed in on her and reached to take her wrists. He grunted with surprise when the blade of her knife, driven by both hands, bit into his belly and ripped up to his rib cage. He stared at her face, dimly lit by the full moon and felt hot pain explode in his chest as the long knife impaled his heart.
Ishabal let Tarm's body lay in the surf where he fell while she grimly set about the task of choosing which of her dresses she was willing to sacrifice. She had done some spying of her own on Tarm's cultists and she knew they wore long robes and masks. Most of them were merely rowdy boys attracted to the ghoulish evil of Tarm's cult then trapped by deadly vows that snared them with no hope of of retreat.
It had taken only minutes to walk to the washing rock from the beach near Orqu's cave, but it took more than an hour to drag Tarm back. It was nearing midnight when Ishabal finally placed him on the dark-stained altar with a scarf tied over his head. She fetched his robes and mask from a niche in the back of the cave and wore them to greet the other cultists as they gathered.
When the ritual was just beginning, she raised her hand as if she heard a noise outside the cave."Be silent! " she ordered in a husky whisper."We cannot risk the full ritual tonight. There are enemies who will seek my life for killing Ishabal."
The others had suspected the identity of the victim on the altar, but in the dim and flickering light of a small lamp it was not easy to be certain. The unspoken threat was that Tagnet had somehow discovered what they were doing and might well take revenge."I will take care to finish the ritual, but we cannot risk discovery. Go home and wait for me to call you back to finish the feast."
The superstitious boys scattered quickly, almost stumbling over one another in their haste to quit the cave. Left alone, Ishabal removed the dress from Tarm and put the robe and mask on him.
The surf was up and here, near the cave, the tide drove the waves so high up the beach that she knew her footprints soon would wash away. She walked along the edge of the sea until she reached her bundle. Most of it would have to be left behind to give credence to the illusion that she had been the body on the altar in the cave.
It was nearly dawn when Ishabal packed the few essentials she could not bear to leave behind and made her way southward. Irilik claimed that Lamath's people had settled in the marshlands to the south. They were her only hope. She was too well known among the others who had made the exodus from Kishdu, but those with Lamath would know nothing of her past.
Ishabal knew enough to find shellfish on the beach as she traveled south away from Orenon, but there was only sea water to drink. She had seen another woman die by trying to slake her thirst from the ocean and knew better than to risk taking a drink. The fear that she might be followed by one of Tarm's friends kept her going far past her usual limits of endurance. Her small bundle seemed to grow heavier until she finally dropped it as she staggered on. The bright baubles it contained were not worth the price of carrying them any further.
She grew dizzy with thirst after traveling along the surf through the night and most of the following day. She stumbled and fell several times but forced herself to rise and move on. Finally she could go no further. She settled on the sand and waited for death but weariness overcame her stoic intention. She closed her eyes and slept, exhausted. It was late the next morning when she woke and struggled to her feet. She looked toward the east to mark the time and saw a dark shape with a light sail against the horizon.
At first she thought it was an illusion when she saw the boat. Even so, she screamed for help, her voice tearing at her thirst seared throat, heedless of the danger that someone from Orenon was at the oars. The boat turned and headed for the beach. Ishabal ran into the surf as far as she could safely go and studied the faces of the men who manned the oars.
She felt a swell of hope. All of them were strangers to her. She was saved by those who did not know who she was or what her past had been."Water! " was the only word she could manage when she was pulled into the boat. One of the men nodded and produced a water flask. She drank greedily until she drained it dry."Have you come from Irilik's people?" one of the men asked her.
Ishabal thought quickly."Were you seeking them?" she asked.
"We were sent by Lamath. There have been sightings of people northward after years of solitude."
"I am fleeing from great evil," Ishabal confided."Wild tribes taught some of Irilik's people to worship a dread demon called Orqu. The followers of Orqu came to settle on the coast and I was brought along to serve as a slave. Two days ago I escaped from the high priest of Orqu who was preparing to take my life in a sacrifice to his demon."
She watched their faces while she told her story and was gratified to see horror and disgust."Please do not take me back to Orenon or I will die."
"We will take you to Lamath in Ovishang and you can tell him all these things. I doubt he will want us to pursue any further contact with your people."
Ishabal ducked her head and covered her face with her hands, fearful that she might betray her relief with a grin of triumph. She had not even exaggerated very much. Telling truth could be powerful if it was aimed well to deceive. She would remember the valuable lesson.
She was treated as an honored guest by the men on the boat. As soon as they had raised their sail again and set their course for the south, they plied her with delicious food and a drink that was almost more refreshing than the water they also offered.. One of them took the reed hat from his head and gave it to her to shade her face."We have the wind with us now," her benefactor said."We should reach Ovishang by nightfall if the wind holds up."
Ishabal had hated the crossing from Renon in the crowded ship that tossed unceasingly, but this was a far different experience. She could not restrain her grin as the lively boat skimmed over the dancing waves, almost like a bird gliding on the wind. It was a perfect, sunny day and she was set to begin her life again without suspicion or regret.
Her recent past would only be discovered if they encountered someone who had known her since the founding of Timora. It was near sunset when they turned the boat toward the marshy shoreline. The sail was folded down and the men around her plied their oars to drive the boat through increasingly narrow passages of water fringed with reeds.
Suddenly the walls of reed receded and they came out on a broad estuary where other boats skimmed across the water in the golden twilight. There were several islands where the regularity of walls and roofs betrayed the presence of small villages. The boat passed by the smaller islands and headed straight toward what Ishabal took to be the further shore. At first she though the hill that rose ahead of them was natural, but as the boat drew nearer, she saw that it was a vast construction of reeds built on yet another island.
The men deftly wielded their oars to bring them neatly between the forked arms of a curious pier. The man who had given her his hat leaped off the boat and secured it with a few twists of a rope. A crowd had gathered to witness the landing and Ishabal's eyes grew wide when she recognized the couple in the lead. It was Belnian and Lamath, hardly changed in the decade since she last had seen them at the double wedding that occurred before the sailing from Kishdu.
"We found this woman on the northern shore and brought her here," the man who had rescued her explained. "She told us things that you will want to hear."
"Are you Garina's daughter?" Belnian asked. Ishabal was astonished that she had been recognized. "I am her daughter, but Garina has been dead for many years. The journey to Timora stapped her strength, and like Virda, she perished only hours after entering the vale."
"Virda died?" Belnian gasped."What other friends must we mourn?" Her question was a mutter and her husband seemed unwitting of her grief.
"Timora?" Lamath repeated the name as if it were half familiar to him.
"Come, stay with us and tell us what has transpired with the people of Irilik. I sent this ship to explore to the north when reports came from fishermen who saw constructions on the beach."
Ishabal shook her head."Truly you have been blessed by the Radiance that they found me before they sailed into Orenon. There is nothing but evil for you there."
Lamath looked around at those who surrounded them and nodded."Perhaps it would be best if you told me what you can of what has become of those who followed Irilik. We were just preparing to eat when word of your arrival reached us. Come, and share our dinner if you will."
Ishabal schooled her features to hide her smile of triumph. She had been troubled about what she should say when she reached Lamath and his people. As far as possible, consistent with her own interests, she would tell the truth.
She followed Lamath and Belnian into a home that impressed her with its size. Reeds had been tied in decorative patterns and formed into columns and beams. The weather was mild and a breeze blew through the room from wide windows with screens that could be lowered. As in Orenon, shells had been used for decoration, but this home was the product of almost a decade of practice in using the products of the marsh and sea. It rivaled any home in Timora in size and refinement of its decoration.
Belnian took Ishabal to a robing room where she quickly changed out of the dress that she had worn for many hours and after washing, put on a graceful robe that Belnian provided. It flattered her swelling figure with a loose fit. She turned to leave the room, but Belnian called her back and combed and dressed her hair. They returned to the dining room where Lamath waited. Ishabal assessed his admiring look and wondered if she could supplant his wife as she had done with Tagnet and Farol.
"I can see that Belnian has worked her magic," Lamath said. "I would hardly recognize you for the same woman we greeted on the pier. "His arm went around Belnian's slender waist and he pulled her close against his side. The fondness of the gesture quickly disabused Ishabal of the thought that she might come between them. All the admiration she had seen in his eyes was merely appreciation for his wife's handiwork.
The table was set with ten places and Belnian led Ishabal to a place next to her own."We usually eat with the children, but tonight we will entertain the other members of the council. Our children are visiting with friends. Your arrival this evening was fortuitous for us. Now we can hear your story of the others of the exodus all at once and not piecemeal."
Ishabal was conscious of the need to build a picture of injured innocence for herself. She quickly reviewed the story she had told when she was rescued. The key to her success in Ovishang would be convincing Lamath's people to steer clear of further contact with Orenon and any who had known her place in Tagnet's life.
She had done what she felt was necessary when she displaced Farol and became Tagnet's close companion and advisor, but these people might be burdened with the same staid ideas that ruled most of the people of Timora. She must think like Kalinka or some other young woman still mired in the rules that men had set.
The most difficult thing to remember was the importance of apparent modesty. She had grown accustomed to meeting people eye to eye and staring at them with dismissive hauteur. As Tagnet's chief concubine, it had been an important part of impressing others with her position of importance in the leader's household.
With her lashes lowered, she was still able to study those who entered the dining room and took their places at the table. She recalled seeing Wynora years before, but the wise woman, unlike her son, seemed far older that Ishabal recalled. With shock, she realized that the old woman was blind when Lamath took her hand and led her to a chair. Wynora did not fumble or betray any uncertainty, but she waited until Lamath pulled out her chair and helped her sit. She used her hands to find the edge of the table while gazing straight ahead. When her son shoved the chair closer to the table she frowned. "I prefer to dine in the new council hall you built," Wynora grumbled. "I can never feel easy about these wicker chairs."
Lamath chuckled. "You are usually not so grim."
"There is someone new in the room," she whispered.
"A young woman was rescued by the boat we sent north. She is sitting at the head of the table near Belnian," he explained.
Wynora's face grew still and intent. Ishabal nearly flinched as the sightless eyes seemed to stare at her as if she could see into her soul.
Soon all the guest had been seated and Lamath stood to invoke the blessings of the Radiance. His prayer was not quite the same as those Ishabal had heard so many times in Timora, but it was near enough to let her know that there had been no real divergence in the object of their worship.
She shifted in her seat, wary of the strict morality that had been one of Timora's most oppressive features. What would they think of her if they had any hint of her history? It was certainly no fault of hers that men found her attractive and she was able to benefit from their infatuation. While Lamath finished praying, Ishabal surreptitiously surveyed the other people at the table. Her gaze dismissed Wynora and traveled on to a face that seemed familiar.
She recognized the man who had shared his hat with her, the leader of the expedition that had rescued her. When Lamath finished his prayer and lowered his hands, the man looked up and met Ishabal's eyes. There was something in his glance that made her smile. He could be hers. She would have to proceed with caution to avoid causing a scandal, but she need not be alone in Ovishang.
Her attention was drawn back to Lamath by the mention of her name."-Ishabal who was just a girl when we set sail from the shores of Kishdu."
Everyone was looking at her and she realized she must say something. "Truly the Radiance has blessed me that my life was spared, and not just mine. I am carrying a child. I was cast aside by the man who should have protected me and given over to the hands of murderers. If I had died on the beach or on the altar, the child would have died as well."
Her announcement was intentionally dramatic. She could see the looks of sympathy even in the eyes of those who had previously been reserved. Only Wynora's face betrayed a lack of surprise, and that was probably just because her eyes were blind and there was no way to read expression in them.
"Would you describe how you escaped your captors?" Wynora asked.
Ishabal nodded even though she knew the old woman wouldn't see the gesture. This was a question she had pondered more than most that might be asked. She was tempted to lie outright and say that someone else had intervened, but something seemed to warn her that would only lead to further questions and she might soon lose track of the threads of her story. "I-I defended myself with a knife when one of the cultists tried to grab me. I killed one of them."
The shock of her words brought a gasp from Belnian."You killed a man!"
"Tarm, the son of Janak was the leader of the cult what worships Orqu. He did not know that I had spied on them and would know what to expect when he followed me to the washing rock. We were alone where no one else could hear my cries and I had no doubt of his intent."
She expected further questions on the subject of her escape, but Wynora surprised her by changing the direction of the inquiry. "Tell us of Irilik," Wynora said.
"We landed at the beach where Orenon is being built, but the coast could not support the multitude. The broken star appeared as Irilik had promised and a great wave destroyed the fleet, cutting off all hope of returning to the sea to find a more hospitable landing place."
Lamath nodded."We narrowly escaped destruction by the wave. Were many lost?"
"There were some who mutinied and took the fleet. Tagnet, Algun's son, was their leader, but he was crippled and did not make it to the ships before they set sail. Natives came and joined Irilik's people and we found the vale of Timora far inland."
Lamath turned to Wynora. "It is as both of us have seen. Timora is the place we will find the other people of the exodus."
"The people have scattered," Ishabal said."Few are left in Timora. It was Irilik's policy to send them forth to settle in the far-flung quarters of Okishdu."
"And Irilik himself?" Belnian asked."Are his people still in Timora?"
"Irilik decreed that his clan would have no home, but wander through Okishdu to call others to go on pilgrimages and support the worship of the Radiance."
Wynora seemed to stare at her and she tried to avoid shifting in her seat. Finally the Seeress nodded. "It is as I have foreseen. We must continue our policy of isolation until the time is ripe for us to meet the others and combine. The incarnation of the Radiance will be born to a lineage that combines the three priesthoods. There is a reason that our ships were sent astray. It is part of a design we did not weave and should preserve."
"There is nothing in the records to support the policy of isolation you urge," Lamath argued.
"Can you deny that every effort to contact Irilik and his people has somehow been frustrated?" his mother asked."When you tried to reach the inland regions, the marsh blocked the way. When you tried to find a way to the south, you found no passage through the tangled jungles. Fortunately this latest expedition was turned back before the decadent people of Orenon could be made aware of our existence. I do not doubt that there are cults that would infect us with their evil. Tell us, Ishabal, who is the leader of Orenon and what is his purpose?"
"Tagnet founded a cult based on worship of his father, Algunagada. He rebelled against the council of Timora and tried to take their lives. When his plot failed and he was sentenced to death, he escaped with those who believed in him and they went to Orenon."
"So there is no presence of those who believe in the Radiance in Orenon?" Lamath asked. Ishabal hesitated. By now Falga and Kalinka might well be on their way back to Timora, but she decided against any further straining of the truth."There are one priest and his wife who have only recently applied to Tagnet for permission to build a shrine. It is Tagnet's brother Falga and Lira's sister Kalinka who came. Tagnet is distrustful of them and may refuse to let them stay in Orenon."
"I believe that they have stayed," Wynora said."There is no reason to send our own people to try to redeem the city."
Lamath seemed disappointed but when he looked around the table all the other members of the council nodded their accord with his mother's advice. "So it will be," he said. "We will no longer attempt to make contact with Irilik and his people until the time of joining is revealed."
Ishabal slumped back in her seat, overcome with the effort of trying to outmaneuver Wynora. At least she would not have to worry about spending any more time with her. She would find a refuge with someone while she picked her place and time to reach for power again. It was likely that the man who had shared his hat with her could be cajoled into offering a place to stay. He was a member of the council and not too old. It really didn't matter if he had a wife. She had found that men of that age were susceptible to subtle persuasion.
Belnian touched Ishabal's arm, interrupting her train of thought. "I'm certain you will be approached by many who are curious about friends they have not seen in many years but the hour is growing late and you have suffered an ordeal. I suggest it would be well for us to find a place for you to stay the night."
"Ishabal will stay with me," Wynora declared, demonstrating that her hearing was more acute than most, even if her eyes had long been blind."I have the need of a companion and she has the need of someone to help her through her pregnancy. Who better than a healer for the task? I have not forgotten anything I 've learned of midwifery and how to rear a child."
Ishabal opened her mouth to protest, but she could see the looks of approval, and even delight on the faces of the other council members. Even the man she had hoped to ask for help seemed quite relieved that arrangements for her care were well in hand.
Resigned that for a few months, at least, she would have to bear Wynora's company, Ishabal stood and walked to stand behind the old woman's chair. Wynora reached out and clasped her hand and a hard and wiry grip that would be difficult to break.
Her words made Ishabal feel cold. "You will bear a child who will inherit all you wanted and will never have. She will stand beside the priest-king of Ovishang as his wife and bear his children, but you will never see that day. When the Radiance Incarnate is born a thousand years from now, some small portion of your stubborn heritage will pass to him."
The strange promise was uttered in a voice so low and intense that Ishabal was certain she was the only one who heard it. She felt smothered by a sense of destiny that denied her more than distant promises which would only come to pass when she was gone. She could not break free from Wynora's grip and to those who watched it appeared that she helped the old woman from her chair and guided her toward the door. They did not guess that it was Wynora who urged Ishabal ahead of her. They passed from the room and it was as if a damper had been removed from the gathering."What do you make of Ishabal and my mother's determination to have her in her home?" Lamath asked his wife.
Belnian shook her head. "Both of them are far more powerful than I. We know the things your mother bore and what she dared to save the plaque of the Holy Name from desecration in Tashvad. I am relieved that I do not have to stand between the two of them. I doubt Ishabal has told us the entire truth, but what she said is enough to prove your mother's wisdom in encouraging us to stay separate from Irilik's people."
Lamath frowned. He was still not certain that isolation was best for his people. "I know that you longed to see Elianin again," he said.
I yearned to see my cousin and apologize for my behavior after she married," Belnian admitted. "I wish I could have said goodbye to Virda and all the others who helped us win against Candut and his cronies, but I believe Ishabal spoke the truth when she told us they have scattered far and wide to settle other parts of what they call Okishdu."
Lamath nodded, but there was a distant look in his eyes. More than any other he had balked against his mother's counsel that they remain isolated in their marshes. He felt a constriction in his horizons. Perhaps it was just as well that he acknowledge that the day was past when he could leave his responsibilities in Ovishang and go in search of new adventures.
Belnian could always sense his mood and she drew nearer to his side."We have five children to consider and another on the way," she reminded him."You are no longer a pirate or the leader of a group of exiles looking for a home."
He chuckled and shook his head. "It should an adventure for all of us to watch what happens between my mother and Ishabal. You were right in your appraisal of their characters. They are like stones. Will one of them break against the other, or will they only sharpen one another like a knapping stone against a flint?"
Someone approached with a question for Lamath and Belnian turned to attend to her other guests. There was some speculation about the stories Ishabal had told, but there was no real concern that she would cause any problem with such a hostess as Wynora to keep her in hand. Some were unhappy that the effort to find Irilik and his people would now be abandoned. But Wynora had been adament about maintaining separation, and Ishabal's story provided proof of the wisdom of the counsel of the Seeress.
Chapter 10 Apprentice
Kalinka rose at dawn to the sound of the corum cow lowing near at hand."It seems you were right about the corum," she sleepily told Falga. "I thought she had enough to eat where you last tethered her."
Falga started up, alarmed by the anomaly of the corum's presence near the tent. Then he heard another woman's voice nearby and relaxed with a smile.
"Come now, stand still. I only want a cup or so," Balinra said. A child's voice added other coaxing words.
Falga and Kalinka crawled from their tent and saw Balinra trying to milk the cow. The woman glanced up at them and smiled."I came up here to bring Virdun for a visit and saw this corum tethered to a spear leaf bush. It has been too long since I had a cup of milk and with three to feed, now that I have Virdun, I didn't think you'd begrudge me a sip or two."
Kalinka took Virdun into her embrace and was thrilled to feel his arms go around her neck. "How did you climb the cliff with all these young ones in hand?"
"Each of them was either in my arms or had a good hold on my skirt, and we just came up," Balinra said. "I come up here often. Most people in Orenon don't know the secret of spear leaf and I believe they think I'm mad to make the effort. It's probably just as well they haven't developed a taste for the leaves, or the bushes would soon be stripped. It's too bad no one seems to know how to cultivate the plants."
"I think they are unwilling to risk the sting for the sake of eating the cores," Falga said as he deftly peeled one leaf after another and gave them to the waiting children.
Kalinka finally relinquished Virdun who had begun to suckle hungrily on her finger. "Have you heard any news of Tagnet's condition this morning?"
Balinra shook her head and her genial expression grew grave. "I brought Virdun up to you in case this is your last chance to see him. I am certain he is truly Tagnet's son. Ishabal came to my home the other night with an offer to relieve me of his care, but I knew she had some evil plan in mind. I told her that the child looks much like my own family. As you can surely see, the cousins have a more than passing resemblance to each other."
Kalinka smiled when she saw the truth of Balinra's claim. "It is amazing how a child can wear so many faces, yet be all himself. I had nearly forgotten your tie to Farol. It makes me feel better about leaving Virdun in your care."
"I came about another matter as well," Balinra said. "I want you to bless me Falga. I had no choice but to follow my husband into exile. I love him well even though he was a fool to follow Tagnet. I need the strength of your blessing to carry on here in Orenon."
"At least there is one of you who still follows the Light," Falga said.
"I am not the only one," Balinra assured him. "If Tagnet lets you stay and build a Shrine, I can almost guarantee that you will have a congregation to serve."
"But none of them will be men," Kalinka said ruefully.
"Don 't be so certain that only women will join you at the Shrine," Balinra said. "This cult of Algunagada is a curious thing. It has so little substance that it doesn 't really satisfy the hunger many feel for something greater than themselves. The community has split into several contingents since we came. Many of the men still meet with Tagnet and take their duties of watching the sea for Algunagada seriously, but there are some who were alienated when Tagnet tried to force them to abandon their wives and children when the natives attacked. They do not murmur openly, but the women are not the only ones who rue our decision to leave Timora."
Falga looked toward the edge of the wasteland where the edge of the cliff hid Orenon. "I am more concerned with those who look for something greater than themselves in evil. You have probably heard of Tarm's pernicious practices."
Balinra nodded with a grim look toward her children who were so innocently tracking the movements of an insect. "This is an even more urgent reason for you to stay. I fear that as they grow older, my sons might be attracted to the mystery and alleged power of the demon worshippers. I have prayed that somehow the Radiance would find a way to stop his growing influence. Tagnet will not intervene until it is too late and he himself is challenged. But something happened the other night after you came up here. The following morning Tarm's body was found in his cave south of town. Ishabal has disappeared and there are those who whisper of demonic possession and revenge.
"I fear that Tarm's death will not erase the stain of his demon cult from those foolish enough to follow him," Falga said. The practice seems to involve grisly rituals in which all who are ensnared become participants in murder and defilement of the victims."
"Tagnet has permitted the evil to persist, even using Tarm and his cronies as a threat to those who disobey him," Balinra said. "Some have whispered that somehow he arranged the death of Tarm and the disappearance of Ishabal. I would better believe the rumors if Tagnet were not a cripple. Although all have noticed that he moves more freely lately."
"I doubt that so much has ever rested on whether or not a tyrant got a good night's sleep," Kalinka said. "It is good to hear that the remedy I used for him seems to be working. I had a little selan and it would have taken the pain away immediately, but most of what I brought with me was used up on Farol to relieve the pain of her burns. Tagnet's leg is too badly damaged to be entirely cured, but with proper care, he could be far more functional until the underlying disease that will destroy him takes hold."
"Don 't waste your pity on him," Balinra warned. "He uses the pity of others like some flowers use sweet nectar at their heart. Have you ever seen an insect caught in the center of a flytrap flower? That is what Tagnet is like. I actively resist his strange appeal, but my husband was not so strong and fell victim to his own better impulses. He helped Tagnet at first because of pity, but he was seduced by Tagnet's cunning words to become a full supporter of the myth of Algunagada's divinity."
Kalinka shook her head and smiled ruefully."I do not pity Tagnet, but I do want him to depend on my services. If his condition improves because of what I know, then Falga and I can stay here and build a shrine. That is my intentt in relieving him of pain."
The morning stretched on while Kalinka filled in details of relatives and friends who Balinra had not seen since leaving Timora.
"My current knowledge of their health and whereabouts is somewhat limited," she admitted. "After all, we set out not long after you were forced to flee. I expect that by now Timora has been reduced by more than half as the various septs disperse to their own lands. You are no more isolated than your sister Karlia who married one of Janak's sons. Indeed, you are closer to Timora than they are if they settled in the northern mountains as they planned."
Falga had been entertaining the two older children by making them some toys of twigs and twisted grass. Finally he stood and took his bearings on the sun. "The hour is late. Our three day trial has expired. Whatever Tagnet decides will set the pattern of our lives."
"I had only intended to stay for a little while," Balinra said. "I must get back to Orenon or my husband will go hungry. Expect me back agains soon if you are still here."
It was late afternoon before Falga decided he would wait no longer. "If Tagnet expects us to leave without waiting for his orders, he mistakes my will to stay and build a shrine. Come Kalinka, we will go down to Orenon and discover what our future will be."
By the time Falga and Kalinka reached the beach, the people of Orenon were clustered in a mob in the wide plaza that fronted Tagnet's house. Some of them were shouting and a few had begun to brawl. Tagnet emerged from his house and stood on a scaffolding which he ascended with more grace than usual.
His almost effortless ascent of the scaffold brought a temporary silence to the mob. Then Tagnet held up his hands and spoke. "My beloved companion Ishabal has perished. Her habit was to wash her clothes at night to avoid ridicule. Several days ago she went as usual to the washing stone and the next day her clothing was found strewn by the tide. Some of us have heard that dark deeds were done by Tarm."
The people nodded. It was no secret that Tarm had taken lives."Yet now we have a mystery! " Tagnet roared."Ishabal has perished, but Tarm has been found dead as well. I will not rest until I find who is responsible for these crimes."
Those who had thought to accuse Tagnet of killing Tarm were confounded by his words. They glanced uneasily from one to another other of the people who were standing on the beach. The death of Tarm seemed somehow even more sinister than the deadly rituals he carried out because there seemed no reason for the death, no benefit to anyone.
The most superstitious of Tarm's followers shivered with horror. Tarm himself had told them from the first that an interrupted ritual would be followed by the dread revenge of Orqu on the miscreant priest and those who had denied the demon his full feast of gore. The death of Tarm seemed to fulfill the warning that he himself had given.
Tagnet's gaze wandered over the crowd, somehow piercing those who had some culpability with a sense of uneasiness and guilt. He noticed Falga and Kalinka and a smile relieved his stern visage.
"Welcome Falga and Kalinka. Three days ago I gave you no fit reception for two who have come to help us build our community. Falga will build a shrine up on the edge of the cliffs for those too weak to keep the rigors of the God-King's cult. He will teach women to be good and productive wives and serve their husbands as they should. Kalinka brings skills of healing that are far superior to those we have known. You see me here, able to stand almost erect. For three nights no pain disturbed my slumber."
Everyone knew the significance of his words. The contract he had signed was known to all. The somber mood of guilt and apprehension faded before Tagnet's genial welcome of Falga and Kalinka.
Balinra, always bolder than others, handed Virdun to Falga and embraced Kalinka. Her action encouraged the others who were hoping for Tagnet to give some sign of welcome. Shy smiles and restrained hand signals sufficed for most of them.
It was a far better beginning than either Falga or Kalinka had anticipated. When sunset came and they obeyed the curfew Tagnet imposed, they retired up the cliff and to their camp with hopeful hearts.
The next day they began collecting stones. There were many littering the wasteland, some as large as a full grown corum, far too large to bring back to the site that Falga marked out. But he knew ways of reducing the larger stones to useable proportions and soon they began to acquire a sizable pile of suitable material to build the shrine.
They held to a standard of whiteness that made their search far more extensive and difficult than it otherwise would have been, but even though the shrine of Orenon would not have a tower, it would gleam like a pearl in the sun.
I wish I had the services of Barun," Falga said one evening as he labored over a sketch of the shrine. "I know how to cut and carve stone, but I never learned the finer details of architecture. It is a pity that Tagnet's house would receive the full extent of Barun's expertise and this Shrine to the Radiance must suffer from my lack of experience."
"Barun designed the Shrine in Timora and supervised the work until his wife fell ill," Kalinka said. "I am surprised that he joined Tagnet's cult after spending hours with Irilik during the planning and construction of the Shrine."
"He fell ill and Tagnet took advantage of his weakened state to turn his heart away from truth. Barun always had a tendency to take umbrage at imagined insults. Fordag is another man who let his pride mislead him. In his case it was a simple matter of a borrowed dress."
"Would you consider it gossip if you told me the story?" Kalinka asked him.
"I will use the tale of Fordag's apostasy to warn you of the dangers you could face as the wife of a priest," Falga said. "Fordag's wife, Magdia, gained a lot of weight when she expected twins. She found a dress that would fit her on a shelf near a basket that contained donated clothing. She took it home and Fordag complimented her on how well she looked in it. A few days later Tarsha confessed that she had not intended it as a donation but had simply laid it near the donation box while she went to fetch some thread to finish up a seam. Magdia gave it back to her and it seemed no harm was done, but Fordag saw Tarsha leaving their home with the dress and felt that taking the dress away implied an accusation of theft."
"Why didn't Tarsha simply let her keep the dress and make another?" Kalinka asked.
"You know Tarsha," Falga said. "She and Magdia were bosom friends and she had made the dress for Pontra's wedding and didn't have sufficient time to make another. Soon afterwards she gave Magdia a dress at least as fine, but by then Fordag had found a sop to his injured pride in Tagnet."
"To lose so much over a simple mistake!" Kalinka marveled.
"That is Tagnet's evil talent, to detect the simple errors of those who are trying to be just and kind and use them as a wedge to ruin friendships," Falga said. "We all make mistakes that could be taken as rebuffs. As the priest here in Orenon I must always be careful of what I say that could offend. Yet I must also speak the truth and offer rebuke when it is merited."
"Perhaps if you asked Barun to advise you he would give you some assistance," Kalinka said. "If we cannot have a tower or a steeple, in the very least we should build something that befits the light and truth it honors."
"I agree," Falga said, but I fear that if Tagnet hears I have approached Barun to help me he will make us sorry for the effort."
"His wife, Magdia, is one of the women who come to worship with Balinra. Perhaps it would be best to ask her to carry your appeal," Kalinka advised him.
That evening Falga drew Magdia aside for a few moments after he led the women and their children in the evening ritual. He was gratified the next morning when Barun appeared at the site of the intended shrine and asked to see his drawings.
"Not bad for a first attempt," the master mason said. "Let me show you what will need to be done to turn it from a barn into a building that will do honor to its purpose."
With deft strokes of a scribing tool Barun changed the proportions of the initial drawing of the exterior of the building. He leafed through the following pages, changing them until they became illegible with his scribbled changes.
"This won't do," Barun said at last. "Your effort was respectable considering your lack of experience, but if you will permit me, I will begin from the beginning. This is a challenge worthy of my skill and training."
"I have no way to pay you except for milk from my corum and spear grass cores," Falga said.
"Tagnet hasn't paid me for the work I've done for him, and this is in a far better cause," Barun said. "I see you have been gathering stone, and fortunately you knew what you were doing. The material is good, but we will need larger stones for the lintels and the columns. Transport would be easy if we had more willing hands."
"There are some youths who come to worship with their mothers. They are willing workers and with their help we could move the stones you will require," Falga said.
I will mark out the foundation and while you and your helpers set the base I will complete the drawings," Falga said. "We should begin tomorrow."
Tagnet's genial mood following his first few nights of peaceful sleep soured within a week when he suffered a return of pain. He summoned Kalinka and upbraided her for failing him.
"Three treatments are not sufficient for your illness," she said."I tried to return with another course of treatment two days ago, but your guards turned me away. They said you left standing orders that Falga and I are restricted to the wasteland and may not enter Orenon without your permission."
"I was afraid you would encroach," Tagnet muttered. "Ponswit told me that most of the women have chosen to climb the cliff and worship with the two of you."
"You must choose," Kalinka said."Your disease is progressive and will get worse until you are bound to your bed unless I treat you every day. I would willingly tell Falga that we are no longer to stay close to Orenon and we would leave, but no other in Orenon has my skill to ease your pain."
"I could kill Falga and keep you captive here to treat me! " he snarled.
"Do you think I would help you if you took Falga from me?" Kalinka asked.
Tagnet dropped his eyes. "Can you promise me an end of suffering?"
"There is only one way to end your suffering completely, and I doubt you would choose death so soon. Whatever you claim to the others of your cult, I guess that you still fear the end of life and what your soul will merit."
Tagnet ground his teeth and clamped his lips against reply. Sufficient pain would tempt him to end his life, but if she had the means to end his knawing ache, he could not afford to alienate her any further. "Do what you can to help me. I will tell my men to admit you when you come."
"And what about your proscription against Falga's visits to the beach?"
"He may come, but he cannot recruit for worship or for workers to help you build your shrine."
Kalinka nodded. It would be impolitic to remind him that all the workers on the shrine were volunteers. Even Barun, the mason who had revised Falga's simple design and turned it into a work of true architecture was eager to come each day.
"Did you bring the medicines you will need to treat me?" Tagnet asked. "If not, I could send one of my men up to the waste to fetch them for you."
"I carry my pouch of medicines everywhere with me," Kalinka said. "I have additional stores in our tent, but if you will send for some water and a ceramic cup I can prepare something to give you relief now and something else to ease you through the night."
"You will instruct one of my servants in the process so that I no longer need to depend on you," Tagnet ordered.
Kalinka shook her head."I have spent years studying the healer's art. I was a child when I apprenticed to Kapanadel. If you have someone you wish to apprentice to me, I will teach them how to diagnose and prescribe. I will show them which minerals and plants can be harvested as remedies, but it will take the same amount of time as it took me. Otherwise, you will soon suffer the results of having treatment from an amateur."
Tagnet tightened his fist against lashing out at her in anger. He would willingly have summoned his guards and watched them punish her with whips for her insolence, but the pain in his leg was greater than ever and only she had the skill to relieve the torture of his aching bones."Get on with it," he muttered."I will find you an apprentice."
"I have already begun to instruct one of Ponswit's younger daughters. She came and asked me if I could use her help when one of the workers was injured. She shows good aptitude."
Tagnet nodded. Ponswit was a doddering fool, but he was loyal. He would ensure that his daughter had the proper attitude. The sooner Tagnet could dispense with the services of Kalinka, the sooner he could rid himself of any further obligation to keep the contract he had signed. What use was power if it could be hedged and governed?
Kalinka spent more than an hour massaging Tagnet's knotted muscles and instructing him how to soak in medicated baths each evening before he went to bed. "Sea water will serve better than water from the spring," she told him when he instructed his men to bring buckets full of water from the spring. "The salt that keeps you from drinking from the sea has beneficial properties in a bath."
He glared at her and called the men back to bring water from the sea. "I suspect you are just trying to keep me from my rightful due as ruler of this city," he muttered.
Kalinka gritted her teeth. "I am not a liar. I will return tomorrow and bring Valdira with me. She can begin to learn what is needed for your care."
Tagnet tried to remember which of Ponswit's several daughters was named Valdira. The oldest one was married, but the others were still available. They were not bad looking and if Kalinka's apprentice proved to be clever as well as pretty, it could be a promising combination.
He looked forward to finding a substitute for Ishabal. None of the other women in his household held his interest. They had become more burden than benefit and he would have dismissed them but for the knowledge that his followers would regard him with less awe if he had a smaller harem.
He left word with his guards that Kalinka and her attendant should be shown into his sleeping room as soon as they arrived the following day. He put off all other business while he waited for their visit. He was dismayed to find that Valdira was Ponswit's youngest daughter, a mere child with years to go before she budded into womanhood. He suspected Kalinka knew his disappointment from the way she held her face expressionless as if she could barely restrain a grin when she saw him greet the bony child.
"I would think you would have chosen someone more mature as your apprentice," Tagnet muttered when the girl went to fetch a bowl.
"I told you that I started my apprenticeship when I was just a child," the healer said. "She is bright and curious in her thinking and not burdened with preconceptions. If I had enlisted one of her older sisters, you would have suffered from the choice eventually. Valdira will someday rival Kapanadel. She has already told me of a local remedy that made from the spines of a sea creature. I might have overlooked it otherwise, but now it has a place in your treatment."
"How did she discover it?" Tagnet asked.
"Her brother stepped on one of the shellfish and his foot went numb. Valdira was quick to see the implications. As I told you yesterday, she has a natural aptitude."
Tagnet could already feel the benefit of the treatment and he was forced to swallow his objection. Valdira could not become part of his harem for years to come, but at least there was a possibility that in time he could dispense with Kalinka's services.
Other than her visits to treat Tagnet, Kalinka spent little time in Orenon. She was far too busy with her duties on the knoll above the town. She spent most of every day helping to build the shrine. In addition to finding stones and clearing brush from the site, she provided regular meals for those who came to volunteer their help.
Barun did more than any other to move the work along. One morning Barun arrived early at the waste above the beach and Falga met him. The two men walked around the site of the shrine which was already shoulder high. The pale stone of the walls gleamed in the morning sun.
"You can be proud of the work you have done here," Falga said."I remember years ago when I helped with some of the small tasks that went into building the shrine in Timora. That is another building that reflects your skill. Few men who rival your ability as an architect and builder."
"Irilik did not think so," Barun scowled."He chose another to supervise the building of the library, a man who had been my apprentice."
"As I recall, your wife was ill at the time," Falga said. "I can remember how you cared for your children and nursed your wife without allowing any other to help."
Barun turned away and stared out toward the sea. "She died in spite of all that I could do and Irilik gave my children to others to raise."
"You were ill yourself," Falga said. "I remember the day that you fainted and fell from the scaffold where you were supervising the setting of the roof timbers. I ran for help and you were carried away. Kapanadel cared for you for many days. Some said you would die, but she never stopped trying to bring you back to consciousness. Your children were too young to be left alone and Tedak and Lira took care of them in their own home."
Barun stared at Falga."I don 't remember it that way. It seemed I was only gone from my post for a day or so and when I returned I found that others had supplanted me. When I approached Irilik and demanded to know why another was in charge of building the library, his answer did not make any sense. He said that the building of the Shrine had been delayed until I was able to return to work."
"You must have had some indication of how long you had been away from the building site," Falga said. "What about your children? I can remember that your youngest child, Farna, was frightened of you. That must have made you wonder."
"I thought Tagnet and Lira had turned him against me," Barun growled. "It added fuel to my feeling of being offended. Tagnet seemed to discern my anger and he fed my sense of injury. I became one of the first to join his cult. He found me a young wife who helped me forget my sorrows."
"Of course he never mentioned that you had been away from the building site for most of a month after you fell," Falga said.
"Tagnet commiserated with me for being superseded," Barun admitted. "He assured me that anyone who gave me a different version of what happened was in a conspiracy with Irilik to shame me."
"I am surprised that you have not disputed my version of those days," Falga said.
Barun sighed and sat down on a large stone he planned to square and use as a plinth in the forecourt of the shrine. "Tagnet always flattered me and I gave him a great deal of free labor in Timora for the sake of his support."
Falga nodded. "I remember. It was one of the reasons his house was so fine."
"When we first came to the coast, I advised Tagnet that we should build up here instead of down on the beach. I expected him to listen to my advice. Instead, he insisted that I build his house on the sand. I can already see the tiny cracks that will one day cause it to fall. His disregard for my skill and experience has served to open my eyes. I have been a fool and have doomed my soul. The least I can do is help build this shrine."
"Your soul is not doomed," Falga assured him. "As long as you can see what you have done wrong and sincerely feel sorry for doing it, you can find a place among the blessed. I remember your wife Gilka. She was a wonderful woman."
"Kapandel did not save her," Barun muttered.
"I doubt it was Kapanadel's inability to save your wife that wounded your soul," Falga said. "It seems to me that you blame yourself for her death."
Barun looked around and stood up."It is time to get busy. I should be wary of priests from now on. First Irilik, then Tagnet, now you, all telling me what I should think and feel."
Falga smiled and turned to welcome several boys who had come to help. Barun was a man of few words. He showed his devotion to a cause with his hands and skill. The shrine they were building would stand for ages as a sign of devotion. Falga had some small talent with working stone, but he had long since acknowledged that he could not have imagined how a shrine without a tower could so elevate his spirit.
One day Barun came to Falga with a request. "I want to go to the mountains and bring back nop lumber for the roof and the doors of the shrine."
"I thought you had planned to use woven reeds for the roof and the doors," Falga said.
Barun shook his head. "At first I thought such would be adequate, but this shrine will last for centuries if every part of it is planned with the same care as I gave to the shrine in Timora."
"What will Tagnet think if you are absent for so long?" Falga asked.
"Tagnet cares nothing about what I do with myself now that his house is finished," Barun admitted. "All his attention is given to making his tower the tallest of any other. He has no need for my skill as a mason. Even if he did, I am not his servant but a free man with the right to do as I will."
"I am surprised you haven't built a tower for yourself," Falga said. "Even though you are accustomed to working in stone, I have seen that you have skill with buildings of all kinds."
"I would not soil my hands with such a project," Barun muttered. "Arguing over every scrap of driftwood and sneaking out at night to sabotage the towers of others is the work of foolish boys, not men and builders."
"How will you bring the timber for the shrine so far?"
"I could use a team such as Janak's sons used to bring the stone from the quarry. I hoped that you would teach me how to catch and tame some corums."
"It could take months to tame the animals you would need for such a venture," Falga said.
"Go with him," Kalinka said. "I will be safe enough here with Valdira. Now that Tagnet needs my services I am under his protection."
Barun shook his head. "I will not ask him to leave you alone here with a mere child and nothing but a tattered tent to protect you. There is a pile of stone that was not pale enough to use in building the shrine. Within a week, with the help of others, we can build a house for you and use the wicker we had intended to use for the shrine to make sturdy doors and window shutters."
By sunset he had marked the bounds of the house and laid the foundation stones and sills with the help of Falga and several boys who would rather spend time with Falga and Barun than with the boys of Orenon who served either as Tagnet's bully guards or tried to revive the rituals of Tarm's deadly cult.
The prospect of taking an expedition to gather corum and tame them gave zest to the mundane tasks of carrying and setting stone. Barun told the boys that only those who proved their endurance would be taken along to the mountains to bring back timber.
Watching them, Kalinka wondered if they would have any energy left for the trek when they finished building the house. She treated a rash of bruised thumbs and strained muscles as a result of their pressing pace. At last the roof was up and the doors installed. When Falga seemed ready to insist that furnishings were needed as well, Kalinka drew him aside.
"These boys are eager now, but they will soon lose interest if you deny them their goal much longer. You should begin your expedition tomorrow. There is another reason to start as soon as possible."
Falga gave her a blank look and she lifted his hand to rest on her waist. "Take what time you need, only try to return in time to help me through the last awkward months of pregnancy."
"I cannot leave you here alone now that you carry our child."
"You know how to tame a corum. Surely you can remember some of the things that Kumnor did. This is important to Barun and you know that I can take care of myself. It was one of the reasons you married me."
Falga frowned."I nearly refused to marry you because I was unwilling to expose you to hardship. It seems I have done little else since we married."
"At least you have never been boring," she replied impishly."You know that you must go. The Radiance will watch over me. I have far more reason to fear for you. I have to remind myself that we have both overcome what seemed impossible barriers to have what we have today."
He nodded. Only a few trusted people knew that a spring had welled up when the foundation of the shrine was dug. It meant they had no need to rely on the spring that provided fresh water for Orenon. It also explained the line of spear leaf bushes that snaked across the wasteland, providing forage for their corum and more than half of their food supply.
"I wish I could require that you not go down to Orenon while I 'm gone," Falga said.
"I cannot ignore Tagnet's summons. As long as he relies on my treatments to ease his pain, I will be safe from his bullies."
The next day when the expedition set forth Kalinka was tempted to walk with them for a while, but she knew it would be difficult to turn back and she bid Falga goodbye at their threshold. "When you return you will find this place filled with furnishings," she promised."You will be surprised at what can be accomplished without your supervision."
"I think you are glad I am going," he jested, but Kalinka's laugh was too hollow to be convincing.
Suddenly tears welled in her eyes."I will miss you dreadfully. Go now before everyone sees me crying."
She did not stand and gaze after them, but she managed to find small tasks that kept her near the door and she looked out frequently until there was no sign of the caravan.
Valdira came up from the beach carrying her small packet of belongings and settled into the small room next to Kalinka's bedroom. Soon they set out for a day of herb collecting. They went north, away from the path that Falga had taken, but they found a herd of corums grazing on a stand of spear grass only a league from their home. "I wish we had known of this herd yesterday," Kalinka said. "The trip to the west could have been delayed while they tamed them."
Valdira made no reply. She was too young to challenge Kalinka, but her silence was challenge enough. "You think they were meant to go west today, don 't you?" Kalinka asked the girl.
Valdira nodded. "You were the one who taught me that after we pray we must work to bring to pass whatever good we can do. If Falga were meant to find this herd, it would have walked another league to the shrine."
Kalinka smiled. "Perhaps we can find a way to lure this herd closer to home. The women who have enjoyed the milk and butter from my one corum cow could each have one of their own."
"We should tell them where we found this herd and let them do what they can to tame them," Valdira cautioned. "You must not endanger yourself in any way now that a child depends on your safety."
"How did you know?" Kalinka asked.
"I have an excellent teacher," Vadira said with a grin. "Come, our gathering nets are nearly full and we should try to reach home before sundown."
Kalinka nodded and turned away from the prospect of capturing a corum calf. She was grateful that Valdira had stopped her from what could have been a chancy venture. It was easy to forget how dangerous a wild herd of corums could be. When they reached the house, they found Ponswit waiting with a couple of Tagnet's bully guards.
"Where is your husband Falga and the mason Barun?" he asked Kalinka.
"They have gone to fetch timber for the roof and doors of the shrine," she replied.
"All wood in Orenon belongs to the Watchers," he declared.
"Father, you have no business here," Valdira interrupted. "You saw Tagnet sign the contract with Kalinka months ago. He granted his brother the right to build a shrine. I challenge you to bring Kalinka into Tagnet's presence and we will see what he will say."
"You are a child and have no say in this," her father shouted as he raised his hand as if to hit her.
Kalinka stepped between them to shield the girl. "Valdira only speaks the truth. I see that you have brought reinforcements with you. Take us down to Tagnet now."
She started out toward the edge of the cliff with Valdira close behind. Ponswit had no choice but to follow them, making a show that they were in his custody. The guards smirked behind his back. When he had summoned them to accompany him to the priest's house they had asked by what authority he acted. He had blustered and insisted he was on an errand for Tagnet.
Halfway across the sand they were met by a messenger from Tagnet. "The Son of the God-king requests your attendance," he told the healers.
Kalinka glanced back at Ponswit and he nodded self-importantly, but there was a hint of surprise in his expression. She guessed that he had no prior knowledge of this summons from his leader.
When they arrived at Tagnet's house, they found him bowed over with pain. Kalinka told everyone but Valdira to leave the room where Tagnet huddled on the bed.
"What have you eaten recently?" she asked.
"Garda brought me a plate of spiced fish that he said were a gift from Ponswit," Tagnet answered.
"Did you really believe that my father would entrust anything to one of Tarm's cultists?" Valdira asked. "They have been bitter enemies for months."
Tagnet could only groan and clutch his mid-section. Kalinka set to work to purge the poison. It became an ordeal for all three of them and it was hours before Tagnet rested without writhing. He was pale but no longer in fear of his life.
"I should think that you of all men would be careful with what you eat," Kalinka reproved him. "It was your own design to have power in Timora after a feast of drugged food."
"I will execute the ones responsible for this," he muttered.
"I doubt you will find them," Valdira said. "The last of Tarm's cultists are convinced you had him killed for sacrificing Ishabal."
"I swear that I had nothing to do with the death of Tarm," Tagnet said.
"It does no good to swear to us," Kalinka reminded him. "We saved your life because it is our duty. I keep my promises, but apparently you do not."
"I am too weak to argue with you now," Tagnet averred.
"Did you send Ponswit to interrogate me with a couple of your guards?" she asked him.
"I did not. I will reprove him for bothering you. Now go away and let me rest."
Midnight had passed when Valdira and Kalinka left Tagnet's house. The town nearly silent with only the murmuring surf to break the quiet. Ponswit and the two guards had long since gone home and abandoned whatever mischief they had intended.
When they had climbed the ramp to the waste and no other could overhear them, Kalinka asked Valdira if she had any idea of why her father had come up to the shrine. "It is the first time in months that I have seen him climb the cliff. I wonder if he knew that Falga had gone off and left the two of us alone."
"I think he heard of your house and decided he wanted it for himself," Valdira said. "He is jealous of Tagnet's stone house and tried to intimidate Barun into building one for him. As you know, Barun is easily offended and he told my father that nothing would convince him to spend his time on such a venture. Now that Tagnet knows that he is in danger from hidden enemies we have little to fear from Ponswit or others like him. There is nothing my father could say that would weigh more heavily than your successful effort to save Tagnet's life tonight."
Kalinka shivered at the thought of the plot to poison Tagnet. She spared no particular sympathy for her brother-in-law, but while he depended on her, there was some chance of safety in Orenon. If he had died tonight, she would be at the mercy of such as Ponswit with his greed and envy. It would not astonish her to see the shrine turned into a palace for Tagnet's successor.
"I find myself in the curious position of wishing Tagnet a long life," she told Valdira.
Valdira shuddered. "I have seen him watching me. As soon as I am old enough I must become his concubine. Fortunately, I am small for my age. Perhaps I can find some remedy that will help me delay the dreadful day when I become a woman."
Kalinka could remember her own girlhood and her impatience to mature. It seemed sad that Valdira dreaded the day she was no longer considered a child. There had to be changes made to preserve her from the destiny as yet another of Tagnet's concubines.
Chapter 11 The Shrine
Kalinka was not concerned when two months passed with no sign of Falga and the others who had gone to the mountains for timber. If they had already had teams of dalas to drag the logs it would have taken only a few weeks, but it could not be easy to tame wild corums as teams. She prayed for their safety and kept busy furnishing the house and tending the health of the women and children who sought her out.
She was called to Orenon to attend a childbirth and again to sew up a fisherman's foot torn on coral, but most of those other than Tagnet who wanted her aid came up the cliff to see her. A sling on a pulley was erected by a man named Fordag whose wife had an ulcerated arm from a persistent infection which required frequent treatments from Kalinka. Others began to use the sling instead of the steep ramp for a small fee of shells or other goods.
One day Fordag visited Kalinka with his wife and she mentioned the herd of corum she and Valdira had encountered in the north they talked about Falga's method of securing the cow to feed Virdun.
He took his wife back to Orenon after Kalinka had dressed her ulcer, but before the day was out, he returned with a few of his friends and they built a corral of stones in the region south of the shrine. The next morning he returned to the wasteland with the same group of men and they moved north in search of the herd.
Several days passed before they returned with five cows with their calves. When Kalinka walked across the way to see the collection of corums, Fordag was milking one of them. She watched him for a while and turned to leave but he stood and asked her to stay for a moment.
"I feel I owe you a share of my herd for telling me where to find them," he said.
"Provide a skin of milk each day for the children of Jugal the wastrel and I will cancel any further obligation," she told him.
Fordag lost interest in the tower he had been building on the beach and started using his pulley to transport milk and other products to the town. Kalinka was not surprised when he asked her permission to build a home near his corral."My wife will need your care for some time to come and it is easier on both of us to stay up here. I can care for my herd better if I stay nearby."
Kalinka quickly granted his request. She welcomed the presence of another family and she felt that Falga would share her sentiments when he returned. That afternoon Fordag began to dig the foundation for his home. When Kalinka visited Tagnet the next morning with Valdira, he was in a sour mood."You give me a night of rest, and then two of misery. When will you give me the remedy Kapanadel prepared?"
"I have given you the same one and stronger, but I have already warned you that the disease you have will get worse with time. You might well live another decade in relative comfort and activity if you follow my instructions closely. Otherwise, you could become so crippled you could not move within a year."
"There are those who claim that you have led me on," he snarled. "Ponswit says that you have encouraged Fordag to settle near you and give up his tower so that I will have one less strong man to keep order in the town. By what right do you grant him land to build?"
"You said that Falga would have discretion over what happened up in the waste," she reminded him. "I am his agent while he is away. As for those who doubt the efficacy of my treatments for your ills, I will step aside and let them try their hands at healing you. You know where you can find me if they fail."
She began to pack up her bundle of medicines with every appearance of leaving him. Tagnet lurched forward in his seat and grabbed her hand. "Stay. You are a hard woman Kalinka. It is unfortunate that I did not succeed in my plot when I still had you in my power. You managed to drive Ishabal away and now you keep me dancing to your will with threats of pain. It has been two months since Falga and Barun led their pack of rebel boys toward the mountains. If they were still alive, they would have returned by now. I will give up all my other women if you become my wife."
Kalinka shook her head."Even if Falga died I would never consent to marry you, but I believe he will return."
Tagnet settled back into his chair and stared at her while she kneaded the muscles in his leg. He had asked others to watch and try the same massage, but none of them could ease the knots and give him ease. Finally he gave a sigh of resignation and relaxed, knowing her treatment would be more effective if he did not continue to fight her will with his own.
"Two houses other than your own may be built up on the waste, but no more," he finally muttered."I will not have my community divided into two factions. I will rein in Ponswit's ambitions and tell him that he should concentrate on gathering drift wood for his tower instead of yearning for a stone house of his own."
"Will you convince him to stop coveting the timber Falga set out to gather for the shrine?" she asked him.
He grimaced, but finally he nodded.
"And what do you expect of me in return for such a concession?" She asked him.
"You must promise me that you will do all you can to hold my disease at bay."
"Grant me the guardianship of Valdira and I will promise to use all my skill to keep you well for as long as possible."
"Ponswit promised her to me when she is old enough to marry," Tagnet said.
"You have no further use for women," Kalinka cruelly reminded him. "It was truly something of a miracle that Farol conceived your child. Why would you tie Valdira to you when she deserves to raise children of her own? Ponswit may well decide to sell her to some other man in return for favors. If she continues on with me, you will benefit from the effect of doubled insight and skill."
Tagnet shook his head and for a moment his face was fixed in a scowl that seemed to doom Kalinka's plan. Then he threw back his head and laughed until a fit of wheezing stopped the noise. It was frightening to watch and Kalinka only stayed because she feared the consequence of leaving him in such a dangerous mood.
He gasped for breath and finally spoke."Bring me a piece of scroll cloth and a scribing tool. I will give you what you have asked, as long as you obey my rules. Take Ponswit's skinny little daughter and teach her everything you know. She is yours."
"But what about her father's claim?" Kalinka asked.
"Ponswit thought to bribe me with the chit, mistaking my interest in her. He has already given me a contract over her. I will transfer it to you. Doubtless you will waste the gift and set her free."
When Kalinka returned to her house, she called for Valdira. The girl was setting our herbs to dry on slabs of stone behind the house. Valdira knew that her mentor had been down to treat Tagnet and she entered the room hesitantly, twisting her fingers nervously in the strings of her apron.
"Why didn 't you tell me that your father had already sold you to Tagnet?" Kalinka asked the child.
"I have prayed that something would intervene," Valdira admitted. "I thought you might find a way to keep me here with you, but I guess I must go to Tagnet's house until I can find a way to escape without implicating you."
"You no longer belong to Tagnet! " Kalinka said. She took the contract from her pocket and showed Valdira the place where her name was written. For the first time since Kalinka had known her, she heard Valdira laugh with joy. She sobered a little when she began to study the other words on the scroll cloth."What does the rest of it mean?"
"Tagnet has given permission for two other houses to be built up here, but no more. I doubt he knew that is just what I might have asked for if I dared. I have worried that there would be a flood of settlers who would soon contaminate the water from our spring and strain the resources of spear leaf and desert roots that I use to extend our meals."
A loud bellow broke their happy mood and Kalinka peered through the window opening. "Run and fetch Fordag! His corums have broken loose."
"Those are not Fordag's corums," Valdira laughed."Look, it is Falga and Barun returned at last."
Kalinka raced to the door and peered out at the dusty men who strode behind a team of straining corums. Their clothing was ragged and their faces blackened by sun and dust, but she could not mistake her husband's crescent grin of shining teeth."Falga! " she cried with joy.
She wanted to rush to put her arms around him, but a team of yoked corums pulling a sledge loaded with nop logs stood between them. She could not risk the danger of such an impulsive act. She was already growing awkward with the growth of her unborn child.
Somehow he made his way through the barriers and grabbed her in his arms. Tenderly and fiercely, he greeted her in a way that she would remember fondly for some time to come. Finally Barun interrupted their reunion. "There is a corral at hand, but it already holds some corums. Where will we put these teams when we unyoke them?"
Fordag had been hunting for cories in the brush when he heard the commotion and he quickly returned to watch the arrival of the teams."I will be happy to share my corral with you, Barun," he offered."I am in the process of planning a house. I could use your expertise to advise me how to build it."
"I wish I had known it was possible to gain permission build up here," Barun said.
"Tagnet has granted that two houses other than ours may be built," Kalinka hurried to tell him. "It is only fitting that one of them should be yours."
Falga gave Kalinka a look that said he expected an explanation for the bargain she had struck. He knew his brother well enough to know he did not grant boons easily. Even so he was well pleased. Of all the men who had followed Tagnet into exile, Barun and Fordag were the only ones whose loss had diminished the community of Timora. He would gladly forgo the presence of all of the others, especially Ponswit with his encroaching ways.
There were two teams of four each of corums who had somehow been cajoled into pulling the sledges.
"It took us more than a month to tame them," Falga explained."While I worked with the corums with two of the boys to help me, Barun took the others to cut logs. He suggested we bring twice what we needed to finish the shrine. He can easily find a market for the rest of the wood."
"You could keep it up here and use it to finish our houses and build a corral for your teams," Fordag countered. "Tagnet has decreed that the towers can only be built of driftwood and no other wood will be used in the town. It was the only way he could dampen Ponswit's attempt to steal your lumber when you returned."
"Ponswit thinks he will follow Tagnet as the leader of Orenon," Barun said with disgust for the prospect. "I heard he has sold his youngest daughter to Tagnet for no more than the promise of future favor." His eyes went to Valdira who was fetching water for the thirsty corums.
"Tagnet gave her to me," Kalinka said. "He finally seems to realize that his life is in my hands. I did not press my advantage, but I obtained Valdira, and permission for our small community.
He won 't permit more than three houses to be built, but I have been worried we would become crowded so his limitation pleased me."
Barun looked around. He had the ability to see potential for what might be and he smiled at the prospects he envisioned. "We will build a stone corral linking our three houses. If Tagnet's fickle favor changes, he will find us hard to defeat."
"What of these young men who have helped you bring the timber from the mountains?" Fordag asked.
"They can be boarded out between us while they are here, but we have been discussing a plan. Now that we have the teams, we can carry goods to other cities. These boys have committed no crimes that would make them unwelcome and we have a need for goods that the sea cannot produce."
"Even if they do nothing more than fetch fodder for corums we have captured, they will pay their way," Fordag said."What would it take to make shed roofs along the walls of the corrals? Could Tagnet claim that such rude shelters were houses?"
"This discussion can wait," Falga reminded the other men."I yearn for wash and a change of clothing and time alone with my wife. I am certain that Barun is equally eager to see his family. Meet here tomorrow morning and we will plan for the future."
Kalinka surprised Falga with the great luxury of a heated bath."I knew how you missed the baths of Timora," she said when she showed him in to the room where she had worked for weeks to seal a roomy basin with shells and mollusk cement."
"If Tagnet knew of this, he would impound our house," Falga reminded her.
"I have convinced his servants that sea water baths are best, and for such as he, that is true," Kalinka said.
"Come, join me," he said as he stripped off his grimy clothing.
"I am a proper matron!" she protested, but the dimple beside her mouth belied her words.
She laughed and ran out of the room beyond the reach of his hand. She peeked through the door and giggled. "I have only seen one wirra, but I remember they are colored white and gray. You look like a wirra now. I would be half gray myself if I shared your bath with you. When you are clean, come to the kitchen and I will show you some dishes that Valdira taught me."
"Does she stay here with you every night?" Falga asked.
Kalinka shook her head. "She stayed in the room next to ours, but I have fixed a room up for her at the back of the house. Tonight she will stay with a woman in labor down in Orenon. It should be early tomorrow before she calls for me. I think she knew we wanted to be alone on your first night at home."
Kalinka was roused by someone pounding at the door of her house while it was still dark outside. Falga was so weary from his journey and the hearty welcome she had offered that he slept like a stone and he did not move when she slipped out of his arms and hurried into her gown.
The man at her door was wild eyed with anxiety. It was a wild scramble to reach the hut where Valdira had spent the night, but as Kalinka approached she heard the sound that meant she was just a little late. The hiccoughing squall of a newborn baby came from the window opening. When Kalinka opened the door and looked inside, she saw that Valdira had everything well in hand and was wrapping the new born in a soft length of soft fabric.
Kalinka moved to the mother's side and helped her stand from the birthing stool.
Everything was at hand to clean her up and make her comfortable."You were lucky to have Valdira with you," Kalinka told the woman.
The weary mother nodded. "I was angry at first when she came instead of you, but her touch was so gentle and she helped me gain strength for the birth with herbs and good advice. I soon forgot her age."
"I gave her a dose of sickle-flowers as you advised," Valdira said, "and I ground up a pinch of selan to take the edge off of the pain without making her sleepy."
Kalinka nodded."You have done well. It is good that you did not display this talent before Tagnet gave me your contract or he would have realized how valuable you are. There are few things more needed in such a place than Orenon a capable midwife."
"Did Kapanadel have many apprentices?" Valdira asked.
"A few, but not enough to provide every settlement with a healer," Kalinka admitted."I am almost certain that none of them have two."
"Even Orenon only has one real healer," Valdira demurred."It will be years before I can claim the same skill as you."
"You underestimate yourself," Kalinka assured her."Come, the mother and child are doing well and you have been up all night. Falga is sound asleep and there is no reason for you to stay away from your home with us."
The next day Kalinka found Vadira folding lengths of the same soft material that she had used to wrap the child. "I have seen some others in Orenon with this cloth, where does it come from? It is so soft and shiny." Kalinka ran the glossy fabric between her fingers.
"The women call it zylka cloth. They make it from a variety of seaweed that is soaked in lime water for a week, then combed. My mother discovered it accidentally when she left some baskets woven of the seaweed under a dripping roof where birds had been perching. The lime from their scat dissolved the baskets. She was ready to throw the slimy mess out when she noticed the strands that tangled in her fingers and tried drying and weaving them."
"This could be a product worthy of trade," Kalinka said. "The women have sometimes paid me for my services with small pearls. Have many been found?"
"There is a reef to the north where there are wonderful shells," Valdira said. "Strangely, the pearls are found in the ugly ones that look like stones. I have a few nice ones myself. Tagnet and the other men were excited at first when pearls were found, but they soon lost interest. If it were gold, it would probably be different."
"Pearls could be traded for gold," Kalinka assured her.
"Who would trade with us?" Valdira scoffed."We are outlaws."
"You are not an outlaw," Kalinka insisted."Now that Ishabal is gone, I doubt there are many women in Orenon who would not be welcome anywhere in Okishdu. Tagnet's cult was designed for dissident men and rebellious boys. Do you not know that Falga and I were sent here by Irilik because you are loved by the Radiance? That is why we are willing to suffer Tagnet's spite and work to help him stay alive, so that he will grant us the right to teach you the truth."
Valdira's eyes glowed at the thought."I wish I could be given my Ritual Washing in Timora when I am old enough."
"You are old enough now," Kalinka said."I see no reason we cannot return to Timora for the ceremony."
"Tagnet would not permit it!"
"I have a plan," Kalinka said. "You know the young people. Some of them are beyond being taught, and have already chosen evil, but others might want the same thing as you. Now that the Shrine is nearly finished, we will be holding services. The women have already spent each seven-day learning from Falga. They will come to the shrine and their youngest children will come with them. We also have the loyalty of those young men who worked on the shrine. You probably know of girls your age who would like to join us. I believe I know of a way that you can achieve your desire to go to Timora. Without the youth, Orenon will be lost as a dwelling place for the Light when my generation has passed."
It took several weeks for the shrine to be finished. Barun was exacting in his requirements and since he had delayed building of his own house until he completed the shrine, Falga could not complain. There was no public announcement of the dedication of the building to the service of the Radiance, but on the morning when Falga donned his new white robes of shining zylka cloth and stood on the porch to invoke blessings on the structure, a small crowd of women and children and a few of their husbands with twenty or so young people salted among them gathered to watch the ritual.
Barun and Fordag stood with tears in their eyes and raised their voices in response to the seven questions that invoked the spirit to fill the building.
Falga's eyes met Kalinka's tearful gaze. This was a better harvest than they had ever anticipated months before when they had brought little Virdun to his father.
Tagnet's son was among those present, even though he was asleep with his thumb in his mouth, slung over the sturdy shoulder of Balinra's husband who was there with his entire family. It was early in the morning and the dawn light gleamed from the white stone walls of the shrine. There was no tower, but Barun had designed the building to have such grace that a tower was hardly necessary.
After the services, everyone gathered to share food and companionship in the large central room of the priest's house. It was nearly noon before most of them left and went back to Orenon. Their absence was hardly noticed since most of the Watchers slept late and stayed well away from the shrine.
Kalinka began to put her plan for visiting Timora in motion. First she invited the women to meet with Ponswit's wife and learn how to prepare zylka cloth. She invited the youth to make expeditions to the pearl beds, and she began to search for some landmarks she remembered from ten years before. Falga was worried about her wandering as she turned more of her duties over to Valdira and disappeared for hours with nothing but a spade in hand. Finally she returned one evening, her steps slow and awkward with her swelling pregnancy, a golden chain hung about her neck.
When Falga questioned her about the jewelry she gave a victorious smile. "I found the burial of the vanities," she told him. "Do you remember when we were ready to take the trail that would lead us from here to Timora more than ten years ago?"
He nodded, but she could tell that he still didn 't understand what she was talking about. "Tarsha started it. She took off her jewelry and chains and said there was no need to carry them when more important things like food and water were needed. Everyone else followed her example and their finery and jewels were piled in a pit and a fire lit to destroy them."
Falga's frown betrayed his thoughts and Kalinka hastened to reassure him about her motives for seeking the treasure. "Valdira wants to receive her Renewal Washing in Timora, and I suspect you will find that many of the other young people have the same desire. I have been praying to find a way to convince Tagnet to permit us to return to Timora and still keep our place with him here when we come back to Orenon, as we must."
Falga uttered a sigh of relief and nodded."You thought of the treasure and knew that he would be tempted."
"It about more than just the treasure," she assured him. "There are valuable products that the Orenese can trade with others in Okishdu. What better way to reintegrate them with Irilik's people than to encourage mutual trade."
"You are near to bearing our child," Falga reminded her.
"It will take another year of preparation until I am ready to suggest my scheme to Tagnet," she said. "This must be a long-term project with the prospect of repetition or it will do little good in the end."
Falga nodded. "I have become so accustomed to doing things expediently that I have lost the habit of making long range plans. Barun's deliberation in completing the shrine was a trial for me even though I knew it would be better for having such exacting care taken in every detail. I approve of your use of the burial of the vanities. Who knows, it might have been something inspired in preparation for the use we will make of it."
He almost forgot about Kalinka's project in the pressure of his duties as a priest and a husband. He cooperated with Barun and Fordag in setting up their homes and corrals to form a defensible area. They had put up sheds along the insides of the walls of the corrals on every side. On three sides they shaded cattle, on the forth they protected snug barracks where the young men who chose to join them could stay in relative comfort.
Fordag had been a soldier with Saaden's army and he helped plan the defenses and set up a schedule of drills in case they were ever attacked. The corums required a lot of care. Some were used as milk cows, others as draft animals. They had not dared to bring a bull from the wild, but one of the calves was promising and he was put in a separate corral. The other bull calves were not so fortunate. They provided meat and leather for the tiny settlement surrounding the shrine.
Kalinka's son, Karad, was born on a warm night with Valdira in attendance. The sturdy little boy was so like Virdun had been as an infant that Kalinka experienced a feeling of panic when Valdira gave him to her to nurse. She knew she could not bear to lose this child as well.
She soon realized her fears were baseless. Tagnet made no mention of her infant when she visited him shortly after the birth. Balinra visited with Virdun and he seemed enchanted with his tiny cousin. He pulled himself up to peer into Karad's face and babbled happily.
She was busy with Karad and her continuing duties to Tagnet, but month by month her storeroom filled with products intended for trade. One morning she lifted a pile of zylka cloth to store a packet of pearls and realized that she had run out of room. Karad was now as old as Virdun had been when his cousin was born. He pulled himself up to stand by a pile of nop wood boxes with shell inlay that Balinra's husband had carved.
Her plan had been set for so long, but now she faced going to Tagnet and pleading her cause: no, demanding her right. She had to remember that her brother-in-law was far more amenable to belligerence than he was to cajolery.
She selected three items to carry with her on her regular visit with Tagnet. She stopped by the shrine where Falga was helping Barun install a polished globe of alabaster for the lamp of the Radiance. "I am going to tell Tagnet about our plans to return to Timora," she said."Pray for me."
"You are going to return to Timora?" Barun asked with a stiff face.
"We are taking some young people up to Timora to receive their Ritual Washing in the sacred lake if Tagnet gives permission," Kalinka said."We will take some goods for trade. I had hoped you would come along."
"You are planning to return to Orenon?" the mason asked tentatively.
"This is our home," Falga told him."How could I leave this lovely shrine you have planned and helped build?"
"Is Irilik still in Orenon?" Barun asked.
"I believe he will be there," Falga acknowledged.
"Then I will go with you. I was a fool when I let myself listen to Tagnet's lies. I must apologize for being a traitor and joining the cult."
Kalinka drew on her courage, handed her baby over to her husband, and went on her way. Fordag was at his post near the top of the pulley waiting for a load to come up and he offered her a free ride down. He was privy to her plans to go to Timora and had already enlisted someone to act as his substitute while he went along.
Tagnet was in a conference with Ponswit when Kalinka entered his house and she gave a small groan of frustration. The old man hated her with a vengeance since she had taken Valdira's contract and he overlooked no opportunity to undermine her influence with Tagnet. Perhaps she should wait to make the suggestion.
No. It was just as well to get it over with and face every argument either of the men could put forward against her plans. Unconsciously, she began to finger the heavy gold chain she had decided to wear as an opening ploy.
"Where did you get that?" Ponswit demanded as soon as she entered the room. His eyes fixed on the gold chain."
"I have come to make a request of Tagnet," she said.
"Leave us," Tagnet directed Ponswit.
"Let him stay," Kalinka purred with a confidence that worried the old meddler far more than if she had asked that he be banned. "He is the best one to spread the news of what I plan, but first, I must examine you and see that you are doing well. I have enlisted a new assistant to help me. Balinra, could you come in now?"
The stout young woman came into the room and gave a duck of her head to Tagnet. To Ponswit she offered nothing more than the back of her head.
"I discovered that Balinra has a talent for giving massages and I wanted her to demonstrate her competence with you," Kalinka said.
If anything, Balinra's strength and size made her massage more powerful and Tagnet could feel the efficacy of her touch even while he braced himself against the temporary pain. He had learned long ago that a small amount of present pain could buy days of relative comfort.
Ponswit sneered. "I think you have made a mistake Kalinka. It seems that Balinra can do whatever you do, but better."
"She will make an excellent substitute for me while we are away in Timora for a few weeks," Kalinka admitted, grinning at Ponswit to let him know that she thanked him for the opening.
"I won 't give you permission to go! " Tagnet shouted. "You are my healer. You know the medications that I need."
"I am a free agent," Kalinka reminded him. "At any time Falga and I could return to Timora or join your other brothers in Virdana. We stay here of our own will."
"If you leave, I will confiscate your shrine and your house," Tagnet threatened.
"If you do, then I will have no reason to return," she returned.
"I will give you this chain of gold as an installment of taxes on our trade."
Tagnet gazed at the gleaming gold of the chain, too ensorceled by its mellow color to inquire how she had come to have it. "What is this trade you speak of?"
"We have bolts of zylka cloth, carved boxes inlaid with shell, pearls of various colors and shapes, and fine leather. We also have a few teams of corums trained to pull a sledge. I plan to go to Timora for the Festival of Founding. I can promise you that there will be many gathering to the city from all parts of Okishdu on that day. They will have copper and tin, gems and other items of value and utility for barter. You are the ruler of Orenon and may set a tax on everything we sell."
"Why should Tagnet trust you to go to Timora? He should go himself, or send me," Ponswit interjected.
"We are outlaws in Orenon," Tagnet reminded the old man with a scowl. "This woman plays on my limitations but she has never really cheated me. Can I say the same of you?"
Ponswit clamped his mouth shut on a lubricious reply when he saw the skeptical look in Tagnet's face. There were too many times he had tried to gain advantage with slander against Kalinka. He hated her for defeating his schemes."I give you leave to take a trade expedition to Timora but you must return within the month," Tagnet finally said. He lifted the chain in his hand and tested its weight. He had never considered the possibility of gaining wealth from trade but he always coveted the signs of power, and what was more telling than gold?
"I will leave instructions for your care with Balinra. Don't impose on her time. She's a mother with several children to look after. One of them is your son."
Tagnet stared at Kalinka and finally nodded his head. He hardly dared believe her insistence that the handsome, sturdy child who he saw so seldom was truly Farol's child and his own son. Ponswit gave his usual cynical grunt when the subject was raised and Tagnet retreated from the temptation to dwell on the issue. Virdun was his heir, whoever his father might be.
Chapter 12 Return to Timora
With Tagnet's permission secured, Kalinka knew it would be foolish to linger in Orenon. Those who were part of her plan were quickly assembled. Balinra and her family would occupy the home of the priest until the caravan returned from Timora and in return they would keep the profits from the dairy while Fordag was away.
Before the next day dawned, the caravan set forth. Fordag was in charge of the order of march and he disposed the young men he had drilled in the rear of the train since likelihood that Tarm's cultist might attack them once word spread that they had left Timora. Barun was in charge of the teams. Falga, though younger than either of the other men, was acknowledged as leader, although it was no secret that Kalinka was responsible for most of the planning.
The best defense against whatever attack they might muster was to outdistance the cultists early while everyone was still fresh and well rested and before they reached the mountains that would take a greater toll of the women and older men, Barun urged his teams to set a smart pace that quickly ate the distance. They rested briefly for water breaks and meals, but it was after sundown when they finally made camp.
Kalinka had prepared to treat a rash of aching muscles and blistered feet, but she was relieved to find that everyone had prepared well for the trek. The young men and women joined in singing before settling down to sleep on either side of the bedded teams. Kalinka could feel some of the same energy in herself. She suspected it came from leaving Orenon far behind them.
It had been a good day with virtually nothing to remark except for the good weather and the excellent pace they had set. If the fair weather held, they would soon make the mountains.
She was waked in the night by whimpers of pain from the side of the camp where the young men slept. She nudged Falga and when he grunted, she bundled their sleeping son next to him for warmth. "Someone needs me," she murmured. He was a healer's husband and this was not the first time he had been asked to care for Karad when she had been called to a sufferer's side. He was not quite fully awake but he tucked the child close and entered that state of sleep that parents learn, ready to wake at any disturbance from his son.
Kalinka followed the sounds of stifled groans and found a young man huddled with his arms wrapped around his middle. "What did you eat today?" she asked him.
"I accepted a stupid dare that I could eat a leather root without chewing it," he gasped."I was the only one who tried."
Kalinka reached into her medicine pouch and removed a packet that contained a substance Valdira had discovered. It was a powerful emetic and she hoped it would work for this case.
If not, the boy's life could be in danger. He recoiled from the taste, but he swallowed the dose and followed Kalinka away from the camp to wait for results. "Everyone chews leather root. How could it be a poison?" he asked plaintively.
"The fibers are tough and don 't break down. That is why they can be chewed for hours. If this emetic doesn 't work, you will be in pain for days until the leather root leaves your body. You must be prepared to walk all day while waiting for nature to take its course. Believe me, you would be no more comfortable if you found a bed and rested until it was finished. Indeed, keeping busy will distract your mind from the pain."
The boy nodded. He was young enough to make the mistake, but old enough to accept the consequences without complaining. Fortunately, the emetic soon proved its potency and he was rid of his ill-chosen snack.
Kalinka gave him a damp cloth to clean his mouth and hands and followed it with a drink of warm cala that would sooth his protesting stomach. Finally he nodded that he felt better and they walked back to the camp. Barun was on watch and he made sure of their identity before letting them pass.
They continued the trek with no further real problems. The snow was gone from the passes and only seven days had passed when they saw a gleaming track that was well marked with stones and clear of vegetation."This must be one of the roads that Saaden promised to provide," Falga said."It has been heavily used or there would be grass growing up in the middle."
"It has been nearly three years since we left Timora," Barun said."I wonder what changes we will find."
When they finally came to the top of the pass and saw the town on the shore of Timora's bright blue lake, Kalinka stopped to take a breath and stared toward the gold tipped spire of the shrine. "The town seems somehow sparer than when we left it," she said.
"There are no timber barns," Falga pointed out. "When we left, barns seemed to outnumber houses."
Barun came up to stand beside them. His face was thoughtful as he studied the landscape below. "I can see orchards and corums grazing. They must be using abandoned houses for storage and shelter. But what are those constructions?"
Kalinka followed the direction of his pointing finger and saw what he meant. Then she laughed."Those are tents, Barun. It seems that the clans are gathering as I predicted. Each of them has provided a spacious tent."
Barun's cheeks flushed with embarrassment over his mistake and for a moment Kalinka feared she might have offended him. She was reassured when he chuckled."I have grown so used to thinking in terms of stone and wood that I forgot that it would be impractical to house a sudden, temporary influx in permanent structures."
While they were talking, the rest of the caravan passed them by and Falga caught his little boy up in his arms and urged the others to hurry. "I should be in the van when we approach Timora or this expedition might be seen as a threat."
"Look toward the city," Barun urged."There is a contingent of armed men coming out to meet us and I can see why they might be concerned. All of Fordag's young warriors are so eager to get to the city that they are in the vanguard."
By the time the Guardians came up to the contingent from Orenon, Falga had taken his place at the front of the caravan. Kaldar was in command of the force that met them and as soon as he recognized the young priest, his normally implacable expression warmed to a smile of welcome. "I see that you have provided an honor guard to welcome us back to Timora," Falga jested.
Kaldar stepped forward and took Falga's hand in a gesture of peace and welcome. Then he turned to walk beside him as they proceeded on toward the city while his troop of men continued on toward the pass."Irilik assured us you were on your way, but he has also seen the hint of trouble coming from the east. I have warned the watchmen to be on alert and at first we were worried that you might be the foe we anticipate."
"We may have been followed by those who still honor Orqu," Falga warned his friend."You may use our young men to help you guard the vale until the danger passes."
"I can see you have brought goods to trade."
"It was Kalinka's idea. She wanted to present Tagnet with a good reason to permit our journey that would have some benefit for him. I must admit that she has accomplished more than I might have dared in winning support for our shrine. All these who are with us have come to worship and rejoice with us in Timora."
"You have made an impressive harvest Falga. I had my doubts that anything good could ever come from Tagnet's settlement on the coast. If the decision had been mine to make, I would have executed Tagnet when he proved to be a traitor. There are certain advantages to having a prophet as the leader of a community."
"Not the least of which is forewarning when trouble is due," Falga reminded Kaldar. "There are times that I wish I had something like the Eye of Adanan to help me make decisions."
"It appears you have thrived in spite of the lack of an oracle device."
"I had something better, Kalinka. We have been through many trials but she is a treasure that no mere device, however holy its origins, could replace."
"I see you have a son."
"Yes, and we provided a son for Tagnet. It is an interesting story, but I see that the gates of the city are near and Irilik is waiting to greet us with many of our friends."
No one had really doubted Irilik's assurances that Falga and Kalinka would return for the third anniversary of the dispersal, but the number of young people who had come on the pilgrimage, and the repentant Fordag and Barun, were a sure cause for rejoicing. If Barun had been easily offended in the past, he was now just as easily gratified by the warm welcome of Irilik who insisted that he spend his time in Timora in his own home which had been kept clean and empty for him."I knew that your heart was injured by something I had done," the prophet confided."I ask your forgiveness for any slight I committed against you."
"I was too easily led by Tagnet," Barun protested."It is my place to offer apologies."
The two men walked together when the company turned back toward the shrine. Falga moved up to join them. "Barun's skills have created a lovely small shrine in Orenon. I could not have wrought nearly so well without him. He created a globe of alabaster to hold oil for a lamp above the altar. We brought one with us for you to use here in Timora."
Irilik smiled. "It seems that even when you wandered away from the path, Barun, your hands and your deepest skills were still devoted to the truth. Some of my closest allies have returned from estrangement. They are more grateful for the Light than some who never suffered its loss."
Barun's wife and children shared in the welcome that surprised and gratified all of them. They had expected suspicion and reservations about their motives in returning to Timora. Instead, they met embraces and a joyful welcome from old friends.
A space had been reserved for the group from Orenon near a large field where a fair was already in progress. All of the clans who had returned for the festival of Founding brought samples of their local produce and crafts. Kalinka was tired, but she could not resist wandering for a while and meeting old friends and hearing their stories of settlement.
Her sister Lira gave a cry of joy and ran to embrace her. She exclaimed over Karad's chubby cheeks and tickled his nose with a feather until he giggled. Kalinka followed her back to the tent set up for Tedak's clan.
"Many more wanted to come to the festival, but some had to stay for the harvest. They will have their chance next time," Lira explained when Kalinka remarked that there were not as many cots as she had expected. Lira glanced out at the western sky that was brightening with sunset."It is time to gather for the Evening Ritual in the plaza in front of the Shrine. Will you come with me, or would you rather find Falga?"
"I have a young apprentice who I want to stand with tonight," Kalinka explained."She is the youngest daughter of Ponswit, but she is the opposite of her father in every way. You might say she is the primary reason we returned to Timora this year."
Lira set off to gather her brood of children and Kalinka looked for Valdira. She found her within a few minutes. She was walking with Kapanadel and eagerly asking questions. "I see you have met my apprentice," Kalinka said after she greeted her mentor with an embrace.
"I knew Valdira when she was a child," Kapanadel said."I asked her father's permission to make her one of my apprentices, but Ponswit denied my request. I see you had better fortune in recruiting her."
"Valdira will one day outshine both of us," Kalinka confidently forecast.
The girl blushed and shook her head at the prediction."I can find herbs and other substances that will help with the healing, but I don 't have the confidence to help others trust in my treatments."
"You have already been accepted as a midwife in spite of your youth," Kalinka reminded her. "Come, it is time to go to the Shrine."
Kapanadel had a baby not much older than Karad slung on her hip and she handed him to her oldest child to carry for a while."There is a real advantage to having older children when you have a healer's duties," she said with a smile.
Kalinka nodded with a straight face, but it seemed Kapanadel's eye had caught the subtle signs that she had only recently confirmed for herself. She smiled and blushed. "Yes, I plan to test that idea for myself before too many months have gone by, but I suspect that it will be years before I have any noticeable benefit from an older child."
"You would be surprised at how much help even a little child can offer," Kapanadel assured her.
Help from Karad seemed a long way off to Kalinka as she lifted her chubby child higher in her arms and felt the delicate movement within her that was the promise of another child to come. Karad was a curious boy and needed constant supervision to keep him from causing mischief. She could hardly imagine what it would be like to have another just like him. It wondered that she accomplished as much as she did with just one child to look after. Even so, when saw Falga waiting for her to join him her heart lifted and they stood together as a family while they waited for Irilik to begin the Evening Ritual.
Valdira stood nearby, but Kalinka saw that the girl's eyes were fixed on Marek, Irilik's oldest son. It would be a few years yet before he would return her regard but Kalinka felt a shiver of destiny when she considered the two young people. Marek was tall with the same profile as his father, but his hair was curly and his smile much like his mother, Tarsha's, merry mein. Then he seemed to sense that someone was looking at him and lifted his chin in a gesture that betrayed his consciousness of his status as the prophet's first son and heir.
Irilik came from the Shrine with the staff held in his hand. It was unusual for him to lift the light of the Stone of Truth on a public occasion, but this was an unusual evening. The sun had set and the Stone of Truth shone with a light like a piece of the sun set on the prophet's staff.
"I have never seen it so bright," a voice muttered. Kalinka looked and saw Barun staring at the glow at the top of the staff. There was wonder in his eyes and his his joy seemed so intense that she was distracted from the words of the ritual. When Irilik lowered his hands to end the prayer, she was looking around at other faces. There were tears in the eyes of Fordag and a beaming smile on his face. Witnessing the joy of these who had been denied the Light by their own choices, she was reminded of the day years before when she had been a child drawn from her home by the light that was being carried by in the silent streets of Banrad.
She and her sister Lira and Paran, her nephew, had been the only ones in the household who had seen the Light as it passed. The others had jeered at them and drove them away when they had insisted on what they had seen. Her mother and father had followed only when they realized that they would be left alone.
Tears blurred Kalinka's eyes and she turned into Falga's embrace. They walked back to their camp hand in hand with Valdira carrying Karad. Tomorrow would be busy with trading and visiting and all of the other things that had brought them back to Timora.
At first light they woke and went to Tagnet's house. It had been turned into a public bath where streams of cool water mingled with water steaming hot from a spring. Clean and dressed in pristine white robes, the young people walked to one of the pavilions at the edge of the lake. Many others of various clans had assembled for the washing ceremonies. Irilik walked over to the group from Orenon and greeted each candidate for the ritual. Finally he turned to Falga.
"Last night I spoke to each one of your young people and asked them to choose who should walk with them into the lake and receive them into the worship of the Radiance as adults. They could have chosen any priest, including me. I asked them to tell me something about why they made their choice they had made. I think Valdira stated it best."
He took the girl by the hand and gently shoved her forward to speak the words she had told him. She glanced around at the other young people from Orenon and each of them smiled their encouragement. Finally she turned to Falga and smiled shyly. "You are the one who helped us escape from the false beliefs of our fathers. We want you to help us confirm our faith when we enter the waters of Timora."
Falga had never performed the ritual of Renewal Washing, but there were others before his small group and he watched and listened to make certain that he had the prayers word perfect. Finally the time came for him to walk down the steps that led into the lake and wait for the first of the initiates. They came to him one by one with their faces glowing with a solemn joy. Valdira was last and her fingers trembled in his hand while he pronounced the prayer that would mark her acceptance into full fellowship.
A breeze sprung up just as he finished the ritual and faint cries were carried from the pass. Falga looked up and saw a contingent of Guardians hurrying toward the commotion. He followed Valdira from the water and considered what to say to those who still waited. He had pledged the help of these young men to Kaldar, but it seemed a shame to break their mood of gentle jubilation.
His indecision was ended by the arrival of one of the officers who waited until he had taken a dry robe from Kalinka and wrapped it around him. He glanced up at the young man and nodded for him to speak. "There is trouble in the eastern pass and Kaldar said you had offered your help if we needed it."
Falga looked around and saw that all of his young men were heading for the robing rooms to change out of the white tunics they had worn for the ritual. They soon returned clad in the belted tunics with weapons at the ready. It seemed a strange end to the sweet and solemn ritual they had just passed through, but he was certain Kaldar would not have sent for them if there was not urgent need."I will fetch my medicines and come with Valdira," Kalinka said."We will catch up with you.
Falga nodded and set off with the young men. Three years before he had seen her tend the wounded while a battle raged nearby. It almost seemed they had come full circle.
Chapter 13 The Decision
When they reached the pass they found a battle in progress, but it was a strange fight. The Guardians were using their staffs instead of their swords, trying to drive back the wild-eyed people who were pressing in ever greater numbers against them. Falga took in the situation and called to Kaldar who was coming up from the vale with a fresh contingent of men. "These people are not armed! Something is driving them from behind in terror for their lives."
"Let them through, but guard the sides," Kaldar ordered his men. "Watch for armed men behind them and do battle with them."
More than a hundred men mingled with women and children ran past before the first of the armed men were seen. Kalinka, standing above the pass on a hill, recognized them immediately. She reached for her sash and removed it. It was bright yellow and would catch the eyes of those below. Raising it above her head, she waved it vigorously. "Orquians! " she screamed.
Falga looked up and saw her pointing to the pass. He consulted with Kaldar. They made disposition of their men and waited for the first armed men to appear. There were some among the men who had been driven who turned back when they saw that they would not be slain. Their leader quickly consulted with Kaldar who nodded. They picked up stones and tore sturdy branches from the nearby trees. It was not much compared to the swords and bows of the Guardians, but as soon as the first of their oppressors appeared, they joined in the fight with their rude weapons.
The Orquians seemed uncaring of injuries, driving themselves forward until they were cut down with a killing wound. It was reminiscent of the bloody battle that had taken place three years before when the Ogandash made their last assault. When the last cultist had fallen, Kalinka and Valdira left their perch and made their way down to treat the wounds of the Guardians and the others who had joined in the defense of the vale.
There were two deaths and several badly wounded among the defenders, but all of the attacking Orquians had died. After doing what she could for the wounded, Kalinka walked over to the grisly assortment of almost twenty young men who lay on the ground staring sightlessly upward. She knew all their names, but only their recent absence from Orenon had given evidence that they were members of Tarm's cult. Most disturbing to her was the absence of one who she knew for certain had been Tarm's close companion. A shiver of prescience shook her and she stared toward the other side of the pass. There was a bright flash of red and the shaking of a few leaves. It could have been one of the bright birds that nested in the forest, but the cultists who lay dead at her feet all wore tufts of red feathers tied on their heads along with the usual grisly evidence that marked them as members of the cult.
Fadar, one of the young men from Orenon came up to stand beside her. She had sewed up a gash on his shoulder and told him to rest, but she did not rebuke him now. These were people he had known."Radan is not here," he said.
"As long as he is out there, the cult of Orqu will not die. I will take some of the others and we will track him down."
"Wait until you have counseled with Falga before you leave us. Why do you think they made this assault?" Kalinka asked. "It seems so senseless to come against a well-protected enclave with such a small force."
"It was for the sake of terror that they did this," Kaldar said from behind them. "If, as you seem to think, even one of them lived, it was worth it from their twisted perspective. They found this tribe peacefully camped not far from here. They struck down their leaders by stealth and then drove the rest of them over the pass. Perhaps they thought we would be so overwhelmed by the terrorized tribe that we would not stop the cultists from entering the vale and doing more damage than they managed to accomplish."
"Four Guardians dead and more injured is no small damage," Kalinka replied.
"It is small compared to the almost entire destruction of their force," Kaldar reminded her.
"Perhaps there is some significance to where this battle took place," Valdira mused."Is this not the burial place of the Ogandash who tried to enter Timora three years ago?"
Irilik and Saaden had come up to the pass to see what had transpired. Saaden looked around and shook his head. "Are all of them dead?"
"There is at least one still alive," Kalinka said. "He skulked on the hillside over there and watched while his fellows were killed. Doubtless he is far away from here by now."
"Some of us would like to go after him," Fadar said."We know him on sight and it is our burden since he is of our people."
Irilik looked at the boy who had just combined two of what would be the most significant events of his life in one morning. "Come to the Shrine this afternoon. I honor your determination, but I am not willing to waste the lives of you and your friends if no purpose is served."
"When you were my age, you defeated the pirates and slavers of Tashvad," Fadar said with a hint of challenge.
"I was only a catalyst," Irilik said. "Others like Saaden here and Lamath, had far more to do with our success. Come to the Shrine before sunset this evening and tell the temple servants that I have asked for you. I will try to see if there is any indication in the Eye of Adanan about what you should do. If the indications are right, I will bless you and send you away with an easy heart."
"You might serve us better by joining the Guardians instead of going after Radan alone," Kaldar said. "You know the face of our enemy and could identify him if he enters the vale. What if his next move is an attempt on Irilik?"
Fadar's determination to rush off in search of Radan was visibly tempered by Irilik's offer and Kaldar's concerns. "I will wait until I have visited Irilik and see what should be done."
"What shall we do with these?" Saaden said with a gesture at the dead cultists.
"Carry them to the old quarry and build pyres for them," Irilik said. "Doubtless they were all guilty to some extend of the foul crimes of their cult, but I will let the Radiance judge them. The people they drove into the vale must be sheltered and fed and we must plan rites for the Guardians who gave their lives. Will you see to helping the people, Falga?"
Even with the excitement of the morning and the funeral that would take place after the sunset, there were diversions to distract Kalinka from the waste of life. The afternoon had been set aside for the people gathered in Timora to meet in the field near their tents and exchange news and the goods they had brought from their homelands. Kalinka visited each of the men she had tended after the battle. All but four of them were able to walk around in spite of their recent wounds and they insisted on visiting the fair. Fadar was infected with the same excitement that drove the others to visit the fairing field in spite of the wounds they bore.
Kalinka met Tarsha on her way to the fair. The prophet's wife looked around at the booths and exclaimed with pleasure. "Last year few of the scattered septs brought goods to display, but Janak and Tedak and their clans set an example for the others with beautiful tools and blades of bronze from Janaka and carvings from Tedaka. I see that the other septs have made good use of the year and there are delightful objects of craft and skill in every booth. I am surprised at the variety and quality of the goods you brought. Who could guess that such bounty could come from the arid coast of the easter sea?"
"I fully credit the women of Orenon for the trade goods we brought to the fair," Kalinka said. There were unwilling exiles but they have done their best to make homes worthy of the name where their husbands and fathers led them."
"I want to trade for some lengths of the wonderful cloth you call zylka," Tarsha said. "I have not seen its like for many years since we left Kishdu."
As Kalinka had promised Tagnet, the products she had selected; the pearls and shell-inlaid boxes, and most of all, the zylka cloth, were widely admired. Blades of bronze from Janaka and other valued goods were soon heaped up in place of the rapidly diminishing supplies of goods that Barun and his wife had set out.
Tarsha's oldest son, Marek, seemed fascinated by the fair."When I grow older, I want to be a trader and travel from one end of Okishdu to another carrying goods." His mother chuckled and ruffled his curly mop of abundant hair."You will travel from end to end of Okishdu, but not as a trader, my son. You will carry the words of your father and those prophets who went before him. You will encourage the people to remember Timora."
Marek nodded, but there was a distant look in his eyes when he picked up a pearl shaped like a nuka fruit and rubbed his thumb over the surface. "This is the type of thing I would carry if I were a trader. Let others carry wood and grain with teams. I would carry the small and precious things that would make me welcome wherever I chose to go."
"You would be hounded by thieves if you carried only the most precious goods," his mother warned him with a more serious tone than she had used before.
Valdira was standing near enough to hear him and she dug into her pocket and took out a tiny, delicate egg case that she had found on the beach of Orenon. It looked like the product of exquisite craftsmanship. "There are many such things as this to be found for the taking," she said with a shy look from beneath her lashes at the tall young son of the priest.
His eyes lit up when he took the prize in his hands and examined its delicate whorls."What will you take for this?" he asked.
"It is my gift to you," Valdira said. "I can always find another such when I return to my home by the sea."
"No, you must have something in return," Marek protested.
He dug into one of his belt pouches and removed a piece of scroll cloth wrapped around something the size of his thumb. When he held it out, Valdira gave a little gasp of astonished pleasure. The gleam of blue green in his hand was the shell of one of the jungle insects that were as rare as gold in the lands north of the edge of the vale.
Tarsha looked from her son to the girl who had given him the shell and raised her eyebrow. This was the first time Marek had shown enough interest in a girl to give her a gift. While the two young people discussed the gifts they had exchanged, Tarsha pulled Kalinka aside. "Tell me about this girl. Isn't she one of Ponswit's daughters?"
"She is Ponswit's youngest. He sold her to Tagnet and Tagnet gave her to me. Needless to say, I do not claim to own her. She is a most amazing young woman, and older than she seems. It seems almost unfair that she will return with me to Orenon when healers are so much in demand."
Tarsha nodded."We could use a healer here in Timora. Kapanadel has her place with Tedak in their new homeland. Do you think this girl knows enough to stay here and take a post as our healer?"
"Two years ago, when I first made her acquaintance, I thought she would require the same amount of time that it took for me to learn the essentials of the healer's art," Kalinka said. "Since then I have had to revise my estimate. She has a gift for finding new remedies and an excellent memory for those that are already known."
"What of midwifery?" Tarsha asked.
"She helped with the birth of my own child and I could not have asked for a better attendant," Kalinka said. "Her only disadvantage is not in her skill, but in her apparent youth. In truth, I think she is a year or so older than your son."
Tarsha nodded. "I have often noticed the appeal of novelty. If I bring this girl under my wing and sponsor her here in Timora, I think she will lose some of her appeal for my impressionable son."
"You could do worse than Valdira when you look for a bride for Marek," Kalinka cautioned.
"I am wary of her parentage," Tarsha confessed. "What harm can it do to fill our need for a healer with Valdira? You can be sure I will treat her almost as a daughter."
Kalinka chuckled and shook her head. "Beware, Tarsha. You may be too late to make her seem like a sister to Marek. Look at them. There is already a bond between them that may not erode whatever wiles you use."
Tarsha nodded."You may be right. Either way, I will have the advantage of her skills and if this attraction between them proves to be more than a whim, I will make certain she does not return to the habits of her parents."
"Treat her with respect Tarsha," Kalinka counseled. "I have come to view Valdira as a colleague in spite of her apparent youth. I will tell her that she has the choice of staying here in Timora and being your healer. If she chooses to return to Orenon, I cannot make her stay here against her will."
"When do you plan to return?" Tarsha asked. "Most of the people who come for the Founding Festival will return home a day or so from now. There are crops to care for and houses to build while they are still establishing their communities. Can you stay longer?"
"We will have to stay longer than I had intended," Kalinka admitted. "We have several young men who were wounded this morning.They have dragged themselves up against my advice to come to the fair. They will rue it tomorrow. It will take at least a week before they are sufficiently mended that I can feel confident in leaving the vale and returning to Orenon."
"What do you think of this tribe that was driven into the vale? They seem innocent of any intent in causing harm and certainly they suffered as much as any from the role they were forced to play."
"I wonder why they were so near the vale," Kalinka replied after a moment of thought. "It seems strange that they would have come from the north without encountering any of the others who came for the Festival. Kaldar and Menad will question them, but it seems unlikely that their incursion was voluntary. If the other clans are leaving within a few days, it may be just as well that those of our young men who were not wounded will augment the Guardians."
"I will pass your thoughts along to Irilik," Tarsha promised. "He may seem heedless of such mundane things as security and the number of men on watch at the passes, but in truth he considers everything having to do with Timora."
Kalinka saw Farga leaning against a tree. She could see that he had reached the end of his false sense of energy and decided he could use her assistance. "I must go Tarsha, but please come and visit us again while we are here."
"You must come to our home tomorrow night," Tarsha insisted. "There are still many things I would like to discuss with you."
Farga was panting and pale when Kalinka reached him. "Brace yourself against me while we will return to our camp."
"You are carrying a child," he protested.
"He can toddle alongside of us," she said as she set Karad down and held onto his chubby hand.
"Come, Farga, you must rest and have something to eat before your meeting with Irilik this evening."
"I can see it would only waste time to argue with you," Farga said with a smile that betrayed his pain. He stood and took her arm and they made careful progress back to the camp. It was just as well that Karad's steps were still unsure. It helped preserve Farga's dignity that the little child appeared to set the slow pace.
After a dose of warm cala with some mysterious component added by Kalinka that warmed Farga beyond the heat imparted by the fire, he fell asleep. It was still daylight when he woke, much improved from the rest and the medication. Valdira was there, helping him stand and reminding him that he needed to walk to the Shrine without stopping to visit.
Kalinka nodded when she heard the girl's advice. "Many who see that you are wounded will be tempted to stop you and give you their blessings. I would advise you to walk with your eyes cast down so that you will seem to be thinking. It was a habit of Irilik's and people have learned to respect it."
Farga was grateful for the advice as he made his way down the path that led to the Shrine. He could see the legs and feet of people who had paused as he passed and he heard their sympathetic murmurs without the need to slow his steady pace and acknowledge their comments.
There was no need to raise his eyes to check for his progress along the path. He had come this way many time as a young boy with his mother, even after his father had joined Tagnet's cult.
When he reached the steps of the Shrine he looked up and saw Irilik waiting."I have been watching for you," the prophet said. "Tarsha warned me that you might not be able to come because of the wounds you suffered this morning."
"Kalinka and Valdira was watched after me and made sure I was rested and ready to meet with you."
Irilik extended his arm and they walked up the steps of the Shrine together. Like many, Farga had a general idea of where the Eye of Adanan must be kept. Since it seemed to require the light of the evening sun, he supposed it was kept the tower that supported the spire that rose over the Shrine. He gritted his teeth at the thought of the stairs he must climb. To his surprise, Kaldar came from one of the alcoves in the prayer hall and joined hands with Irilik. With no one to see and shame Farga with his weakness, they made a chair of their arms and carried him to the chamber at the top of the tower.
"It is important for Kaldar to see the indications of our enemies," Irilik said. "Could you give me some token you carry and value?"
Fadar reached in his belt pouch and removed a small perfect shell. "I found this on the beach when we first reached Orenon," he explained. "It reminded me of your teachings about the Radiance."
"I brought a red feather from one of the headdresses those young fools wore," Kaldar said. "I assume that others like it were worn by the leader who stayed out of the battle."
Fadar nodded. "One of the few labors the cultists pursued was the collection of their decorations. There is a tiny bird on the beach that has a small patch of scarlet feathers at the tip of each wing. Hundreds of them were killed for the sake of one bundle of feathers. The cultists ranged far and wide on the search for such things."
"In that way, at least, they resembled the Ogandash," Kaldar said."What do you know of their cult?"
"Tarm was the leader. After he died, Radan seems to have served in his stead. I know little about their rituals, but somehow it involved murder and secret ceremonies that insured that all would share the guilt of the act."
Kaldar nodded."It is not wise to inquire too closely into the manner of their rituals. It is enough to know that they serve the Liar and hate every virtue."
"Why would they engage in a battle that could only result in their own deaths?" Irilik asked.
"They have set terror into the hearts of all who were in Timora to witness their attack," Kaldar said. "Terror is their major weapon and if only one of them escaped, it means that we can someday expect a return of their evil."
The glow of the sun through the west facing window reminded them of their errand. "Will Tarsha be joining us?" Kaldar asked Irilik.
The prophet smiled. "I wonder if I would know how to take a reading without her aid. I can hear her coming up the stairs."
Tarsha came into the room quietly, but she was a woman of such energy that the air almost hummed as she swiftly made preparations for the use of the Eye of Adanan. Detailed maps that depicted all of Okishdu that was known were displayed on screens on the east side of the room. Farga's gaze was drawn to the oracle device. It was small and beautiful, a crystal case filled with jewels of every hue, quivering on delicate golden wires.
Irilik raised his hands and prayed silently as the light from the setting sun fell on the crystal case and sent rainbow light gleaming over the maps. Irilik lowered his hands and nodded to Tarsha. She deftly placed various symbols over the maps so swiftly that Farga could hardly say which had caused the changes in the light. The red feather and his own white shell were the only items placed on top of the case, first one, then the other, then the two in combination.
Kaldar seemed able to read the indications and he nodded gravely and frowned several times. Finally the glow of colors began to fade as the sun moved below the horizon. "Your destiny is linked with your brother's," Irilik said.
Fadar lowered his head in shame. "I should have realized that you know Radan is my brother."
"I must confess I did not remember until we began to take the reading," the prophet admitted. "The two of you are twins."
Fadar nodded."He followed after my father, and then he reached even further into rebellion when Tarm began his cult. He tried to intimidate me into joining him. He even made false claims that it was I and not he who participated in the rituals in their cave."
"We have read the truth of your innocence," Kaldar assured him."You will serve the Radiance best if you stay here with us as a Guardian. I mentioned it to you this morning, but now I would insist if it were possible for me to do so and not offend the spirit in which I serve."
"Guardians must be volunteers," Fadar said to show that he knew the constraints that governed Kaldar.
"Yes, and they must pass the test of the Stone of Truth. There are some who were permitted to assume the office of Guardian three years ago, but they were never taken into our confidence. Talar, of course, wrested the privilege for himself and what began in pretense in order to send Tagnet on his way, became a reality. He is one of my most zealous men."
Fadar smiled. "I can imagine his zeal is sometimes a trial. When he was with Tagnet, he often drove his leader to anger."
"You must rest and recover from your wound," Irilik said."Think and pray about the decision of what you will do and let us know before the time comes for Falga and Kalinka to return to Timora.
Fadar would have given his answer to Kaldar immediately, but first he wanted to consult with his friends. He joined Falga and Kalinka and the others from Orenon near the base of the steps to the Shrine where they had gathered with others to observe the funeral for the slain Guardians.
If he decided to accept the offer to become a Guardian, there were others who would want to follow his example. He would have to speak to Fordag who had trained him and Kalinka who cared for his wounds.
The funeral was a reminder of what being a Guardian meant. Those who accepted the charge to defend the Vale of Timora took on the duty for their entire adult life until they retired to study and serve in the Shrine. They vowed to serve no other but the High Priest.
The other Guardians formed an honor guard for the shrouded bodies of the fallen men while Irilik spoke of the excellence of their lives and the promises extended by the Radiance to the blessed. Kaldar stepped forward to say a few words about each of the men, then as the head of the Guardians, he raised his hands and pronounced a benediction on their souls.
Tears blurred Fadar's eyes and the torches of sweet nop branches seemed to writhe as they burned. He swallowed hard to keep the tears from flowing and wetting his cheeks. He glanced up and saw that men such as Fordag and Kaldar had a glimmer of liquid on their faces that caught the light of the torches. Perhaps there was no shame in shedding tears for the death of valiant men.
After the burial in garden of the shrine, the group returned to the prophet's home where a funeral feast was set out. Fadar had never before realized how right the conjunction of grieving and feasting could be. There was an air of solemn rejoicing that was just on the edge of pain. The widows and their children received the condolences of others and sometimes they even smiled or chuckled at the recollection of sweet memories of those who had died to defend them.
The aching of his own wound forced Fadar to stand and make his way back to the camp alone. He found Kalinka and Valdira there, moving from one to another of the wounded who had been forced to stay away from the funeral.
Valdira turned toward him and immediately sensed his need. She guided him to his cot and helped him remove his boots and belt. "You will pay for your pleasures tomorrow," she quipped when she rubbed a bit of meat sauce from the corner of his mouth with a dampened cloth.
He nodded wearily, but he enjoyed her presence. Instead of hovering over him and exclaiming at his wounds, she made it seem a simple business to remove his bandage and check for signs of infection. Her touch was as delicate as a feather stroke when she applied another poultice and wrapped his arm again. She gave him a cup of cala with something in it that eased the ache of his wound and made him feel sleepy.
When Valdira left him, the lamp enlarged her shadow on the wall and for the first time he realized that she was beginning to bloom into a woman. While he welcomed the sleep that was enfolding him in a place where pain would not follow, he tried to remember Valdira's age. It seemed she had once been his same age, but during the years that he had begun to become a man, she had stayed a like a child, seeming small and unformed.
She used to have a way of cringing and bowing her shoulders that had eased since they left Orenon and started for Timora. Had she deliberately concealed her age? The thought tantalized him but it began to dim as sleep took over. His last thought was that the hardest thing to give up if he stayed in Timora as a Guardian would be the daily presence of Valdira.
The next day he woke to the sound of groans and realized that they came from his own throat. He swallowed the last of them and gritted his teeth. The angle of light through the sides of the tent warned him that it was nearly noon."You are awake," Valdira said."I can always tell with one of you boys, because as soon as you wake, you stop groaning."
Before he could protest her callous observation, she held up a cup of cala and he could detect the faint scent of the same medication that had made him sleep far into the day. "Please give me something else to drink," he told her. "I don 't want to sleep the day away again."
"This is only enough to take the edge from your pain," she assured him."You will be able to go to the fair again if that is what you want."
"I have to talk to Fordag and the others who took part in the battle yesterday. How many of them are still here?"
"Only Karlad is still unable to move around. His leg wound was severe and will take weeks to recover. He may have to stay in Timora when we return to Orenon."
"Would you stay in Orenon if you could?" Fadar asked her.
"It seems strange that you ask me that. Only an hour ago I was offered the possibility to stay. I was offered the post of healer here in Timora."
"What did you answer?"
"My mother will be sad if I do not return, but I will no longer face the threat of being forced to marry Tagnet when I become a woman."
"Is the threat of marrying Tagnet the reason you still pretend to be a child?" he asked her.
"I am a child," she insisted.
"You were the same age as I when our fathers followed Tagnet to Orenon," he reminded her. "I only remembered last night when I began to fall asleep. How is it that your mother has forgotten how old you are?"
"My mother no longer remembers anything but where to find the herbs that help her forget," Valdira said. "I was the one who discovered the properties of the plant, not long after we arrived in Orenon. I gave her a dose one day when she was ill. Somehow she discovered what I used and it became the center of her existence."
"What will happen to her if you do not return to Orenon?" Fadar asked.
"I have done little enough for her these past three years," Valdira admitted. "I tried to convince her that she should not rely on the herbs, but my father is pleased with the cessation of her complaints. When she is too lost in dreaming to find the herbs, he sends my sisters to find them."
"Then you have decided to stay in Timora?"
"I will miss Kalinka and - other friends from Orenon," she said."But yes, I have decided to stay."
"I am staying here as a Guardian," he told her.
Her eyes seemed to light and she grinned."Is this a sudden decision? Are you sure they will let you volunteer?"
"It was Kaldar and Irilik who asked me," he assured her."I was going to head off after Radan on my own, but it seems I will serve better if I stay here in Timora."
"Do the others know?"
"I only just now made my decision," he admitted."I knew I had to stay when you told me you were not returning to Orenon."
Valdira seemed to lose her self assurance. She blushed and turned away from him. "I have to ask something of Kalinka. You should find Fordag and tell him about your plans."
She rushed out of the tent and he was left to wonder why she had seemed so confused by his admission. He stood and stretched within the limits of his injury. A trip to the baths seemed in order. Before he left the tent he stepped past the partition to visit Karlad and tell him of the offer to become a Guardian.
"I overheard your conversation with Valdira," the other youth admitted. "It seems that I must remain in Timora because of my wound, but I wonder what will become of my younger brothers with only my father's example."
"You made your choice to leave the beach and go up to the shrine against every prediction I would have made," Fadar reminded him. "I can remember that you were one of the first to join Tagnet's cult."
"I was a fool, and it only made it worse when my father came to bring me home and was himself ensnared by Tagnet's flattery. I joined Tagnet in rebellion against my father's hypocrisy. I was so reluctant to be in the same cult as my father that I was on the verge of joining Tarm's sect. When Falga and Kalinka came, I saw an alternative."
Fadar nodded. "They gave me the opportunity to change and reclaim the truth I had known as a child. They will continue to offer a choice for our brothers and all the others in Orenon. However, I believe there was some purpose in the training Fordag gave us. We were prepared to defeat the band of cultists Radan led. We knew who and what they were and did not stay our weapons as the Guardians might have done without our example when they saw the youth of those attacking the tribe the drove over the pass."
"You should tell Fordag first of all, and then give the others he has trained the choice of staying," Karlad advised him."Now that most of Tarm's cult have died, I doubt a guard will be required for the shrine. As long as Tagnet lives, he will see to it that Kalinka is protected, especially now that Valdira has decided to stay here in Timora."
Fadar nodded. Karlad had no alternative but to stay in Timora until he healed, but would Fordag think it wise to extend the choice of staying in Timora to the other youths from Orenon?
The baths were nearly empty so late in the morning but there was one man in the corner of the pool. At first he was only an indistinct form in the steam that rose from the hot water, but when Fadar approached, he recognized Fordag and stopped by a bench to remove his boots. He could only bathe his feet and lower legs because of his wound, but when he sat on the edge of the pool and lowered his feet into the hot water Fordag looked up and spoke to him. "I have heard that you have been invited to stay in Timora."
"I decided to stay and join the Guardians. Karlad must stay because of his wound. I want to ask your permission to extend the invitation to the others."
Fordag gave a grunt and nodded."I was expecting this. I have come to feel that you are like my sons, but you are becoming men. It is time for you to make your own decisions. You may approach the others and see what they want to do. None of you would have come up to the shrine and let me train you if you had not already taken the first steps to leave your homes."
"Will you return to Orenon?" Fadar asked.
"Of course! " Fordag said. "I am the owner of a thriving business unless Balinra's lazy husband let my corums wander or go dry. There must be more than one lone man in Orenon who knows the truth. I must be there for Falga."
"There is Barun," Fadar reminded him.
"Barun is not returning to Orenon," Fordag said."Saaden has asked him to go to Saadena and supervise the building of a shrine. There is little more for him to do in Orenon now that our homes are finished. Barun's skills were wasted on the projects Tagnet wanted."
"Valdira is staying here to be Timora's healer."
Fordag nodded."I saw the looks she was exchanging with Irilik's oldest son at the fair yesterday when he gave her a gift. I can guess what will come to pass for her when the two of them are old enough to marry."
"Marek is a mere child," Fadar protested. "He is three years younger than Valdira."
Fordag heard the outrage in his voice and shook his head."Age is little barrier to a determined young man and Valdira seems like a child herself, even though she must be near the age of courting."
"I will go and tell the others of the choice they have," Fadar said abruptly. He almost fell in the water when he put weight on his injured arm in his hurry to rise and leave the baths. With a yelp of pain, he managed to clutch the edge of the pool and swing away. In moments he had wiped his legs and feet and put on his boots.
Fordag smiled at the sight of his favorite protege nearly running away. He doubted that Fadar's next interview would be with any of the other young men from Orenon.
Farga searched the fair field and found no sight of Valdira. Finally pain drove him back to the camp to get relief from Kalinka. He found Valdira there, helping her mentor with the dressing of Karlad's wound. This was no time to interrupt her and he stood aside and watched."Would you bring a bag of rain moss from the pouch next to my cot?" Kalinka asked him.
Farga slipped into the other room and found the requested item. When he returned to hand it to the healer, he watched what they were doing and listened to their exchange of comments. Apparently there had been some detritus in the wound that had prevented it from beginning to heal.
The two women worked together cleaning the wound and packing it with a poultice. Karlad was sleeping soundly, doubtless under the influence of the same substance that had given Fadar twice as much sleep as he was accustomed to taking.
"I must go and replenish my supplies of many of the medications I will need when I return to Orenon," Kalinka said when the bandage was fastened over the wound again. "I can see by the color of your face that you are in pain again Farga. I will leave you to Valdira's care."
"I was careless and tried to support myself on my injured arm while I was in the baths," Farga explained."I don 't think there is anything to worry about."
"Leave that decision to me," Valdira said. She pushed him down on a bench and exclaimed over a bright patch of blood on the white bandage that was revealed when she unlaced the neckline of his tunic."I should give orders for you to rest for three or four days until you will no longer injure yourself through ignorance," she chastised him."You could end up with a crippled arm if you are not more careful."
He bore with her scolding, taking it as a sign of her concern for him. When she had finished applying a fresh bandage to the wound, he reached into his belt pouch and removed the shell that Irilik had used to read the consequences of his choices."I want to give this to you, Valdira," he said, pressing the delicate white whorl into the palm of her hand."I picked it up from the beach in Orenon and it helped me remember what is true in the dark days before Falga and Kalinka came."
She held the shell up to the light and smiled."It is lovely, Fadar, but I have nothing to give you in exchange."
"It was not intended as a barter," he muttered."I have no other thing of value, and I thought that you would understand how I felt when I first found it."
She nodded."I found a pearl that reminded me of the stone of truth because it was so perfect and white. My father saw it and exchanged it for some favor from Ishabal. I like this better. It has no particular worldly value, and yet it stands for all that is holy and good."
"I knew you would know how I felt," Fadar said. Once again as earlier that day, his words seemed to embarrass Valdira and she slipped away from him after tucking the shell into a small pouch fastened to a thong worn around her neck.
When Kalinka and Falga were finally ready to leave Timora, there were only ten people in their much reduced company. Four of them were children of Fordag and his wife. Only two of the youths who had been trained by Fordag were returning to Orenon. Each of them had already given pledges to a maiden who was waiting for their return and the marriage that would follow shortly after their return to Orenon.
Kalinka looked back along the train of people and took her husband's hand."You are losing half your congregation."
Falga smiled."I am not worried. Two of the steadiest and most faithful youths are returning with us, and soon they will have families to add to our small group. I could not ask Valdira and the others to sacrifice the future they have found here in Timora.
We will return to the fair each year. The zylka cloth and pearls have been our most successful articles of trade. I doubt Tagnet will demur with our decision when he sees the knives and tools we have gained in trade."
Irilik had promised them a swift, safe journey and his foresight was fulfilled. Fair weather in the mountains and a mist that quenched the heat of the upper plains helped them make better time than when they had traveled west to Timora less than two weeks earlier. Balinra and her husband, Calad, welcomed them when they reached their tiny community around the Shrine and Fordag found his dairy thriving.
"Tonight we will go down to Tagnet and show him what we earned on this trading journey." Falga told Calad. "Could you carry word to Tagnet that we will come?"
"Where are the other young men and Valdira?" Calad asked him.
"They were invited to stay in Timora," Falga said."Two have returned with us, but Barun has been invited to build a shrine in other Saadena."
"Ponswit warned Tagnet that you intended to sell Valdira in Timora," Calad said."I doubt he will be bought off with all your profits."
"It was Valdira's choice to stay," Kalinka protested.
Calad shook his head."I must go down and prepare him for this or he will blame me." He hurried off and Kalinka turned to Balinra."I had no idea he was so devoted to Tagnet."
"He was one of the first to join him and nothing I can say will open his eyes to the folly of this silly cult of Algunagada. I learned long ago to tolerate this one folly for the sake of all the other things we share."
"Tagnet must have hated having one of his most devoted men stay up here to tend my corums," Fordag said."I thought Calad was lazy, but I can see he has taken exacting care."
"I was the one who took care of the dairy," Balinra admitted."Calad only came to help remove the milk and cheese. You can be sure that he made gifts of both to Tagnet, and his tower has grown taller every day. There must have been a storm that knocked down a lot of timber into rivers. For several weeks the sea has been casting forth great logs and branches. You will see the result as soon as you look down toward the beach."
Indeed, the towers of the Watchers were all visibly taller, looming over the habitations below them. Kalinka considered her approach to Tagnet with the taxes she had promised. She had no doubt that he would demand an explanation for the absence of Valdira and the youths who had stayed behind.
"We cannot delay much longer," Falga told her. "By now Calad has told Tagnet that we returned with only a few of those who went to Timora. I can imagine his temper is simmering with anger by now. You have shown him that Balinra can ease his pain. We might lose our place here on his whim."
Kalinka nodded."Pray for me. You can help me know what words to use."
Falga smiled at her reminder of his office. He raised his hands and bowed his head and began to speak the words of gratitude and pleading that could bring ease or warning from the Radiance.
Kalinka listened and a thought entered her mind. When Falga finally lowered his hands, she looked at him and smiled. "We will take what is due to Tagnet, and then we will simply tell the truth."
The corums had been unloaded and the loads divided. Each woman and man who had given something to be traded had their portion set aside for them to fetch. The largest pile was for the tax. Fordag and Falga divided it between them and nearly staggered under the weight of all the goods as they carried them to the top of the cliff where Fordag's pulley sling rested.
Kalinka left her child with Fordag's wife and stepped into the sling with a small packet of the most select of the goods.
She waited at the bottom for Falga and then helped him unload the other goods from Fordag's sling. A crowd had gathered to watch them."Which of those bundles did you bring for me?" a woman called."All of you who sent goods to be traded will find your portions set out above near the shrine." Falga said in a voice loud enough to carry."These goods are for the payment of the tax Tagnet imposed. He may ask the rest of you to pay an additional tax of what you gained."
"Nobody double taxes me! " one of the Watchers snarled. He had been one of the most zealous at collecting pearls."You will have to take it up with him," Kalinka cautioned."We cannot claim to be your advocates."
"Where is my son Farga?" the young man's father shouted."Calad says you sold him in Timora."
"Better to ask about your son Radan. He led the other members of his cult to suicide, then skulked in hiding to watch them die," Kalinka sharply replied. "If you would help us, come and carry some of these goods to Tagnet. Otherwise, step aside."
Calad had drawn near to watch the byplay and he offered his help to carry the levy. Ponswit quickly discerned that his rival had a motive and he loaded himself as well. Falga, Calad, and Ponswit were preceded by Kalinka who still held the small packet in her hands.
The guards at the doors of Tagnet's house opened the doors to let them pass inside and they found Tagnet sitting on his dias with an expression of thunderous anger. He watched without speaking while the goods were unwrapped and displayed before him. Finally he spoke."What good are bronze blades and brass trinkets when you have sold the finest young men of Orenon into slavery in Timora? I will be satisfied with nothing less than all you brought back with you."
"You will have to take that up with those who produced the goods we took to trade," Falga said."We guaranteed a levy to you. The other goods are not ours to give."
"What of Valdira, Fadar, Karlad and the others? What tax will you pay on the price you charged for them?"
"You gave Valdira to me and I gave her the freedom to choose," Kalinka responded."As for Fadar and Karlad, they were wounded in battle with the remnants of Tarm's foul sect. Would you have wanted us to delay our return until the last of the wounded was well enough healed to travel? We might have been caught in the snows as we were when we rescued Farol."
"You are evading my question," Tagnet insisted."What will you give me in payment for my loss?"
"We will give you a choice," Falga said."You have had the services of Balinra to ease your pain, although she has not the skill of Kalinka to extend your life. Kalinka and I will leave you now and return to Virdana where our brothers have settled, or we will stay in our home on the waste and make yearly trips and pilgrimages to Timora with the same result as what you see here. We will wait to hear your decision after you have had a night to consider."
Chapter 14 The Councilor
Tagnet stared at Falga with all the challenge and enmity that can only arise between brothers who have chosen different paths. Falga's face remained calm and stern with no sign of backing away from his statement."I could easily order your deaths," Tagnet threatened.
Falga refused to reply or plead. It was Kalinka who stepped into the breach between the brothers."If we leave, I will give these herbs to Balinra. I obtained them for you in Timora and even without my presence, they should help you for some time to come. Unfortunately, they lose their potency over time and I had planned to bring them back yearly when we returned from our annual pilgrimages to Timora."
Tagnet's left eyelid flickered with a tiny spasm. It was the only sign that her words had affected his thinking. Finally he glanced around at the four guards who stood at either side of him and at the edge of the dias near his knees."Clear the room of everyone but Kalinka, Falga, and Calad, then fetch Balinra."
"Oh sire, surely I should be here to support you! " Ponswit wailed.
Tagnet simply gave a gesture and his guards carried Ponswit away protesting until the door was slammed shut and cut off the sound of his voice. The others who had gathered to watch were more circumspect and within a short time the audience hall was cleared of everyone but those Tagnet had named.
No one spoke until one of the guards returned with Balinra who held to the hand of Virdun. The little boy looked around, then he ran across to climb up on the dias and clambered onto Tagnet's lap.
Kalinka was surprised at first. Then she glanced at Balinra and saw the answer to the little boy's familiarity with his father. Doubtless Balinra had used the occasion of her visits with Tagnet to bring him into contact with his son. The wisdom of her decision was proved when Tagnet's hand went out to tangle in the small boy's dark curls and the other hand helped hold him steady on his knee.
The introduction of Virdun changed the tenor of the meeting. Even if Tagnet still harbored doubts that the child was truly his son, his gestures displayed a fatherly concern. The tension that had seemed to fill the room relaxed and Kalinka felt her heart rate ease.
"Kalinka and Falga claim that you do not have the skill to be my healer," Tagnet said to Balinra. "I have found your treatments more than satisfactory."
"I do well enough with Kalinka to advise me. There are some ways in which I exceed her skill. I think we would both be willing to concede that I give more vigorous massages."
Tagnet flinched as if at the memory of the vigor of her touch on his withered leg. He turned to Calad."What is your assessment of my need for Kalinka's skills?"
"Balinra is telling the truth. She does not have all the skills your condition requires. As long as you are stable, her treatments will suffice, but Kalinka must be present to advise her of the proper medication when there is a change."
"Why did you come to me with the news that Falga and Kalinka had returned without most of the young people who went with them to Timora. You made me think that they had sold them."
"I was not the one who put that thought in your head," Calad protested."It was Ponswit who decided that Valdira had been sold. I doubt that the practices of Timora have changed enough to permit slavery, whatever your own policies may be."
"Ponswit is a fool," Balinra stated."He carries rumors as his stock in trade. I would advise you to be cautious of anything he says in the future, or you will find yourself playing the fool. If you proceed with your plans to confiscate the goods of those who have an honest expectation of return, you will have a rebellion on your hands."
"If he does not gain more than what Falga and Kalinka have offered, he will lose his credibility as a leader," Calad countered.
"I believe I can solve the problem," Kalinka said."I have discovered the location of the the burial of the vanities which took place when the people of Irilik first landed and set out to find Timora. I will reveal the location of the cache if I have sufficient guarantees that Tagnet will let us live in peace in the home we have erected and that Falga may continue his role as priest."
Tagnet's eyes glittered and his hand on Virdun's head closely abruptly, making the little boy gasp with pain and twist away. Tagnet caught him before he fell and settled him with a few murmured words of comfort. Finally he looked up and gave Kalinka a smile that was more like a sneer.
"I could claim the cache belongs to me without any further dealings with either of you," he told her.
"You could claim whatever you want, but I am the only one who knows the location of the treasure. Are you willing to commit the men and time required to harrow up the miles of waste that lie above the beach?" she challenged him."
"We need Kalinka's skills, and Falga does no harm as long as he restricts his activities to teaching our wives and children and those few who are blind to the promises you offere," Calad advised. "When most boys become men, they will see the glory of the promise of rescue by Algunagada and Falga's teachings will have no effect on them." Calad gave such a reverent rendering of the deified name that even Kalinka could not doubt his devotion to Tagnet's cause.
"If Kalinka tells you where the treasure is buried, it would satisfy your need for some significant gain from this venture in addition to the levy they have brought you," Balinra said in aid of Calad's counsel.
"You will be popular with those who feared that you will confiscate their profits when you tell them they are free of further taxes," Calad said. "I advise you to accept Kalinka's offer."
Tagnet's eyes closed and he sighed. "I will follow your counsel Calad. It appears that you deserve my favor far better than Ponswit. Henceforth, you will be my only councilor as well as being named Virdun's guardian and regent if anything should happen to me. Fetch scroll cloth and we will settle this business."
"We have always kept our part of any agreement made with you," Falga said."What guarantee can you offer that you will not forget your contract with us when it proves inconvenient?"
Tagnet frowned."Time and time again you have gained advantage over me but I have left you with your head still on your shoulders. Your only guarantee of what I write is Kalinka's skill that is necessary to prolong my life."
"Will you allow us to continue making pilgrimages to Timora?" Falga asked him.
"As long as they prove as profitable as this one, you may go, but in the future you must return with all the people that you take. I can understand the need for teamsters and guards, but I cannot permit such a loss of men again."
"What of those who followed Radan and were killed?" Falga challenged him."You cannot lay that loss to our account. As for the others, they have ties here in Orenon that could be beneficial in the future."
"Enough! " Tagnet snarled."By Algunagada I swear that I will not give you more than I have granted. You may have title in perpetuity to the land you have settled and all that is on it. You may keep your buildings and observe your rituals, but those who are born in Orenon belong to me, and unless I choose, they may no longer leave without returning. All of this we will grant, but only after you have shown me to the treasure."
It was more than either Kalinka or Falga had expected and with Calad and Balinra to witness Tagnet's oath on his father's name, it should prove sufficient."I will tell Fordag to expect you at the sling tomorrow morning," Falga said."I have no knowledge of the location of the burial of the vanities, but I can guarantee that Kalinka will deliver it to you."
Tagnet glanced down at Virdun who was staring at each of the people in the room in turn. Finally he nodded."I will send my guards ahead of me to ensure that you have not planned this as a way to catch me alone and undefended. You are dismissed."
Falga and Kalinka left the room with Balinra, but Tagnet called Calad back to confer. He still kept Virdun on his knee and the child seemed content to stay there.
"Do you think he will honor his agreement?" Kalinka asked her friend.
"With Valdira in Timora, he has no recourse," Balinra said."You won something more significant than you know this evening. When Tagnet decided to bar Ponswit from his audience and confirmed Calad as his councilor, you were ensured that when Tagnet dies, you will continue in your present possessions. It is no secret in Orenon that Ponswit thought he would succeed Tagnet as leader and he wanted to relocate his palace to the shrine."
"Tagnet is capricious," Falga said."What guarantee do we have that he will continue his preference for Calad, and what of your husband's plans? Barun told us that he built Tagnet's house on the sand under protest. It already shows the signs of deterioration. If Calad becomes the leader of Orenon and the cult of Algunagada after Tagnet dies, he may well decide to displace us."
"He seemed all too eager to report to Tagnet when he saw that we returned without everyone," Kalinka added.
Balinra shook her head."If he had not acted swiftly, Tagnet would have suspected Calad was in league to deceive him. Until this evening, Ponswit was Tagnet's apparent favorite. Calad lost ground when he agreed to watch over the dairy for Fordag."
"I am weary of this endless maneuvering for power," Falga said."If Calad succeeded in excluding Ponswit from Tagnet's favor, I only hope he will not turn against us once his position is secure."
Balinra chuckled. "Calad has a curious perspective that Tagnet does not suspect. He feels that you have a legitimate claim as a son of Algunagada to take the land you chose to settle. If Calad becomes the leader of Orenon as the regent for Virdun, he would grant Arnath or Ralk, your brothers, any concessions they asked of him that would not impinge on the rights of the heir. He is certain that Virdun is Tagnet's son. He has remarked on the boy's resemblance to his sister and believes he is truly his nephew."
They reached her home and said farewell. It seemed that for the moment they had won another round. When they stopped at Fordag's house to take Karad they told him about their meeting with Tagnet.
"He is capricious," Fordag said. "Perhaps I should stand ready to abandon my house and corrals and return to Timora or one of the other homelands. He might covet the things I own and give them to one of his favorites."
"Calad had no ambition for running the dairy and Ponswit is no longer in favor with Tagnet," Falga assured him. "I know he favors the cheeses you produce and with Tagnet, his desires often rule his choices in such matters."
Fordag's wife put her hand on his shoulder. "Even if we must leave Orenon eventually, you have skills that will be welcome anywhere. As far as I 'm concerned, we will stay here as long as Falga and Kalinka are our neighbors. If they are forced to leave their home and abandon the shrine, I will not stay."
"What will become of Barun's house now that he has gone to Saadena?" Fordag asked.
"Two young men returned with us and both were intent on marrying soon," Kalinka reminded him."I hope that one of the couples will take Barun's house."
"Both of the couples could live there if a wall were put up in the middle of the gather hall," Falga said."I am not certain if Tagnet would consider it an abrogation of his rule against building more houses."
"Tagnet will do whatever suits his purposes at any given time," Kalinka reminded the others. "We have ample proof of his fickle temperament. We should divide the house as you have suggested as soon as it can be accomplished. When the couples are married, there will be a place for them if they choose."
Falga glanced toward the dark blue sky above where the stars were beginning to gleam. Kalinka followed his gaze and was reminded that they still had yet to eat their evening meal. She bid farewell to their friends and they set out for home. The house was made to fit them from the portals to the furnishings. It was good to return to its familiar rooms, but if Tagnet's uncertain temper drove them away, she would leave without looking back.
When they went to the top of the sling pulley to greet Tagnet the following day, they were accompanied by four of his guards who had hiked up the cliff earlier that morning. A mist hung low over the waste and clouds hid the sun. The poor showing made by their little settlement on the dreary day disappointed Kalinka. The stone of the shrine was dulled to gray by the dampness and lack of direct light. Fordag's corrals and the houses were almost invisible in the mist.
Tagnet gave one dismissive glance toward the compound and huddled deeper into the robes he wore."Show me this treasure you claim to have discovered."
"I suggest you let your guards carry you in a litter," Kalinka said."The ground is rough where we are going and there are many spear leaf bushes."
Tagnet clenched his teeth against a sharp reply. The mist meant pain for his joints and although he hated the appearance of weakness, he welcomed the idea of letting the young limbs of others carry his weight. As soon as he was seated in the litter Kalinka provided, they set forth. They did not go far, but as she had warned, the terrain was rough and covered with patches of spear leaf bushes.
Kalinka carried a staff and when they reached a flat place with a stand of spear leaf bush in the center, she pushed the end of her staff under the outer branches and shoved them aside."I will hold the leaves back while you dig," she instructed Tagnet's guards. Within a few inches they uncovered darkened soil. Soon the acrid stink of old burning rose from the pit to indicate that once something had been burned and buried here. Among the dark ashes were gleams of gold."Get all of it, I'll sift the gold and jewels out of it later," Tagnet told his men.
Fordag had provided sacks of leather which he handed to the guards. Falga stepped forward to relieve Kalinka who was growing weary of pushing the spear shaped leaves to the side. Tagnet's men dug and shoveled the acrid ashes into the sacks until they struck a layer of bones."What is it? Why have you stopped?" Tagnet demanded."This was the offal pit before the people cast their worldly treasures into it," Kalinka reminded him."Now that you have reached the bones, there is nothing more."
"I thought there would be more," Tagnet complained.
"Wait until you have sifted the ashes and washed whatever you find," Calad encouraged him."I can remember a badge that Saaden discarded. It was made of gold and gems and carried the image of your father."
Tagnet's scowl was replaced by a look of gleeful greed."I was not present at the scene, but I can remember how plain all of them looked when all their jewels and bangles were discarded. Doubtless they soon wished they had not acted so impetuously, but now all their treasures belong to me."
Calad nodded."You may well be the richest man in Okishdu when you have examined what remains. It was only perishable items such as fabrics, wood, and paper that were burned. Everything of metal, and most of the jewels, will have survived."
With the heavy sacks to carry, the guards could not carry the litter and Calad and Falga carried Tagnet to the sling. He would not let the sacks out of his sight until Calad convinced him to be let down first and wait at the bottom while the sacks were lowered."I will stay up here and make certain nothing is disturbed. You can seal the necks of the sacks with your signet to insure they are left intact."
Falga fetched some sealing wax and twine and Tagnet sealed the closed sacks of ashes from the offal pit with globs of wax and set his seal on each of them. When he was finally satisfied with the precautions, he let himself be lowered in the sling. Before he was lowered to the beach, he cast one last disparaging glance toward the mist-wrapped shrine that looked truncated and dull in the murky light.
Three days passed before Kalinka and Falga were summoned to meet with Tagnet. The day was fine and warm and the trip down to the town huddled at the base of the cliff was easily accomplished on the path. They were passed through without question and entered the audience hall.
Tagnet sat on his elevated chair with his arms spread to accommodate the gold and silver bracelets that adorned him from his wrists up to his shoulders. He was braced against the weight of chains and pendants that were hung around his neck. Even his legs beneath his robes were hung with bracelets and chains. A medallion was centered in a golden circlet over his brow. It was the image of Algunagada that Calad had mentioned, a depiction of the self-styled deity in gold outlined in multicolored gems. "You see me in my glory, brother," Tagnet crowed."Doubtless no other ruler in Okishdu is as rich as I."
"So you think Kalinka's payment is sufficient?" Falga was quick to ask.
Tagnet smiled and nodded. "I will grant you what you asked for in return. I certainly do not covet that sad grey pile of stone you call a shrine. As for Fordag and his family, they make good cheese. I will forgive him of his error if he promises me a steady supply."
The scroll cloth was brought and the contracts written. Calad carried out the errand and Kalinka saw that he wore two chains himself. It was a mark of favor that no other in the audience hall could claim. Ponswit was present but silent. The expression on his face was so lugubrious that Kalinka felt sorely tested not to laugh.
As the summer faded and the winds took on an edge of cold, never truly chilly enough for snow here by the sea, Kalinka was grateful that Balinra had the daily care of Tagnet. She still saw patients who were willing to come up the cliff, and now and then an emergency arose that Balinra was not quite equipped to handle. Usually Kalinka limited her visits to Orenon to a monthly visit to Tagnet to monitor his health and prescribe a change in treatment if such were needed.
As Falga and Fordag had hoped, the two young men who had returned to Orenon to marry chose to share the house of Barun, now divided. They helped Fordag with his dairy and used the teams that had been trained to haulage to clear a bit of land. Water was precious, but the spring that was discovered when the foundation for the shrine was dug ran steady.
They used the slops from washing to water bread berry vines and nuka trees. Soon they had established a thriving trade with the women from the beach. The men who lived in the compound near the shrine had no dealings with the men from Orenon, but their wives and children mingled as friends.
When the weather warmed again, Kalinka gave birth to a little girl. She named her Valadel in honor of her mentor and her first apprentice. Her son, Karad had passed his toddling stage and could usually be found following Falga as he went about his tasks. The time drew near to make another pilgrimage and five young people applied to be taken to Timora for Renewal Washing. Two of them were girls.
Tagnet refused to let the girls leave Orenon, using Valdira's absence as his justification. That evening the women of Orenon gathered at the front of the Shrine and waited for Falga to appear."We cannot allow Tagnet to limit our freedom," one woman cried. The others applauded.
Falga stood and raised his hands. Instead of praying, he reproached them."You are here because you followed your husbands and fathers from Timora. Irilik knew you still had hearts devoted to the Radiance and he provided for a priest to come and build a shrine. Do you think that you can only be accepted as full members of the congregation of faith by being washed in the waters of lake Timora?"
The women had never really considered the idea and they muttered and shook their heads. Finally one of them stood and said something that seemed agreeable to all."We will all go to Timora. We will visit with our families from whom we were separated four years ago. We will take our zylka cloth and pearls and make trades for ourselves at the fair."
"Then this is not about the efficacy of the waters of Timora?" Falga asked them.
A woman laughed. "Surely you have the authority to carry out the ritual for our daughters if you have water sufficient to immerse them," Balinra said from somewhere in the middle of the mass of women. "Kalinka will probably prefer to stay here in Orenon while her daughter is so young. She can stay here in safety and look after Tagnet while the rest of us go up to the fair."
"Tagnet would renege on everything he has promised if I put such a proposition before him," Falga said.
"Why should you be the one to present our demands?" another woman asked. "We will tell our husbands that this is what we want. Even those with concubines will find themselves alone at night until they are willing to agree." Her suggestion was followed by another cheer.
"I cannot approve this tactic!" Falga said in a voice meant to carry over their noise.
Calad made an unexpected appearance beside him and Falga blanched with surprise. What would Tagnet's councilor make of the scene?
Calad pointed at Balinra and she stood."Come wife. Tagnet is waiting for you to treat him."
"My most revered husband, I followed you into the desert and served you uncomplaining for all these years, but in this I am united with the other women. I will go to Tagnet this last time, but in five days we will go up to Timora, whether Falga leads us or not. Even if we become lost and wander, it is better to take our chances on the trail than to be kept corralled like cattle for the rest of our lives."
The other women shouted their approval of her words and then they dispersed in groups to discuss this brave new tactic they had suddenly determined to pursue. Calad stayed by Falga's side and made certain that Balinra was headed for the sling before he turned and spoke."I cannot govern my own wife, any more than Tagnet could ever govern his. Do you think Kalinka will be willing to stay while you lead our women to Timora?"
"I cannot leave her here alone. Tagnet has proved again and again that he cannot be trusted to keep his word."
"What of Fordag? Could he lead them?"
Falga nodded."If he and his family, and the couples who live in the house where Barun lived could go along, your women would most likely be safe. They must have a supply of weapons in case they are attacked, but our journey last year was safe and uneventful."
"I would go if I could," Calad said."Unfortunately, all of us who liberated Tagnet are outlaws. I will see if I can somehow manipulate this situation to our profit."
He hurried away and Falga silently wished him well. Calad had a stubborn devotion to Algunagada that the young priest could not understand. He remembered his father as a man of simple, almost crude appetites who was much like Tagnet in his mercurial change of mood. He was also like Tagnet in possessing some intangible quality that made others willing to heed his words.
Kalinka had been gathering herbs when the rebellion of the women erupted and she was amused by Falga's retelling of the incident. "If all the women go, as well as the others who live here with us, it will be like a holiday until they all return. You will have no congregation. I will have only Tagnet to look after."
"You forget! I will likely have to look after the dairy. I prefer preaching to milking any day."
She laughed at his expression of repugnance, but it seemed he had accurately predicted his role. Somehow Calad turned the tide before open rebellion erupted in Orenon. In the promised period of five days, the caravan set out. In the vanguard marched Balinra with a spear.
She looked as if she would welcome an attack from any foe brave enough to stop her from her goal. Her children and little Virdun marched along by her side. Virdun held a reed in his hand and he wore a fierce smile on his face in a perfect reflection of his aunt.
Tagnet seemed subdued when Kalinka went to treat him."Your hands are too soft and your touch too delicate," he complained when she massaged his withered knee."Why did the children have to go?"
"You miss your son?" she guessed with a slight smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
"You would like me to forget the question of who his father is, wouldn't you," Tagnet fumed. "Yes, I have grown fond of him, but he will probably forget me when three weeks have passed without a visit. Beware, Kalinka. If anything happens to Virdun, I can easily replace him with another who might well be his brother. I understand your son is almost as bright and handsome as Virdun."
Kalinka clenched her teeth and did not betray her anger in a rougher touch. It would only please this cruel creature to know that he had once again shaken her to her heart. For a moment she was tempted to change his medication and leave him to the ravages of the disease that would eventually take his life. Calad would doubtless be a better leader for the sake of everyone. She repented the thought almost as soon as it passed through her mind. If the fire of the Radiance was to consume Tagnet, it would have to use another agent for his death. Like it or not, this monster was of the same flesh as her husband and child and she was a healer, not an instrument of revenge.
Chapter 15 Release
Three weeks passed by with aching slowness. Only the sweet solitude of their time alone with their family compensated for the weary labor. Falga had once caught a corum and milked it for the sake of feeding Virdun, but a herd to milk twice a day was a far different task. He did not ask, but Kalinka volunteered to help him. She spread a clean layer of grass straw in a small empty corral near the milking pen where she could put Karad and Valadel and keep her eye on them while she worked.
Falga was unable to help with the duties she faced each day when she went down to Orenon to tend to Tagnet. The tyrant's attitude remained surly and resistant and her patience was tried every time he opened his mouth.
"You would like to keep me in your power, wouldn't you?" he accused her one day. "You enjoy being with me and you will resent it when Balinra returns and ends your daily time to be alone with me."
The thought that she found him attractive and that her ministrations were anything other than dutiful was so repugnant that she finally dared to rebuke him."You are a wretched, ugly man in your body as well as your miserable soul. I can only bear to touch you because I am a healer," she murmured.
"What did you say? Speak up!" Tagnet said. "All you do is mutter. At least I can hear Balinra when she speaks."
At first she was so relieved that her temporary loss of self control would go unpunished that she overlooked the implication of his growing deafness. Then she saw him squinting to read the large, dark numbers on a tally Calad submitted. She had learned as much as she could about his illness and the loss of sight and hearing was an indication that his end was near.
With care his life might be preserved for an indefinite period, but he would gradually lose all sense and sensation until he had less life than one of the shell fish he loved to eat. It was a horrible end to contemplate because his mind would still be alert at times. She could think of no fate worse than being Tagnet, alone with no one but himself.
She knew she must tell Calad eventually, but she preferred to wait until Balinra was present. When Falga prayed for the safety of the women who went to Timora, she added her own intense pleas for their prompt return.
It was two days past the most optimistic estimate of their return when the women of Orenon were finally sighted. The dust raised by the teams of corums could be seen long before the women themselves appeared. Once again Balinra's doughty figure led the others with her children and Virdun on either side like an honor guard.
Kalinka ran out to greet them and lifted each child in turn for a hug until she reached the two oldest boys who grinned a challenge and then lifted her."We asked to be Washed," one of Balinra's sons confessed. "Do you think that father will hate us?"
"Your father will love you, even though it might disappoint him, but let me tell him what happened," Balinra cautioned.
Kalinka looked around at the baggage heaped on the corums. "I can see you had success at the fair."
Balinra nodded."We accounted for the tax Tagnet would charge us and those three corums are loaded with his share. I hate to think what will happen if he asks for more. The women will cause a rebellion for certain if his greed drives him to exceed the contract he set."
Kalinka walked beside the caravan until they stopped to unload the corums at the head of the pulley sling, then she drew Balinra aside where no others could overhear. "You will discover that Tagnet has other concerns than his share of the trade goods. With all I could do, he is rapidly losing his senses. Yesterday he could not read the daily tally of driftwood that Calad presented and he can only hear those who are willing to shout their requests."
"Have you spoken to Calad about what this means?" Balinra asked her.
Kalinka shook her head. "I waited for you to return. I was afraid that Calad might suspect that I gave Tagnet something to hasten his end."
"Calad has always admired you. Even though he believes Tagnet's nonsense about Algunagada, he is aware of his leader's failings and the work it takes to slow the progress of his disease."
"I will come with you now and give my report," Kalinka said. "Tagnet should confirm Virdun as his heir and Calad as the regent before he loses all ability to speak. He speech is already slurred."
"I visited with Kapanadel and she told me that Tagnet may have years yet to live, even when he loses his speech, sight, and hearing."
"I would not curse my worst enemy with such a life," Kalinka said.
"But if you would, Tagnet would be the one?" Balinra asked with a twisted smile.
Kalinka simply nodded.
The conference with Calad was brief. He had already seen for himself that Tagnet was failing rapidly. He only wanted to know that there was nothing that could be done to slow the progress of the disease."There must be many witnesses to Tagnet's final actions, and we must act swiftly before he can no longer speak. I will call for an assembly tonight."
"Make certain that everyone understands that their taxes will be discussed," Balinra warned him. "That should ensure a full attendance."
Both Kalinka and Falga attended the meeting and they were pressed to the rear of the crowded audience hall. Kalinka and Balinra were the only women present, but the men assembled had been sent by their wives to protect their interest. The heaped goods that represented Tagnet's share were displayed and Tagnet nodded his satisfaction with the take. The crowd moved to disperse but Calad raised his voice."Bring in Tagnet's son. It is time to confirm his place as heir of the Godking and my duties as regent."
Only Ponswit raised his voice to protest and he was quickly subdued by those near him. Virdun came forward and climbed the dias to stand by the knee of his father. Tagnet's right hand held a scribing tool, but the other was clasped around his son. The terms of the regency had been inscribed on a slate and Calad read the provisions in a loud voice that even Tagnet could hear. Tagnet slowly inscribed his signature on the tablet and it was handed around a circle of ten men to read and affirm. Each of them scribed his sign as a witness.
After Calad dismissed the meeting the crowded room emptied quickly. With few exceptions, the men were looking forward to the first night they had spent with wives and concubines in three long weeks.
Kalinka and Falga returned to their home on the trail that took them near Fordag's dairy. They lingered for a moment to watch Fordag and his oldest son begin the evening milking, then they joined hands and hurried home to relieve Fordag's wife from the care of their children.
She stayed for a moment to hear them recount the events of the meeting. "Calad will be a good regent. I hope that Virdun is not like his father or when he is grown there will be a return of tyranny."
"It will be fifteen years before he can claim his inheritance," Falga said. "If Calad rules well in the meantime, it will set a good precedent for Virdun's rule."
"Fifteen years of just government can be destroyed in a few months if Virdun follows his father's temperament," Kalinka said. "I love Virdun, but your mother loved Tagnet."
"Don 't borrow trouble," Falga cautioned. "Come, you still have dinner to prepare and I must perform the evening ritual."
The next morning they woke to the sound of someone pounding on their door. The sky was milky pink with predawn light when Falga opened the door and Balinra entered the house. Her hair was unkempt and her clothing in disarray as if she had come from her bed. "Tagnet died within the past hour. Ponswit has entered an accusation of murder against Calad and elected himself as the judge."
"When did you first learn of this?" Falga asked.
"I attended Tagnet last night and he told me he suspected Kalinka of poisoning him. I listened to the symptoms he described and assured him that your wife had no role in what was happening. I probably should have been less direct, but I told him what was coming, that soon he would lose sight and hearing entirely. I gave him a potion for sleep, then I left him and returned to my home. A few hours ago we were waked by one of Tagnet's guards who summoned Calad to meet with him. Within a few minutes Calad returned home and begged me to return and help Tagnet who had stabbed himself."
"What do you want me to do?" Falga asked.
"I want you to go and defend my husband," Balinra said. "You have the right as a son of Algun."
"I am not of the cult of Algunagada," Falga protested.
"It doesn't matter," Balinra said."There are not many laws in Orenon, but one of them states that the sons of Algunagada will rule, if any of them still survive."
Falga dressed in his robes and asked Balinra to stay with Kalinka. "I will take Fordag's wife with me to bring the children back to you. They could be in danger, especially Virdun." It was faster to use the sling, and since he had to wake Fordag anyway to obtain the help of his wife, Falga decided against taking the longer path. He arrived at Tagnet's house after making sure that Virdun and Calad's children were in the sling with Fordag's wife and on their way back to the waste.
He found Ponswit in the audience hall holding forth to a crowd of men and women. Calad was bound and gagged and restrained by two of Tagnet's brawniest guards.
Ponswit paced and gestured. "I came to bring Tagnet some spiced wine before sunrise. I know he cannot sleep and thought it might help him rest."
"You have always been good to Tagnet," Ponswit's crony, Fraga crooned. "What did you see when you came to his house?"
Falga hung back and listened while Ponswit rolled his eyes and clutched his chest in an expression of horror. "I saw Calad fleeing with blood on his clothing. The guards were nowhere in sight so I entered Tagnet's room. He was lying on his bed with a wound in his chest. The weapon lay on the bed and I cried out for others to come and see that Tagnet had been murdered with Calad's own knife. Calad must be condemned."
Falga slipped past the crowd that had gathered to listen to Ponswit's dramatic account and entered Tagnet's sleeping room. He examined the trail of bloodstains that led to the bed. Tagnet lay with a ghastly grin on his pallid face. The wound in his chest was not very large, but it had been placed with precision. A knife with Calad's signet on its hilt lay near Tagnet's outstretched hand.
There was a cup on the table near the head of the bed and some of the pungent potion that helped Tagnet sleep was still in the bottom. The scene fit Balinra's description.
Falga entered the audience room and stepped forward to confront Ponswit. Ponswit jumped with startled fear. In the dim light of the room, dressed in his pale robe, the priest's slight resemblance to his brother was more evident. "I am no ghost Ponswit. I have come to take evidence and give judgement on this death."
"I was Tagnet's favorite!" Ponswit protested."I am the oldest man in Orenon. By age and by favor, I should be the judge in this matter."
"Who was my father Ponswit?" Falga asked.
"A-algunagada," the old man finally granted.
"By Tagnet's own law, I have the right to rule in Orenon and I intend to follow that law until the truth of this matter is settled."
Ponswit muttered and tried to get his cronies to protest Falga's claim, but all of them knew the law and they urged Ponswit to be quiet. Falga stood on the dias and gestured for Calad to come forward. "Remove his bonds and the gag on his mouth. I would hear what he has to say."
When Calad was able to move, he braced himself on the wall and shook his head. He had been beaten and bruises covered his face."Calad, explain yourself," Falga prompted.
"I was summoned to Tagnet early this morning. He could hardly speak to me but I finally discerned that he wanted me to stay and order all others to leave. When we were alone, he grabbed the knife from my sheath and tried to stab himself. I tried to wrestle the knife away, but I only succeeded in cutting my hand before he plunged the knife into his chest. I cried for help but no one seemed to hear me. I was running to find help when Ponswit saw me."
"A likely story!" Ponswit snorted."You were caught all but red-handed."
"Why would I leave my knife behind if I were the murderer?" Calad challenged his accuser.
"Doubtless Tagnet wrestled it from you with his dying grasp."
Each of the two men had supporters in the crowd and they all started yelling counter claims at each other. Some of them jumped at their rivals and began to pummel them."
"Quiet, all of you!" Falga roared. The men were stunned by his raised voice, so much like Tagnet's in his early days, that they stopped their brawl and gaped at him in silence.
"I judge that Tagnet took his own life because he knew he faced a long, slow death. Either I will rule here in Orenon by my birth right, or Calad will rule as regent for Virdun until the boy is a man. I leave the choice up to you."
Ponswit began to protest, but with a gesture of his hand, Falga ordered him gagged. "As for you, Ponswit, you will be jailed for failing to bring aid when you heard Calad cry out. Who knows, you might have helped save Tagnet's life if your ambition had not intervened."
Falga turned to the crowd who had witnessed the inquest. "Go out, all of you and bring all the men to the square outside. We will settle this issue now."
Most of the men in Orenon had become accustomed to thinking of Falga as a gentle spoken priest and this sudden force surprised them. When all were gathered in the square to vote, if Falga had not been wearing the robe and sash of a priest of the Radiance, they might have chosen him to lead them. As it was, Calad was affirmed as the regent to rule until Virdun reached his twenty-first year. The matter was settled before noon and the burial of Tagnet was set for sunset.
Falga returned to his home, leaving Calad to officiate at the strange rites that Tagnet himself had invented.
Falga was drawn to the edge of the cliff when sunset came. The great tower Tagnet had assembled had been torn down. Most of the driftwood was carried into the surf and set to be carried away on the waves, perhaps to land near enough that other Watchers could use it. The largest pieces had been tied together into a raft. Tagnet's shrouded body was carried aboard and the raft was shoved into the sea with the running tide.
Those left on the shore blew horns and shouted for Algunagada to come and claim his son. The raft drifted into the sea until it disappeared into a mist that had risen near the reef. Falga wiped tears from his eyes, surprised at the emotion of sorrow that filled him. For most of of his life Tagnet had been a bully and taken endless advantage of his younger brothers. Falga wondered if he mourned for a wasted life. Or did he mourn for the men who had turned to this hollow pretense of religion when they had witnessed so many proofs of the love of the Radiance.
He turned away and returned to his home. Kalinka was waiting there with their children for him to lead them to the shrine. His small congregation was waiting for the evening ritual. When he had come to Orenon four years before, there were only himself and Kalinka. Now more than thirty women with their children, and six men including the two oldest sons of Calad gathered to end the day in supplication to the Radiance.
Falga raised his hands and began to pray. He faced west toward Timora, but in his mind he could still see the darkening sea and Tagnet's final journey. A shiver ran over his skin. Was his father Algun still alive? Would that raft someday wreck on a beach where Algun's young wife Calanin walked with a son? He wrenched his mind back to his devotions and prayed for the souls who had gathered here to worship in the face of opposition. He felt a sense of peace and joy and it was reflected in the tone of his voice as he gave his benediction.
After the congregation dispersed to return to their homes, he walked alongside Kalinka, each of them carrying one of their children. Karad was really too big to be carried, but he was sleepy and his arms came around his father's neck and his head nestled into his shoulder. It seemed they were home too soon and the children put to bed. "What changes will Calad impose?" Kalinka asked Falga."He may resent losing his sons to worship of the Radiance. Tagnet needed me, but Calad might decide to expel us."
"We must wait for the morrow to see what he does. He knows that I am not his rival. At least his sons returned to Orenon, unlike Fadar and Valdira."
There was no message from Calad the following morning. With no need to visit Tagnet, Kalinka and Falga seldom ventured down to the beach. Calad apparently felt no need to change the conditions of their tenancy in with waste. In most ways Calad was a far better governor than Tagnet had been, but he shocked Balinra by taking a second wife, confirming the habits of some of the other Watchers. His action divided the community permanently. Watchers had more than one wife and built towers. Other men were free to worship with Falga at the shrine and seen as no better than women.
After his second marriage, Calad avoided Falga. When the time came for the yearly Festival of Founding in Timora, those without towers were permitted to leave Orenon. Falga and Kalinka were eager to go while Fordag and his family decided to stay with the dairy.
This time they knew what to expect when they cleared the pass that led into the vale of Timora. They were met by a troop of Guardians, but they were an honor guard with Fadar in the lead.
The fair field was set up in the same location as when they had traveled to the festival two years before, but the space was crowded and tents were erected in the fields beyond the original bounds. The group from Orenon found a camping place not far from a group from Virdana and were soon looking for familiar faces.
Valdira visited Kalinka within an hour of their arrival. She gazed at the girl, amazed at the changes in her. It was as if coming to Timora had unlocked a spring. She was inches taller and appeared like the young woman she was instead of a child. Her sash was bright yellow, the mark of a full-fledged healer.
"I heard that Tagnet is dead and my father discredited," Valdira said when their first happy greeting was over.
"How did you hear the news? We have only been here for an hour?" Kalinka said.
"Falga told Fadar and Fadar told me of course."
"Were you chance met, or did he seek you out?" Kalinka asked her.
Valdira blushed. "We have told no one else because I wanted you to be the first to know, but we have agreed we will marry. Neither of us has relatives in the vale and we regard the two of you as family. We were hoping that you and Falga would come to the Festival this year so that you could stand up as our witnesses."
"I am surprised that you don 't have other suitors," Kalinka said, remembering her conversation with Tarsha two years before.
"I have had no lack of suitors," Valdira said with an impish smile."You might be surprised at who has courted me, but Fadar is the man who won my heart."
"Have you spoken to Irilik yet?"
Valdira shook her head. "We wanted to wait until you and Falga knew. The Festival has become a time for marriage. Ours will be one of many."
"But not all of those who marry are Guardians and healers," Kalinka said. "Tell Fadar that he must let the prophet know of your plans."
"He has been eager to do so," Valdira confessed. "It was I who made him wait. I will go now and tell him what you advise."
Not long after Valdira left the tent, Falga returned. "I have received a message from Irilik. He wants to see the two of us at the shrine together. I replied that we could be there within the hour."
"What could he want of us?" Kalinka asked.
Falga smiled a gentle rebuke. "I am not a prophet and I know better to second guess someone who truly is."
When they arrived at the shrine, Irilik greeted them and asked them to follow him to a small room set aside for his use as a study. It was sparsely furnished with a stone bench along either wall, a scroll rack, and a long table. A tripod fire pot warmed the air near their feet when they sat down at Irilik's invitation.
"I have had good reports of your work in Orenon," Irilik said. "I understand that Tagnet has died and Calad was given the regency. Calad is a steady man, although mistaken."
"He has confirmed the practice of polygyny by taking a second wife," Falga acknowledged. "It took his first wife a few months to forgive him, but she now treats the other one almost as a daughter."
"In future years Orenon will lose many of its best young people for this reason. It is not right that old men indulge themselves in taking many wives and concubines while young men go without brides. Couples will flee together and join other clans. The population of Orenon will always be limited, but much evil will come from that place as well as much good. It will be like a smelting furnace to some, purifying them with hardship and firming their resolve."
"Calad's oldest son is a member of my congregation," Falga said."He is torn between duty to his father and his love of the Radiance."
"I know of him," Irilik said. "He stands on the brink of decision. If he yields to the Liar and follows his father's ways, he will continue the fall until he becomes a devotee of Orqu. If he chooses the Light, he will leave you and make a home in one of the other homelands."
"So one way or another we lose him," Kalinka said.
Irilik stared through the narrow window that gave a view of the lake below. "My own son, Marek, will face a challenge and I already know how he will choose. I have seen the avarice in his eyes when he watches the trading at the fair. I have seen the yearning looks he gives when he hears the tales of Janakan gold and Orenese pearls. He will become a merchant instead of a priest. He believes the two roles can be combined, and for some, they might be compatible, but for Marek, the merchant will overcome the priest."
"What can you do about it?" Falga asked.
"I have other sons," Irilik said with a sigh. "My seventh son can already make the Eye of Adanan respond to his presence. He will be as a servant to his brother, but even when he and his brothers become merchants along with Marek, in him the merchant will be overcome by the priest."
"Does this defeat your prophecy that gives them no homeland so that they may wander and instruct the other clans?" Falga asked.
Irilik shook his head. "There will come a time when merchants may go where priests might be forbidden. Many of the people of Okishdu will stray and wars will burden the land. I never grow accustomed to the visions that show me what will happen in ages to come. I have prayed until my knees are bruised and my arms cannot support my hands, but each man and woman chooses their own destiny and that destiny is a tangle that snarls others. There will come a time when a king will arise from the line of Elianin. He will burden the people with taxes and steal precious things even from the shrine here in Timora. A mighty warrior will arise from among my people, but the sons of Marek will never be allowed to carry blades that kill."
As the prophet spoke the final words, his eyes seemed to widen and he bent to make notes on the scroll cloth near his hand. "Why are you telling us these things? What can we do about them?" Kalinka pleaded."
"Your presence brought the prophecy to me," Irilik explained gently. "It is not your responsibility to act. I will write all these things on my scroll of prophecies, and everyone can read them, but even so, men will stumble and follow the voice of the Liar. I must ask you to return to Orenon and continue to deal with the Watchers. I wish I could give you release, but it is the will of the Radiance that you continue to serve him there."
"We have experienced many of the dire things you spoke of when you first identified my calling," Falga said. "But we have also found happiness in our home near Orenon. Even if you offered me a post here in Timora, I would be reluctant to leave my home and the shrine that Barun built."
"Orenon has become our home," Kalinka affirmed.
Irilik gave them one of his rare smiles. It removed years from his face for a moment. "I hear that your first fruits in the Radiance have decided to marry. It will disappoint Marek to hear that Valdira is taken, but he will have to learn to endure disappointment. Tarsha might well take it harder than Marek. She has come to depend on Valdira. She almost treats her as a daughter."
Kalinka smiled. It would be interesting to see how Tarsha reacted to the news that Valdira was marrying Fadar. Two years before she had been afraid that Marek was attracted to the girl and had deliberately planned to make her seem like family in order to defuse the young man's ardor.
When the nuptial ritual took place there was general rejoicing among the people crowded into the plaza in front of the shrine. The Guardians assembled in ranks to cheer their popular young captain and Valdira had a warm welcome from her friends and patients. Only two faces seemed less than pleased by the marriage. Marek stood at the back of the crowd with a scowl on his face. Tarsha stood near the bride with tears of real regret in her eyes.
When the last exchanges at the fair were completed and the baggage loaded on the dalas, several friends gathered to bid farewell to Kalinka and Falga. There were hugs and tears and promises to meet in future years, but there was no feeling of regret when the caravan started out on the return journey to the coast. Kalinka found herself impatient to leave the vale. She would always love the sky-blue lake and in the years ahead she planned to return often, certainly every other year for the Founding Festival, but this was a place to visit. Her home was on a hill on a cliff that looked over the eastern sea. There might always be a need to fight to keep that narrow holding and Falga would always find resistance from the Watchers, but whatever threats there were, the harvest had been worth the cost.