Chapter 1 Siege

Dust from marching rebels glowed like a mist of blood in the ruddy light of sunset. Encampments of the besieging army stretched from the foot of the Eastern mountains to the ramparts of Renon. Their beehive tents studded the plain.

From a hillock above General Saaden's command tent Irilik focused his lenses on the walls of the city. They rose high above the plain below, studded at intervals with great watchtowers. The royal palace in the center of the city drew Irilik's gaze. The smile of a princess with golden eyes and hair like fire still tantalized him after five years. She appeared in the dreams he struggled to repress, the one bright spot in scenes of ruin and terror.

"Do you see any sign of a weakness we could exploit?" Saaden asked.

Irilik shook his head. "There is no break or decay. The walls are far higher than any of your siege machines. Your spies report that the wells run fresh and constant and there are gardens as well as seven years worth of grain in the temple granaries."

"But the same spies reported that the grain had been sold by the Noncil Wizards when they took over the temple," Saaden reminded the younger man.

Irilik lifted his hand to cover a yawn but Saaden noticed his gesture. "Go get some rest. You study the stars by night and the city by day. When do you sleep?"

Irilik shrugged and turned away to pack his device of lenses and tubes. Saaden watched him as he picked his way down the steep path and entered the smaller tent near his own. He felt an almost fatherly surge of love for the youth who had taught him how to read and write and provided valuable strategy for the conquest of Tashvad five years before.

He turned back to his survey of the city. This had been their goal almost since the beginning when he and his fellow peasants had rebelled against the ravages of an evil landlord. Dispossessed farmers and slaves had flocked to join the rebellion. His brother-in-law, Algun, had looked beyond the petty revenge of banditry and seen a vision of revolution. Saaden was put in charge of strategies and tactics for the growing army, and eventually given the title of General, but Algun was the unquestioned leader of the rebellion.

The army gathered in the plains beneath the ramparts of the city had no equal in the history of Kishdu, but none could say how long it would be before the king of Renon capitulated to the pressure of the siege.

Janak, Saaden's second in command, climbed up the steep path and joined the general. They saluted each other with a rough slap of hands on each other's shoulders, exchanging genial insults of old comrades. "We spoke of this day five years ago when we conquered Balchad," Janak finally said. "I doubted I would see the day when Renon lay at our mercy."

"What progress have your men made undermining the walls?" Saaden asked.

Janak pursed his face with concentration and shook his head. "My miners report that the foundation of Renon rests on solid rock. It will take months to penetrate. If there were some way of finding the sources of the wells, it might be more profitable to corrupt their water than to try and undermine the city."

Saaden waved a hand to the snow topped mountains that loomed on the north. Janak gave a wry smile and shrugged his shoulders. "It would be easier to level Renon than to pollute such a watershed. This is unlike any other campaign we have fought, but at last we see an end to war. Perhaps the embassy that ventured forth to meet with Algun will have some result. It has been nearly a month since they passed through our ranks. What will you do when Renon is taken and the war is finally over?"

Saaden frowned. He had avoided the temptation of dreaming of peace. His talent for strategy and tactics had brought the forces of Algun further than they had ever dreamed when they were a gang of rebels. Could he live as a farmer or a merchant after so many years on the march?

Janak would happily return to mining, and Taleek, the quartermaster, had already established the trading house that would keep him busy. No sooner had Saaden thought of Taleek than the sound of his high voice hailed them.

"Brothers, why do you wear such long faces? Here on the plain below us is the mightiest army in the history of Kishdu. Every day it grows, and I have arranged for food and drink and arms to come by caravan from every corner of the land. We will not fail."

Saaden grasped Taleek's hand and hoisted the slender man to join them on the hillock. "Janak has brought reports from his miners. Irilik studied the walls. We must resign ourselves to a long siege."

"It will be worth the price," Janak said. "Renon is the last bastion of the evils that set us on the path of war. The old order ruled Kishdu for too long."

Saaden saw a courier's chariot charging toward his tent in the valley below. The white plumes on the helm of the charioteer glowed sanguine in the last ruddy light of the day. Saaden was not given to portents and signs, but a shiver ran over his weathered skin, raising the short wiry hairs on his arms. He had seen enough of blood. He raised his hands and offered up one of his customary laconic prayers. "Let it end soon."

Janak and Taleek nodded and signed their amens. Saaden left his fellow officers and scrambled down the hill to his tent.

The courier hurried to meet him and handed him a scroll. Saaden unrolled it and read a summons to appear before Algun. Elaborate calligraphy on gilded parchment signaled a radical change from the usual missives sent by the rebel leader. Algun usually had his wife Virda scribble short notes in cramped handwriting. The change boded ill for the ideals of the rebellion.

His brow wrinkled when he read the last paragraph. He was directed to bring the astronomer Irilik with him when he traveled to meet with Algun.

When the Army had captured Balchad, the city of the Noncil Wizards, Algun had become a convert to the Wizard's astrology. Every important event was delayed until the stars were read. Algun had ordered Saaden to keep a wizard on his staff and Irilik had volunteered even though he preferred the title astronomer.

Algun consulted his astrologers so that every battle could be properly planned according to the readings for the day. When he imposed the readings of astrologers on Saaden, the General outwardly complied, but he wrenched the readings to fit the plans he made according to more practical considerations.

Irilik prepared maps and showed him how to read the seasons by the sun and stars. The young man continued studying the courses of the celestial round with no thought that it changed fate, but Saaden's continued success in battle convinced Algun that astrology was key to defeating Renon.

Saaden gave a grunt of displeasure when he found Irilik setting up the implement of his craft to study the evening sky. "I instructed you to get some sleep," he said with a light cuff at Irilik's shoulder. He waited while the youth made a notation of his readings before handing him the summons. "Your talents have finally found someone who respects them. Perhaps you will be transferred to Algun's compound."

Irilik made a face, his mobile lips twisting in a grimace of cynical amusement. "I pray that you are wrong. I make no claims to find meaning in the subtle dance of the stars. Any village priest can mark the times of harvest and the quartering of the year. Some claim they rule the lives of men. I believe they are other suns, glorious in their own right. How could distant suns influence the affairs of Kishdu and her kings?"

Saaden smiled and shook his head. "Be careful where you utter such thoughts. Algun is convinced that the stars rule his destiny. He has learned of your reputation from Ilgud, one of his wizards, and wants you to tell his astrologers what you see in the heavens. You must appear before them, but guard your tongue. I find good sense in what you say, but others would say it is blasphemy to question the divinity of the stars. We are expected to stay for a banquet after the soothsayers have given their readings. Bring what you need for an overnight stay."

When they met a little later to begin their journey to Algun's camp Irilik wore the dark blue robe he wore on state occasions and Saaden wore the gilded breastplate and yellow crested helm that had somehow become the badge of his office. They rode in one chariot with Saaden at the reins. Saaden's orderly and Tedak, Irilik's servant, rode behind them between the panniers of two mules. No other troops attended them. It was no secret that Saaden was the man responsible for generous rations and good battle pay. If there were spies from Renon concealed among the throng, it was worth their lives to lift a hand against him.

The path up the pass leading from the valley of Renon to the vale where Algun had set up his headquarters was broad and well paved, but there were few signs of passage. The two sets of tracks made by the courier on his journey to and from the encampment were the only fresh marks in the rills of dust the wind had gathered since the last rain. The night was fully dark when they reached the midpoint in their journey.

It had been nearly a month since Saaden had ridden to take counsel with the leader of the rebellion, but he was amazed when they topped the pass and saw the great construction dominating the valley below. It reared into the sky high above the other tents surrounding it. On top of each of a hundred tree-high poles, bright-hued banners fluttered. Thousands of torches lit the scene and warmed the chill from the night air.

Saaden brought his chariot to a halt before the main entrance to the tent and waited while his orderly dismounted from the mule and hurried forward to take the reins. Irilik scrambled out of the chariot and followed the mules that carried his servant, Tedak, and their baggage.

Saaden dusted down his breastplate and armored kilt before he ducked his head to enter the grandiose tent. There was no need for the reflex, the draped openings were high enough to take a mounted man. Within the tent, cloth of gold, richly embroidered with scenes of battle, divided the interior. An enormous bald eunuch, his great belly naked above a jeweled kilt, looked up with an arrogant stare. He genuflected and hurried forward when he recognized the meaning of Saaden's yellow helm. "His omniscient and beneficent Holiness will receive you in due time," the man intoned.

Saaden frowned. This was a new development. When he had last consulted with Algun, the title his old companion used had been the more succinct but descriptive, "Leader." There had been some dispute between his various advisors and ministers about the proper title for a man who now ruled over most of Kishdu. Some had insisted that he be called "Highness." Saaden had advised against using that form of address while the city of Renon still resisted his army. Algun had accepted his judgement but insisted that all troops who were not engaged in keeping the peace in other parts of Kishdu should gather to the siege of the imperial city. Once Renon had fallen, all resistance to the new order would crumble.

Saaden studied the ornate waiting room and absently stroked the hilt of his sword. He wondered what his sister, Virda, thought about the pomp and luxury of her husband's new grandeur. She had been a good wife to Algun, uncomplaining while the years and battles wore on. She raised her sons in the marches between cities while the territories claimed by Algun spread like a stain over the face of the land.

The general frowned at the word his imagination had provided for the rule his own efforts had brought about. Surely the regime of Algun was a good thing. Before he had risen to power, ruinous taxation and callous rulers had drained the poor of their living. Saaden remembered the conditions of Tashvad before they had helped banish the slavers and pirates that had made their roost in the once holy city of Vishang.

Saaden's thoughts were interrupted by the return of the eunuch who gestured for him to follow. He was led into the council room that took up most of the space of the great tent. He stopped for a moment in surprise at seeing Algun seated on a throne. There had been no warning that there would be others privy to the meeting, but the room held several other men.

Algun raised a jeweled hand to summon him closer. Two men flanked him on either side of his throne. One was dressed in purple robes striped with embroidered bands of the mystic marks used by astrologers. "You know Ilgud, I have named him my prophet and priest,"Algun said.

Saaden was all too familiar with Ilgud and his like since the influence of astrology had overtaken Algun. Saaden's gaze passed over him and fixed on the other man who leaned over Algun like a bird of prey. He wore the green and gold of a Renonese ambassador, but the glitter of medals on the edge of his jeweled breastplate told of a status that must rival that of Algoth, king of Renon.

The rank of the envoy surprised Saaden. His eyes returned to Algun, a question in his raised brow.

"This is Malgrod, steward to the King of Renon, now my own valued advisor," Algun said.

"Have you brought the astrologer, Irilik?" Malgrod demanded.

"He prefers the title astronomer," Saaden corrected. "Irilik only gathers the information that the astrologers use to predict events. He does not pretend to know of portents and signs. He only knows the stars and predicts their movements. You should not expect more of him."

"Insolence!" Malgrod hissed. "How dare you contradict the first advisor of your emperor?"

The word 'emperor' stunned Saaden but Algun laughed, his oiled curls shaking with mirth. "It is not insolence for Saaden to speak plainly. He will toady to no man, not even me. But tell me, Saaden, did you bring the youth who knows the heavens?"

"Irilik is here as you requested," Saaden said. "He has studied the heavens by night and his charts by day. I told him to rest while I came and informed you of the progress of the siege."

"Summon him," Malgrod said. "Our astrologers await his information. None but he can see so far into the designs inscribed on the face of night."

Saaden gave a nod, rather than bowing, once again bringing a flush to the face of the Malgrod. He knew that the new titles and honors claimed by his brother-in-law might call for a deeper obeisance, but Saaden had never bowed to any man. He did deign to back out of the presence of the others. It was a practical desire to catch a last glimpse of the new players in the game of empire rather than any respect for Algun that motivated his mode of exit from the chamber.

Irilik was not easy to wake. Deep circles beneath his eyes betrayed the fatigue that held him captive in sleep. Finally Saaden resorted to dashing water on his face. Irilik lurched up from his cot. "Why-why-"

"You are wanted in the council hall of Algun's tent," Saaden said. He kept his sympathy well concealed beneath his habitual brusqueness. "His astrologers are waiting for your report."

Saaden waited while Irilik donned the blue and silver robes of his office and called for his servant to help him. Tedak entered with a neat bundle of rolled charts. Saaden admired the quiet efficiency of the servant. There was not a wasted movement as Tedak placed the robes and smoothed the embroidered shawl of office.

Saaden did not like servitude. Algun had promised that he would free all slaves and redistribute the lands of the wealthy when the rebels took Renon. However, Tedak served his master in a way that made the role of servant seem anything but menial. When Saaden had offered him another post, he had explained that his people had been hereditary servants to Irilik's family for many generations and considered the charge more a privilege than a burden. It was easy to see how Tedak felt about his post as he urged Irilik to eat a few bites of roasted meat and bread. Irilik was busy organizing his charts and Tedak insistently held the cup to his master's lips for a drink of water.

Sadden smiled at the sight, but he approved Tedak's insistence that Irilik should take some nourishment. The next meal might have to wait until after the astrologers finished their long-winded consultations. It could take most of the night.

When Saaden returned to the council hall with Irilik, the astrologers were assembled. They welcomed Irilik into in a confidential council in an anteroom with the wizard, Ilgud, who had left his post near Algun and the ambassador from Renon. Doubtless whatever the astrologers chose to see in the star charts Irilik showed them would be heavily influenced by Ilgud's opinions.

Saaden was accustomed to taking his ease in the presence of Algun. They had been companions for too long to let new ideas of propriety overcome habit, but Malgrod frowned when he saw the general lounge on a comfortable cushioned couch and select his favorite morsels from the lavish display of food and drink on the long, low table.

While he munched on crisp apples and savored the seasoning on a slice of baked meat, Saaden pondered the apparent status of the Renonese steward in Algun's retinue. It seemed that he had designed the grandeur of the council tent. This alone was no cause for worry. Those who ruled an empire would surround themselves with luxury and ease. He was far more concerned about the way Malgrod whispered into Algun's ear and how often his old companion nodded his agreement.

Saaden fought to keep his eyes open as the long hours he had spent organizing the siege begin to take their toll. The astrologers continued their arguments over the charts. Finally he stood and caught Algun's eye. "I will return in an hour or so."

Malgrod scowled, but Algun waved his hand to dismiss the general. "I wish I could go with you. This business of being an emperor is far more tedious than I thought it would be."

Saaden nodded and once again backed from the curtained room. Although they were not visible, he could sense the presence of guards and felt their eyes on him. Perhaps it was only his fatigue feeding an overdeveloped sense of caution, but he felt antagonism surrounding him. None of the men surrounding Algun were familiar to him.

When he left the tent, he returned to his own quarters and took off the feathered helm that marked his rank before covering his clothing with a dull, dark cloak. Leaving his tent, he took a roundabout path, visiting the privy and slinking out by another entrance than the one he had entered. Soon he was satisfied that if anyone had followed him from Algun's tent, they had lost him in the gloom of the night.

He wanted to talk to his sister and get her impressions of the men who now flanked her husband. He looked for Virda, expecting to find her in the cook tent where she usually enjoyed employing her talents. When he finally located the cook tent it was three times again as large as the space it had occupied a month before. The chief chef was a stranger and most of the busy servants who labored over producing elaborate delicacies for the table of Algun were new to Saaden. When he asked after Virda, they looked at him blankly. Finally he recognized a scullion laboring away at cleaning a huge pot.

The youth had asked to join the army, but he suffered from a crooked foot. Saaden had assigned him to Virda, thinking she might be able to do something for his disability and make use of him at the same time. He noted that the young man walked with hardly a lurch as he carried a load of pots to the scullery at the back of the tent.

Saaden followed him until they had reached the relative privacy of the scullery where large vats of steaming water sat ready to wash the pots and pans from the cook tent. He touched the scullion on the shoulder. "Tolat, do you remember me?"

"General Saaden! Have you come to take me with you? I think I am fit to be a soldier now. See how much better I can walk?" The youth demonstrated by taking a few steps in the confined space.

"Perhaps I can use you, but now I need to know where my sister is. Could you tell me what has become of Virda?"

"Lady Virda no longer comes to the kitchen. She was taken ill shortly after Malgrod became Algun's advisor. She never leaves her tent," the youth replied.

"Where is her tent?" Saaden asked.

The scullion waved his hand toward the further end of the encampment where the servants had their quarters. "She has been put at the edge of the camp so her infection won't endanger any others. Only her physicians are allowed to attend her."

"Her physicians?" Saaden mused. "Tell me, where did these physicians come from. As far as I know, my sister has never been ill."

"They came from Renon with Malgrod. They are Noncil wizards like the priest, Ilgud," the youth revealed.

A servant entered the scullery with a stack of plates and overheard the conversation. He grabbed the scullion by his neck and scolded him. "What do you mean by lingering here and gossiping with a stranger when there is work to be done."

Saaden's first impulse was to reveal his rank and dress down the officious lackey. He quelled the thought and took a few coins from his belt pouch to rattle together. "I hope you will forgive my young friend for taking a moment to give me directions," he said.

The servant scurried away with a smirk after slipping the coins into his sash. Saaden smiled cynically. Nothing encouraged discretion so much as the complicity of a bribe.

A turmoil broke out in the main cooking tent when a pot of roiling oil caught fire. The head chef shouted instructions and his minions scurried to douse the fire with sand. In the excitement, the intrusion of a stranger seemed forgotten.

After making sure that none of the other servants took note, Saaden picked up a lamp from a shelf near the door. He put the lid down over the lamp, leaving only the faintest gleam to assure him that the flame still burned. "Come, show me to the tent where Virda is kept," he told Tolat.

Tolat seemed eager to help. "Did you get the letter from the lady Virda?" Tolat asked Saaden when they were well away from the cook tent. "She said she would write and tell you I was fit to serve as a soldier."

Saaden frowned. It had been a long time since he had received any word from Virda. It was not like her to be reticent. Since he had learned to read, they had been regular correspondents whenever the tides of war came between them. "Did she say that she had written recently?"

Tolat nodded. "At least three weeks ago. I do not know if she has written since then. I have been banned from Virda's presence since the new servants came with the Renonese ambassador."

The casual humming of an approaching servant warned them to be quiet. They slipped into the shadows between the servants' tents and made their way stealthily to the edge of the camp. When they came to the lone tent set well away from any others, Tolat indicated that it was where Virda was being kept.

Saaden could find no fault with the tent his sister had been given, other than its removal from the vicinity of Algun. If she truly had a disease, the quarantine was reasonable, but he wondered that no one had told him of her illness.

Two of her sons were soldiers, currently assigned to peacekeeping at Algun's request. The two youngest were as old as many of the young soldiers who had joined the army, but Algun kept them close and used them as messengers. Surely one of them should have inquired after her and sent their uncle news.

Saaden braced himself for the sickly sweet odor of decay but when he entered the tent he smelled no odor of disease. A curious scent that reminded him of the hills of Bergat permeated the air. He lifted the lamp and Virda turned to look at him. He was shocked by her appearance. Her face was gaunt, her dark eyes staring fearfully into the darkness beyond the flame.

"It is only your little brother," he joked. Virda gave a sob of relief and held out her arms to him. "You came. You got my message."

"I received no message. I did not know you were ill until I asked the scullion Tolat why you were not in the kitchen."

"But I have sent several notes to you. Algun promised he would have them taken by his swiftest courier," Virda cried.

"Perhaps he mislaid them in the flurry of his new responsibilities as emperor," Saaden replied ironically.

"Emperor!" Virda gasped. "I knew he had erected a grand new council tent, but surely he would not be so foolish as to name himself emperor."

"I wondered what you would say of the luxury he now delights in displaying," Saaden said.

"I think he is making a fool of himself and betraying the ideals of the rebellion," she asserted. "I warned him against using the funds laid aside for pensions and the care of widows and orphans on such projects, but he said the king of Renon would be shamed by a common tent such as soldiers use. That was the beginning of this nonsense. It came with the sneers and lifted brows of that fop, Malgrod." Her anger seemed to drain her and she fell back against the pillow with a hand to her middle.

"How long have you been ill?" Saaden asked.

"Not long after Malgrod arrived I began to suffer from stomach pains. I consulted my old friend Kadila, but she said I must have eaten something that was spoiled or even poisoned when I tasted Algun's food. It is a risk I must take. I would not be a fitting wife if I did not sample whatever is prepared for my husband to make certain it is fresh and free of contamination. A powerful man draws enemies."

Saaden nodded. "You have always put his welfare ahead of your own."

Virda clasped his hand. "Who will do his tasting now that I am kept away from him? It has been a burden on my mind since I fell ill."

"When did Malgrod's physicians begin to treat you?" Saaden asked.

"When my pains persisted, they came to me and diagnosed a demonic infection that would spread if I were not isolated. They told me I must be removed from my husband's tent lest he fall ill from the same malady. It has been three weeks since I was moved here. They give me remedies and potions instead of food and drink and they burn incense all the time to exorcize the demons of infection. Their remedies are useless. I grow weaker each day."

"I think you would do better if you received some healthy food and fresh air," Saaden said. He removed the water skin from his belt and offered it to her. She took a long drink, swallowing rapidly. When she tried to hand it back to him he waved it away. "Keep it here beneath your bed. I have a packet of field rations; journey bread and jerky, in my belt pouch. Try to eat some."

He tore the bread into pieces and cut the jerky into narrow strips to make it easier for her to eat. She was tentative at first, fearing more pain, but as she ate, her appetite returned. It seemed that Virda was suffering from hunger as much as anything. She finished the rations and took another long drink of water. "That was good," she said. "I am resolved that I will no longer swallow the potions and pills those quacks bring me. They seldom stay for longer than it takes to replenish the incense and give me a dose of their foul brews."

Saaden sat with his sister for a while to make certain that she would have no adverse reaction to the hearty food he gave her. Then he noticed that his own head was aching and decided that the incense was responsible for his malaise. He stood and searched out the small braziers that held the smoking cones. He dipped each of them in water to thoroughly extinguish the smoldering glow.

"Thank you Saaden," Virda sighed. "Could you air out my tent? I think I will feel better when I can breathe fresh air."

He tied back the curtains that closed the tent both fore and aft and felt the breeze carry away the last traces of the noxious smoke. Virda relaxed back onto her pallet. Color returned to her face and she breathed more evenly. "I think I can sleep now," she said. "Bless you brother. You have done more for me tonight than all of Malgrod's wizards."

Saaden let the curtains fall into place, restoring her privacy. He lingered for a while until her breathing was soft and even. He left her sleeping peacefully, but he was puzzled and perturbed by her situation. It seemed evident to him that she was not suffering from disease, rather she seemed to suffer from the ministrations of Malgrod's physicians.

When he left the tent, his quick eyes saw a movement in the shadows. He grasped his knife in one hand and moved forward stealthily. He reached out suddenly and found a thatch of hair. The cry of fear was stilled by his dagger at the lurker's throat.

"Who are you?" Saaden demanded with quiet threat.

"It is Tolat! I waited here for you, thinking you might need my services again."

"Won't the other servants miss your presence?" Saaden asked.

"There are so many new servants that those of us who served before are lost in the crowd," Tolat jeered. "We have not the skill the great Malgrod requires with his fancy tidbits and desserts. Soon another train of servants will arrive from Renon. They come roundabout, avoiding the encampment near the city by a secret way. I hear them bragging of how easily they fool our soldiers. Why does Algun tolerate them, sir?"

"I cannot speak for my brother-in-law. Perhaps he has a subtle plan that will be of benefit to all of us when he finally reveals the plot. But I am worried about Virda. She is not truly ill, but has been cruelly poisoned by her enemies."

"Lady Virda is a saint. I will do whatever I can to help her," the servant vowed.

"You are no longer a scullion," Saaden told Tolat. "From this moment forward, you are one of my soldiers. Do you swear your allegiance to me alone, even superseding your loyalty to Algun and his ministers?"

"I do so swear," Tolat assured him. His thin face solemn with the weight of his new position.

"Hide yourself nearby. Keep watch on Lady Virda. Bring her fresh water and good food when she wakes, and after the physicians have come and gone again, go into her tent and extinguish the incense cones. Take this token to assure her that I have sent you." Saaden removed a pendant from his neck where it had lain hidden under his tunic. It was old and worn, but he had valued it since the day his sister had given it to him years before.

He returned to the council tent and it was as if he had only stepped out for a moment. Algun was sunk a little lower in his elevated chair. Malgrod still lingered at the right side of Algun's throne. The astrologers prosed and postured over their charts. Saaden noted that Irilik had excused himself after delivering his charts to the astronomers and envied him the chance to rest.

Irilik had retired to his pallet but he did not sleep peacefully. For five years he had tried to avoid the implications of his last words to his friends in Vishang. The warnings he had given them, and Lamath's hope that many years would pass before he visited them again lingered on the edges of every waking thought. He fought to suppress the dreams that haunted him and left the Eye of Adaman untouched in its humble case, afraid of what it might show him.

He had devoted his days to making maps and filling in the charts provided by the Wizard astrologer who had been attached to Saaden's staff. At night he lost himself in the study of the stars. As he had assured Saaden, he believed them too remote to be concerned with the affairs of men, but his role of skeptic concealed his flight from what his soul knew to be true. The stars might not care what became of mankind, but the Maker of the stars did, and Irilik was the prophet chosen to reveal His will.

Lately he had avoided sleep and the ever more ominous dreams. The star-seeing device which had been his escape had given him a glimpse of a tiny point of light that was not visible to other men. In his dreams it swelled to a great ball of fire that filled the sky. Each night the dreams grew more realistic and detailed.

Irilik woke Tedak and asked him for a draft of sleeping potion but his servant shook his head. "This camp could become dangerous for us at any time. I saw dark auras of The Liar surrounding Algun and the men he has raised to be his closest advisors. They are tools of the Lost One. Soon they will recognize who you are. If your dreams trouble you, perhaps you should consult the Eye of Adanan. It is dusty with disuse."

Irilik turned away and sunk wordlessly to his own cot. Exhaustion finally brought sleep and he found himself for once in a pleasant dream. The faces of friends, Lamath and Saget, Thalonon and Kumnor were recalled as they would be now. He saw Kumnor dandling a child on his knee and Belnian teaching twin daughters to sing. The face of Belnian altered slightly and another woman appeared. It was Elianin. He recognized her even though his imagination had added years to the face he had seen five years before in the temple of vanished Oliafed.

Whenever she appeared in his dreams it brought feelings that he struggled to comprehend. The sorrow beneath the joy was constant. What could it mean, and why did the dreams always end with a futile hunt to find her?

This time the hunt brought him to a mountain pass and he recognized the plain of Renon lying below him. The figure of Elianin fled across the plain toward the city, her shadow stretched before her, black from the lurid glow that filled the sky behind Irilik. He turned and saw the fiery ball that had so often haunted his dreams. It swelled and broke, one great fragment burning the earth beneath it as it came.

He ran down the mountain track, his feet leaping over the seared ground, crying out a warning to Elianin. She stopped and turned toward him. He opened his arms wide to carry her beyond the danger and she vanished. Irilik lurched up from his pallet.

The words Kumnor had spoken at their last meeting on Flend returned to him. "When Kishdu is burned by the broken star." Doubtless the phrase had come from some folk tale that preserved the words of the prophets among the Valdasians in the form of stories and rhymes.

He promised himself that tomorrow evening he would consult the Eye of Adanan. The oracle device still lay concealed in a box that any would take for a humble loaf of hard bread. The vow seemed to relax him enough to fall asleep again.

Sleep came with evil visions to trouble his peace of mind. Before this, his dreams had been allegorical and obscure. Now he dreamed as if he were witness to events that soon would come to pass. He struggled to break free of the terror, but the visions were relentless.

Tedak was wakened by Irilik's muffled cries and protests. He stood and hovered over his master. Would it be wise to wake him? Was it better to let him sleep if sleep brought such discomfort. It could not be good for Irilik to undergo such torture whenever he closed his eyes. It reminded the servant of the days years before when Irilik had dreamed about the destruction of Oliafed, only to see it come to pass.

Tedak hesitated, then he prayed. "Maker, give me wisdom to know what must be done for Irilik. By Yasa Dom, the Holy Name, I ask this benefit."

For a moment Irilik quieted and it seemed a calm voice spoke. It came from all around and inside Tedak's own heart. "He is the One who must warn. What he will not seek, he must be shown."

"He has promised to consult the Oracle Device," he whispered, conscious that the Eye of Adanan had been neglected since they left Vishang five years before.

"It is too late to seek the future in the instrument of prophecy. Tonight he must give warning that others might be saved from destruction." the voice said. "You will be called upon. Be ready to protect his life."

Tedak could not sleep after the warning. There had been no echo, no grand shout, but the words remained indelible, resonating in his mind while he waited by Irilik's side. Near his feet lay the farseeing device that some of the Wizards believed to be the Eye of Adanan. He wondered again if it had been wise to so mislead them. The device was a clever aid to observation, nothing more. The future they pretended to pronounce with its aid had earned the ire of heaven.

Was this why Irilik was forced to suffer. His dreams in Oliafed years before had come when others refused to honor his ability to wake the Eye of Adaman and listen to his warnings. Now the position was reversed, he himself had avoided learning more, thinking to keep the future at bay by refusing to seek a reading.

Tedak tidied up the tent and packed. He could not ignore the warning. Only flight from Algun's camp would protect his master. They had little in the way of possessions. Almost everything would fit easily into two packs. The charts that Irilik had been given by the astrologers were too bulky to fit neatly in the packs, but perhaps it was just as well they must be left behind. He took one of the charts, choosing at random since he had no way of reading them. The page might be useful for making fires where fuel was scarce.









Chapter 2 Algunagada

Saaden reached for another morsel of spiced meat and wondered when the astrologers would finally end their charade. It was evident that they were up to something. He reached out to touch Algun's knee and suggest that all of them should reconvene tomorrow, but his gesture was interrupted as one of the astrologers stood and gave a keening shout. "It is the Flame of Nagada! The Day of the God-King is upon us!"

lgud and Malgrod straightened and summoned the chief astrologer to present his findings. The man stepped forward and raised his hands. "The Eye of Adanan has searched the night and found a wondrous thing. Beyond the sight of mortal men, the heavens are summoning their powers and soon the day of Nagada will begin. A new star will traverse the sky and under its sign, the God King will reign."

Algun straightened in his seat and scowled. "Speak plainly. What have you seen?"

Ilgud stepped forward and put his hand on Algun's shoulder with a reassuring pressure. "These are mystics and speak of mysteries, but I have knowledge of the things of which they speak. The Flame of Nagada is a great tailed star that the heavens send to announce and confirm the reign of a new God-King. It appeared in the beginning of the reign of Valran, founder of Renon. He took the name of Valranagada and was more than a mortal man. All the shrines and temples of other gods were destroyed. Their stones were used to make the foundation of his worship places."

"Why have I never heard of this wonder?" Algun asked. "As far as I know, Algoth of Renon is a normal man."

"Those who followed him were not as blessed by the stars as Valranagada, and in time they lost the right to use the title the star had bestowed. Now you stand on the brink of your fullness, and once again the heavens have spoken. You are Algunagada, the God-King of Kishdu."

Saaden was astonished. He looked to Algun and expected a gust of laughter to erupt, but the cunning look in his old friend's face told him that this announcement was not entirely unexpected. Malgrod wore an exalted look that told all too well that he had been behind the plotting that had led to the extraordinary declaration of the astrologers.

Saaden wondered what opinion Irilik would have of this rendering of the information he provided. Irilik had always disputed the ability of men to find their destiny in the stars, but the young astronomer had sought his bed not long after delivering his observations to the astrologers and was not present to share Saaden's skepticism.

Could he be the only one in the large council room who had any reservations at naming Algun a god? He was certain that none of those who had lived the long years of the rebellion at the side of the new deity would have believed it could be true. Saaden looked toward the dais where Malgrod and Ilgud hovered at the side of their new God-King. They were looking back at him with looks of anticipation. A company of guards had entered the room. They were men who had accompanied Malgrod's palanquin out of Renon, otherwise they were strangers to the general. They would take their orders from Malgrod.

Saaden reached for a goblet on the table before him and stood. "I drink a toast: to Algunagada."

There was a twist of disappointment on Malgrod's lips. Saaden knew the man for his enemy. Of course, it must be so. The ambassador from Renon stood to gain much if he could alienate Algun's friends from him, making him ever more dependent on his own counsel. It confirmed Sadden's suspicion that Malgrod's wizard physicians were deliberately poisoning Virda. The general had never counted himself a diplomat, but he knew better than to put his hand in an adder's mouth. He would give Malgrod no excuse to move against him yet.

The toast was joined by the astrologers. Algun raised his hands for quiet. "This is a time for celebration. All present should join the feast."

Flagons of wine and barrels of beer were carried into the silken sided chamber along with new courses of food in elaborate array. Careful planning had gone into the 'spontaneous' celebration of Algunagada's elevation. Malgrod and Ilgud relaxed and joined the others who were sitting on benches and cushions around the low table. Wine and ale poured freely. Algunagada, for now he must be called such, told the captain of the guards to invite his men to partake of the feast. All was harmony and celebration.

Saaden lifted a jeweled, golden wine cup to his lips frequently, but there was never a diminution in the level of the liquid. When he felt thirsty, he drank from the smaller cup of ordinary water on the other side of his plate. He watched Malgrod and Ilgud to see if they took similar precautions, but they were apparently assured that all was well for now. Their faces flushed and their words slurred as they imbibed without restraint. They believed that they had achieved their goal of elevating Algunagada without protest or criticism. It was a time for them to celebrate.

Algunagada's head was lolling and his mouth was fixed in a limp smile when a disturbance came from the outer room. The curtains that closed the entrance were wrenched aside and Irilik staggered into the council room, his eyes wide and staring. He moved unsteadily as if he were not yet quite awake. He gazed around him with unseeing eyes and braced his feet.

"Beware! Let all who value life flee from the plains of Renon. The new star will break and scatter. It is sent to destroy the proud who would challenge Heaven. The earth will run with fire until nothing lives in the valley of Renon. The mountain snow will melt and the seas will boil. Flee with your children and your flocks. When the moon has waxed and waned three times, the flame of judgement will burn."

The words came from his mouth with a sonorous shout. His eyes widened and he blinked, then looked around him with surprise, as if only now he was awake. "I have seen--" he began to say.

"Take him. He speaks blasphemy against Algunagada," Malgrod shouted. He lurched to his feet and waved a piece of fruit toward the intruder. There was a scramble as the guards tried to gain their feet and pick up their weapons. One of them, not as fuddled as his fellows, leaped over the low table and grabbed for Irilik's cloak. Saaden shot his foot out and tripped the guard. He landed face down in a towering construction of pastry filled with custard. The creamy confection collapsed and splattered out in a wave around him. Others who followed in his steps slid and fell in the slippery mess.

Irilik had fully gained his senses by now. He looked around wild-eyed for some way to escape. His deliverance appeared in the form of a great slit that suddenly ran up the side of the tent wall following the blade of a knife. Tedak appeared in the gap, his arm beckoning to his master. Irilik leaped over the table, scattering sweetmeats and gilt roasted pigeons in his wild flight.

The guards had clustered at the entrance of the council hall to prevent the blasphemer from leaving. His rapid departure through an entirely unexpected exit set them milling around. Some seemed to want to leave through the legitimate exit and hurry around the great tent to apprehend Irilik and his servant. Others thought it a better idea to follow him through the rip in the side of the tent. Their captains screamed contradictory orders.

Saaden pretended to be outraged. He roared orders that countermanded the few effective moves of the confused guardsmen. His brows were lowered, his voice full of fury, but in his heart he was laughing. He did not know the reason for Irilik's strange prophecy. The youth had seemed chary of superstition and priestly revelations of divine will, but he had made a far more dramatic impression than the astrologers or Ilgud with his pretentious words.

Several minutes passed in chaos and it appeared that the young astronomer had escaped with little chance of apprehension. Malgrod stood and made it plain he was in charge. He commanded the guard captain to stand before him and ordered him to have the company of guards punished.

"Your negligence is inexcusable. Hang those who blocked the door with their fumbling, and stake the fool who fell in the custard over a hill of ants. Find the heretic before morning, or you will join your man on the anthill."

Saaden kept his face from betraying his disgust with Malgrod's arbitrary demand. The captain had only been obeying Algunagada when he had let his men relax their guard and join the feast. The threat had the effect of sobering the guards. They took the three men who had tried to leave their post at the door to follow Irilik through the slit in the side wall and bound their arms. The unfortunate who had covered himself and most of the floor with custard was led away by the captain.

"We must not allow word of this blasphemy to spread!" Ilgud cried. "Summon all who witnessed the false prophecy and swear them to silence."

"It would be better to spread a counter rumor, Ilgud," Malgrod insisted. "You were the one responsible for summoning the young fool to give us his readings. You must find out all that is questionable in his background and blacken his character."

"Send forth heralds to proclaim my ascension and forget about the rambling of a sleep walker," Algun suggested at the top of his voice while waving his arms and trying to outshout the others.

Malgrod and Ilgud argued over what should be done to prevent word of Irilik's prophecy from sweeping through the camp. The astrologers had slunk away, their faces filled with fear. Saaden realized that they would be among the first to pack and leave the vicinity of the valley. Although they had posed and pretended ability to read the stars according to Malgrod's prescriptions, they still believed that there was truth to be found in the heavens, and Irilik, above all others, was in a position to find such truth.

Saaden had his doubts. It seemed to him that Irilik had been under a strain for several months. It would not be surprising if he had suffered a nightmare. The valley of Renon had looked as if a mist of fire had burned the air earlier in the evening when they viewed the walls.

The general had experienced his share of nightmares, especially on the eve of critical battles. Some were so vivid that they lingered in his mind like subtle poison, eating away at his courage when the battle joined. He handled such visions with dispatch. If anything, when he woke on the day of a battle with the sour memory of a bad dream still in his thoughts, he fought harder than ever because he was fighting his own fear as much as the foe.

Ignored by the others, Saaden left the council tent and made his way to the edge of the camp to look in on Virda. His sister would be astonished when he told her of her husband's new title, and amused by Irilik's counter prophecy. He did not disturb her when he found her sleeping peacefully. The tent was free of the insidious odor of the incense. Tolat crouched in the shadows beyond the tent. He had been resting, but he was alert as soon as Saaden appeared. The general nodded with satisfaction. The scullion was a worthy guard. He called him over to confer.

"Has anyone come to disturb my sister?" he asked.

"Some of Malgrod's men checked her tent a few minutes ago," Tolat said. "They seemed to be looking for someone, but they were quiet and did not disturb Lady Virda."

Saaden was relieved that Virda had been shown some respect. It meant that she still had some power among those who supported Algun's new pretensions. "Guard her well," he told Tolat.

As he left the tent he glanced at the eastern horizon where the mountains could be seen against a paling sky. Only a few hours remained to seek his rest. When he reached his tent he found that Irilik's bunk had been stripped. Nothing but the straw pallet lay on the ground. It lay askew as if one of the searchers had thought to find Irilik hiding under its paltry shelter.

Saaden had the habit of rising early, however late he had retired the night before. The sky was pale grey with only a faint pink tint in the east to hint that the sun would soon rise when he left his tent to find few others than the watch were stirring. Algunagada's camp did not keep the same hours as the army gathering in the valley of Renon. Saaden's orderly had been waiting for him to appear and soon handed him a steaming bowl of bread and sop. The rich broth had been simmering through the night.

"Have you heard of the excitement in the council hall?" he asked his servant. Gigny had been with him for three years and the man had a nose for gossip.

"It is a fine thing that our leader will be our god-king," the man replied.

"And what of the prophecy?" Saaden said, deliberately vague.

"The Flame of Nagada will be a welcome sight if it betokens such a reign. Some say Irilik, the young astronomer, made a counter prophecy, but I do not believe it. Everyone knows he is a skeptic."

Gigny's enthusiasm for Algunagada's new pretensions surprised Saaden. "I thought we had fought for the past twenty years to rid Kishdu of kings and emperors," he said.

"But Algun--Algunagada is one of us," Gigny protested. "He would never exact the punitive taxes and levies that other monarchs laid on us. Wherever he has brought the rebellion, the people are allowed to choose the men who rule them."

Saaden did not argue. It was generally believed that leaders in the conquered regions were elected by plebiscite, but he was privy to the method used where a council was not directly appointed as in Vishang. Algunagada believed in rewarding loyalty. He made certain that men who had served with him appeared on the ballots whenever new rulers were selected.

It was a simple matter to make certain the vote was counted in favor of Algun's chosen men. Saaden had objected to the subterfuge, but in many cases, it was the only way to be certain that they would not find themselves fighting battles on two fronts. Loyal subordinate rulers simplified the business of building hegemony. Vishang had provided its own able leaders, but it was one of the few cities that had true independence.

If Gigny felt this way, it seemed likely that the news of Algunagada's elevation to deity would find a welcome with most of the army. Saaden had deliberately avoided creating the impression that he was a rival to Algun in the years they had been together. It would be generally believed that he approved the new pretensions. He felt a sense of displacement. It was as if the goal of his life, his long dedication to freeing Kishdu from oppression, had been in vain.

He returned to the privacy of his tent and made his ablutions for the day. He wished for a moment that his wife, Enna, were at hand instead of visiting their daughter in Bagnin. He could confide his doubts to her and know that they would never spread any further. She seldom had anything to add to his musings, but when she did say something, he listened. He thought of Virda, isolated on the edge of the camp, subject to the dubious ministrations of Malgrod's physicians and he was glad his wife and family were not within reach of the Renonese ambassador.

His orderly entered and told him that one of Algunagada's messengers waited outside the tent. Saaden nodded. The new name of Algunagada rolled from Gigny's tongue as if he savored every syllable.

"Send him to me," Saaden said. He sat down on the edge of a chest, knowing that it would make a better impression on the messenger if he received him with the dignity due him.

He had anticipated that the messenger would be one of Malgrod's men but it was a man he knew, Arad, an old campaigner who had been injured in battle and joined to Algun's staff where his limp would not be a liability. Were the guardsmen brought by Malgrod still searching for Irilik? Saaden knew a moment of pity for the guard captain who must by now be spread-eagled on an ant nest by the side of the man he had tripped into the custard pastry tower.

"You are requested to report to the council tent by his divine holiness, Algun -Algunagada," Arad announced. He seemed to stumble over the phrases, his eyes going nervously to Gigny when he nearly forgot the honorific of the new title. So not everyone was happy with the new situation, Saaden mused silently.

"I will return with you," the general said. He stood and walked from the tent, keeping his pace slow to accommodate the halting progress of the messenger. "What became of the others who serve our leader?" he asked. "I am surprised they would send you to carry messages. You are a record keeper."

"My responsibilities within the leader's tent have been given to another. Most of the posts that were filled by others like me," Arad gestured to his crooked leg, "have been given to men from Renon. All answer to Malgrod."

"Then none are left around the leader who owe their loyalty to him alone?" Saaden asked.

"None," the old soldier said. His voice betrayed his desire to answer no more questions.

The caution of his reply betrayed the level of the split between those who accepted the situation and those who questioned the new pretensions of Algunagada. Saaden frowned and considered the situation. It would have been simple for the Renonese to give orders to his men to murder Algun. Perhaps Virda's illness had begun in such an attempt. As he considered the threat, Saaden realized that Malgrod had the best of reasons to protect the life of the new God-King once he had isolated him from his old friends.

Algunagada had become little more than a puppet, being led in whatever direction the sly diplomat desired. The thought chilled Saaden. Malgrod wanted sole control. After surrounding Algun with his own minions, Malgrod had used his physicians to prevent Virda from counseling her husband against the folly the ambassador encouraged. Saaden knew he stood on shaky ground.

Was he being summoned to his death? Saaden's hand reached for the hilt of his sword. If he were to die, he would take Malgrod with him. The thought no sooner took substance than he decided to kill the ambassador, even if his own life were not threatened. It was better that one man die, even though it be considered murder, than that the lands and cities of Kishdu be ruled by evil.

When he was led into Algunagada's presence he braced himself to launch an attack, but the men who stood on either side of the leader were underlings; the bald secretary and a servant holding a basin of steaming herbs. Algunagada slumped on his throne, his eyes bleary.

"Come closer Saaden, so that I may whisper. I must say something to you, but my head rings like a gong with every word," Algunagada moaned.

Saaden nodded and moved close enough that his nostrils twitched at the pungent smell of the steam. He recognized the remedy even though he had never had need of it himself. Wine berries steeped in a broth of singe leaves were a drastic means of clearing the head, but it seemed to work. Algunagada's eyes focused and he could speak, surprising given his condition when Irilik appeared with his startling prophecy.

"Did they find the astronomer?" Saaden asked.

"No, and Malgrod is furious with his men for the failure. His captain lies on an anthill outside the camp next to the man who knocked over the tower of custard pastry. I ordered them both gagged. It is bad enough to suffer a hangover without the screams of cowards adding to the noise."

Saaden felt his stomach lurch in reaction to Algunagada's casual cruelty. He kept his face still, but once again he had the sense that his world reeled. This attitude of casual cruelty from those in power had been the object of their rebellion. He had never known Algun to be so heedless of others. Was it the flattering of Malgrod that had wrought the change, or had he badly misjudged the man to whom he had given his allegiance for so long?

"Where is Malgrod this morning?" Saaden asked.

"He has returned to Renon to prepare the way for us," Algunagada said. "That is why I called you here. I have an important mission for you to perform. You must act as my right hand in negotiations with Algoth, the king of Renon."

"I am no smooth-tongued diplomat," Saaden objected.

"None of us are," Algunagada said. "That is where Malgrod has an advantage over us, but in every other way that counts, we are superior. Malgrod recognizes that I am the future and has joined our cause."

"Are you certain he is not a spy who will turn on you?" Saaden asked.

"Do you think I am a fool? I was surrounded by men loyal to him last night. It would have been a perfect opportunity to assassinate me, yet I never feared for my life. Malgrod had the idea to consult the astrologers, and see what has come about. The heavens have named me a god. I would never have presumed to take such titles for myself, but how can one doubt the stars?"

"Irilik had a different version," Saaden reminded him.

"He suffered from a nightmare. I could see it in your face when he burst in on us. He was still half asleep when he blurted out that wild tale of disaster."

"Then why is he hunted for his life?" Saaden asked.

"Malgrod insisted," Algunagada replied with a wave of his hand. "I would not have taken the incident seriously, but with Ilgud and Malgrod treating it as heresy and making the worst interpretation of events, what could I do? But I did not call you here to discuss the follies of youth. I want you to lead a troop of men into Renon. Determine how many you think will be necessary to hold the gate towers on each of the successive fortress rings of the city. There will be no siege of Renon, nor will there be a sack of the city. My house will be joined with the house of Renon. The marriages will make the alliance permanent. The king of Renon has two daughters, each as beautiful as a flower, but he has no sons to inherit his throne."

"Another could lead the men to invest the city," Saaden said.

"You are my right hand," Algunagada assured him. "You must be my representative to bring the royal brides back to this camp," Algunagada gestured toward the lavish tent. "This site was prepared to accommodate the weddings. My older sons are being summoned from their posts. By the time you return with the princesses, all will be in place for the joining of our houses. The armies will be disbanded and rewarded for their long and valiant service in our cause. Even though I will be taking a lofty title, I intend to keep the promise of the rebellion. There will be no oppressive landlords or kings, for I will be Lord of all the land."

Saaden was relieved to hear that there would be no siege, no sacking and pillage, but he had reservations he dared not voice until he was certain of his friend's intent. Could the installation of an omnipotent ruler be consistent with the ideals of freedom that the rebellion had espoused? "I will send word to my captains to prepare to stand down," he said.

"Do not be too hasty," Algunagada cautioned. "It is the threat of your army that will keep you safe within the walls of Renon. There will be time enough to send the word that peace is made when we are certain it is true."

"Is this your plan, or did Malgrod decide what should be done," Saaden asked.

"It has been in my mind since I heard that the king had no son, and I have many," Algunagada said. "I will make two alliances, one with each of the daughters. Two men of my family will have the opportunity to wed Renonese princesses. It will increase the odds that one of my descendants will hold the throne. Fortunately, when Malgrod came to meet me, he had come to the same conclusion. There are male heirs to the king, but they are cousins and uncles. It is they who must be kept in fear of our might. It is a plan that even heaven approves. Malgrod is carrying word of the prophecy of my ascension back to his king."

Saaden nodded. "I will go and muster the troops that will be needed to secure Renon. It will take at least a day, but doubtless Malgrod will need some time to make arrangements with the king. How are we to know that Algoth has accepted your offer and we will be allowed to enter the city?"

"This is my new crest," Alagunagada said. He picked up a parchment that had been painted with a flaming star. Under it were the symbols of his name with the new honorific. "It is the banner of the Flame of Algunagada. Malgrod will hire craftsmen to recreate its image on a banner to be hung over the main gate of the city when he is ready to welcome you."

The design did not look to be the work of the moment. It was another sign that all that had happened the night before, except for Irilik's prophecy and its uproarious result, had been part of a carefully executed plan.

"I have one other question for you," Saaden said. "Do you know what is happening to Virda?"

Algunagada lowered his eyes and covered them with his hand. His voice shook when he answered. "I am fearful of her life. She became ill not long after Malgrod arrived with his embassy from Renon. He immediately offered his aid and provided the best of care for her. His physicians say she might lose her life and I must not visit her lest I fall to the demons of infection that afflict her. I am a god, yet I cannot save the life of one I value."

Saaden was satisfied. Algunagada's grief seemed real, and with Tolat on watch and Malgrod returned to Renon, she should be safe. Saaden would tell Algun of his suspicions when he returned with the royal brides from Renon. It would be time enough to tell him that Virda had been a victim of a plot by Malgrod. It would divide the two men after the aims of peace had been served. "I will go now and gather a troop to invest Renon."

Before leaving Algunagada's camp Saaden paid another visit to Virda's secluded tent. At first he feared that Tolat had deserted, but the moment his hand touched the curtain that closed the tent, the boy stepped forward to give his report.

"The physicians came this morning," Tolat said. "Lady Virda pretended to be even weaker than before. When their backs were turned, she poured out their potions behind her pallet and as soon as they were gone, I doused the incense. She has eaten most of what you left for her and is already much improved."

Saaden was satisfied with the report. "Do you have a way to supply her with more food?" he asked.

Tolat grinned. "No one pays any attention to me when I visit the cook tent. They have so many flunkeys and all are so in terror of Malgrod's chef, that I can come and go without undue notice. While you are with Lady Virda, I will go and gather more supplies."

He was off as soon as Saaden lifted the flap of the tent. When he first saw his sister's face, Saaden feared that Tolat had told him what he wanted to hear rather than reporting the truth. She had a ghastly pallor, her eyes ringed with dark circles that made her appear worse than she had the previous night. He went to her and took her hand. She looked up at his anxious face and laughed.

"Your expression betrays the way I look," she said. "Tolat brought chalk and charcoal to help me maintain the illusion of illness. I have decided to stay here and maintain the pretense that I grow worse with every hour. I have heard that my older sons, Arnath and Tagnet, are being summoned. What is going forth?"

"The king of Renon has no sons, but he has two daughters," Saaden said. "We hope to buy the peace at the price of two marriages. I heartily hope it will succeed. I have grown weary of fighting."

"Arnath deserves a royal wife!" Virda approved. "I hope that Tagnet will be satisfied with a mere princess."

Saaden smiled at her ironic sally. "I think he will like it very well."

"What of the serpent, Malgrod?" Virda asked. "What part does he play in this plan?"

"He has gone to Renon to prepare the way for me. I am to act as ambassador to arrange the nuptials."

"I fear and distrust Malgrod. When he saw how my husband turned to me for counsel and advice, he made certain I was taken out of the way. I am surprised he has not conspired against you. What happened that he has tolerated you?" Virda asked her brother.

"He tried to set a trap for me, but I saw what he was about and removed the sting from his bite. Has anyone told you of the prophecies?" he asked.

"Tolat is the only one I could talk to, and he seems anxious to avoid disturbing me. What nonsense have the astrologers concocted now?"

"The titles of king and emperor seemed too grand to Algun when he was leading the rebellion, but now a new star has been predicted to appear. It is called the Flame of Nagada and it is alleged that it foretells the reign of a new king, but not just any king. Nagada means god-king. In times past a similar star supposedly affirmed the reign of the first Renonese king, Valranagada. Malgrod and the astrologers have convinced Algun that he is Algunagada. It is under that name that he will take the throne of Renon."

"Algunagada!" Virda chuckled. "And will I be called the Virdagadess? What fine plumage for such plain folks as the two of us. Go and perform the errands you have been set. I will practice acting the part of a goddess, when I am not pretending to be on the verge of departing life. How long do you think I will need to continue my charade?"

"I am sure that Algun-Algunagada as he chooses to be called, will summon you back into his presence once he has sent Malgrod on his way. Meanwhile, you can trust Tolat to watch over you. He even challenged me when I returned to check on you."

There was a whistled warning and Saaden slipped from the tent with a gesture of farewell. He met the trio of physicians and set his face in a suitably mournful expression. "Take care of her, she is not only the wife of the god-king, she is my sister," Saaden said. He saw their glances light on his burly arms and tokens of rank and was glad to see them flinch. When he returned from his errand, they would pay for their perfidy. For now, he was content that Virda would no longer suffer from their poisonous scheme.



Chapter 3 Awakening

Irilik lay on the pelt Tedak had spread for him and gazed at the rocky ceiling only an arm's span above his face. Tedak had found a hiding place for them, but it was hardly more than a cavity in the rocky face of a mountain. He could hear his servant rustling around deeper in the narrow confines of the cave. Doubtless he had found some way of making a tasty seasoning from the flinty stone.

Irilik caught the direction of his thoughts and felt shame for his sarcasm. He owed his life to Tedak. Unlike himself, his servant had seen the inevitability of the prophecy that Irilik had pronounced to his friends five years before in Vishang. By denying the signs and ignoring his responsibilities, Irilik had only intensified the problems he faced now that the prophecy was ripe for fulfillment. Because of his loitering, they were forced to run and hide. Those who deserved to receive warning and rescue, the people of Vishang, Thalonon's village, Kumnor and his tribe, depended on him to tell them that the time had come. And in his deliberate blindness he had made himself an enemy of the powerful.

"Feeling sorry for yourself?" Tedak asked.

"Feeling sorry for what I've done," Irilik answered. "I must warn the people of Vishang and the others who believed in me. How can I do that holed up like a cony with wolves on the prowl?"

"Pray and listen and learn," Tedak advised. "You could start by consulting the Eye of Adanan."

"I may not be able to activate it," Irilik confessed. "Omnikar warned that a gift of the Maker must be used or it will be taken away."

"You will not know if you do not try," Tedak replied. "Or would you rather endanger both of us with random acts like your performance before Malgrod. You must have known what would happen when you challenged him."

"That was not my choice," Irilik protested. "I woke from a nightmare and found myself confronting Algun and all his court."

"He is called Algunagada now, Algun, the God-King," Tedak ruefully revealed. "Your astronomical observations were used to evil effect by Ilgud. You were meant to warn him, or maybe General Saaden was meant to hear your words."

"How do you know these things?" Irilik asked.

"I am a servant. People treat me like a wooden post and confide in each other where I can hear. Last night before I rescued you I went to fetch supplies and I heard Malgrod's guards talking. They ignored me, as usual, and I heard that Algun had been elevated and now plans to marry Elianin, princess of Renon."

"Elianin!"

Irilik had believed that nothing could make him more miserable, but this revelation by Tedak sank his spirits even further. He had never had a hope of her. His youthful fantasies had been blighted from the beginning, first by Orelank who insisted he must marry the girl his family had contracted for, later by the distances of rank. How could she marry Algun? He spoke his thoughts aloud. "Algun is old and vulgar and he has a wife."

"Polygamy is a possibility you cannot rule out," Tedak said. "But I have heard that Algun's wife is ill. Gossip says the illness came on suddenly after Malgrod's visit began. I fear she will suffer a convenient death just in time for Algun to marry unencumbered."

"Do not mince words," Irilik said. "Say what you mean."

"Virda is being murdered, possibly with Algun's complicity," Tedak said. "Saaden may find some way to prevent the crime. She is Saaden's sister, after all, and it seems that blood is more potent than marriage to ensure loyalty."

"If only I could stand and pace," Irilik said as he twisted to find a more comfortable position. "I am sickened by what you've told me. Something must be done to prevent the wedding."

"You would challenge both Algunagada and Algoth?" Tedak wondered. "How do you plan to accomplish such a feat?"

"I will begin by consulting the Eye of Adanan," Irilik admitted.

"I chose this place with that in mind," Tedak said. "I noticed it when we made the trip from the valley of Renon. The opening of the cave faces west. In a few hours the time will be right to make a reading. Tell me what you want to know, and I'll help you make preparations."

"What could we use for a map?" Irilik muttered looking around. Then he remembered the book he wrote in every night. "We could use some pages from my journal to make a map and figures."

"Spare your journal. I took a great page from that pile of charts you were consulting and folded it small enough to fit in the pack," Tedak said. "We can use pieces from the edge of the chart to make any figures you care to use."

"I should have known you would provide," Irilik said. "Give me a hand so I can sit up without breaking something and we can set to work."

The narrow cavity in which they sheltered admitted little light. They edged closer to the opening in order to see what they were doing. Irilik examined the chart Tedak had taken and found that it showed the sky as it would appear in three moons at the first quartering of the year. He remembered his dream and the significance of his servant's random choice made him shiver with the sense of serendipity. It was no mere chance that had guided Tedak's hand.

"Did you recognize the significance of this particular chart when you took it?" Irilik asked.

"I chose at random. I thought we might use it as fuel," Tedak admitted.

Irilik had suspected as much. Tedak had many talents, but he had never displayed any interest in astronomy. Some other influence had determined they should have this chart, and knowing Tedak, Irilik knew it was for good. He peeled a few fragments of parchment from the edges of the chart to use in making figures, but he left the body of the chart intact. One of the precious pages of his journal would have to be sacrificed to make a small map of Kishdu.

"Make figures of the friends we met in Vishang," he directed Tedak. "Keep it simple, just write their names on these slips of parchment."

"What about Kumnor, Thalonon and Zedek?" Tedak asked.

"All of them," Irilik answered. He hesitated to ask that a figure of Elianin be made. His dreams of her had never promised a happy ending. Perhaps the Maker would preserve her life. Irilik would keep her in his prayers, but what did he really know about her after all? She might be a vain and silly woman, her beauty concealing an ugly soul. His experience with Belnian, Elianin's cousin, could have misled him.

"I thought you were planning to prepare a map," Tedak said.

Irilik realized that he had been lost in thoughts of Elianin while Tedak had already produced several tiny figures marked with the symbols of their names. He had disobeyed the adjuration to keep them simple. Each was recognizable even without the names. Irilik could not reprove Tedak for his craft when he had lost himself in futile musing.

He turned his thoughts to the task of making a map. At first he planned to include Vishang to the north and little more besides the valley of Renon, then he realized that such a limited map might leave out important options. He drew the coasts to the west and south and the mountains that formed a barrier to the north and east. The coastline was uneven with deep bays where the ports of Banrad and Avarnad were located and the jutting bulk of Renon between. When he finished the map, it included a considerable amount of empty sea.

"You didn't leave much room for the figures," Tedak said.

"This seemed like the best way to draw the map," Irilik said with a shrug. He was struck by the very wide margin he had left on the coastal edge. He had not intended to leave so much, but it felt right to do so.

He placed the map at the bottom of the chart and Tedak set the figures beside it. The case containing the Eye of Adanan had been left in the rear of the cave and while Tedak crawled back to retrieve it, Irilik gazed out of the opening. From here, high on the mountain, he could see the towering city of Renon. It had seemed that nothing could break the power of Algoth, but Saaden's armies had forced a compromise that doomed Elianin as surely as if Renon had fallen to the siege.

"It is nearly time to open the case of the Eye of Adanan," Tedak said. "You will have to move back now and let the sunlight in."

Irilik turned and crawled back to the ledge where Tedak had placed the Eye of Adanan. It had been five years since he had used the device. His friends in Vishang had wished him well, but at the same time, it had been evident that they did not welcome the thought of his return. All believed that when he came again it would mean the end of peace. But ignorance could not save them, and now it was up to him to find a way to give the warning he had promised.

In spite of his neglect, and Tedak's dire prediction, the case carved in the shape of a loaf had kept the Eye of Adanan from getting dusty. The crystal case sparkled from Tedak's care. The edge of sunlight touched the lower edge of the cover and Irilik lifted the side of the case to let the sun shine on the gems within.

His fear that the instrument would not respond after long neglect was confirmed as soon as he opened his eyes after a brief preparatory prayer. The line of sunlight had moved well up on the face of the Eye of Adanan, but only dull shadows fell on the map and chart that were placed behind. It was as if the jewel-like lenses and prisms that hung suspended within the case were absorbing the light instead of intensifying it to give guidance.

"I feared this would happen," Tedak whispered. "You have let it go too long. It no longer responds to your presence. We might as well be carrying a cask of trinkets."

"It is not the device that is at fault," Irilik reminded him. "I must become worthy of my task. Put it away, and save the other things we prepared. I feel that our preparations will bear fruit once I have become worthy. I am the reason for the failure. We must find our way to Vishang and I must restore what I have lost."

"We will leave for Vishang tonight," Tedak said. "If we linger in the region of Renon we risk our freedom."

Irilik nodded. They would have to travel as fugitives, traveling at night and relying on Tedak's skills as a forager to keep from starving. "Once again you have saved my life. I am sure this will not be the last time."

"It is the way I serve the Maker," Tedak said. "I have not the same gifts you have, but I am content with what I have been given."

Irilik smiled ruefully. "There is none who could claim better skill in rescuing me from folly."

They packed away the oracle device and the aids they had prepared as dusk swallowed the broad valley below. Tedak had somehow managed to prepare a tasty meal and provide sufficient water for several days. Irilik knew he wouldn't have survived without his servant.

Tedak led out when the dark was dense enough to suit him. Clouds covered the face of the sky, revealing only occasional gleams of the moon and dulling even the brightest stars. They both wore dark clothing. It was unlikely that those who hunted for them would detect them. The greater danger came from their own inability to see the way on the rocky slope.

Tedak seemed part goat as he found his way across the steep mountainside. He whispered warnings where the path narrowed or rocks obstructed the way. Irilik followed like a blind man, trusting himself utterly to Tedak's direction.

They paused when they finally reached the pass that would take them perilously close to the camp of Algunagada. It would take days longer to go north by any other route. "I think we will be safer than you might think," Tedak murmured as they approached the brightly lit camp. "They will not expect us here. It has been several days since we ran away."

Irilik nodded, but he prayed steadily that none of the sentries would notice them as they crept from rock to rock until they were almost clear of the camp. Suddenly Irilik stopped. A lone tent at the edge of the camp drew his notice. It was outside of the perimeter where the sentries made their rounds. Three men in dark robes were leaving the tent.

"Come," Tedak urged.

"Do you know who lives in that tent?" Irilik asked.

"It must be the quarantine tent where Malgrod's physicians are keeping Virda." Tedak murmured.

"We must rescue her," Irilik said.

Tedak shook his head but he understood his master's impulse. "Some other must save her. We have another path."

"What I feel is no mere whim born of compassion for her plight," Irilik explained. "This is part of our path."

Tedak nodded. He never questioned Irilik's decisions when he spoke in a certain tone. They waited until the robed men were well clear of the tent and the sentries were at their furthest remove, then they dashed across the open space that separated them from the tent and ducked into the dark, pungent interior.

Irilik coughed and Tedak sneezed. Suddenly they were shoved vigorously and sent stumbling to their knees.

"Who are you?" a low voice demanded. A lamp was lit and held up to shine on their faces as they stood and turned.

"It is the prophet and his servant," a woman's voice said.

"We have come to warn Virda that she is in danger," Irilik said.

"I am taking care of her until her husband can be alerted by General Saaden," the young man who attacked them said. He was standing behind them and could not see their faces. "General Saaden put her in my charge."

"It has been several days since Saaden visited me and promised to speak to Algun, but the physicians still come," Virda said uncertainly.

"Did you know that a marriage is planned between Algun and one of the princesses of Renon?" Tedak asked.

There was a gasp from the woman on the bed, followed by the sound of a smothered sob. Then came a quavering question. "Why didn't Saaden tell me?"

"I am certain he doesn't know the truth of the matter," Irilik assured her. "Your brother would never permit you to be set aside, let alone be killed by Malgrod's cronies. Are you well enough to walk?"

"You are hunted by the same enemies who have my death in mind," Virda said. "The burden of a sick woman would spell your doom as well as my own."

"Lady Virda," Tolat said. "I was born in these mountains. The war has ruined my parent's home, but I know of places we can hide until you are stronger. I couldn't manage it alone, but with the help of these two, we might succeed."

"Then we must go," Virda decided, strength returning to her voice. "I fear that Algun is no more. He has been swallowed up in the chimera of Algunagada and changed beyond caring for me by the cunning of Malgrod."

Virda had always been pragmatic. She would not afflict others with her heartbreak. She raised herself from her bed and stood. It was immediately apparent that she needed help, but the cot on which she had lain was narrow and lightly made. Tedak quickly assessed its usefulness. He stripped off the mounded bedding and knocked off the ornamental legs that held it off the ground. He tied the legs to the light, sturdy cot and created an efficient stretcher.

"I'll keep watch until the sentries pass again," Tolat offered. "There are stores of food and water at the side of the tent." He fetched the supplies then left the tent to stand watch while the others finished their preparations.

"I wish we could carry more of these supplies," Tedak said. "It could make the difference in our survival."

"I can carry supplies on top of me and hold them in place with my arms," Virda said. "I will share the benefit if we are not forced to forage while our enemies are abroad."

She was not a heavy burden after having been starved for nearly a month. She wrapped her arms around the mounds of stores to keep them from tipping off the platform of the stretcher and waited for Tolat to reappear. As soon as he stuck his head in the tent and gave the sign, Tedak covered the lamp and handed it to him. Then he lifted the head of the cot while Irilik lifted the foot.

In moments they were well beyond the camp. The escape had been almost eerily simple. They followed Tolat into the hills, slowed by the burden of the stretcher, but heartened to have solved the problem of eating for the next few days while they were still well within range of the searchers.

They kept up a steady pace until the first faint hints of dawn lit the edge of the eastern mountains. The forms of the hills became more distinct and Tedak began to worry that they would be seen. "Turn here," Tolat murmured.

He led them around a sharp turn that led between two tall pinnacles of rock. The narrow gap could only be seen from a certain angle. "Hang on," Tedak warned Virda who had slept through most of the night. Wide awake and eagerly looking from side to side, she grasped the supplies in a tighter grip with one arm and used the other to steady herself on the cot.

Irilik and Tedak tilted the cot to get through the gap and hurried along after Tolat who had moved well ahead of them. They followed a winding course with a small stream bubbling down its center. Finally the gap was so narrow that Virda had to get off the cot so they could carry it through in a vertical position. "I think I can walk now," she said. "This good fresh air is what I needed."

They slowed to accommodate her hesitant steps. Tedak slipped back along their path and scanned the countryside from the shelter of the gap. When he returned, he was smiling. "I think we will be safe for now. It would be impossible for more than one man at a time to follow behind us and it is unlikely we have been seen or there would be some sign of pursuit by now. I did my best to erase our tracks."

The channel leveled and widened ahead into a broad hollow that had once contained a small village. Most of the houses were reduced to piles of tumbled thatch. Tolat stood at the opening of a low hut that still remained almost intact. When they entered and put the cot down in a corner, Tedak noticed that the roof had fallen in places. He touched the thatch and found that it was dry and could be mended easily enough. The branches of willows that made a screen along the banks of the stream would provide material for the repair.

"We cannot remain here very long," Irilik warned Virda. "The land of Kishdu is doomed."

She nodded. "I heard of your prophecy. I will put my trust in your interpretation of the will of Heaven far sooner than I would accept the alternate explanation of Ilgud and the other wizards. How did you come to be among them when we took Balchad?"

"He is from Oliafed," Tolat said. "I realized it as soon as I first saw him years ago."

"How do you know such a thing?" Virda asked, seeing that neither Irilik nor Tedak contradicted the young man's claim.

"I have a carved relief of Aganon on a holy medal given me by my grandmother. He looked like Irilik."

"Could I see it?" Irilik asked. "I was not aware that any of the old medals remained. Valranagada made it a capitol crime to possess any such images when he banned all worship but his own."

Tolat pulled the gold medal from a small pocket he had sewn into his undergarments and displayed it to the others. Irilik was struck by the similarity to his own face. It was easy to see how Tolat had recognized him. Aganon had been a relatively young man when he had founded the citadel of Oliafed. "I am surprised that your family kept this near at hand. It could have meant death for your people a thousand years ago."

"Our family has always remained loyal to the Maker and the prophets," Tolat assured him. "If they had not been driven away by the war, they would have welcomed you with anything you asked."

"You have already done a great deal for us," Irilik assured him. "The prophecy I gave the other night is true. In three months this area will be destroyed by a great ball of fire from the heavens. I believe it is the same comet that Malgrod has hailed as a sign of the God-King."

Virda made a sniffing sound, "If I were the Maker, I could not choose a better way to punish them for their pride."

"But many innocents will die when the sky burns," Irilik protested. "I have friends who know of what will come to pass, but they do not know that it is imminent. I must warn them before it is too late to escape."

"Where are they?" Virda asked.

"Most of them are in Vishang," he said.

"It will take over a month to reach the city of Vishang overland," Virda said. "Perhaps we should head east to the port of Banrad and find a ship."

"Ships require a price for passage," Tedak said. "Unless you have a purse full of gold, we would do better to walk."

"I doubt she can," Irilik said. "I think her suggestion is worth considering. Saget and Zedek both have ships along the coast. I trust the Maker will let one of them know our need."

"It will leave us more time to let the Lady Virda recover her strength," Tolat added. "There are farms nearby that may have crops we can harvest even though a long time has passed with no one to care for them. There might be a horse or two run wild. I used to tame horses for my father when I was just a boy."

"I thought I would be the quartermaster for this trek," Tedak said, "But I bow to your greater knowledge. I must agree to your idea Virda. We will stay here for another week and make a dash for Banrad when you have recovered more of your strength, horses or no."

At midmorning Tedak and Tolat set out to scout the nearby farms and salvage what they could. Irilik stayed with Virda and told her some of the adventures he had experienced since the dreams that had warned him that Oliafed would be destroyed. She was a good listener, asking the right questions to prompt his memory.

"I am surprised that Saaden had no knowledge of the role you played in the liberation of the slave compound in Tashvad," she said.

"You know your brother. He has treated me almost as a son since I entered his service five years ago, but he is skeptical of the power the wizards claim. He found me among wizards, how could he think I was anything more?"

"I know Saaden better than you do," Virda said. "He is a man who honors truth. It was he who urged Algun to attack Balchad's city to punish the wizards for the destruction of Oliafed."

"I admire your brother as much or more than any other man I have ever known," Irilik said, "but even now I would hesitate to tell him that the counsel I gave him before we attacked Tashvad came from my reading of the Eye of Adanan."

"We have need of divine guidance now," she said. "What have you seen for us in the Eye of Adanan?"

Irilik shook his head. "I have tried to read the oracle device recently, but I left it too long. I no longer have the gift."

"Why could you do it as a boy and not now?" she asked.

"I betrayed my trust. The Eye of Adanan is not a manmade device. It requires more of the one who would use it than mere good intent. Until I am worthy, it will not respond."

"The answer is simple enough," she told him. "You must refine your spirit through fasting and prayer."

"At one time I was very good at fasting, but I have gotten out of practice during my years with the army."

"Begin now," she admonished him. "Leave without breakfast and go to the top of the mountain to pray for wisdom. I will tell the others where you are."

He gave her a rueful smile. "You make my grandfather's discipline seem soft."

"I raised four sons," she said. "I learned to my sorrow that softness sometimes spoils a child. My oldest son, Arnath, was born when we were fleeing as fugitives and had little to give but our love. Tagnet was born a few years later when our success had begun. It was easy to mistake the things we gave him for gestures of love. He had too much, too soon, and I fear for his character. I am sure he expects to marry one of the princesses. When he finds that his father has superseded his expectations, and Arnath will get his bride, it may go ill for all of them." She turned away but Irilik had seen the way her eyes glistened with tears.

Irilik left her to her grief and set out with nothing but his cloak as extra baggage. In some ways her loss was more than what he suffered when his family had died. He had the quiet assurance that when he died, he would meet them again in a blessed state. He could not assure her of a distant happy resolution when Algun had cast off the chimera of Algunagada.

The deep canyon they had followed rose at the far end of the dell to the first steep foothills of a great mountain. It would take him hours to climb to the snow-covered peak. His life had been relatively active since joining Saaden but he had slept very little for some time and he had spent the previous night stumbling through the dark carrying one end of Virda's cot.

Before he had climbed the first foothills, he began to feel light-headed. He paused to rest and looked around. In the east he could see the silver edge of the sea on the horizon. A smudge near the middle must be the port of Banrad, her wharves and warehouses reduced by the distance until they were hardly visible.

A sliver of gold betrayed the golden spire of a shrine. It reminded Irilik of the fate of such buildings when Valranagada ruled Kishdu. All worship places had been defiled or destroyed to make place for the halls dedicated to the worship of the God-King. Only Oliafed had survived because it was unassailable. Treachery from within had been the only key that could have destroyed the holy citadel.

He turned from the sight of the sea and continued his climb. The sun rose higher in the sky and the peak still towered far above him. He knew he could not make it back down the mountain before sunset and night on the mountain would be chill. Virda had admonished him to fast, but the thought of food was no more keen than the wish for warmth and rest. He moved on with trance-like concentration, his voice hoarse with the repetition of his prayers.

The sun had set and stars were beginning to light the sky when he finally reached his goal. The peak that had appeared so impossibly sharp from below was a blunt hill covered with grainy snow. A tall, narrow rock rose like a vast arrowhead near the center. Irilik's throat burned with thirst and he was tempted to kneel and scoop some of the graying crystals into his mouth, but it would make a mockery of the hardships he had already endured to reach the summit.

He saw the naked crest of a rounded rock a little down from the peak and headed toward it. Wrapping his cloak around him, he sat down, shivering with cold and gasping for breath. This is not the way, he thought. He stood and walked back to the summit. When he raised his hands in the posture of prayer, the cloak slipped from his back and pooled around his feet. He hardly noticed its loss.

With his hands upraised, he begged for light and knowledge. For a long time he stood pleading with no answer, then it seemed he floated above himself, leaving behind his body with its upraised hands, still crying out for guidance. He seemed to see the crust of fear and sloth that had obstructed him from activating the Eye of Adanan falling away from him like a dirty garment.

Timelessness engulfed him and visions of past and future melded. A great, calm lake, blue as a sapphire under a full moon invited him to plunge into its depths. He floated on the surface of illusion that was somehow more real than anything he had ever known and felt clean in every particle of his soul. He could have rested there forever, but the lake disappeared. He was reunited with his flesh as with a set of new clothing. There was no sense of hunger or cold. He felt suffused with some ineffable substance that warmed him and calmed his spirit.

He did not know how long he stood on the peak, or how he finally fell asleep, but when morning came he woke to find himself lying on the ground surrounded on all sides by dry ground. The grainy snow had melted in a rough circle as though there had been a fire where he lay. He stood and raised his hands again and sang a hymn of praise to Yasa Dom, uncaring whether he was heard by any but the Maker. He knew Tedak must be with him when he returned to the mountain, that Tolat and Virda would be safe while they waited.

The knowledge was given to him, but not in words or images. He knelt on the rough stone of the mountain and finished his vigil with one last humble appeal for the knowledge that would help those who had trusted him to warn them. He must return to the hut where he had left Virda, but after resting and eating, he would come back to the peak with Tedak and find the answer he sought.

His trip down the mountain did not strain him. His body felt new, as if in cleansing himself of fear and resolving to abjure sloth, he had been given a more efficient instrument to carry out his vows. He reached the valley at noon and found Tolat and Tedak there debating whether to go up the mountain after him.

Tedak began to scold him. "You shouldn't have gone without a companion to help you. You might have fallen or frozen in the cold."

Tolat had a different concern. "The minions of Malgrod are everywhere, announcing the new God-King and advertising a reward for your capture. Malgrod must have been planning this elevation of Algun for a long time. They could have seen you."

"We met refugees hiding in the hills," Tedak added. "The announcement of Algun's ascendancy has gone abroad and the nearer shrines and temples are already being pulled down to make way for his altars. Malgrod decreed that any who do not worship the God-king will die. We found blood stains in the plazas of four of the villages we visited yesterday."

Virda had listened from the doorway of the hut. Tears wet her cheeks when she considered how the man she had loved and protected for decades had given his name to such atrocities. "This evil must be scourged," she said. "What did you find on the mountaintop Irilik?"

"I found peace," he replied. "I must return."

"I think it better that we leave this place and make our way to Banrad as soon as possible," Tedak countered.

Irilik took him by the shoulders and looked straight into his eyes to emphasize the importance of his words. "I must return to the peak, and you must come with me. This is what I learned. Now we must rest."

Tedak nodded his compliance. The glow in Irilik's face would have convinced him even if the conviction in his voice had failed.

Tolat looked from one man to the other. He had only a passing acquaintance with Irilik and Tedak before they had come to Virda's tent, and in the few hours since he had met them, it was sometimes difficult to determine which was the master and which the servant. Now he began to understand the nature of their relationship. In most practical matters, Tedak ruled, but when Irilik spoke with authority, Tedak obeyed.

The arrangement, left the priest free to carry out his tasks without the need to concern himself with mundane concerns. "Should I stay here with Virda while you are on the mountain, or should I continue to scout the countryside?" he asked. "I had planned to guide the refugees we found back here to a place of relative safety."

"Virda will be safe here, and if you take reasonable precautions, you should be safe in this country that you seem to know so well," Irilik answered.

The assurance in Irilik's voice told Tolat that the information came from a source he need not question. Something in Tolat's chest seemed to relax and he realized that he had been waiting for the troops of Algunagada to sweep down on their hiding place, taking them unaware. He took a deep breath and smiled with relief. Where Irilik led, he would follow.

Virda had prepared a tempting breakfast for all of them and Irilik knew that his fasting had been sufficient. It was now important for him to nourish his body as he had nourished his soul throughout the night. He lifted his hands and performed the morning ritual of benediction before all of them began to eat.

As soon as they had eaten, Tolat set off to find the refugees and Irilik led Tedak toward the mountain. Virda, much improved by the clean, clear air and hearty food, busied herself around the humble house where they would live for now. Keeping her hands busy and her mind on mundane necessities dulled the edge of her awful loss.

Irilik climbed vigorously, leaving Tedak behind when they reached the steep upper slopes. A naked branch on a shrunken, struggling tree easily cracked off when Tedak twisted it and he used it as a staff to support himself on the steepening slope.

When Tedak caught up to Irilik, he found him facing a spear of rock on the summit. There was someone standing behind Irilik, a being so glorious with light that Tedak covered his eyes and fell on his knees in worship.

"I have kept you and preserved you Irilik, but you have stopped your ears and dulled your eyes," came a voice as soft as a sigh and as powerful as thunder. "I have waited long for you to seek me, but the day is far spent and soon destruction will fall on this land that has abandoned me. You will lead those whose hearts are pure away from Kishdu and I will give you a new land."

"What can I do with so little time before destruction comes?" Irilik pleaded.

"I will prepare the way for you and the honest in heart will recognize that you come from me. Take up the stone that lies beneath your foot. It will be a sign of my presence to those who seek the truth."

The light faded and Tedak dared to look up again. Irilik was staring entranced at the face of the rock that had shone with the reflected light of the presence that had spoken to him. When Tedak approached him he turned his head and revealed a face filled with wonder. "Did you see the Radiance shining on the rock?" he asked his servant.

Tedak began to speak of the being who had been the source of the light Irilik had seen, but his lips were closed by something that would not let him speak until he simply nodded. For some reason he had been allowed to see what Irilik had been denied.

Irilik turned and when he lifted his foot he gave an exclamation of surprise. Where he had been standing, a pebble glowed with a radiance that rivaled the sun. Tedak was drawn to it, knowing that it glowed with an uncommon fire that would not burn his fingers. He lifted the pebble, hardly larger than the end of his little finger, and cradled it in his hands. Somehow the brilliant light did not hurt his eyes.

He handed the stone to Irilik who bent his head and uttered a prayer of thanks. "You must fix the stone to the top of your staff and carry it back to the valley," Irilik said when he had finished praying.

There was a bit of sticky resin oozing from a knot near the tip of the branch Tedak carried. He found that once the little knot was removed it left a hole that exactly fit the glowing stone which was securely fastened by the resin. It seemed to be no accident that he had chosen that particular branch.

They descended swiftly, both filled with an exultant energy that manifested itself in broad smiles. Irilik felt tempted to sing, but the possibility that they might be heard limited the song to his heart. They were surprised to find the narrow vale filled with activity. Tolat had returned with a band of refugees and two horses. Tedak gave a low call and all eyes turned toward Irilik who stood on a low prominence above the valley with a staff in his hands.

Gasps of wonder and delight filled the valley. Not one of them failed to see the light.

Chapter 4 Bride of the God-King

Saaden rode through the serried ranks of his assembled army and heard no sound other than the plodding hoof beats of his horses and the creaking wheels of his chariot. Ahead of him, a great banner hung suspended before the gates of Renon. It bore the device Algunagada had shown him; the flaming star with the symbols of the god-king. It had taken merely days for the banner to appear. Malgrod must have been convincing when he presented his scheme to Algoth.

Behind Saaden his troop began to move. They were men who had been with him from the first campaigns. They were grizzled and growing old. Their breastplates were scarred and their knee-high buskins much mended, but they marched with pure precision and their eyes were alight with the honor that had been done them when he chose them to invest Renon.

The groaning of great timbers could be heard as the mechanisms that closed the gates were set in motion and barbed bronze grates withdrew from before the gates as they ponderously swung open. There were people standing in the opening. Even from a distance it could be seen that they were dressed in rich robes that glowed like jewels in the light that reached through the gates.

Malgrod stood in the center of the gathered courtiers between a pair of slender maidens. One was dressed in shimmering blue silk with lapis stars dancing on silver springs in her cloud of silvery hair. The other was dressed in cloth of gold. Yellow amber flowers nodded on delicate gold branches in her gold-red, braided hair. Her gaze was as golden as her amber jewelry.

Saaden gave an internal sigh of relief. This would not be an ambush, not with the royal princesses of Renon displayed so vulnerably in front of their courtiers. The general raised his hand to halt the progress of his men. He stopped his chariot and stepped down. After he handed the reins to his subaltern, he walked toward the gate.

Elianin watched the stern-faced soldier approach and struggled not to flinch. His face looked as if it had been cut from rock. Was this the man she was to marry? Confusion flickered across her features. She had been told almost nothing by her servants, and her mother was in a constant dither of preparation. When Elianin had asked for an explanation in the previous days, her mother had only made her more confused.

"You will be the bride of a God, and rule Kishdu by his side. Once all I thought to gain for you was the hand of a high priest. It is just as well your father acted without warning me when he heeded the Wizards. In those days I was a ninny. The priests of Oliafed are gone, the prophecies that said they would never be destroyed were proved false."

"I remember our trip to Oliafed. There was a youth there," Elianin said.

"He is dead. All of them are dead. Forget the tales I told you about being an heiress of Postemi. You are far more than that. You are the daughter of a king and the bride of the God-King."

Elianin learned nothing more from any of her many attendants. They bathed her in mares' milk and honey. Fortunately they had followed the sticky bath with a dunking in rose scented water. Her hair had been washed and brushed and piled in different constructions involving wires and false hair. Then it had been taken down and the whole process repeated until her scalp ached with all the manipulation. She felt like a doll, buffeted and buffed to a shine.

Her younger sister Calanin was no help. She enjoyed all the preparations, adding comments and suggestions that the servants often heeded. "I think I prefer my lot to yours," Calanin gibed. "You will marry the God-king, but I will marry his son. Who would want to marry a man old enough to be your father? He is probably too old to beget more sons. In the end, I will be the consort of a God-king."

Elianin knew Calanin spoke from spite, but she wished their positions could be reversed. Her mother's words had sparked painful memories. After their return from Oliafed, her childish dreams had centered on the young priest she had seen when he stepped from behind a screen for only a moment. The story of how the city had been destroyed by treachery had not been told her until years later. Everything she read and heard was carefully filtered and scrutinized, but when she began to suffer nightmares, her maid had mentioned the curious congruency of their visit to Oliafed with the attack mounted by her father's army.

A fantasy had been destroyed with the maid's careless revelations. During her temporary disenchantment with the Noncil wizards, Elianin's scatterbrained mother had provided her with a few books that held something more than the bland rehashing of history that inevitably pictured the royal line of Renon as paragons and heroes.

She hoarded the books her mother had given her and hid them from everyone else, especially her sister. Their authors wrote about the cruelties of Valranagada, the first king of Renon. He had ordered all his subjects to worship him and had destroyed the temples dedicated to other gods. As his rule extended, his cruelty increased. None of his descendants had fallen quite so low, nor had they dared to require worship of their images. The temple in the central plaza still held the image of the founder of Renon.

In her hidden books Elianin read about three priesthoods set apart by Aganon in the days of Valranagada. When she had given her the books, her mother had been proud to claim lineage from Postemi, the Teacher. Later, when Marlianin's loyalty switched again to the prating Noncil wizards, she blandly denied that she had ever claimed such things.

Calanin was much like their mother. She was not stupid, but she was very vain. Flatterers could convince her of nearly anything if they only paid enough compliments to her hair and eyes. King Algoth spent little time with either of his daughters, hoping always that he would finally gain a son, but Elianin knew him well enough to think that she must be a throwback to another generation. Algoth was as easily led by the wizards as his wife. The true ruler of Renon was her father's steward, Malgrod and it was he who manipulated the wizards.

It had taken less than a week for Malgrod to convince her parents that they should make an alliance with the rebel chief. The revelation that he had been named Algunagada by the wizards carried more weight than the threat of siege if they did not yield. Pride had militated against buying their lives at the expense of marrying their daughters to mere commoners. The exalted title that linked them to a god-king made all the difference.

Elianin watched the man who might be her husband as he walked toward them with faint, ironic smile on his weathered lips. At first his stern face had set her aback, but as she studied it she saw none of the weakness or signs of evil she was so accustomed to seeing on the faces of her family and their court. She felt she could trust this doughty soldier to be kind.

Saaden examined the two princesses. He could not decide which one was the older girl. The golden girl seemed to have a more mature figure and face, but the other wore a look of jaded experience that added years to her apparent age. Both had eyes of yellow hue, but the golden girl had eyes like liquid amber circled at the edges of the iris with a darker ring. The other girl had paler, opaque eyes, almost like small gold coins with the pupil a hole in the center. Which of the princesses was intended for which of his nephews? He liked his older nephew, Arnath, but his younger brother Tagnet, was a bully and a sneak. He hoped that the golden princess was meant for Arnath.

He was formally greeted by Malgrod who stepped from the shadows beyond the princesses and bowed. "Welcome to Renon, mighty Saaden, general of Algunagada who rules both Heaven and Earth."

Saaden felt like cringing at the phrase. His own religious feelings owed their origin to the training of his mother long ago, she had instilled a reverence for the Maker that would not fade in the face of this new cult. He saw the golden princess give a tiny flinch at the words and knew she shared his sentiments. It made him like her all the more. With Virda as a mother-in-law, she would make a fitting consort to help counsel any king.

Elianin saw the momentary distaste in the general's eyes when Malgrod spoke and felt sorry that he was not Algunagada. A keen sense of disappointment surprised her with the realization that age and appearance were not nearly as important in a mate as integrity. She examined the thought as the procession turned and made its way back toward the palace.

Malgrod somehow maneuvered the group so that he led Saaden into the city ahead of the princesses. He gave one disdainful look at the weathered soldiers who had accompanied the general, but none of them seemed to notice. They were busy scanning the nearby crowds for any sign of trouble.

"Sound the signal," Saaden told the herald who marched at his side.

At the sound of the horn, the troop of men following Saaden into the city peeled away on either side, trotting in neat array to their assigned posts. Saaden stopped and watched their progress. When he saw them standing at the points of every tower of the inner wall, he relaxed and followed Malgrod who had begun to grimace with impatience at the delay.

Flowers and banners with the device of the flaming star and the name of Algunagada bedecked the gilded palace. Every effort was made to demonstrate welcome to Saaden, but he was not impressed by anything so much as the look he had seen in the eyes of Elianin. It seemed she was the only honest person in all of Renon.

"After you have rested and eaten we will attend a great celebration at the central plaza," Malgrod told Saaden. "There is to be a sacrifice of three hundred obdurates."

"What is an obdurate?" Saaden asked.

"It is a fool who has not learned to bow at the altars of Algunagada," Calanin trilled ingenuously.

"I would prefer to avoid such sights," Saaden said with a stiff face that betrayed his opinion more surely than words. "I have seen enough of blood in battle. Did Algunagada order the sacrifices?"

"No, he leaves the conduct of his cult to the priests who know how such things should be conducted," Malgrod said. "We have begun a campaign of conversion in the countryside. All who deny the divinity of Algun will be slain. Rumors will spread and soon all those living in Kishdu will be eager to give their allegiance to the new God-King."

Malgrod halted in the grand concourse of the palace and looked up to where one of the ubiquitous banners hung. His face was filled with evil rapture.

Saaden was sickened but this was not the time to intervene. He muttered an excuse and asked a servant to guide him to his apartment. The thought of the massacre that would take place in the plaza of the city, and the younger princess's casual enthusiasm, both horrified and disgusted him. Surely he could appeal to his old friend to end the madness. He couldn't believe that Algun had lost all decency and good sense.

On their way to their own rooms Elianin asked Calanin how she had known about the sacrifice. "It is common gossip. If Saaden had not been such a prig, we could have accompanied him this afternoon," she complained. "Now we must stay here in the palace and prepare our dowries."

Elianin was grateful for the general's choice. It meant she would be spared the sight and sound of human slaughter. It was bad enough to know that her father's armies had destroyed Oliafed. She sometimes had nightmares of what must have happened. It was worse to know that her own sister was so callous that she looked upon the death of hundreds as fit entertainment for an afternoon. Tomorrow they would leave Renon. When she returned, she would be the consort of Algunagada. She would ask to him to end the sacrifices and declare an amnesty. Until then, she had little power.

That evening Saaden met Algoth and his Queen, Marlianin at a feast in a hall so immense that the far end of the table was lost in the mist of lamps set to illuminate the scene. Saaden viewed the gathering from the dais set for the royal family and their guest. Hundreds of men and women dressed in jewels and silks made a brilliant scene of motley color. They pressed close to meet the representative of Algunagada. It was a long and arduous duty to smile and exchange words with a horde of strangers. Saaden felt as weary as if he had survived a battle when the gong was rung that signaled the beginning of the meal.

Towers of meat and pastry, fruits sugared and gleaming with syrup, great basins of rich sauces and wine were carried into the central gap between the tables by lines of servants. A servant had been sent with dishes for Saaden alone. Malgrod had marked his preferences during the night they had waited for the augury of the god-king and he made sure that all were present on the platter set before the general.

He had asked that Saaden be chosen to act as Algunagada's representative at court. It would bring him to Renon where he was vulnerable to assassination. The first attempt was to have taken place during the sacrifice. Malgrod had visited the Obdurates the previous evening and selected a likely candidate, a youth whose eyes burned with fanatic fire. He had made arrangements for the youth to be brought to him and taunted him with the fact that Algunagada's general, his best friend and brother-in-law, would attend the event. As he turned to leave the room, he had let a dagger slip from his robes just before the door was closed behind him. The youth had pounced on the dagger and concealed it in his loincloth.

When Saaden had declined attending the affair, Malgrod had notified the guards set over the obdurate that his dagger was missing. The youth had died by his own hand rather than yield it up.

To Malgrod's chagrin, Algoth interfered with his plot to poison Saaden at dinner. The king was taken with the guest and hailed Saaden from his seat on the dais. "Come and sit by me," he commanded.

Malgrod signaled the servant who had been sent to serve Saaden and indicated that he should leave the dining hall. Algoth would all too likely want to sample some of the delicacies prepared for his guest. Algoth was not yet disposable until the wedding had taken place that would seal Algunagada's right to the throne of Renon

The attempt of another of Malgrod's minions was frustrated later in the evening after the feast when Saaden returned to his room. He found a lovely woman stretched on his bed wearing nothing more than pendant earrings and a seductive smile. Any man would have been tempted, but Saaden believed in loyalty, the only reason he still obeyed Algunagada's orders. He had more reason to honor his vows to Enna, his wife.

He approached the bed and grasped the coverlet. Before the courtesan could utter more than a yelp of surprise, he had bundled her up and carried her out of the room. He deposited her gently on the mosaic tiles of the hallway before shutting and locking the door against her. She untangled herself from the coverlet, wound it around her as a covering, and fled, knowing that Malgrod would not forgive her failure to seduce and kill the general. By the time Malgrod discovered that Saaden was still quite healthy, the assassin hoped to be well beyond the walls of Renon.

Malgrod had promised Algoth that he would stay by his side while they waited for Algunagada to come to Renon. He had already asked his first assistant to stand ready to replace Saaden on the bridal journey. When Saaden greeted him gravely over the breakfast table, he excused himself abruptly and went scurrying to the royal apartments. "I believe I should accompany your daughters. The journey to Algunagada's camp is fraught with the risk of attack or kidnaping," he argued.

Algoth frowned. "You assured me that Saaden would guard their virtue. What has changed?"

"Saaden spent the night with a courtesan," Malgrod lied.

"Then all the more reason to trust him with those two frozen lilies my wife has made of my daughters," Algoth countered. "I am happy to learn that the general is not as prim as he seemed. Come now, they will be safe enough in his hands. I know of the reputation the general has with his men. None of them will lift a hand against him, or those he guards."

Malgrod had not planned for this contingency, secure in the belief that one of his three attempts on Saaden's life would succeed. He wandered into the palace garden to be alone and think. He did not realize at first that Calanin was there ahead of him.

She had begged the servants to free her from the final tasks before the dowry caravan made its way from the city with the excuse that she would miss the lovely flowers. In truth, she was simply too lazy to bother with the count of gowns and shoes.

Malgrod found her mangling a perfect rose and realized she could be used for his purposes. "I want you to give General Saaden a gift from me. It is a rare spice, seldom available in the markets of Renon. When you camp tonight, surprise him by seasoning his food." He took a small packet of brocade from the velvet pouch of poisons that dangled from the sash under his robes and placed it in her hand.

"How old is Algunagada?" she demanded. "Is there any chance he will get Elianin with child?"

Malgrod remembered that Algunagada was several years younger than himself. "He is not an old man," he protested.

Calanin let out an ugly curse that shocked Malgrod. He had not had a true measure of her temperament before this interview. Then he smiled. Such energetic spite could work to his purposes, perhaps she would be the most fitting bride for Algunagada. "Elianin might enjoy a taste of the spice," he said. "Make sure that both she and the general have a chance to savor it." Satisfied that Calanin understood his meaning, Malgrod left the garden.

Calanin was devious, but not as bright as Malgrod assumed. She brooded, angry that Elianin and the plain-faced soldier should enjoy Malgrod's favor. Finally she heeded the timid summons of her maid and returned to her room to be dressed and primped for her journey.

It had taken Saaden only a few hours to cross from the valley of Renon to Algunagada's encampment earlier in the week, but the cumbersome bridal caravan made up of lumbering wagons filled with the dowries of the brides took much longer. Chests of gold and jewels, precious antique furnishings and brilliant lengths of silk weighed down three of the wagons. Others were laden with food and wine to provide for the nuptial feast.

By nightfall they were still short of the pass. The delay had been anticipated and a campground provided with silken tents for the princesses and their attendants. Saaden made simpler provisions for himself. He planned to sleep in a plain hide tent with five of his men to stand a rotating watch. He distrusted the troop of Renon's soldiers Malgrod had sent to guard the train.

The meal prepared by the servants was lavish for a camp, but far simpler than the feast of the night before. It was a relatively informal meal and Saaden found Elianin a kindred spirit.

Calanin, while having no desire for Saaden's company herself, sulked at the favor he showed her sister. She made no move to use the pouch Malgrod had given her. Instead of guessing the true nature of the spice, she decided to keep it for herself and use it when she felt the need.

When the night was fully dark, Elianin stood and strolled to the edge of the camp, beyond the bright flares of the torches and lamps. She stared upward at the stars. Saaden had followed her. "They are lovelier than any jewel," she murmured. "They seem so distant."

"A young man I knew said they were each a sun, most greater than our own sun. He said they are far away to seem so small."

"I believe he spoke the truth," Elianin said. She pointed to one bright star that seemed much lower and more steady than the others. "That light is the most beautiful of all. It seems to pull at my heart. Do you know its name?"

Saaden squinted. He could see the light but it puzzled him. It gleamed on the side of the mountain rather than in the sky. "I think it must be a lamp rather than a star. See, the shadow of the mountain is behind it."

"A lamp?" Elianin asked, incredulous. "I know of no lamp that could shine so brightly, even if it is on the side of the mountain rather than in the sky. I must know what it is. It seems to call to me."

Saaden wanted to admonish her for her fantasy, but when he looked back toward the light, he felt the same pull in his own chest. Strange, confused emotions seemed to boil within his mind. Loyalty to his leader fought with something that touched his deepest yearnings. He resisted the pull and the light seemed to dim.

"It is too far from here to seek its meaning now," he told Elianin. "I'll send one of my men to investigate its source."

He summoned Gigny, his orderly and pointed to the mountain. "Go find the source of that light that glows on the mountain," Saaden ordered.

Gigny peered into the darkness. "I cannot see any light. There's just the mountain and the sky."

Saaden was puzzled. He called another of his men, a veteran of many campaigns. Fodor was a good soldier, but a bachelor by choice. Saaden tried not to notice his philandering. "Do you see that light?" he asked while pointing to the glow that he could easily detect against the darkness.

"It is a game of some kind," Gigny said. "If you say there is a light, the general will know you'd say anything just to please him."

"Well, I will not say I see a light, because I do not see a light," Fodor asserted.

Fora, Elianin's personal maid, came to seek her mistress. "It is time for you to sleep," she said.

"You see the light on the mountain, don't you? Elianin asked the woman.

Fora peered upward with squinting concentration. Finally she shook her head. "You must be so tired that you are seeing things if you think you see a light."

Calanin had been drawn by the group. "What are you looking at?" she asked.

"What do you see on the mountain side?" Elianin asked.

Calanin stared into the night, peering and squinting, then pouting. "What game is this? There is nothing on the mountain. It's a great blot of darkness."

Elianin looked at Saaden, then back toward the mountain. How could it be that she would see the beacon light, glowing ever brighter even as the others said they saw nothing? Had Saaden been teasing her when he said he had seen it as well?

"You may return to the tent," Saaden told Gigny and Fodor.

"I will be in soon," Elianin promised Fora.

Calanin wandered away after giving her sister a pinch for trying to make a fool of her.

"The light is there," Saaden assured Elianin. "I see it now, brighter than before. Tomorrow, after I have delivered you to Algunagada's camp, I will go and investigate what causes it."

He thought she would be satisfied by his assurances, but Elianin remained at the edge of the camp staring at the light. She could not deny its pull.

Finally she retired to her tent and accepted her nightly sleeping potion from Fora. For years Fora had given her the potion, an aid against the nightmares that had troubled her after she found out about the treacherous destruction of Oliafed. Tonight she dismissed her servant and poured the potion into a ewer of wine that Fora kept in the room for her own use. She crawled into the silken sheeted bed and closed her eyes. In a few minutes she heard the soft steps of Fora as she checked to make sure her mistress slept.

Content that her duty to Elianin was done, Fora poured herself a cup of wine and thought of her latest lover. Her husband was a fool, but he was content to care for whatever children she presented him. It was her task to sit by the princess through the night, but she had always been able to leave Elianin after a few minutes and seek her own pleasures. Now her lids drooped and she fought the pull of sleep. Finally she slumped aside and began to snore.

Elianin had been waiting for the sound of snoring from the outer chamber and knew that she was effectively alone. She rose from her bed and made quick preparations. Fora's chest of clothing was just outside the tent. Elianin dragged it in and selected a gown of dull white and a cowled robe of deep grey. Fora's sturdy shoes were too large, but several pairs of stockings made up for the difference in size. She didn't have any coins, but she reached into her jewel case and took several handfuls of her jewelry, stuffing them almost casually into the pockets of the cloak. The books she had treasured from her childhood went into another pocket.

"I wonder why you could not see the light," Elianin mused when she passed her sleeping maid. She dropped a gold ring into the woman's apron pocket to make up for the borrowed clothes and slipped out of the tent.

The sentries, thinking her Fora in the cowled robe, smirked at each other. They had reason to know of Fora's nature. She was generous to any man who caught her temporary notice. Doubtless she had an assignation with someone beyond the camp.

Elianin stumbled and fell often as she hurried across the barren, briar strewn fields that war had left in its wake. At last she reached the foothills and found the going more arduous. Still she persisted. Finally she realized that dawn was coming and with the coming of the sun, the light was not so clear. She would have to wait for nightfall and hope that she would see it again. She curled up in the cloak and fell asleep.

Fora's cup of wine had not been sufficient to make her sleep the night through. She woke several hours before dawn and saw that Elianin was gone. At first she had a smirking sense of vindication, assuming the princess had decided to follow the same track she had chosen and had spent the night with a willing sentry.

She went to the entrance of the tent to see where Elianin had gone and tripped over her chest. While in service, she wore the elaborate livery provided by the steward's office, but her personal clothing was precious to her, though far more humble. The discovery that her best dress and cloak were gone turned her against the idea of protecting Elianin's secrecy and she hurried to Saaden's tent to report her mistress's absence.

"She drugged my wine and stole my clothing," Fora whined when Saaden asked her to explain her failure to tell him earlier. "Her jewel case is almost empty,"

"Perhaps her sister knows what happened," Saaden said.

Calanin snarled her anger at being waked so early. "No doubt she is trying to escape her marriage night," she sneered. "I might be tempted to run away if I were in her place."

"But Arnath is a fine young man," Saaden protested. "Surely she would not flee if Malgrod gave her an accurate report."

"Arnath is meant for me!" Calanin insisted. "Algunagada is Elianin's intended mate."

"He has a wife," Saaden countered.

"You did not know the truth?" Calanin jeered. "His wife is nearly dead. Malgrod assured our father that by the time we arrived in his camp, Algunagada will be free of her."

The princess's rude taunt snapped Saaden's last loyalty to Algunagada. He cursed his blindness. In the face of all the evidence, he had believed that there was something of good left in Algun. His first impulse was to race ahead to Algunagada's camp and take his sister to safety. Fora's next words stopped him.

"My lov-, my friend is one of Malgrod's servants. Word has come that the wife of the God-king has eloped with a scullion she has taken as her lover. Algunagada has divorced her for desertion. There is no barrier to the marriage."

"I must go in search of Elianin," Saaden said. He glanced toward the mountain where the first pale light of dawn had dimmed the light that had drawn his notice in the night. "Proceed to Algunagada's camp without me."

"And what if you find her in another man's arms?" Fora asked.

"Then I will be the bride of the God-King," Calanin said. Somehow her aversion for an aged husband had disappeared with the chance that he might be hers.

"So be it," Saaden said. He strode to his tent and prepared to leave. He knew he might never return and he chose carefully among the sparse belongings he kept at hand. Gigny insisted in going with him but Saaden disabused him of the plan. "Algunagada will appreciate the loyalty you will offer him if I cannot return," he said. "Keep Calanin safe until she is delivered to him."

He knew that by now both Arnath and Tagnet would be waiting in their father's camp, each as ignorant as he had been of the truth. He suspected that Tagnet would be furious when he discovered that neither of the princesses was meant for him.

He turned his thoughts toward tracking Elianin. It was not a difficult task once the sun had risen, but he was surprised to find that she had made quick progress in spite of the dark and the rough ground. He grimaced when he found a thin smear of blood on the surface of a large boulder. She must have grazed her hand or worse as she fled the camp and sought the light. She had several hours lead on him, but he had the advantage of daylight as he followed the trail she had made.

He might have found her easily enough in time, but someone else discovered her. She lay curled up in the shelter of a roofless shed with her gray cloak wrapped around her. Tolat nearly tripped over her while looking for grain. He had remembered the clay-lined storage bins hidden beneath the floor of his grandfather's abandoned barn and stopped to discover if they still held enough to salvage.

At first he took the huddled figure in the corner for a heap of greying straw covered with a faded canvas, then, wary of snakes, he poked lightly at the bundle with a stick. When the action resulted in a whimper, he stepped nearer and recognized the shape of a girl wrapped in a cloak. "I will not hurt you," he assured her. "Are you one of those who flee Algunagada's rule?"

She nodded, wondering at his gentle sympathy. The jab of his stick had wakened her, but her fear that it might be one of the guards from the bridal caravan were eased as soon as she saw his honest young face.

"I saw a light on the mountain and felt that I must find it," she explained.

"Yes, those who flee the tyrant feel the pull," he acknowledged. "Come. I will take you to Irilik and he will explain." The sound of the almost forgotten name surprised her. Irilik had been the name of the young priest who had died long ago in the destruction of Oliafed. Could it be that the promises of the prophets were true and he had lived?

She kept the hood of the cloak up against the early morning chill as she followed her guide. The way was steep, but the anticipation for solving the mystery swallowed her weariness. Tolat did not lead her directly to the hollow at the head of the gorge where they made their camp. He was wary of others who might follow them and often fell behind to conceal their trail.

Tedak had returned to the camp a little earlier with twenty refugees from the purge decreed by Malgrod. They too had seen the light and tried to find its source. They found places among the others sheltered within the hollow. More than fifty men and women with their children crowded the narrow vale.

When Tolat appeared with Elianin, Irilik had begun to speak from the top of a rock that made a natural dais. His voice rang out, telling what had befallen him two days before when he returned to the mountain with Tedak.

"I retired to a mountain with my servant, Tedak, to find the will of heaven. While my cries ascended, a voice came to me. 'Lead those whose hearts are pure from Kishdu and I will give you a new land.'"

Elianin thrilled at the story he told as much as at the face she recognized from long before when they were both hardly more than children. She lowered the hood of her cloak and leaned forward to hear every word the young prophet spoke.

"I saw a shining on the face of the mountain, though clouds had covered the face of the sun. I hid my eyes and begged the presence to tell me how I could gain the trust of the people so they would follow me. Then I heard a voice of thunder saying:

"I will prepare the way for you and the honest in heart will recognize that you come from me. Take the stone that lies beneath your foot. It will be a sign of my presence to those who seek the truth."

"The light on the face of the mountain departed and it was as night to my eyes as I looked around. I moved, and light sprang up around me. Tedak picked up the stone that glowed with the light of holiness. He fixed the stone to my staff and we made our way down from the mountain. Each night until we leave this shelter, I will return to the mountain with the Stone of Truth and hope for others to see its light and come to join us. It was the Maker who gave me the stone. The Radiance of his light will save us."

There was a murmur of reverent voices when Irilik bowed his head and led the people in prayer and praised the Radiance. Elianin fell to her knees, her bright head bared and bowed in gratitude as she added her voice to the others.

This was how Saaden first saw her. He had recognized Irilik's voice when he first entered the hollow only moments after Irilik began to tell the story of receiving the stone. Nothing but the radiant face of the young prophet could hold his gaze until the story ended. Once Irilik had finished and the prayers began, Saaden had glanced around and seen Elianin.

He started toward her but a pair of arms clasped his neck and a glad cry spun him around to see his sister. Virda's face glowed with joy. "You came! You saw the light of the Stone of Truth!" she exclaimed.

"I followed the Princess Elianin," he said, gesturing toward the bright head of the girl. Virda's face began to dull and Saaden hastened to reassure her. "I saw the light. I learned the truth of what Algunagada planned. I will not return to him."

Irilik had noticed Saaden at the rear of the crowd and when he finished praying, he made his way through the eager hands of those who wanted only to touch him. He felt uncomfortable with their worshipful attention. Somehow he must turn their attention to the true object of their devotion.

"Saaden, have you come to arrest me?" he asked. "I will go, but no prison can hold me, nor can I die until my mission has been completed."

Saaden shook his head and chuckled wearily. "I have spent hours finding this place, but I wasn't looking for you. I followed a princess. Elianin has cast aside her betrothal with Algunagada by following the light we saw last night."

"Where is she?" Irilik asked. His heart seemed to lurch with the thought of her presence. He turned and Saaden's answer was lost to his ears as he saw the shining red-gold hair of the maiden kneeling nearby. She wore dull, common clothing, but she had fulfilled the promise of her childhood and had become a beautiful woman.

For years she had haunted his dreams, but always before he had lost her at the end of the dreams. Now she was only a few steps from him and he hesitated to move any nearer lest once again she disappeared.

"Irilik, the vale is full. We must move to a larger camp," Tedak said, breaking through Irilik's reverie. "You must try the Eye of Adanan again."

Irilik turned away from Elianin reluctantly. What could he say to her? He must think before he approached her.

"Yes, I am ready now to try the Eye of Adanan," he said. "Today we will leave the vale and cross the mountain to a village that Tolat told me about. It was scourged by order of Malgrod. His minions will not return where they have already harvested. This evening, if the weather is clear, I will seek an oracle."

Tedak acknowledged his decision with a nod of his head and moved away to spread the word. Saaden smiled ruefully at how the servant seemed to counsel and control his master. "How can I help?" he asked.

"You are a man accustomed to ordering other men. Tedak will be grateful for your assistance in organizing the move," the young prophet said.

Saaden nodded and followed the servant. He smiled with irony at the turn of events. Yesterday he had been general to the greatest leader in the history of Kishdu. Now he was assistant to a servant. Virda grasped his hand and came along. It was almost like the early days when they had first fled the angry landlord who had wanted to ravish her.

* * *

Algunagada waited for the appearance of his bride with all the nervous anticipation of a callow young groom. Ilgud had presented Virda's disappearance in the worst possible light. He claimed that she had pretended to be ill in order to avoid her husband and that her real aim was to prepare for flight with a younger man. Algunagada grasped the excuse and had willingly spoken the formal ritual of divorce with no delay for further investigation.

Virda had served him well enough when he was an ordinary man, but she was no fit consort for a god-king. It was easy to recall the things he hadn't liked about her, the nagging to watch his diet, the rough laughter that was as common as any harlot. He heaped up malice against her memory and felt vindicated.

When his older sons arrived and asked where their mother had gone, he had accused her of running off with Tolat, the scullion, and implied that it was an illicit association. Arnath could not believe it of his mother, but Tagnet seemed willing to accept his father's story.

The three of them waited for the first signs of the bridal caravan. They were puzzled when only one young woman could be seen riding on the platform of the bridal wagon as the long line of dowry wagons lumbered into the camp.

Calanin had been swift to take advantage of Saaden's parting words. At dawn she had ordered the caravan into motion, anxious to substitute herself for Elianin. Fora's suspicions that a tryst had drawn Elianin away from the camp suited her, though she knew they were utterly unbelievable. She would imply that a man had been involved in her sister's flight, but not make a direct accusation. Saaden might succeed in finding Elianin before she was ravished by some country ruffian.

Calanin's lip rose as she thought of a perfect turn. She would give the impression that Saaden himself had been infatuated with her sister and that a relationship had developed between the general and Elianin. Algunagada could not question it on the basis of the difference in their ages or it would draw attention to his own situation.

Tagnet was struck by the beauty of Calanin as soon as the wagon drew near enough to see her face. She had chosen a sky blue dress to enhance the silver-gilt of her hair and her pale yellow eyes. Arnath was the only one who noticed the coldness of her expression. His father and younger brother hurried forward to welcome her, but he stayed where he was, hoping she was not the princess he was destined to marry.

"Where is your sister?" Algunagada asked as he handed her down from the wagon.

Calanin wiped her eyes with a dainty wisp of silk and uttered a little hiccough of genteel unhappiness. Arnath could see no tears, but both of the other men seemed taken in by the show.

"My sister, I-I do not know where she is now," Calanin sniffed sorrowfully. "She went off last night. General Saaden was not in his tent this morning. I-I hope there was no connection. I came directly to you as soon as I realized I had been abandoned."

"I cannot believe Saaden would elope with your sister," Arnath said, giving words to the suspicion she had tried to implant.

"The rascal!" Algunagada raged. "I intended one of you for my son. Saaden is married. He can offer her nothing but a life of harlotry."

"One of them!" Tagnet exclaimed. "I take it you mean Arnath, And what did you intend for me?"

Calanin peeped from behind her hand and enjoyed the argument that followed. She noticed that the older son was not entering into the conflict and sidled toward him. "I might have been yours if my sister had not absconded," she murmured.

Arnath took her measure and uttered a silent prayer of thanks for being saved from such a marriage. He did not believe her implication of Saaden, whatever her sister might be. "Which of your two suitors do you prefer?" he asked ironically.

She turned and studied the warring father and son. There was little difference between the two of them that could not be accounted for by thirty pounds and twenty years or so. "I think I like your father best," she admitted. "But he would have made Elianin miserable. She is one of those romantic girls with fantasies of slender youths with soulful eyes."

"Then it is strange that she eloped with Saaden, as you allege," he answered.

"I said nothing about elopement. I only reported the facts," she returned. "You are the one who said the word."

She enjoyed sparring with Arnath, but she didn't like the keen way he examined her. Things had worked out very much to her liking. She would marry the older man, and keep his younger son at her beck and call. She knew well enough that not all marriages were exclusive and among royalty, the disposition to find amusement with more attractive lovers was quite common, the only danger being a lack of resemblance to the royal line. If Tagnet was her choice for diversion it would not present a problem. When she bore a child, it would look like her husband, and whether father or grandfather, what difference would it really make to him.

Algunagada ordered Ilgud to proceed with the marriage ceremony without further delay. Servants scurried to prepare the wedding feast. The grand tent prepared for the nuptials was not as full of admiring subjects as Calanin could have wished, but tomorrow she would return to Renon in triumph as the bride of the God-King.

From under her veil she watched Tagnet, delighting in the pain that filled his face when the vows were exchanged and she officially became his father's wife. Algunagada looked to be enough of a man to keep her satisfied for the immediate future, but it wouldn't hurt to have Tagnet to turn to when his father tired or grew boring. She would reserve the special spice that Malgrod had meant for Saaden and use it for her first tryst with Tagnet.

After the ceremony when his bride had been led away to be prepared for her initiation into marriage, Algunagada called his two sons to meet with him. He had seen the looks that Tagnet had exchanged with Calanin. It would be foolish to permit further association between them.

"I have a task for the two of you," he said when they were private. "I am shamed by your mother's behavior. She is no longer my wife, but she is the mother of my sons. Find her and the scullion who has stolen her affections. Do what you will with her, but bring him to me for justice."

Arnath nodded. He was curious to hear the truth from Virda herself. If the allegations of unfaithfulness were true, he would see that justice was done.

Tagnet protested. "Let them be. I would rather come with you to Renon. We are not common soldiers any longer, we are the sons of the God-king and should be served as princes."

"Do as I ask and you will receive your reward," Algunagada said. "Otherwise, I will make certain that my young bride's first son is named my only heir. Take these rings as signs of my authority." He held out signet rings with the symbol of the flaming star engraved in high relief.

Tagnet sullenly accepted the ring from his father's outstretched hand and gave his pledge with a half-hearted sign. "Falga and Ralk should come as well," he said sullenly, unwilling to have his younger brothers enjoy the luxuries of Renon in his absence. "They will be useful as messengers."

"Our younger brothers will be more hindrance than help," Arnath countered.

"Tagnet is right," Algunagada said. "They will only get underfoot when we go to Renon. The sooner you complete the errand, the sooner you can join me."

Chapter 5 Sons of the Tyrant

Light flashed from the suspended gemstone lenses and prisms within the crystal case of the Eye of Adanan and danced across the small map Irilik had prepared. The colors were deep purple and bright red, the colors of blood and death. They concentrated in the area marking the valley of Renon, but their evil tint spread outward in a dire stain that faded only at the edges.

Tedak and Irilik placed the figures they had prepared in the areas of Vishang and the plains where the people of Kumnor, the Valdasi, lived. There was no change.

"Move them," Irilik said. They moved the figures eastward toward the mountains and it made no difference in the evil aura. The wide margin beyond the coast drew his notice. "Put them near the left edge." He directed.

"In the sea?"

"Yes, in the sea. It may be our only escape," Irilik said.

They moved the figures and the beneficent colors of gold and violet, blue and green danced over them, leaving the rest of the map still marked with ominous murkiness. It was an unmistakable sign of what must be done.

"We have close to a hundred followers now, and more join us every day. How can we find a fleet large enough to carry all of them to sea until the threat is over?" Tedak asked.

"Not just until the threat is over," Irilik said. He lifted his scribing tool and made a ragged mark along the far edge of the margin. The colors of joy and hope brightened and intensified on the narrow edge of the map. "The Radiance from the Maker promised that we would be given a new land. We must cross the Western Sea to find it."

"There is nothing beyond the Western Sea but emptiness," Tedak protested. "No ship has ever returned from beyond the Islands of Anwat."

"Are you questioning the Oracle?" Irilik asked. "Or is it me you do not trust?"

Tedak shook his head. "I am a poor sailor. It was agony for me to stay on Lamath's ship, even though I never left the harbor. My fear was speaking, not my mind or heart. If we must cross the sea, then so be it. But where will we find sufficient ships?"

"We have already determined to go to Banrad and find ships for Vishang," Irilik said. "Elianin has given us her jewels to purchase passage."

"When will we go to Banrad?" Tedak asked. "The oracle indicates that when the heavens burn we should be well at sea. Three days have passed since you first set the light of truth on the mountain, but already the flow of people has thinned."

"Many of those who would have seen the light were killed by Malgrod's men," Irilik reminded him. "Those who waver in their perception of truth turn to the cult of Algunagada. Malgrod has wasted no time in enforcing the claim of supremacy. The sentiments of the people of Vishang are too well known to be ignored by Malgrod. I pray we can reach them before Malgrod's priests destroy the city."

They returned to the camp and Tedak called the people together. The village they had taken over was barely large enough to accommodate all of them.

The sun lay well below the horizon when the last of the stragglers made their way to the gathering. Irilik held up the staff with the stone of truth and the crowd was illuminated. "I have seen our fate in the Eye of Adanan."

Sadden was surprised to hear the claim. Some of the Noncil wizards called the device Irilik had used to see the stars the Eye of Adanan, but he had never heard Irilik himself use the name. His momentary skepticism wilted in the face of the evidence of the light on the top of the young prophet's staff. He had seen it by daylight, and it was little more than a bright pebble. If Irilik claimed he had guidance from the Eye of Adanan, Saaden must believe him.

"The land will be burned from the western coast to the mountains at the eastern edge of Kishdu. We must leave Kishdu before the end of the Quartering," Irilik said. There was an uproar at his words. It was one thing to follow a light when men hunted sacrifices for the plaza in Renon and old worship places were destroyed. It was more of a challenge to leave the land entirely.

"Pray to the Radiance to turn back his wrath," an old man cried.

"The Radiance will not interfere with the choices men make in their hearts and minds," Irilik declared. "The cult of Algunagada is like an evil infection. You know what happens to those who resist. If the hand of destruction is stayed, all are doomed to follow the Liar. Yasa Dom is the Radiance that leads us to safety. If you are too weak to follow the light he has given us, stay and seek the protection of Algunagada."

His challenge was followed by silence. For some, the light on the staff seemed to dim. They were those who began to doubt. For others the light grew brighter as they vowed to undertake any sacrifice and follow wherever Irilik led them.

"We will leave for Banrad tonight," Irilik said. "Gather your goods and your families. I will go before you. Be silent as you walk. Our enemies will not see us pass."

Only a few protested the plan, but they were hushed by their neighbors who had hurried to follow Irilik's instructions. The people had little to carry and within an hour they had gathered again. Irilik went before them with his staff held high. They made their way through the thinly settled countryside where war and the ruin wrought by Malgrod had left few to witness their passing. In humble homes along the route, some saw the light and were compelled by their hearts to follow it. Others, who had begun to doubt, wandered away, losing sight of the others as they lost the light.

The humble were not the only ones drawn to the light. Arnath saw it from the pass through the mountains when the first light of dawn paled the darkness of the night. He stared toward the coastal plain where it flickered and was captivated by the brightness before the morning rays of the sun flooded the land. He had ridden all night, urging his brothers on. Something in his heart told him he would find his mother north and east of Renon.

His brothers protested the pace he set, but Tagnet most of all. "We'll find her hiding in some low hut, playing the part of a country wife," he growled.

Falga and Ralk were torn with indecision. Both of them had loved their mother, but lately their minds had been polluted by foul gossip. When they had tried to visit her, they were warned of infection. At first, it had seemed to be Malgrod and Ilgud who had protested their desire to go to her. Now it was said that Virda herself had requested the isolation.

Arnath was the only one who was completely loyal to Virda, and even he experienced some reservations about her actions. What woman would not find a way to escape the follies of a husband like his father. Surely she must have known his plans concerning the Renonese princesses. If she had chosen a good man to help her, could he blame her?

"We'll stop here and rest for a few hours," he said, indicating the deserted village ahead of them. The street and houses were empty but there were many signs of recent habitation. Arnath selected one of the huts that seemed more intact than the others and tossed his pack down in the doorway. He might as well sleep under a roof. The weather had been uncertain lately and dark clouds were piling in the north with a look of coming rain.

Falga helped him cook a stew of dried meat and some vegetables culled from what remained in a garden. Ralk tethered the horses to a rare spot of grass and removed their saddles. Tagnet took his ease, then complained about the blandness of the food.

Arnath was still not inured to his brother's complaints after years of hearing them. He bit off a retort and headed for the hut where he planned to rest. Ralk and Falga followed him and spread their pallets in the opposite corner.

As he had predicted, rain fell shortly after they took shelter and they could hear Tagnet grumbling from the place he had chosen in the shade of a tree. He must have found shelter in one of the other huts because eventually he stopped complaining.

Rain hissed and spattered through the rest of the morning, a pleasant background to their sleep. Arnath woke when one of the horses whinnied. Sunlight shone through the holes in the thatch. He rose and looked out through the simple opening that served as a window for the hut. A man had moved among the horses and was trying to lead one of them away.

Arnath shouted and the man ran, dropping the lead he had attached to the horse. Arnath ran out of the hut and searched for him. His footprints were plain in the muddy ground, but the man had taken to the rocks of the hillside and soon Arnath lost the track.

He returned to the village to find Tagnet complaining again. "You could have tethered the horses in one of the huts," he told Ralk. "It wouldn't have hurt you to pull a few armfuls of grass to provide fodder for them."

"Leave him alone," Arnath said, the quietness of the statement a warning that his temper was heating. Tagnet knew the signs and turned away from Ralk.

"We might as well mount up and leave," he said. "I'll be warmer once the sun dries my clothing."

Arnath agreed and called Falga who was still in the hut. His brother appeared with something cradled in his hand. "Mother was here," he said. "I gave her this kerchief for her birthday last year."

"How do you know it is the same one?" Tagnet challenged.

"I put her name in the corner," Falga said. "I used my knife and pierced the design."

"You mean you cut it to shreds," Tagnet sneered as he examined the tattered piece of cloth. "No wonder she threw it away."

Arnath looked around. "I doubt she realized she had dropped it," he said. "The people who left this village were here as recently as yesterday. I've noticed several small items that would be overlooked if they left suddenly at night."

He didn't tell them that he had found a tiny amber rosebud in a broken filigree of gold. A piece broken from a jewel fit for a princess. There was also a small medal bearing the seal of Vishang. Saaden had shown him one like it when he was a youth and the general was his hero. The discovery of three such personal mementoes seemed curiously coincidental. He felt they had something to do with the light he had seen at the edge of dawn. "We'll ride toward the port of Banrad," he said.

They were underway within minutes. Even Tagnet helped by bringing his pack and securing it to the back of his horse, a task he usually left to Ralk.

They found signs that a large group of people had passed not long before. Their first confirmation that the evacuation of the village had taken place recently was a man who hailed them from a thicket near the road. "Have you seen the prophet?" he asked, his voice urgent with appeal. "Have you seen the light?"

"He is mad," Tagnet said, swerving his horse wide of the thicket.

Arnath rode toward the man and stopped near him. "Were you with them?" Arnath asked quietly to Tagnet from overhearing.

"I failed the test. I thought of losing my father and others who had turned to the worship of Algunagada. I know now that I was wrong to doubt. If you know where he is, please lead me."

"Follow the track we make. Come to the port of Banrad," Arnath said. It was all he could offer. The man must have lingered a long time with his doubts or by now he would be much further along the path.

"Tell Virda and Tolat that I am coming," the man pleaded. "Tell them that Garda has repented. They helped me see the light."

Falga and Ralk had followed Arnath when he rode over to interview the stranger and his words confused them. "Have you seen our mother?" Ralk asked.

But Garda hurried away from them, tracing the trail from the side, as if still not quite committed to the pursuit of his vision.

They rode on until nightfall when they came to a large village and Tagnet insisted on stopping at an inn. The inn was built tall with two stories above the street and Arnath, thinking he might see the light from the second floor window, agreed to stop. "We will ask for a meal, but then we must ride on."

"You are as mad as that fellow we saw in the thicket," Tagnet scoffed. "Why should we hurry our horses and lose sleep?"

"We are only a few hours from Banrad. There are fine inns at the port," Arnath temporized, knowing that comfort would appeal more surely to his brother than his hunches. The belief that he would find his mother when he located the light he had seen at dawn, had become a certainty with the evidence of her handkerchief and the words of Garda.

The landlord of the inn gave the seal of surety to his assumptions. "We haven't much to feed you. A crowd of people came through early this morning. They said they were on their way to Banrad. It must be a festival in honor of the new worship hall the God king is planning to build there."

"Was there a leader?" Arnath asked.

"It's hard to say who the leader was," the innkeeper admitted. "There were a couple of young fellows at the head of the mob, but they must have been assistants to the soldier who walked with them. There was a bossy wee woman who seemed to be in charge as well"

"What did she look like?"

"She was leather-skinned like a teamster and thin as a rail."

As long as Arnath could remember, his mother had always been stout, but her recent illness could have melted away her roundness, and now he had no doubt she had been ill. "Did they linger long?" he asked.

"No. Most of them set up their own fires and cooked their own food, but the lovely young woman with the golden hair paid me a golden ring for whatever food I could spare to give to the others. I confess I gave up more than if she had been a hag. The face on her could grace a coin, so like the queen she was."

"Perhaps it was a princess," Arnath said.

"Not her. There was nothing proud about her," the innkeeper assured him. "She smiled and talked to everyone. Haven't you heard? The princesses have married Algunagada and his son."

Arnath wondered how the rumor had spread so far when he had no hint of his father's plan until the day before. He had heard of Malgrod and the cruelties he had performed in the name of Algunagada. It seemed that his plots were well underway before the wizards had seen the sign of the God-king. It indicated that even before Malgrod had arranged for the wizards to reveal Algun's supposed divinity, he was sure of his pawn.

While his brothers ate, Arnath followed a steep stairwell to the attic. A grating let into the stone roof gave him a view of the coastal plain ahead. As he had hoped, a pure, clear light, brighter than any star, bobbed along the road toward Banrad. He would have to hasten. If Malgrod planned to build a worship hall in Banrad his minions would have been at work spreading the cult and subduing other worship.

He met no resistance when he suggested they should travel on to the city. Tagnet had seen for himself that there was little to eat that might tempt his appetite. The night was clear and the road well cared for. They made good progress, but by the time they entered Banrad, the band of people who traveled with Saaden and Virda were nowhere in sight. The disappearance mystified Arnath.

Knowing Tagnet would only whine and complain if he was denied a comfortable inn, Arnath headed for the upper part of the city where he knew of well-run hostelry. With his brothers settled, he set forth to explore the town.

* * *

Irilik entrusted Tolat with the staff bearing the Stone of Truth and took Tedak with him on two of the few horses kept by the company. He had been disturbed by reports that a new worship hall was being built in Banrad. From the reports of the refugees who gathered to them on the way, he knew that the minions of Malgrod could not be far away. If he led his followers into the city they might be trapped and imprisoned until they could be sacrificed to Algunagada.

When he saw a familiar figure striding toward him, he knew that chance had nothing to do with meeting Saget as he strode toward the city. He slowed his horse and hailed the old sailor whose scar-twisted face belied his sterling character.

"Irilik!" Saget shouted when he recognized the young man. "I almost took you for a stranger. You've grown inches and your beard is more than a shadow, but you still need to eat more meat. Look there at Tedak, a fine figure of a man."

"What brings you to Banrad?" Irilik asked.

"I live here," Saget laughed. "I am an important citizen, a magnate. I purchase hulks and refit them. You're lucky you caught me before I was well on my way to Renon. I've a fine line of reconditioned sailing galleys to sell to the king."

"You sell to Renon?" Tedak asked.

"Surely I do," Saget affirmed. "Since I learned that the rebels have joined their fortunes with Algoth, he is no longer my enemy."

"What do you think of this tale of the God-king, Algunagada?" Tedak asked.

"Why, I think nothing of it," Saget declared. "I know who I worship, and it is no old soldier with mud on his boots. This nonsense will die down and fade away soon enough once people have the measure of their new deity. Tell me, what brings you to Banrad."

"I have come to give warning," Irilik said.

Saget's smile faded and he glanced upward. He had not forgotten their leave taking. "What can I do to help?"

"How many ships do you have, and would you sell them to me?" Irilik asked.

"If the world is to burn, how can ships help?" Saget asked.

"I have seen the means of the Maker's vengeance," Irilik said. "I have also seen how those who follow me will escape the burning star. What do you know of lands beyond the sea?"

Saget shrugged. "There are tales aplenty, but no one really knows. We generally stay close to the coast. Why do you ask?"

"I have been promised a new land on the other side of the sea, but I fear there are not enough ships to take those who believe and will follow me. If they stay, they will be sacrificed on the altars of Algunagada, or be burned with the wicked."

"You may have my ships," Saget assured him. "Forget about paying me. I will count it payment enough to come safe to the other side, if there is another side."

"You doubt?" Tedak asked.

Saget laughed. "I joke. I would not risk everything I have if I had any doubts. There is a deep channel leading inland for a few miles north of here. I keep my ships anchored there. I will guide you. My chandlery is near the village of Teliafa,"

"Thalonon's home?" Irilik asked.

"The same," Saget nodded. "Thalonon will welcome you. He and his people are in jeopardy if the cult requires exclusive devotion. They have been true to the Maker since their village was founded."

Irilik and Tedak turned their horses and rode back with Saget to the throng they had left behind. Saget sketched a map showing the location of the inlet where Teliafa lay and Irilik showed it to Tolat, Tedak and Saaden. To continue in one large company, even if they turned aside, might alert their enemies. They separated into four smaller groups and took the bypaths, some here, some there, but all headed north to the estuary and Saget's ships. Saaden walked with Saget, telling him of the events that had led him to put aside the loyalty of more than half a lifetime.

"I have no family," Saget said, "but I have heard you speak of your wife and children. How will you warn them?"

"They are in Bagnin," Saaden replied. "My oldest daughter, Falin, decided to settle down and marry a merchant there. Recently she gave birth to a daughter and Enna took the other children to visit their new niece. We are going to Vishang now that we have ships. It will be swifter for me to go to Bagnin from there."

"And what of your fellow soldiers?" Saget asked.

Saaden shook his head. "Many are happy about the elevation of Algun to Algunagada. The others probably believe I am a deserter by now, and of course, they would have cause. In truth, after what I have witnessed, I no longer feel any loyalty to the man I have followed for more than twenty years."

"Life changes us," Saget said. "Look at me. I was a wharf rat from birth, seeking nothing more than food to dull the edge of hunger and willing to do almost anything for a crust of bread. Lamath's father saw something in me, and took me on his crew. He was called the 'gentleman pirate,' but Lamath took the idea to whole new heights when he inherited Flend."

"I'm surprised you are not still the captain of Flend," Saaden said.

"I turned her over to Sangin, the fisherman. I've always had a knack for fixing things and there were plenty of ships to be fixed after the battle for Vishang. I've done well for myself since then, but I knew the time would come when I would have to give it up. At least I've spent the past five years doing something that will prove useful to the prophet."

"You knew about Irilik's mission before today?" Saaden asked.

"What has he told you?" Saget inquired.

"We haven't had much opportunity to talk since I joined him," Sadden admitted. "For years I thought he was a skeptic. The wizards used his oracle device for nothing more than plotting the movements of the stars."

"I doubt he used the Eye of Adanan for such a purpose," Saget said. "He had another device, a set of lenses held apart by lengths of metal. He used it for looking at the stars. Both were inherited from his predecessors, the High Priests of Oliafed."

"You must be mistaken. None survived the massacre at Oliafed," Saaden assured him. "The Noncil wizards searched the ruins."

"Balchad, the grand wizard, had conspired with Gandifer, the Master of Chronicles, to preserve Irilik. He took him into his own service, knowing who he was, and concealing it from the others," Saget said. "Irilik could have been High Priest in Vishang, but when he was offered the position, he spoke prophetically and said he would not return to Vishang until he warned of the burning of the world."

Saaden walked in silence for a few minutes as he considered all the signs that should have told him that Irilik was more than he appeared. Finally he shook his head. "I am a beginner when it comes to such things as prophecies and oracles. All I trusted in has been turned on its head. I only hope my wife and family will believe me when I tell them what I've seen."

* * *

Arnath searched Banrad and found no sign of the band of people he had been following. When he neared the central plaza where a shrine of shipwood had soared into the sky for generations, tipped by a golden spire that drew the sailor's home, he saw flames rising into the night. He ran forward, expecting to be asked to help, but instead of finding a crowd of men and women desperate to save their lovely worship place, he found the dark-robed priests of the new cult of Algunagada, their robes marked with the device of the flaming star. He heard screaming from within the burning building and dashed forward.

"Someone is trapped in the fire!" he shouted, knocking one of the priests aside to gain access to the door. The door was piled high with fat-wood, burning faster than the rest of the building. He was driven back by the flames and looked around to seek help. The people nearby looked away from him or threw stones, cursing him for interrupting the sacrifice.

A big man in the robes of the cult trapped his hands and another rushed forward with bonds to tie him. "Put him in the fire with the other obdurates!" a man shouted from the watching crowd.

"I am the heir of Algunagada," Arnath shouted, tearing his hand free and showing the ring his father had given him.

The big priest recaptured his hand and examined the ring. "Why are you here?" he asked.

"I have come north at the request of my father," Arnath said. "Why are you burning the church and the people within it?"

"All who will not bow to the God-King must die," the priest intoned. It was a set phrase and the other priests repeated it.

"I will tell my father what is being done in his name!" Arnath threatened. The priests took his threat as praise for their zealousness.

"Tell him that when we have purified Banrad, we will take ship for Vishang," the big priest said. "All Hail, Heir of Algunagada!"

Arnath rushed away from the madness in the plaza but no one followed him. Those who feared the priests thought him in league with them. Those who had joined the cult were more interested in watching the steeple catch fire.

He was heartsick at what he had witnessed. He had heard rumors and had largely discounted them as exaggerations, but nothing could be worse than the truth. When he reached the inn, he found that his younger brothers had gone to sleep and Tagnet was deeply involved in a game of chance. Alone, he climbed to the room he had been given near the top of the inn. Loathing for his father's cult beat on his mind. He could not rest.

He went to the tiny window and gazed out through the disks of pot glass. The window looked northward, away from the smoldering ruins of the church. At first he thought the light he saw was a reflection of his own lamp in the window, but it shown too bright and small. He doused his lamp and still the light shown strong and bright. It pierced the darkness through the miles between and seemed to pierce his heart with longing.

The light bobbed, coming closer to the city. Arnath knew he must warn the light carriers to stay away. His mother and Saaden, at least, would not bow down to Algunagada. They had known Algun too long to worship him. He hurried down the steps and found his horse in the stable of the inn.

Banrad was built on a spiral and there was no straight way through the twisting streets of the port to the northern road. He slowed the horse when a shouted challenge came and he saw the peaked hat of one of the priests. The sign of his ring soon led the priest to stand aside and Arnath spurred his mount away from the city.

He reached the northern road at last and raced toward the light. When he drew near, he saw that it was carried on a staff, held by a tall, gangly man he identified as Irilik, Saaden's astronomer. There were two others walking with him. One was Saaden, the other, a small slender woman. He leaped from his horse and ran toward them.

"Stop! You must not go into Banrad. The priests of Algunagada will destroy you!" He warned them.

"Arnath!" the woman cried. At first he did not recognize the woman, then her face split in a smile he could never forget. He ran to his mother and hugged her, picking her up in his arms and turning until they were both dizzy.

"Arnath?" Saaden asked. "How are you here in Banrad?"

"I was looking for mother. I saw the light after we stopped in a deserted village and somehow knew that if I could find the light, I would find her," he said. "But you came with a great band of others. Where is Elianin, and--Tolat," the name reminded him of the original purpose of his mission. "I forgive you for what you have done mother."

"Forgive me! You forgive me for saving my life when your father's physicians were poisoning me?"

"For running away with Tolat, the scullion," he reminded her.

For a moment Virda failed to catch his meaning, then she began to laugh. "Oh Arnath, such a thought. Surely you cannot believe that a youth younger than you would elope with me. I nearly died at the hands of Malgrod's wizard quacks, but Saaden brought Tolat to guard me, then Irilik and Tedak carried me to safety."

They had stopped to talk, but now they began to go toward Banrad again. He tried to stop them. "I have seen dreadful things done in the name of my father today. They burned the church, and with it, those who would not recant. You cannot go into Banrad carrying that bright light. The priests will see you."

"They cannot see this light," Virda assured him. "We must go through the streets of Banrad before the night ends. We are gleaning whatever remains of the harvest in Banrad. The pure in heart will see the light and join us. Otherwise, they will also be burned. Tether your horse and leave him if you want to follow us."

He could not stop them, so he tethered his horse and followed behind, his hand on the hilt of his sword, ready to protect them. He knew it would be a futile gesture when they saw a mob of men ahead of them. They were shouting and pounding at the door of a home where obdurates were suspected of hiding.

The mob paid no attention to the light as it drew near. Several people darted from the shadows and took refuge with the little band. Virda took an infant from a mother who was quieting another child. The father carried a small bundle on his shoulders and yet another child in his arms. Somehow they knew they must be silent. The mob continued to shout and demand entrance as they passed by them.

Intrigued by the fulfilment of Virda's words, Arnath followed and helped while others joined the band. They moved silently, their lips moving in prayers of thanksgiving as they passed yet other mobs of cultists. A child whimpered and several of the cultists turned and peered squinting into the midst of them

"What's that?" one of them shouted.

"You're hearing things," another jibed. It was as if they were not only blind to the light, but anything that walked close within its radiance.

Those who had joined them led them to others. At some houses they met resistance. A woman led them to her sister's family. When the door was opened, the woman within peered out into the night, "What are you doing here Fathin?" she asked when her sister stepped into the light of her own small lamp that glowed far less brightly than the beacon on Irilik's staff.

"Come, follow the light and be saved from the burning," Fathin urged.

Her sister scowled and grabbed Fathin's hand. "You are mad. Come inside where I can see you better. The woman's children, waked by the noise, crowded round her legs. Only one of them, a little one, reached out its hands to the light. The others peered blindly, as had their mother.

"May I take Magin for a walk?" Fathin asked, picking up the child.

"Go, and be done with this foolishness. Keep Magin for as long as you like. She screeches when she sees the new priests."

It was sad to see a child parted so easily from the woman who had borne her. But the little girl was happy enough with her aunt. There were other children who joined them without parents, and Virda made them her special charge. Saaden took several up on his shoulders.

At last the harvest was over. There were not quite a hundred people out of the city of Banrad who had joined themselves to the band. Saaden was sorry to see such a meager number, but he knew that many had been killed in the burning of the church.

Arnath was carrying two children and leading one by the hand by the time they returned to the road northward. He found his horse and lifted several old women who were struggling to keep up with the others onto its back. Then he proceeded to the village of Teliafa with the rest. When the refugees had been taken to shelter, he sought out Irilik and found him talking to Saaden and Saget.

"The priests told me that they will take ship for Vishang when they have finished with the obdurates in Banrad," Arnath told them.

"They will find their task is finished when morning comes," Saaden said. "There are none left in Banrad who will not kneel to Algunagada."

Saget nodded and turned back toward the village, moving quickly to a group of men who had joined them near the harbor. They were acquainted with him and greeted him gladly. "Come, you are sailors, and honest men I am sure. Tomorrow there must not be one ship in Banrad fit to take to the sea. Come with me to Irilik, the leader."

The men followed him back to where Irilik was talking to Saaden and Arnath. "Tell them what you told us about the priests," Saget urged Arnath.

Arnath repeated his words while wondering how to convince these honest men to take the ships or hole them. Then he remembered the ring his father had given him, the ring that had protected him against the priests.

"I carry this ring as a sign of my authority to commission any act necessary to achieve my purposes. I order you to accompany Saget to the harbor of Banrad and do as he asks." Several of the men seemed convinced of his right to order their actions and nodded, but others looked to Irilik.

"I ask you by the authority of one who has been called by the Radiance to accompany Saget to the harbor and do as he asks," Irilik said.

All of the men were satisfied that what they did would be no crime in the light of this latest admonition. They turned to Saget who asked Arnath to come along. "We'll need someone to carry the staff so we can see what we are doing," he said.

"I am not worthy," Arnath protested.

"Your humility is welcome, but you have shown yourself worthy by your actions," Irilik said as he handed Arnath the staff. "The people here need to rest for the evacuation tomorrow. They will not need the light while we sleep."

"I'll come with you," Virda said. "There may be yet others who will see the light and join us. I can hardly believe that those who followed us from Banrad are all that would choose to be saved."

"My brothers are in Banrad," Arnath said. "Ralk and Falga were asleep early. We must wake them."

"And Tagnet?" Virda asked.

Arnath shrugged silently. He would not condemn his brother out of hand. Let his mother see for herself.

Their return to the city gained them several converts to their cause, and these were useful for the task at hand. The captain of a ship and several members of his crew had seen the light from their ship and rowed to shore too late to join the refugees. They were a welcome addition to the others.

Arnath and Virda stood on shore and watched the men led by Saget as they spread through the harbor. The docks were not crowded or their task would have been impossible to accomplish before dawn. When the first rosy rays of the sun began to light the sky, twelve ships had been foundered, the tops of their masts were all that was visible. Twenty more had been sailed out of the harbor by Saget and the men he led.

A tumult arose with the first discovery of what had taken place. Arnath and Virda left the area of the harbor where the priests were berating every passerby and hurried to the inn where her other sons had stayed the night.

They found them in the common room eating breakfast. Ralk and Falga fell into Virda's arms, recognizing her by her smile as soon as she entered the room with Arnath. Tagnet stood and looked at his mother with an expression of distaste. "Have you had your fill of your young lover?" he sneered.

Virda laughed. "You must think me a fool if you suspect me of eloping with Tolat. He saved my life from the physicians who were trying to kill me with their potions and fumes."

"If that is true, you can return to Renon and tell Father for yourself," Tagnet said. His eyes gleamed with malice when he thought of the confusion it would cause when Virda returned to her husband and Algunagada's marriage to Calanin was annulled. He would be sure to offer comfort and an alternative groom.

"Do you think Malgrod would let me within a mile of your father?" Virda asked. "Come. We must hurry to join the others. Today we will sail to Vishang."

"The priests of my father will soon leave Banrad and go on to Vishang," Tagnet said.

"I doubt that," Virda replied. "Did you not hear of the disaster in the harbor? The priests will be forced to travel overland."

The younger boys had not been listening to Virda's argument with Tagnet. They were staring at the top of the staff Arnath held. In the dim light of the dining room it glowed like a bright lamp.

"It is beautiful!" Ralk said. "May I hold it Arnath?"

Falga reached out for the light and seemed puzzled that there was no heat when he touched his finger to the glowing stone.

Virda turned and saw their wondering gazes fixed on the top of the staff. "Do you see the light?" she asked.

"Oh yes," Tagnet said. He meant that he understood why his mother did not want to return to Renon. He was astonished when his younger brother's echoed his words fervently.

"Only those who are worthy see the light," Virda said, thrilled that all her sons had passed the test.

Tagnet knew she could not be referring to his own wry comment and he wondered what had infected his brothers who stood gaping at the top of an ordinary staff as if ensorceled. He decided it would be best to follow along and pretend he understood their meaning. "We should follow the light," he ventured.

"Come with us," Virda said. "The ships are assembled and ready to take us to Vishang."

Ralk and Falga hurried to gather their equipment but Tagnet lingered to exchange words with the innkeeper. "Take this message to Renon and you will be well-rewarded," he murmured. "The enemies of Algunagada swarm to Vishang."

The innkeeper nodded absently. He had long since stopped listening to the muttered confidences of his customers. Only the loudest complaints or ample gold could work their way through his self-imposed filter. The coins Tagnet pressed into his hand when he had given his message earned his attention, but by then it was too late. He could hardly ask his distinguished young guest to repeat what he had just said so urgently.

Satisfied that his message would be delivered, Tagnet hurried to fetch his own gear and soon joined his brothers and their mother on the road to Teliafa. He was astonished when he found that more than three hundred people were preparing to board the ships that lay in the channel. It soon appeared that there were not enough skilled sailors to man every ship.

Even if the weather favored them, Tagnet knew it was folly to trust the lives of so many to the sea. He would have hung back and stayed on shore, but to do so would arouse suspicions. By mid-afternoon the ships had been loaded to capacity and the sailors were explaining simple rudiments of sailing and rowing to others. Tagnet hid behind a pile of cargo and planned how he would claim a reward for betraying his mother and the company of traitors to the priests. Out of sight of others, he avoided any hint of labor while his family kept busy helping where they could.

The company gathered to the rails of their ships when a signal sounded three times on a horn. Irilik stood on the shore before them with Tedak holding the staff by his side. He raised his hands above his head in prayer and asked the heavens for a safe passage and for peace among them. When the amen had been sounded, he lifted the staff. "Many of you have come because you were waiting for the truth and heard my words. Others saw the light. I will join you in Vishang, but I must give others the opportunity to see the light. I leave you in the hands of men and women I can trust to be your leaders until we meet again."

There were murmurs when the people heard of his decision, but no protests. Tagnet grasped the rail and studied the distance to shore. He had never learned to swim and the gap widened every second as the ship pulled into the channel. He turned with a silent curse and went to the prow of the ship. Across a brief span of water he could see the ship that Saget captained, the first in line. His mother and Tolat were aboard. At Virda's side stood a young woman, her dark hood thrown back to reveal her bright gold hair.

Tagnet had heard that Elianin was among the refugees, but this was his first sight of her. He had admired Calanin's cold beauty, but this woman was like a flame to the icy shadow of her sister. He would not be able to track and capture Irilik, but Elianin made a worthy substitute. Doubtless it would take many days for Irilik to complete his journey. In that time the princess could be his. He would take her captive somehow and claim her as his prize when Algunagada's armies took Vishang.

The ships cleared the opening of the estuary at sundown while there was still sufficient light to avoid the sandbars that made a hazard of night passage. Calm weather with just enough wind to fill the sails ensured a swift journey. The full moon gave ample light. Most of the refugees slept while the fleet of ships made good time along the coast. At daybreak a sail came in sight. It was one of Zedek's ships. The captain recognized Saget's familiar standard and had a boat lowered to bring him near enough to confer with his old friend.

"Where are you headed with such a fleet?" Zedek called.

"Vishang." Saget replied.

"There is no access to Vishang. Bring me aboard and I'll tell you more."

As soon as Zedek was safely on board he told his news. "Rocks tumbled from the ledge south of the harbor and have closed the port of Vishang. Dredge boats are working to clear the way, but until then, you must turn back to Banrad."

"We cannot turn back," Saget said. "These people are refugees from Algunagada's priests. Malgrod's bullies are burning the worship places and all who will not wear the mark of Algunagada. Irilik gathered them and I promised to take them from harm."

"There are several small harbors north of Vishang. I will lead you," Zedek said. "I was headed south to warn the mariners of Banrad against trying to make harbor in Vishang."

"There are no ships left in Banrad. You may consider your duty done," Saget told him. "I will take this ship into a small portage I know just south of Vishang, but I will instruct the other captains to follow you."

Zedek squinted at the helm deck of another ship. "Is that old Calet at the helm? Where is his captain?"

"Calet is able to steer the ship and give orders to the men. That is all I ask. A cabin boy is acting as mate on the Garot. We had to leave Banrad quickly."

Zedek shook his head wonderingly. "Surely the Hand of the Maker is guiding you or you would never have cleared the sandbars of Banrad harbor. I will send some of my men over to augment your crews."

The arrangements were made and soon each ship had an additional able sailor. Zedek's ship took on a load of refugees in return. When the ships parted on their separate courses, Tagnet was too busy avoiding the upper deck, where he might have been called upon to perform some task, to see the new bearing taken by Saget's ship. His mind kept busy working on a plan to abduct Elianin. He wished that he had been with the armies that had taken Tashvad five years before. It would have given him the advantage of knowing the lay of the land.

Early one morning, after several days and nights of sailing, Tagnet woke to the sound of something bumping against the hull near where he slept. He hurried up to the deck and found that the ship had been docked in a small harbor at the end of a deep bay. The gangway rested on a dock of rickety wood. He looked around. Fewer than half of the ships of the fleet were in sight, riding at anchor in the harbor. Boats were putting out for the shore, each carrying a full load of refugees.

"Where are we?" he demanded of someone who was mopping brine from the deck.

"This is Zedek's home port. The other ships are going further north."

"What happened to the plan to land in Vishang?" Tagnet said.

"I am surprised you haven't heard. It is common knowledge that the harbor of Vishang is blocked and other arrangements were made."

Tagnet did not stay to learn that Saget's ship, with Virda and Elianin aboard, had not proceeded north with the rest of the fleet. His plans to take Elianin seemed better served if he could capture her in a remote location. He sneaked into the captain's quarters where charts of the coast were displayed. Tagnet studied the charts and maps. The next port was only a few miles north. It should not take him long to reach it. By the time the others were eating breakfast, he had gathered his kit and left the ship. Scurrying and hiding to avoid discovery, he made his way toward the north.

Chapter 6 Army of The Stone

"Saaden has seduced the Princess Elianin and eloped with her," Algunagada said. He leaned forward on his throne to diminish the distance between himself and the two men standing before him in the main audience room of Renon's palace.

Taleek and Janak had heard rumors, but this bald summation astounded both of them. "Surely there is some other explanation of what happened," Taleek said.

"Saaden has always been loyal to you, and to his wife," Janak added. "What leads you to suspect that he could have done such a thing?"

Algunagada shook his head with heavy sorrow. "My wife, Calanin, gave evidence of the crime as soon as she came to my camp to become my bride. I was reluctant to believe such a thing of Saaden, but the evidence is unmistakable. I must bring the miscreants to justice. There are few I can trust, but you are old friends as well as comrades. Take a picked troop of men and find Saaden. Bring him back to Renon for punishment. As for the princess Elianin, kill her where you find her. She must do nothing further to bring disgrace to her sister, my wife."

Malgrod entered the throne room and Algunagada signaled that the interview was ended. Janak and Taleek kept silence as they backed from the room under Malgrod's malevolent glare. As soon as they were clear of the door, they turned and left the palace without speaking. It seemed better to avoid exchanging speculation within its gilded halls, and Algunagada's behavior indicated a lack of trust in the confidence of Malgrod.

"At least we haven't been sent to Gravika," Taleek observed after they were well clear of the walls of Renon. "I am concerned at how the armies of the rebellion are being disbanded. After swearing to the new cult of Algunagada, the veterans are sent to the northern frontiers where they are allotted small, meager, plots of land. Most of them are worse off than when they joined the rebellion. It seems poor payment for years of service."

"I never know quite where I stand lately," Janak replied. "All the old officers of the rebellion are being replaced with Algoth's cousins and Malgrod's kin. It sometimes makes me think that the only winner in this war was Algun-agada."

"Take care of where you speak such words or you'll be lucky if you end up like Saaden, eloping with some pale beauty and leaving decency behind," Taleek admonished him.

"Do you really think he did such a thing?" Janak asked. "I know that Calanin swears to witnessing the crime, but I'm uneasy about her. Algun may think he's well off to discard Virda for a fresh, new wife, but I'd sooner sleep with an adder than that cold-eyed young beauty."

"At least we will be free of this nest of intrigue," Taleek said. "I will put in orders for the troop that invested the city with Saaden to join us. They are set to stand down in a couple of days. If we do not engage them for this task, they are likely to be disbanded and sent to Gravika."

"At this rate, Gravika will be a better place to live than Bagnin," Janak jested. "Forget the short growing season and the long, cold winters. I long for an end to intrigue and conflict. If things continue as they are, we might be next to be declared fugitive."

Taleek nodded. He was already dreaming of leaving the capitol and settling in just such a remote outpost as Gravika with relish rather than dread. Perhaps in that distant outpost he would not be in constant fear that someone would discover that the mark of Algunagada he wore on the back of his hand was not a tattoo but only a drawing that he washed off nightly before making his true devotions. Whenever he caught sight of the obligatory mark, he felt unclean. It reminded him of the trefoil slave tattoos that marked the human merchandise of Tashvad before the rebels had vanquished the Oligarch and the town renamed Vishang.

It took time to organize and provision such a sizeable expedition, and some of the men they wished to take were already demobilized with orders to go to distant posts or forfeit their meager pensions. When contacted by Janak or Taleek, all of them were happy to re-enlist. The sanction of Algunagada was enough to convince their officers to relent and release them.

Three days later the troop left Renon under the dual command of Saaden's old comrades. Taleek, as usual, was responsible for making arrangements for food and quarters. Janak felt somewhat out of place away from his usual tactical position, but with Saaden out of the picture, he was the most experienced man for a job that might involve combat. Even so, it seemed unlikely they would have to fight. There was peace throughout Kishdu, a peace enforced by fear as the priests of Algunagada spread through the land to enforce the exclusive worship of the new God-King.

Taleek and Janak had their families with them when they marched north toward Vishang. Mirla, Janak's rawboned mate, had long been at odds with Taleek's sleek little wife, Lanin. Virda had always been a buffer between them. Now they were forced to make peace or be solitary.

"I'll miss Renon," Lanin murmured from the shelter of the litter in which she was riding. "It was wonderful to have shops and seamstresses so near at hand."

Mirla swallowed a sharp retort. "You have such an excellent hand with the needle. I am surprised you would be satisfied with hired work."

Lanin smiled and patted the arabesque pattern she had embroidered on her skirt. "Yes, I generally find the work of others inferior, but at least there was the possibility that someone would meet my standards. You, on the other hand, could have used the services of a really good seamstress."

Mirla fought the temptation to make a rude reply. "Perhaps you could help me. Now that your children are old enough to care for themselves, time must sometimes hang heavy. When we camp tonight, I will show you some lengths of cloth I purchased in Renon. You could help me choose patterns and sew them up properly."

"Of course I will help you!" Lanin assured Mirla. "It will make the journey less dreary if I have something useful to do. I must confess it was one of the problems of having servants. They would not let me do anything. I thought I would like being pampered and left to wile the day away with small amusements, but frankly, idleness bored me."

The litter rocked on in the hands of two sturdy men, but Mirla kept pace with her long-legged stride. The attempt to befriend Lanin had been worth the effort. Before long, they found other things the had in common.

"The new queen seems too eager to condemn her sister and Saaden," Mirla ventured.

"She is a spiteful cat," Lanin replied. Her vehemence shocked Mirla into silence. "As soon as she was married and knew herself to be supreme, she had her mother and father moved to the most ancient and remote section of the palace and housed in a set of shoddy rooms. When they would not bow and scrape to her, they were banished from her presence."

Mirla pretended to be surprised by the news, but Calanin's imperious disdain of any who did not agree with her had become common currency in Renon. This new source of gossip kept them in close conversation until a halt was called at midday. Both had a fondness for exchanging scandalous stories that had been repressed by the presence of Virda. The story that their punctilious friend had eloped with a scullion was a tidbit they both savored.

Bemused by the sudden friendship of their wives, Taleek and Janak did not inquire into the basis of their bond. It made the journey far easier to tolerate if Mirla and Lanin were friendly. When they camped at night, the women conferred over fabrics and thread, patterns and trim, and left their husbands to amuse themselves by speculating on what lay ahead.

The land through which they traveled had been scoured by years of war. Renon had resisted the rebels for a long time, leaving a ring of devastated countryside and abandoned villages around the city. Malgrod's priests had ruined most of what remained.

Instead of heading for the port of Banrad, the troop traveled overland. They did not meet the priests who were hurrying for Renon with news of the destruction and theft of the fleet in the city's harbor. On their fifth day out from Renon, Janak rose before the dawn was more than a faint light along the eastern horizon. He saw a light low in the southwest. It was as bright as the day star, but it lay in front of a low line of hills that were outlined against the first faint glow of dawn. He was deeply puzzled by the light. Not only was it too bright to come from any man-made source he knew, but he was deeply tempted to lay down all the concerns he had in hand and follow it.

He hurried to the tent of Taleek and found his friend just finishing his morning shave in the light of a yellow lamp. "Come," he said. Without telling his friend what he had seen, he led him to the overlook and pointed to the light.

"What is it?" Taleek asked. "I know of no lamp that could burn so bright. Perhaps it is a fallen star, still white from its fall."

"Do you feel it?" Janak asked.

Taleek nodded. "This is a good thing, whatever it is. I feel my sins bright lit." He scrubbed at the mark of Algunagada on his hand with his damp shaving cloth. It blurred and began to fade.

"So you too were unwilling to permanently mark your body with the sign of the flaming star," Janak said. He scratched at the mark on his own hand and it peeled away. "I painted it on a membrane I found in an offal heap."

Each of them breathed deeply, as if relieved of a heavy burden. Janak squinted at the light which had grown dim in contrast to the rising sun. "We must find the source of that light."

As soon as their troop of men and their families were ready for the day's march, they gave instructions for a change of heading. Obediently their soldiers set forth. They kept to a ground-eating stride normal to the seasoned company.

Janak expected that by nightfall they would have arrived at the place where he had seen the light, but they found no sign of any fallen star or fire. Puzzled, he mounted the low hills against which he had seen the burning of the light. He saw the light again, and estimated that it was about day's march away. It was moving!

He called to Taleek and showed him what he had discovered. "Someone is carrying it," Taleek said. "Look, it is moving back and forth." The light was intermittently visible and they realized that it was moving among buildings. "It is moving around the town of Silscrip."

"I must go on until I find it," Taleek said.

Janak nodded. "After we eat, I will leave orders for tomorrow's march with Sergeant Baslet. I want to know who carries the light."

"I will get Baslet now," Taleek volunteered. "Perhaps he can tell us what it is."

When Baslet was shown the light, he stared and smiled. "This is a great thing, a star that moves on the earth. I have no idea of what it might be, but I feel an urge to find out for myself. If duty did not bind me, I would go now."

"We are going," Janak said. "Follow us to Silscrip with the troop."

While Lanin served Taleek his evening meal, she noticed that the mark was gone from his hand. She spilled the stew she was ladling into his bowl onto the ground in her astonishment. "You took the mark of Algunagada, and now it is gone! What mischief is this?" she cried. "I was told that those who renounce the mark will suffer death, along with all their family. What have you done?!" She ran from Taleek, her cries drawing her new friend Mirla to commiserate with her.

Taleek knew it would take renewing the mark to calm her fear and he could not do so. He felt soul-stained by accepting the compromise with his honor that had saved him from the accusation of Malgrod. Women were excepted from the requirement, being thought secondary in the pantheon of the new religion, but Lanin had embroidered the mark on the bodices of her dresses and had convinced Mirla to put one on her best dress.

"We might as well leave now," Janak said when he saw the furor the absence of Taleek's mark had created. I've given the orders to Baslet. He will meet us in Silscrip with the troop tomorrow evening.

The two men set out, leaving their wives to ponder the strange turn of loyalties indicated by the erasure of their marks. The night was fine and they followed a road that was used by the local farmers to take produce to the market in Silscrip. It ran straight and clear toward the distant flicker of the light.

The two men were only a little past their prime, battle hardened and hardy and at first they made excellent time. Then the long hours they had spent on the road that day began to tell on their muscles and lungs. At midnight Taleek called for a halt. "I need to rest, my friend. You can go ahead and find the source of the light."

"I am also weary," Janak admitted as he settled into a squat nearby. "We can rest for an hour or so."

He watched while Taleek slept. His duties had kept him more active than his friend and he could have gone on for several more hours without rest, but he wanted to have someone nearby when he encountered whatever being carried such a beacon. He remembered the teachings of his childhood, the stories of prophets who had spoken for the Maker.

The fall of Oliafed had hurt him to the heart. It seemed that with the end of the promise that had been made, that the ancient line of prophets would not fail, a light had gone from his life. Now it seemed to have physically returned and he wondered how it had come about. A face seemed to float in his memory, the youth they had taken on after the fall of Balchad, a youth who had somehow made it possible to take the city of Tashvad with few losses to his men.

He had seen Irilik almost daily in the years since those adventures, yet he had ignored him. Why should the image of Saaden's astronomer haunt him now? He had heard of the strange prophecy the young man had spoken. Malgrod had tried to suppress it, but too many had witnessed it for it to be contained. Usually it was relayed in the spirit of derision, but sometimes it was repeated reverently.

Finally Janak woke Taleek and waited while he groaned and stretched, his body protesting the demands of more hours of march. But Taleek himself did not complain after he was fully awake. They set out again, separated by only a few hours from the light in Silscrip and set to go forth until they reached it.

* * *

Irilik and Tedak traversed the streets and alleys of Silscrip throughout the night. They had reached the town before the priests of Algunagada, but not before the rumors of their demands. Most of the people had resigned themselves to worshiping the new deity. Someone had set fire to the local shrine. The fire was doused in time to save the building, but no effort was made to discover who had tried to burn it.

A malaise set in among the people and only a few noticed the strange light that came among them. Even then fear worked its mischief and some who saw the light turned their backs and pretended to themselves that it was an illusion. To do otherwise would demand a commitment they sensed would be difficult to keep. When their fear overcame them, the light dimmed and soon was lost.

Fewer than fifty people; men, women and children, had dared to shed their fears and seek the light in Silscrip. Irilik led them to a hollow near the town and explained the significance of the emblem of Radiance he carried. That was how Janak and Taleek found him. They stood and listened while he rehearsed his history and mission. "You may turn back, even now, but there will be no escape when the sky erupts in flames and the land is burned," the prophet said.

Once again he was questioned by those who felt that the Maker, the Radiance, should turn back his hand and preserve the land. "My mother was afraid to come out of her house and join you. Should she suffer for such a minor sin?" one man pleaded.

Irilik shook his head. "If I could lift your mother, and others who fear, and carry them all to safety, I would do so. But I am only a man, not a god. There is evil in the land. Soon the priests of Algunagada will come to Silscrip and any man who stays and wishes to live, will wear the mark of Algunagada. Thousands have died in the fires that burn churches and shrines. Others will be sacrificed to the rituals required by the cult. This is an abomination to the Radiance. If any of you had a sore on your hand and the infection threatened your entire body, would you hesitate to cut it off?"

There were murmurs among the crowd. Some softly sobbed when they realized the choice they faced. If they followed Irilik, they would leave behind families and homes, flocks and lands. If they turned back, and his prophecy was true, they faced a dreadful end. Most, however, gave no thought to the sacrifice they were called to make. They only knew that they must follow the light for the sake of their souls.

Taleek and Janak walked down the slope that separated them from the small crowd who had been gathered out of Silscrip. Some of those who still feared, seeing the military tunics and swords of the newcomers, thought they had been found out by Algunagada's army and cried out to the prophet to save them.

"We come to seek the light," Taleek said, his hand raised in greeting and a pledge of truce.

"We have seen the evil of Algunagada's reign," Janak added. "The prophet speaks the truth. Soon any who resist will be destroyed."

An old man hobbled near them and stared at their faces. "I remember you. You marched with Algunagada when he came to Silscrip. Where is the other one, General Saaden?"

"He is part of our community," Irilik said. "When last I saw him, he was planning to go to Bagnin to fetch his family to Vishang. Virda is with us too. When Saaden found that Algunagada was part of the plot to poison his own wife and leave him free to marry a princess, it ended his loyalty to his old comrade."

"Then I will add my lot to yours," the old man said. "I have seen many wonders, but few good men. Saaden is a good man."

"And a good friend," Janak muttered to Taleek. "I should have known that he was innocent of the accusations made by Calanin."

"Who are you, that you have been given such a beacon?" Taleek asked the prophet.

"I am the heir of Orelank. Balchad betrayed Algoth by keeping me alive after the destruction of Oliafed."

"We should have guessed there was something unusual about you when you were given honor by the people of the fens," Janak said.

"We must leave Silscrip tonight," Irilik said. "The priests of Algunagada are not far away. Come." He lifted up the staff and turned to walk away toward the northwest. Most of the people followed after him. Two hesitated, glancing back toward the town. One turned from old loves and duties and hastened to join those who followed Irilik. The other scurried back to the life she knew, forsaking the life she had been offered.

"I will wait here for our troop," Janak told Taleek. "You go ahead with Irilik."

Taleek nodded. "We will meet in Vishang. Remind Lanin that I love her, but she must do as her own soul leads. I fear the choice she will make, but I cannot make any other than to follow Irilik."

Janak waited where he was, watching the followers of Irilik until light from the Stone of Truth was swallowed by the coming dawn, then he looked for a pleasant campsite near the road to Silscrip. The river near the road had carved an oxbow island connected to the banks by a sandbar. Willows grew on the island, bending low to the water and providing shade and privacy.

After setting a signal that Sergeant Baslet would quickly recognize, Janak sat down and rested his back against an ample bough. After a day and a night of swift travel, the rest was welcome.

He would tell his men what he had seen and heard. Some might protest his realignment of loyalties, but it was Mirla and Lanin who most concerned him. Lanin had taken to life in Renon with relish. Although they had been in the city for less than a week, she spent much of each day in the shops and bazaars. Since becoming friends, Mirla might share Lanin's preference for luxury rather than the challenge Irilik offered.

If Mirla decided to leave him, how could he bear the loss of his six sons who had marched with them. They were a cantankerous brood, but dear to him. Some of them were grown men, capable of making their own choices. The others were still young enough to need their mother.

His worries were swallowed by sleep. The murmur of the river and the whistling of birds lulled him in gentle dreams for several hours. He woke to the ungentle grip of Sergeant Baslet who was shaking his shoulder.

"Sir! We encountered a party of Malgrod's priests on the road to Silscrip," he said. "They asked us to serve as escort into the city."

Janak stretched and straightened his tunic. "Tell their leader we have other orders," he said while he pulled on his boots. "If he asks to speak to me, tell him I am under personal commission from Algunagada and will not be used for petty errands from Malgrod."

In truth, he was reluctant to let the priests see his hand. He would not stoop to marking himself again, but this was no time to create an incident over his failure to wear the symbol of the cult.

He lingered on the island while Baslet delivered his message. At last the sergeant returned. "The priests have departed, sir, but not without an argument. It was your wife who sent them on their way when all my diplomatic efforts failed. She said she would go with them if they all consented to a bath. They are a filthy crew, beg the pardon of Algunagada. I do not see why they shun cleanliness. Your wife would have made a fine officer." He could not conceal his admiring grin.

Janak hoped Mirla's attitude toward the demands made by the priests was some indication that she sympathized with those who had been victimized by the cult. Her sympathy was a powerful force if he could engage it in his own behalf.

"Can you tell me what you found when you searched for the wandering star?" Baslet asked.

"I will tell everyone what we found," Janak assured him. "Assemble the men."

To gain a little height for his address, Janak stood on a hummock near the road. "All of you have questioned me about our errand, and now I can tell you. We were sent after General Saaden to arrest him for the abduction of Princess Elianin." His words created a stir of consternation among the men which betrayed their dedication to Saaden.

"I will not arrest Saaden, no matter who gives me the order!" Janak proclaimed with a ringing voice that brought cheers from the men. "I am his comrade and know him for a good man." Another cheer erupted, louder still.

"Saaden heard the prophecy of Irilik, that the sky over Renon would burn and the city be destroyed. He did not know who spoke the truth, Irilik or Malgrod. Then he saw the churches and worship halls burned and watched innocents slaughtered because they favored the old religions. His loyalty to Algun wavered. When he found that Malgrod had tried to kill Virda so that Algun could marry a princess, his loyalty to Algun died."

The men were silent, waiting for the continuation of the story. Janak knew that if he hesitated too long, he risked losing his credibility for what must follow.

"Saaden and Elianin saw a light and followed it. Taleek and I followed the same light. It was a sign given to the Prophet, Irilik, to separate the evil from the good, the liars from the truthful. Taleek has gone ahead with the prophet. I returned to tell you of the choice we made. We have been commissioned to go to Vishang. I will go to Vishang, not to arrest Saaden for defying Malgrod, but to join him. Any who will join me, step to the right hand. Any who would prefer to follow the priests of Malgrod and become his bullies, step to the left."

With one move, the mass of men, including Janak's grown sons, stepped to the right. Most had no ideas or opinions on the matter of prophets and gods, but they honored the men who led them. Algun had been called the leader of the rebellion, but these men knew that Saaden was truly the man responsible for their success in battle.

The families of the men had followed along with them on this march as they had on many before. They moved more slowly than their husbands, brothers, and fathers, but they moved to the right to signal their acceptance. Finally, only Lanin was left with her small daughter's hand clutched in her own. She stared at Mirla who had been among the first to lead her younger sons over to the right side with the men of the company.

"Taleek sent a message for you," Janak said, turning to the woman. "He said he loves you, but you must follow the choice of your own soul. Irilik's creed is not one of coercion. You must choose the light of your own will."

Lanin turned away, her hand lifted to her face. Mirla left her sons and hurried to her new friend. They had spent years in one another's company, separated by their fundamental differences, but now their similarities made them sisters. Love and fear had buffeted them often as they watched their husbands set about their work of war.

"Come with me," Mirla murmured. "There must be some way to turn those badges on our bodices into flowers."

Lanin lifted her little girl into her arms and joined the others on Janak's right side. "How long will it take before we reach Vishang?" she asked.

"If we keep to the road, it should take less time than if we are forced to go over the fields," Janak said. "I know several routes, but I cannot predict the temper of the local population. Once we were liberators, now we come in the guise of the troops of Algunagada. It should take seven days or so if we find friendly villagers and good weather."

It was a little before noon when they came upon the village of Farthin. It was being searched by dark robed priests. Those few who would not forsake their faith in the Maker had been assembled near the small shrine in the center of the village and more were being added to the roped enclosure. They were mostly families, sometimes of several generations from old age to infancy who had chosen to die rather than recant.

There were only seven of Malgrod's bully priests in Farthin. With their pikes in hand and the license from Algunagada to seek out all who would not accept the trefoil tattoo of the God-King, they had cowed the people of the village into submission. When he saw the banner of Algunagada at the head of Janak's company, the head priest demanded their aid. "Guard these obdurates while we search for others."

Janak was about to protest when Sergeant Baslet stepped forward. "Why settle for such a small harvest when you could gather the people from the surrounding farms and roast them all at once?"

Baslet had seen the Light and Janak knew he would not lightly propose such a scheme so he remained silent while the priest considered the suggestion. Finally he nodded. "We will torch the shrine after we have rid the countryside of obdurates, but you will guard our harvest until we have added more."

Mirla began to scowl but Janak slipped next to her and clasped her hand. She glanced toward him and understood the strategy. "Take the other women and children ahead to the edge of the village until you find a place to camp. This scheme might take most of the day to finish," he muttered.

It was late in the afternoon when the head of the priests pronounced that all had been gathered. There were nearly forty people huddled together near the shrine. Their former neighbors became unruly and began pelting the obdurates with rotten fruit and offal.

Janak knew that if he waited any longer, the mob would be unmanageable. He stepped forward and raised his hands. "For shame!" he bellowed. The voice of the seasoned soldier stopped everyone where they stood.

"Algunagada, who you honor as a god, is just a man, a very vain and foolish man. I have seen him sweat and flee in fear. I have cleaned up his vomit when he drank to excess."

The words shocked the villagers, but they enraged the priests. They turned their pikes and charged Janak in a body. The men of his troop closed in and made short work of dispatching the attackers. The obdurates stared in hopeful surprise, but the other villagers fled.

"Who are you?" one of the obdurate women asked.

"I am a former friend of the one who calls himself Algunagada," Janak answered. "I seek the Light and follow a prophet who speaks the truth and warns of destruction. If you follow me, I will lead you to the one who bears the Light."

There was muttering and doubt, but those who had been gathered at the shrine by Malgrod's priests knew that if they stayed in the village they would eventually be sacrificed in the name of the God-King.

"I will follow you!" a young woman cried. Her voice broke the fear that had kept the others from acting and they flooded out of the rope enclosure where they had been kept. Janak led them to the outer edge of the village where he joined up with Mirla and her charges.

For several days they followed the same strategy that had given them the upper hand in Farthin. The people they rescued and their own women and children were left in shelter while the men led by Janak and Talleek rescued all whom the priests had herded into captivity.

Their tactics were changed when they entered a village where rumor of their actions had preceded them. As soon as Janak's troop made its appearance, the priests attacked them, whipping up the mob to join them. A pitched battle resulted, and two of Janak's men were badly injured. Even though the priests were killed, the villagers turned on the captive obdurates and several of the innocents were murdered before Janak's men could subdue the villagers and rescue theim.

When Janak gathered his men and those they had rescued, they marched to the camp where they had left their dependants and the nearly two hundred people they had liberated. Mirla hurried forward with Lanin to receive the wounded men they carried. "The obdurates have held a council and elected a leader. He wants to speak to you," she told Janak before turning back to care for the wounded men.

Janak summoned Sergeant Baslet to accompany him when he went to confer with the obdurate representative. There could be no doubt of whom it was, the man stood waiting for them with two others hanging back on either side.

"I am Garad, a village chaplain ordained by Orelank before Algoth destroyed Oliafed. My people have elected me as their spokesman," the man said.

"The one who bears the Stone of Truth is the heir of Orelank. The Radiance who called him is the same you worship through the Holy Name," Janak said.

"You have stirred an ant's nest," Garad observed with a gesture at the wounded who were being carried away. "Henceforth, we will be in constant danger from Malgrod's men."

"You may take your people and go your own way," Janak offered.

"We would be fools to abandon your leadership and skill," Garad answered. "We can offer you the help of able men and women capable of bearing arms if you will train us."

Janak's weary face split in a wide smile. "With an army such as this, we need not fear the motley bullies of Malgrod. We will march to Vishang to meet Irilik after we have spent a few days training and preparing arms."

"We should change our banner," Baslet suggested. While Janak and Garad discussed how to outfit and train the volunteers, Baslet lifted his leather helmet and pulled the black sweat band from his head, then he removed the banner from his pike. With careful stitches, he fastened the narrow band across the symbol of the God-king in a slanted slash and replaced the banner on his pike upside down.

"We should carry another banner as well," Garad said when he saw the banner Baslet had created. "You say that the prophet carries a beacon of light. I will make a banner of my blue shawl with a white star to represent the Stone of Truth."

"Save your shawl," Janak urged. "I will ask Lanin, Taleek's wife, to prepare a banner such as you describe. She is able with a needle."

Lanin accepted the commission with reluctance, but she created the banner from a length of cloth as clear blue as a summer sky. The many pointed star that represented the stone of truth was embroidered in shining white floss and embellished with tiny crystals that glistened in the sun.

The praise she received for the lovely banner brought a smile to her face for the first time since Taleek left to join Irilik. Many of her friends asked for smaller copies of the banner to be fastened to their tunics. Lanin called on Mirla and the other wives to help her, and by the time Janak and his men had finished training the volunteers and arming them with staves and throwing stones, every soldier was provided with a badge of the same design.

On the morning that they were finally prepared to march, Janak stood at the head of the new army and addressed them. "We will call ourselves the Army of the Stone, and like a stone rolls down a hill, we will crush all who oppose us. Where we find others willing to follow, we will welcome them. Where we meet the bully priests of Algunagada, we will fight."

A roar of support erupted from the throats of three hundred men and women. Janak called Garad forward and the chaplain pronounced a blessing on their enterprise. It was time to march, but Baslet approached Janak with another soldier from Saaden's picked troop.

"Many of our friends have been sent to Gravika. They are good men who should be warned of the destruction of Kishdu," Baslet said.

Janak smiled. "Go, but take another with you. You have proved your worth a hundred times over. Many will not listen, but those who will are worth warning."

The Army of the Stone set forth in good order. Janak sent scouts ahead to report on the activities of Malgrod's priests. At first it seemed that they would march unhindered. Recognizing superior forces, the bullies found other places to enforce their new religion.

When they came to a village, Garad would preach about the shining stone to the assembled villagers. "You must choose between current comfort and your souls," he said after telling them of Irilik's prophecy. In every village there were those who chose to join the marching throng and join their fates to Irilik. More held back, refusing to leave the security of homes and flocks, even though the months ahead might bring destruction.

Garad approached Janak in discouragement after one village had yielded fewer than fifteen people to the prospect of the Gathering. "I have seen fanatics infect the population with enthusiasm for the most ridiculous of quests," he mourned. "Yet these people remain hard-hearted in the face of losing everything, including their lives when Irilik's prophecy comes to pass. You have heard them curse and revile me for nothing more than offering a choice."

Janak nodded in sympathy. "I have wondered at our lack of success. Take heart. Those who join us are not the same flotsam who drift into the ranks of the fanatics. The Liar makes a mob, and here, he is against us. He whispers doubt to every soul willing to listen to his lies. Those who will not listen to him are valuable beyond mere numbers."

Garad smiled, relieved that it was not his failure that had diminished the harvest. "You are a wise man Janak. I am surprised that with such companions, Algun would have listened to the lies of Malgrod and allowed such evil to take place."

Janak frowned. "Algun was a man who could make men rise up and leave their flocks and fields. At first I did not fear the power of his presence. It seemed that what we sought was worth the sacrifice that others made. But there is something wrong when a mere mortal has the power to make men act against their own good sense. Now we see what has become of all our lofty pretensions. Algunagada is a tyrant as evil as any our land has ever seen. I could excuse him by saying he has become the tool of an evil man in his advisor, Malgrod, but Algun has not asked anyone to help him to break free of the influence of the wizards. He glories in the privilege and luxury of his new state."

"At least you had the courage to desert the privilege and power the close associates of Algunagada must enjoy," Garad said.

Janak gave an ironic chuckle. "I doubt that Malgrod would have tolerated any of us for much longer. He alienated all of Algun's first companions. Foul rumor alleged that Virda eloped with a scullion, and that Saaden seduced the princess Elianin. Who knows what fantasies of gossip might have muddied my reputation if I had tried to stay in Renon."



Chapter 7 Old Friends

"We are fortunate to have found a stream to provide us with fresh water," Irilik said as he stood and surveyed the people spread out below him. Taleek nodded and Tedak grunted his agreement. The two men were looking over one of numerous lists of essentials they had been working on since they had found a hollow that would accommodate the crowd. They had worked out sums that tallied the minimum amount of food and fuel required by the people who followed Irilik, but they were unable to find any way to provide the needed resources. The constant danger of encountering a band of Algunagada's priests had been a strain.

Taleek tapped his scribing tool on the slate and nodded at the sleeping people below them. "Fewer than two hundred have joined us from over twenty towns in these past weeks, and our task daily grows more dangerous. I think it is time that we turned westward toward Vishang."

"I know you are taxed to find enough to feed even these," Irilik said. "but I suspected this land would be a difficult place for our work. For hundreds of years these people have been harvested by slavers out of Tashvad. They are rightly wary of strangers. Even the light I carry is suspect after so many traps have been set to lure children away from their homes with trinkets and shining baubles."

"It has been five years since Tashvad was returned to its former ways and renamed Vishang," Tedak said. "Surely they should have learned trust by now. At least they could sell us grain or barren animals to feed the people who follow us."

Irilik shook his head, "They will not aid us in any way."

Taleek glanced around at the huddled band of refugees. "An army marches well if they have meat for their bellies and leather for their boots."

Irilik smiled ruefully. "I could ask for nothing better now than a herd of cattle."

"Then pray for it," Tedak said. "The people were reduced to eating weeds and digging roots for food when we camped tonight. What will they eat tomorrow?"

Irilik nodded. He raised his hands and bowed his head. Tedak could not hear the words of the prayer, he only saw Irilik's lips moving, but he had hardly begun his entreaty when the sound of distant lowing came from the north, borne on the wind.

At first Tedak thought it might be one cow, seeking the shed after a day of grazing, but the ground under his feet began to vibrate. No single cow could make such a rumble. It was a host of cattle, their hoofs making dull thunder on the earth.

"They are driving their cattle against us," Tedak cried. "I will rouse the people. Hold up the staff and light our escape."

"It is not the local people," Irilik assured him when he held up the staff and looked toward the sound. "It is the answer to my prayer. Look." He held the staff high overhead and the first animal of the oncoming horde became visible as a frightening apparition, half man, half beast with two sets of horns.

The lead animal slowed and began to turn in nervous circles. The other cattle followed suit. Then Tedak saw what Irilik had somehow known. The man riding the leading cow jumped down and ran toward them. His mane of dark curls waved in the wind under a cap made from the poll and horns of a bull. It was Kumnor. A young woman followed him, her wild mane and horned hat the same, but her shapely body covered with a supple vest and tunic of white suede hemmed with bright embroidery. Her dark eyes challenged Irilik and he wondered why she seemed to dislike him on sight. Kumnor opened his arms and grabbed the young prophet in a hearty embrace.

After repeating his vows of brotherhood in a language that only Irilik could follow, Kumnor responded to the persistent tugging on the back of his vest and turned to introduce the young woman following him. "This is my sister, Tarsha." He said to Irilik. "We came as soon as we knew that the signs had been given. Our people are yours."

"And what of your cattle?" Irilik asked. He swept his arm in an arc, indicating the sleepy people in the camp behind him who had risen from their sleep and were clinging to one another in fear of the wild looking Valdasians.

"We bring all we have to you," Kumnor assured him. "We have meat and milk and meal in plenty. If there are any who are hungry, send them to me."

Irilik nodded and turned to interpret his words to the frightened band of refugees. As he spoke, Kumnor and his sister returned to the great herd and the hardy clan who had followed him unquestioning. He was their chief, it was their way.

The Valdasi women busied themselves with the task of setting up tripod pots over camp fires and filling them with water from the stream that ran through the vale. The men brought meat and bags of wild grain and berries for a hearty stew. The rich smell of the food ended any reservations the refugees still retained. They crowded close with dishes and spoons and soon were exchanging comments with the Valdasi. They learned the words for simple concepts such as good and warm and full.

Full stomachs and the knowledge that the entire herd of the newcomers would be a resource in their need were the answer to the prayers of those who had joined their fate to Irilik. When all the others were settled and sleeping, Taleek, Tedak and Irilik squatted together with Kumnor and Tarsha on the low hill above the hollow. "How did you know of our exodus?" Tedak asked.

"The priests of Algunagada came among us and were taken captive," Kumnor said. "They did not know I could understand their language and talked in front of me as if I were a post." He laughed, holding both hands over his ears to demonstrate deafness. "One of them had been present when two prophecies were given. One was the false prophesy of the God-King. The other was the true prophecy of Irilik."

Irilik translated his words for Tedak and Taleek while Kumnor looked on, grinning. "Did they mention any others?" Irilik asked Kumnor.

"They said that Saaden and Elianin had eloped and were suspected of joining you. I recognized that the time had come to go south. I prayed to be guided, and here we are!" While Irilik translated Kumnor's reply, Tarsha nodded.

"How did you come to be chief?" Taleek asked, knowing that Kumnor would understand his question.

"When I returned from Vishang, I found that my father, Jarayor, was ill. He had lost heart when I did not return from my pilgrimage to Oliafed. When he saw that I was safe, he recovered, but his old strength and will to lead had weakened. He confirmed me as chief, with Tarsha as my second. He then wandered into the waste so that none would question my authority."

Irilik was shocked. "Did you abandon your father?" he asked.

"No!" Kumnor exclaimed. "Surely you have heard of the Seers of the Waste. Chiefs cannot be sages. They are too much bound by the world. For men like my father it is a great thing to have a proven heir. I released my father to pursue the dreams given only to Seers."

"I wish I could have known your father," Irilik said.

"Perhaps you will!" Kumnor said with a laugh. "He would be a poor seer if he could not see what is coming. The flaming star already can be seen in the night sky with no aid to the naked eye."

"What do you think we should do tomorrow?" Irilik asked Kumnor. "You are the only one among us who has been apprenticed to a chief and has held the responsibility of leading a clan. I try to read what must be done in the Eye of Adanan, but I do not always know what questions to ask."

"We are tired and this is a fine place to make camp," the young chief replied. "I cannot venture to say what must be done after we have rested. Surely by then we will know what to ask when you read the oracle device."

Tedak staggered to his feet as soon as Irilik translated the reply. "I am satisfied that you speak wisdom," he said to Kumnor, bringing his hand up in a salute of respect. "It has been a long day. Do not disturb me until noon."

"He has slept little in the past few weeks," Irilik observed as his servant walked away. "I am certain he will be up with the sun tomorrow to cook my breakfast and nag me. He will consider it his duty until I take a wife."

"You are young yet," Taleek said. "A wife is not always the best thing for a man who must lead others. I wonder if Lanin has given up on me. She may have turned back to Renon."

Kumnor clapped his hand on Tarsha's shoulder. "My sister will make a good wife. She knows that where her husband leads, she must follow."

His sister's eyes sparkled with dark fire at the implication that she had no mind of her own but she firmed her lips against a retort. The look she sent Irilik made him wonder again what he had done to offend her. He turned to her brother as a means of avoiding her cutting glance.

"I agree with your decision. I will rest and prepare tomorrow, then I will read the Eye of Adanan to decide where we should go." Irilik said.

Kumnor glanced at the bright light that emanated from the Stone of Truth. It lit the camp as if a piece of sunlight had fallen and taken root. Tedak had supported the staff by forcing it into the cleft in a boulder split by frost. "We should find some way to cover the light when it is time to rest. There are skilled metalworkers among my people. They could prepare some kind of lantern that could be closed when it is time to sleep," the Valdasian suggested.

Far to the east Saaden saw the light as a tiny bright dot near the horizon after the sun had set. For days he had hoped for such a sign. He walked to the mound of earth and stones that held the remains of his oldest daughter, Falin. "Come, Enna," he said to his weeping wife. "Let me show you what has brought me all this way."

She moved away from the mound and peered toward the west. She blinked, then peered again. "If only Falin could have lived long enough to see the light," she said. "It somehow eases the ache in my heart. Is this what drew you, Saaden, this sense that eventually all will be well if we follow the light?"

"Yes," he said and drew her closer. That Enna could see the light did not surprise him, but the easing of her gried reaassured Saaden that he had made the right choice. They had been tested by terror and shame, but finally his wife and children and most of his son-in-law's family had come away from Bagnin with him. "Let the others sleep now. We will come to it, perhaps tomorrow, now that we have a bearing."

Enna nodded. "We'll go on tomorrow."

With Saaden by her side, Enna returned to the mound that covered her daughter. "If only Falin had survived a day longer. Lidin still lives, but without her mother--" . Saaden pulled her close against him and tried to give comfort as she was again overcome by the sorrow of losing her oldest child.

Falin had gone to the shrine in Bagnin, leaving her infant, Lidin, with her mother for the hour she expected to be gone. The priests of Algunagada had come that day. They were mere louts led by one who had been given the authority to loot worship places and burn them over the heads of their faithful. Somehow Falin had escaped from the burning shrine, but not before being badly burned.

A friend warned the family that they were being sought for execution. They had hidden in the dank cellar of Falin's in-laws who had endangered their own lives by aiding the fugitives. Eventually Saaden had come and led them away from the city, but Falin had to be carried on a litter by her brother Domsik and her husband Coradik as her condition deteriorated.

"If only we had some way to get milk for the baby," Enna said, holding her tiny grand-daughter close to her and offering it the poor substitute of a knuckle dipped in broth.

Domsik, Saaden's only son, lurked in the shadows while his parents talked. He peered into the night where they claimed to have seen a light and saw nothing. They were mad, but he had long suspected it when his father had told the story of his abandonment of Algunagada's cause. A low growl of anger rumbled in his throat at the thought of all he had lost because of his father.

When he first heard that the priests of Algunagada had come to Bagnin he had welcomed the news. He planned to greet them openly and tell them who he was. It had always served him well to be known as the son and heir of Saaden, Algun's next in command. His time in Bagnin had been a round of feasts and camaraderie once he let his father's name be known. The elevation of the leader of the rebellion to the God-King of Kishdu had added luster to the association.

All had come crashing down when he learned that Saaden was an enemy of the state. He and all his kin were to be hunted down and killed on orders of Malgrod, the chancellor and high priest of the God-King. If Domsik could have turned traitor to save himself, he would have done so, but his name was second on the list after that of his father.

The weeks spent hiding in a cellar while Falin whined night and day had nearly driven him mad. When Saaden had come and led them away from Bagnin by secret passages known to few, he had no recourse but to join them in their flight. He had concealed his resentment from his father, seeing no profit in alienating a man who claimed to be intimate with the rival to Malgrod. He put little faith in the claims of the mad astronomer, but it was the only road left to him.

The next morning when they gathered their baggage and headed into the west where his father claimed to have seen the light, Domsik was as ingratiating as ever to his parents and his other kin. As evening came on, all of them exclaimed over the brilliance of the beacon that they claimed was near at hand. Domsik assured them that he also saw the shine. If anything, he was more enthusiastic than any of them to find out what was causing such an illusion. It was one thing to think his parents mad, but when he was the only one who could not see the light, unless others were lying as well, it was indeed puzzling. He determined to get to the root of the mystery.

* * *

"What did you see in the oracle device?" Kumnor asked when Irilik and Tedak returned from the southwestern slope where they had retired to consult the Eye of Adanan.

"We will head toward Vishang in the morning," Tedak said.

Irilik was not so sure that he could make such an exact interpretation of the muddled readings he had taken. The options were limited according to the oracle device. They could not venture east or south without risking death and Kumnor's report showed that the north was no longer open. Vishang lay to the west, and the west was the only way open to them now. The necessity of moving on was borne out by the wide spread of Kumnor's clan on the plain surrounding the hollow where his people were encamped. They had taken their cattle to whatever grass could still be found in the area, but it would soon be exhausted.

Taleek had suggested that they could slaughter and dry the meat of some of the cattle, but Kumnor had explained that while the cattle were still alive they would provide their own transport instead of becoming baggage to be carried by the few horses or the already overburdened people.

Using the cattle themselves for riding animals as a few of the Valdasi did was utterly impractical. As Kumnor had pointed out when Tedak had made the suggestion, the animals were not so much ridden as they were mounted by a person who had been familiar with them since infancy, and stopped by rude methods that he was too modest to repeat. Only the lead cow, ridden by the chief, could be given rudimentary guidance and the others, bulls and calves as well, followed after.

The Valdasi gathered close to the light after the sun had set. Animals could see the radiance, their natural innocence untainted by anything that would darken it. Predators, who used the night as cover for their stealthy hunting, avoided the area where the light shone brightest as they would the noonday sun.

Once again Kumnor's people brought out their tripod stew pots and their meat and grain. Berries and roots were added by the other refugees. Soon a savory odor reminiscent of a harvest feast drew everyone to the area around the pots. Irilik raised his hands in blessing and praise, intoning the Holy Name with a fervor that reflected his gratitude for being reunited with Kumnor and all he offered.

It was thus that Saaden and his people found him. He gave a silent signal for his family to be quiet until the prayer had ended, then he hurried forward. Seeing Taleek near the young prophet, he swerved to greet his old friend with a gruff exchange of exclamations and back slaps. "How did you come to join Irilik?" he asked.

"I came to arrest you," Taleek said. "But then I saw the Light. Janak came with me but he returned to the troop we brought north with us along with our families. I hope they will choose to follow him to Vishang. They are the men you chose to invest Renon."

"Good men!" Saaden said, "I'm not sure all of them would have seen the Light, but they are loyal to me and will be loyal to whomever I choose to serve."

He turned to Irilik and took him in his arms in the same hearty greeting he had given Taleek. Buffeted by the General's brawny arms, Irilik grinned and gave back as good as he could. "Welcome! Did you find your family well?"

Saaden's face was suddenly subdued by the memory of his daughter's death. "The priests had come to Bagnin by the time I arrived. My daughter died as a result of their perfidy," he said.

"How were you able to enter the city?" Tedak asked, seeing Saaden's family behind him.

"Janak cut tunnels under the walls when we took the city six years ago. He concealed the entrances but left the tunnels intact. I was able to enter and exit the city without notice from Malgrod's miscreants. My daughter's husband and his family joined us. Come, I would have you meet my in-laws." He presented his son-in-law, Coradik who in turn introduced his father, Dagir and his mother, Favarin.

Enna would have been happy to greet Irilik again, but more urgent matters concerned her. One of the Valdasi women had heard Lidin's pathetic cries of hunger and had hurried forward, her own infant bouncing behind her in a leather pouch with his merry face and chubby legs exposed. Language was no barrier when the woman bared her breast and held out her arms. Soon Lidin was suckling greedily. Enna led the woman to the pack where the child's bedding and clothes were kept. With gestures and expressions they discussed the delicate embroidery on a tiny gown and the fine weave of a shawl. The woman departed with the pack and the babe, somehow communicating that she would return regularly to let Enna see Lidin.

The people with Saaden were welcomed to take their fill of the nourishing stew and gladly accepted the invitation. Domsik could see the people closest to the fires that warmed the pots, but when he looked beyond the dim orange light provided by the flames, there was nothing but unrelieved darkness milling with people who seemed to see clearly.

Someone took him by the elbow and turned him about. "Here is Domsik, my son," Saaden said. "You see how he has grown!"

"You are at least an inch taller than you were six months ago," Irilik's voice said. "You've become a man while you were in Bagnin." Domsik though he could detect a hint of teasing in the other man's voice, but without seeing the expression on Irilik's face, he could not be certain. He remembered Irilik as a strange young recluse, gawky and shy. It was hard to believe that he had it in him to lead a multitude. Surely his father, Saaden, would assume leadership now.

"I'm shaving now, but I still need my sleep," he replied shortly. It was a foolish answer, but he knew that if he must continue to pretend that he saw the other men, he would betray himself. He closed his eyes and patted a wide yawn. Then he turned and walked slowly back toward the dim glow of the cook fires. As soon as it was light he was determined to find the staff that carried the light that everyone claimed to see and examine it. Meanwhile, there was still food in the pots and he was hungry. The girl who served him a bowl of stew was dressed in white with bright bands of embroidery at the hems of her garments. The light of the fire was dim, but there was enough of it to reveal her laughing eyes and buxom shape. He smiled at her and began to flirt. In Bagnin he had been introduced to harlots and had come to crave the charms of women. This barbarian girl should count herself lucky to draw his notice.

"What is your name?" he asked.

"I am Tarsha, sister of Kumnor and second in the clan of Valdasi," she proudly replied in a voice only slightly accented with the barbarous tongue of her people.

"You speak well," he said. "Your beauty is matched by your intelligence."

"Smooth words, boy," Tarsha taunted but her broad grin revealed a set of perfect teeth. "My mother taught me. She was a woman of Bagnin. My brother learned to understand her language, but he only hears and does not speak."

"Then why are you second if you know more than he?" he asked. She responded to his flattering words with another low laugh that pleased him with its husky tone.

"Come with me and teach me more of the ways of the Valdasi," he begged her.

"You should be careful not to let my brother see you trifling with me, stripling," she warned. "I am not meant for such as you. I have a destiny that directs me to a higher mating, whether I will or no."

Her words were blunt, but Domsik thought they were only another part of the game of flirtation. He would keep his eyes on Tarsha. She had responded well to his flattery. It would not be long before he had charmed her into yielding all to him. Content with his forecast for sensual triumph, he handed her his empty bowl with a wink and turned away to find his father's tent.

It was not much later when the curfew sounded. It was greeted gratefully by all, but Irilik, Saaden and Taleek did not go to their tents. They gathered near the staff that held the light and began to confer. Kumnor, seeing them speaking together, joined them.

Irilik signaled a welcome and the four men walked together down the other side of the hill away from the encampment. "Tomorrow morning we will head for Vishang," Irilik told Saaden. "It seems the only course open to us, and I doubt that more converts will come to the light now that the bully priests of Algunagada are scouring the land."

Saaden nodded. "We must go west toward Vishang, but both Algun and Malgrod must know by now that we intend to gather there. The harbor has been closed by a fall of rocks from a ledge near the entrance and no shipping was either coming or going from the port. The people are waiting in two smaller harbors to the north."

Irilik stared toward the west. He had learned to manipulate maps and proxies of people and objects to draw more information from his readings of the Eye of Adanan, but if he had no knowledge of what additional people might be involved in the future, he could not include them in the readings. He sensed that there was important information missing. He turned back to the other men.

"Between the three of you, you possess most of the knowledge that anyone could desire if they were mounting an invasion or a migration. Above all, I want to avoid conflict among the people wherever possible. Jealousy, gossip, lust, fatigue, all are openings for the Liar to prevail. What can we do to keep the peace that preserves the Light?"

Saaden had been pondering the same question. "I have noticed how the people tax your strength. Each one feels entitled to your counsel and you are their first resort when trouble comes. Twice this evening I witnessed a conflict between two people who each felt they had first call on your attention. There must be a buffer between you and the petitioners."

Irilik shook his head. "I will not isolate myself." He turned to Kumnor. "I have noticed that the Valdasi do not approach me. Are they afraid?"

Kumnor chuckled. "I am their chief. If they have questions or needs, they come to me. Where I can, I handle the problem. Where I cannot, I send them to you. So far, I have handled all the problems."

"I wish we had a few more chiefs," Irilik mused wistfully.

"You have at least two good chiefs, besides me," Kumnor answered. "Both Saaden and Taleek have much experience with leadership. Formalize your council with chosen men and women. Divide the people into septs."

"How should I do such a thing?" Irilik asked.

"Name Saaden and Taleek as ceremonial fathers. Perhaps Dagir would agree to become part of your council. Make a grand ceremony, give the people an irreversible choice of which sept they will join. Some will follow Saaden because his name is known as a great general. Some will follow Taleek because they have seen how carefully he plans and provides for them."

Irilik turned to the other men and translated Kumnor's words. Both of them nodded thoughtfully. "It would work," Saaden said. "You should do it early in the morning before we leave this camp."

"If only there were more men of the same quality," Irilik said.

"You have no shortage of such men," Kumnor assured him. "I have met Janak, Lamath, Zedek, Thalonon and others who would serve. Some are already serving as chiefs, but they must be willing to adopt others into their clans. I will accept any who cannot decide between Saaden and Taleek."

"What of Tedak, and me?" Irilik asked.

"Tedak must care for you, and you must care for all of us," Saaden replied.

Their conference was interrupted by a rattling of stones. They turned. A weary traveler staggered toward them.

"Janak!" Saaden cried. He rushed toward his friend and crushed him in a hearty hug. The others followed with questions about his plight. He was bruised and scratched, hungry and thirsty, but he sat down and tried to answer them.

"You must not go to Vishang, Irilik. It is under siege by the minions of Algunagada. Malgrod is determined to take you and make you an example in Renon. We have gathered an army dedicated to your cause, but I would not waste their lives fighting uneven odds. I sent them on and came to warn you. The people who believe in you will meet you near Zedek's village. Saaden knows the way."

"Janak will be another leader for your people," Kumnor said. "I will carry him to my camp. My wife Kapanadel will mend his wounds and feed him. She is healer and herb-woman to our clan. By tomorrow morning he should be fit."

Janak looked to Irilik to provide an explanation for why the large young man with horns on his hat was putting him over his shoulder. "He means to mend you and feed you and put you in a comfortable cot of soft wool. Tomorrow morning you must become a chief."

The weary soldier shut his eyes and dropped his head. He had stopped listening to Irilik as soon as he mentioned the cot of soft wool.

Irilik walked back to the camp where he shared a small tent with Tedak. His servant stirred when he entered the dark enclosure and he was tempted to wake him and tell him of the conference beyond the hill and the appearance of Janak. He noticed the dark circles under Tedak's eyes and decided there would be time enough in the morning.

Domsik was roused from sleep by the Valdasi woman who had brought Lidin to visit Enna. At first he growled and tried to cover his ears against their voices, then he remembered his vow to investigate the object that the others claimed to see. He shrugged into his tunic and crawled from the tent. The eastern horizon was growing pale. The Valdasi were awake caring for their cattle and lighting fires under their tripod cooking pots.

He resisted the appeal of eating before he looked for the light. If he could determine the means by which Irilik had ensorceled all these people, he might steal it and use it for his own purposes. He had heard mention that the light appeared at the top of a staff on the low hill over the hollow.

He climbed the hill and found no sign of the staff he had expected. A naked sapling sprouted from the cleft in a nearby boulder, but he had seen others like it in the waste through which they had traveled the day before. He imagined that when he saw the device it would look like one of the staffs carried by the Noncil Wizards; a fine piece of rare wood, carved and gilded with a gem set in a bezel on the top.

Disgruntled by his failure to discover the staff and the mysterious light that had evaded his gaze, he slogged down the sandy slope and joined a line of people waiting for their breakfast. He kept his smile in place with difficulty, but the ruse resulted in a hefty serving from the dark-eyed Valdasi maiden at the cooking pot. "Tarsha?" he asked. She nodded.

"When can we meet?" he asked her.

"I have many duties. Perhaps this afternoon you might find me with the cattle in the eastern pastures."

"I will find you," he promised.

After eating he took a seat near the edge of the throng who had gathered to listen to Irilik. He was surprised to see Janak standing with his father and Taleek by the side of the alleged prophet. Irilik held up his hands and the people closed their eyes and bowed their heads for his prayer. Domsik followed suit, but as soon as he knew he would not be observed, he raised his eyelids enough to peer at Irilik.

Neither the prophet nor his servant was carrying the staff as wizards were wont to do and Domsik tired of the effort of peering upward with his chin lowered. He closed his eyes and thought of Tarsha, the dark-eyed Valdasian girl. He had good luck with women. One of his companions in Bagnin had implied that they were more impressed by his father's status than charmed by his own person, but there had been no chance to test the thesis. Tarsha was ripe and her flashing eyes promised that she liked his cozening words. It should not take long to prove that it was himself and not the promise of payment that had brought him attention from the harlots of Bagnin.

His thoughts were jarred from thoughts of seduction by a cheer from the crowd around him. He realized that he was now the only one with his head bowed. He stood erect and began to listen.

"Whichever man you choose, you must pledge to follow his leadership. If you find that there are serious reasons to renounce the bond, you must do so by a formal ceremony, paying a fee to the council for your change of loyalty. Are there any who would challenge this decision?"

Domsik would have made a challenge out of sheer rebellion, but he had not heard enough to know what he was challenging. It had something to do with Saaden, Taleek, and Janak. He wanted to protest that he had no need to pledge to any other man. He was sufficient in himself and old enough to make his own decisions without interference.

"These men have wives and children," Irilik continued. "Their families are given by the Radiance, the Maker, in a bond that no man can sever without serious consequences. Whatever your own needs, you must honor this natural bond. Your father by adoption will take time to hear your needs and help you with your problems. You, in turn, must follow him with the obedience of a true child. We will march as septs when the selection is complete."

Domsik slumped back to the ground in profound disappointment. His tryst with Tarsha would be impossible if they were to march as so soon. It could not take long for the sorting into septs to be completed. He knew his mother would be looking for him to help pack away the tent and prepare for the journey.

Let the others help. Coradik and his family were sufficient to the tasks. He found a place of concealment near the hill where the sapling sprung from the split in the boulder and watched the proceedings as the people chose their leaders.

Janak, Taleek, and Saaden took their places behind three tables made of saddles. Irilik stood behind them to take the solemn pledge of those who joined their septs. The people milled about, only a few of them venturing forward at first as they weighed the decision that would bind them to one or another of the three men.

The process of creating a new government took most of the morning. At first it seemed that Taleek was the favored choice because the people were familiar with his prudence and ability, but Saaden was widely known for his leadership. Few joined the line in front of Janak at first, but it soon became evident that Janak was friendly and had a kind word for everyone who approached him. When the lists were concluded and everyone had chosen a sept but the Valdasi and Saaden's family, the groups were roughly even. Domsik felt insulted that his own father had not been chosen by more of people.

His muttered resentment was interrupted when Tedak, Irilik's servant, headed toward his hiding place. The man passed by him and grasped the sapling, lifting it from the cleft with ease. Only then did Domsik realize his mistake. Cursing his failure, he waited until Tedak carried the staff down from the hill. It would have been folly to try and wrest the staff away while so many were watching.

Tedak carried the staff to the head of the column that was beginning to form as the people lined up behind their newly pledged leaders. Taleek and his new followers were the first to assemble, ready for the march. Janak was carried in a litter between two strong young men who were amply paid for their service with stories of his battles. Saaden followed with his family and his new sept just ahead of the first of Kumnor's clan.

Domsik found a place in the rear of his father's sept, only yards in front of the first of the Valdasi. He covertly surveyed the lines of women who walked with their babes and small children. He could not see Tarsha. Finally he waited until the first of the Valdasi women passed and asked one word. "Tarsha?"

The woman laughed and babbled at him. Her barbarous tongue impossible to decipher, but her gestures were easy enough to follow. She waved her hands toward the north where the cattle were being led by the two distinctive figures of Kumnor and Tarsha mounted and wearing their horned hats.

Disappointed of his plan to carry out the flirtation with Tarsha he had begun the night before, Domsik sought another anodyne for the boredom of the march. He saw Irilik ranging up and down the line of marchers, stopping here and there to visit. Domsik moved ahead and followed the youth he had known only as his father's recluse astronomer. It should not be too difficult to ingratiate himself with Irilik. He had made friends with other more impressive men while he was visiting Bagnin.

For a while he moved along behind the prophet, observing his behavior. In spite of the influence he had with this gathering, he did not stop to counsel or advise after giving a cheerful greeting, making it clear to those who asked that they should save such questions for their sept leaders.

Domsik held back from hailing Irilik. Instead he studied him, lurking just behind the people who welcomed the prophet's presence. What magic did the prophet practice? He was too tall and lanky to be handsome, and his voice held no particular charm. When he smiled, he showed too many teeth and his eyes squinted nearly shut when he laughed. His hair was dark and thick, but it was also shaggy.

Largely relieved of the solemn tasks of leadership until their scouts returned with news of enemies, Irilik joked and teased his way among the people. Domsik felt it was hardly worthy of the dignity of his position, but at the same time he resented the easy camaraderie Irilik shared with others. They neared the side of the cavalcade and Irilik walked toward where Kumnor and Tarsha were leading their cattle. Irilik hailed Kumnor.

"I am tired of walking," he called. "Surely it cannot be as difficult as you have said for me to ride a cow. What of that one?" He pointed to one of the cattle that plodded stolidly behind the chief's lead cow. Kumnor gave him no caution, but leaped from his own cow, handing the lead to Tarsha and helped Irilik up onto the broad back of the chosen animal. Tarsha watched the proceedings with a look of disdain for the clowning antics of Irilik who found himself clinging desperately to a whirling, bucking fury. When he fell off the cow and skinned his knee, he laughed at himself. A dark-eyed maiden hurried forward with an adoring look and a scold for hurting his auspicious and valuable person before leading him back to Kumnor's wife, Kapanadel, for an ointment.

Irilik's laugh offended Domsik each time he heard it, but the smitten look on the face of the maiden was only mitigated by the look of disgust that Tarsha sent after the hobbling prophet. She turned back to Domsik when Irilik was out of sight. "Do you intend to follow his example and make a fool of yourself?"

"You have already taken my reason with your beauty," he replied, his smile increasing as he saw her blush. Swaggering a little with the success of his flattery, he noticed that Kumnor was frowning at his conversation with Tarsha. It would not do to alert the Valdasi chief to his intentions. He winked at Tarsha and turned back toward the caravan where he saw his brother-in-law, Coradik who was just giving his infant daughter to the Valdasi woman who served as her nurse. He waited until the woman had carried the child away before speaking.

"It is a shame that after all your suffering you must see your child cared for by a savage with tattoos on her chin," Domsik said.

"I think Manguladarith is an angel," Coradik assured Domsik.

"You know her name?" Domsik asked. "How could you understand her?"

"It is not as difficult to speak the language of the Valdasi as you seem to think," Coradik assured him. "Bagnin was settled by a related clan when dearth took their cattle and they turned to trade. My mother spoke to Manguladarith in the tongue of her forefathers and they understood each other."

Domsik had hoped to stir some resentment in Coradik. The complacent answer he received sent him further up the line to walk with a youth who had just finished carrying Janak's litter and given over his place to another.

"It is a pity that you must waste your energy carrying a healthy man as if he were a cripple," Domsik probed.

"I would carry Janak to the end of the world if I had the privilege. Did you know he was present at the fall of Bagnin? He told me about the invasion of Tashvad." the youth boasted.

Domsik pasted his cheerful smile more firmly to his face and resisted telling the other young man that he had also been present at the fall of Bagnin. It would hardly seem heroic that he had been given the task of carrying water for the women who remained in camp.

The scouts returned in the late afternoon with the report that there was a good camping place a few hours ahead. With the stone of truth to light their way, there was no hesitation about marching into the dusk.

Domsik fumed. He followed the others as the night grew darker. The few questions he asked about the location of the light were treated as jokes and he knew he could not ask too many or he would reveal his own handicap. Stumbling over stones the others could see, he cursed the magic that somehow excluded him. Somehow he would find the secret and make it his own.







Chapter 8 Escape

Malgrod walked down the gangplank of the ship he had sailed in from Avarnad and stared around him. The city of Vishang lay empty except for the men who had accompanied him. They were the dregs of Renon's jails, but they had served him well in the two months since he had liberated them into his service. Few others were as willing to torch worship halls and burn men, women and children alive for their failure to bow to the God-king as those already condemned for murder and other serious crimes.

"The ships we saw leaving the port could not have carried the entire population of this city. The people must be hiding. Find them!" he ordered. He wished there had been a few veterans of the rebellion he could trust. Although most of them had been willing enough to take the mark of Algunagada, their first loyalty was truly to their leader Algunagada and not to himself. They wanted orders from the hand of the God-king, but Algunagada was so busy dallying with Calanin that he spared little attention for anything but his vain young bride.

Four more ships entered the harbor and there were others waiting in the roads. It had taken bribery, threats and outright theft in the royal port of Avarnad to commandeer the fleet in so little time. Some of the ships were under sail, but Malgrod preferred to use galleys rowed by slaves. Chained in their places and under the threat of the lash, they were unlikely to gainsay any decision he made. One of the captains had dared to suggest that it was unwise to commit the entire fleet to invading Vishang, but Malgrod had replaced him with a more obedient man and followed his own instinct.

Expert sailors had told Malgrod that Vishang was the only northern port that could handle a fleet of the size needed by Irilik if he pursued the mad notion of standing offshore while his threatened disaster occurred. Scouts had reported that the landslide had been cleared from the harbor mouth only two days ago and the ships in the harbor had taken flight.

Malgrod's ground troops had been ordered to set fire to the bogs that surrounded the city. The smoke of their burning lay thick along the ground and the general who had supervised the burning assured him that none could survive in such an inferno.

Malgrod covered his nose and moved upward toward a large building with a tower. It was locked with a puzzle lock that could take hours to undo. A few hard blows with a heavy bronze hammer reduced the wooden works of the puzzle lock to splinters and Malgrod entered the house. One of his men wrenched aside the shutters that kept the interior dim and gloomy and the shrouded furnishings were revealed.

The protective sheeting was lifted away by the man who had opened the shutters and uncovered delicate carving and embroidered cushions. "Why was this house locked up and shrouded when all other houses were open when we came?" Malgrod asked.

"It was the home of the Oligarch," the man said. "I came through Tashvad a few years before the rebels took the city. Menul lived here then, I wonder why it was locked and left alone."

"Who can read the motives of these fanatics?" Malgrod sneered. "Bring my baggage up to this residence and continue the search."

When searches of cellars and attics failed to find any sign of the vanished inhabitants of Vishang, Malgrod ordered his men to the plaza in front of the new worship hall. "We will stay here while the search continues. I will give the weight in gold of anyone found in the city before morning comes. Then we will burn this place, beginning here. I want the obdurates of Vishang to perish with their shrine."

Beneath the city, people crowded the corridors and the hall that had once served as a shrine for the priests of Agdil's lineage before becoming the chamber for the cult. Lamath had stayed behind with his wife, Belnian and many of his people when others had evacuated. Their one chance to leave Vishang was to take the ships of Malgrod. A child whimpered before being snatched close to her nervous mother and comforted with whispers. It was unlikely she would be heard here in the main chamber, but not all the children had been brought this far. For some, there had barely been enough time to hide in the tunneled corridors that led to houses throughout the upper part of Vishang.

The city had been warned by Saget who had made his way across to the fens with Virda, Tolat and Elianin. They told Lamath of Irilik's warning dream and the threat of Malgrod's carnage. The people who still lived in the bog had been warned and had fled northward to the ports where Zedek and Thalonon were preparing to escape the prophesied disaster. The people of Vishang had put their trust in the dredging of the harbor mouth.

Belnian held her new infant close and watched her husband's face. He was tense and drawn from hours of unceasing labor in the past few days. The clearing of the harbor had come too late to use the ships in relay but they were able to carry more than half of the people to safety. Virda had wanted to stay on with Belnian who had been in the middle of giving birth, in no condition to go aboard a ship when Algunagada's fleet was sighted.

Belnian had insisted that Virda go with Tolat and Saget. Elianin had refused to leave her cousin's side and had stayed in the city. Now she was busy helping with the older children who had to be kept quiet as they waited.

Lamath lifted his head and inhaled. "The fires in the bogs and the number of people we have hiding in these tunnels should have made the air worse in here by now. Fetrik, Gudran! I need your assistance."

The two men who lingered nearby hurried to his side. Although they had been formally attached to Witheral and the civil government of Vishang as constables, they had chosen to stay with Lamath when the evacuation took place. "What do you wish, Your Worship?" Fetrik asked after giving a salute.

Lamath smiled. He had tried for years to convince the skinny elder that he was not to be addressed with honorifics or saluted, but the effort had been in vain. Somehow, the two former guards of the Oligarch had attached themselves to him and regarded him as the real power in Vishang. Their devotion served him well now that Witheral and the others of the council had departed.

"There must be an undiscovered source of fresh air," he told the two men. "We never fully explored the extent of the natural caves that abut the manmade tunnels. It may be there is a way to escape without confronting the tyrant's priests."

"Of course there is," Fetrik assured him. "The Maker would not let such as the Lady Belnian perish with her babe."

Gudran nodded. "When I was a boy, we played on the cliffs north of the city. There were caves, but they narrowed near the back and we could not explore further. Perhaps that is the source of the fresh air."

"Please find out, will you?" Lamath asked.

Both men saluted and hurried out. With a half-smile of amusement still on his face, Lamath turned to Belnian. "I hope Fetrik is right. I would not want you to be martyred my dear."

Belnian chuckled, "I have faced worse. The prospect of being ravished by Badar before being sold to one of the cultists was far more frightening. I believe the Radiance will provide a way to escape. Go now and encourage the others. Pray with them and help calm their fears. I am well enough and the baby is healthy."

"You should rest while you can," Lamath said.

He turned to Elianin. "Would you stay and watch the baby while Belnian sleeps? I will take the twins with me for a while so she can have quiet. Perhaps I will find some small tasks to keep them out of mischief. Maybe they could help the women who are giving out bread."

Elianin took the baby and began to sing a soft lullaby. The downy cheeks of the tiny child were nestled in her neck and she smiled. Nothing in her pampered years as a princess had given her such joy.

Lamath lifted his daughters, Palian and Dulin onto his shoulders. Belnian relaxed into the cot he had provided and sleepily smiled at the sight. In his long priest's robes with a child looming over his head on either side, he little resembled the pirate captain who had first won her heart.

Gudran recruited several sturdy boys whose grubby hands and dirt-stained knees provided evidence that they had probably indulged in the same adventures on the northern cliff as he had when he was a boy. "We must find a way to leave this place," Gudran told them. "You might know of some way to enter the corridors from the cliffs outside." He looked around at the all too innocent faces of the urchins and saw that one of the smallest of them was looking anxiously from one to another of the older boys.

"If we cannot leave by some other way than the ways we came in, we will starve, or worse, the bully priests of Algunagada will find us and we will be burned in the Shrine." Gudran said with careful emphasis.

The small boy poked the large boy standing next to him, "I think we should tell them, Bonath. It is better to break our bond than to be burned alive."

The older boy looked around at his confederates and shrugged elaborately. "I was thinking we should let them know, Doth. After all, what good is it to have a secret cave if it means you have to starve or die to keep the secret."

Released from their sworn secrecy by his words, the other boys grinned with relief. "I can show you how to go," the small boy said. "I'm the only one who can squeeze through the hole now."

"I can still do it if I do not worry about tearing my clothes," another boy volunteered.

"How many of you could make it if you weren't wearing any clothes?" Fetrik asked.

The boys smirked at the suggestion. Then they looked around at each other and began to nod and chuckle. "I think most of us could fit," Bonath admitted. "If we had some real tools and not just stones and broken knives, we could make the opening big enough for a man to get through."

"Fetrik, you take the larger boys and go find some digging tools." Gudran said. "I imagine any long sharp piece of metal you could find would be helpful. I will follow the three smaller boys and see what can be done."

He followed them back through the corridors until the last of the rock cut walls fell behind them and they entered the natural cavern that continued toward the face of the cliff. He could see the light of the setting sun ahead of him when he came to a place where knobs of rock narrowed the passage so that only the boys could pass. While he waited for them to return and report what they could see from the vantage of the cave mouth, he surveyed the passage and felt heartened by what he saw.

The walls of the cave were not close together. The difficulty came solely from the presence of the knobs that formed bulges of crusted rock. He took his knife from his belt and scraped away at one of them. The rock was soft and easily scored with the point of his knife.

By the time Fetrik came along with the older boys and a collection of knives and bars, Gudran had managed to undercut one of the knobs and dislodge it from the wall. Without needing any further instruction, the boys set to work, each choosing a knob and competing with the others to cut it away.

They took a break when the three younger boys returned to report what they had seen. "We went out of the cave and over the top to where we could see the harbor. There are seven ships in the harbor now and two still waiting to come in," Doth reported. "They are some big and some small, but if we can steal them, we can pack in close and everyone can get away."

"I'll bring men to help clear the passage," Fetrik volunteered. "We'll need baskets to carry away the rocks."

Gudran held up his hand to stay his friend. "Wait. I remember where this cave comes out. There is a steep track down to the mouth of the harbor. I doubt it would be easy for the women and little children to make the climb, especially Lady Belnian. We have to find a way to get them out through the town."

Doth spoke up without consulting the other boys. "There is a tunnel that comes out in a ruined building near the harbor. I discovered it once we made our way into the corridors. It ends in a dirty closet that's filled with all kinds of barrels and things. It looks like nobody remembered it for years and years. There's rats and spider-webs."

"Rats are preferable to some other dangers," Gudran assured him. "Continue working on the tunnel, Fetrik. I need to consult His Honor Lamath about a plan I have."

Lamath had been wondering about the extended absence of his loyal guards. When he saw Gudran smiling and signaling to him from the opposite side of the great chamber, he made his way toward him casually, trying to avoid arousing the notice of the people nearby. False hope could be deadly to the people who were already aware that only their prayers stood between them and destruction.

"What did you find?" Lamath asked as soon as they were in a private alcove.

"We've found a passage and it can be widened to accommodate a man within the next few hours," Gudran said. "The problem is, the path from the cave where the passage opens is steep and may not be passable for such as Lady Belnian."

Lamath shook his head. "I think we will find a way to get the elderly and fragile down the path, even if we must carry them on our backs."

"That will not be necessary," Gudran insisted. "One of the boys who showed us the exit has found an unknown entrance in the lower part of the town. We might be able to use it for those who are unable to descend the cliff. This is my plan. We will lead those who are healthy enough to brave the cliff path down to the edge of the sea and capture Malgrod's fleet. Those too old or young or frail to risk the path will take the passage Doth discovered and we will convey them with small boats."

Lamath listened and nodded, his eyes gleaming at the suggestions Gudran made. He added a few refinements from his own knowledge of ships and seamen. "Bring me the boy who knows where the tunnel near the harbor is located. Then return to the digging and let me know when the tunnel has been sufficiently widened and you have obtained the things we need."

Doth was awed to find himself leading the high priest through the tunnel he had discovered several months after the boys had finally widened the mouth of the cave wide enough to enter the corridors under the city. He took due credit for the activity at the cave and the discovery of a possible alternative exit, but somehow he had not expected his exploits to draw such exalted notice. That Lamath was the high priest did not impress him nearly so much as his former career as a pirate captain. In their games, it had always been Bonath who played the part of the hero who had vanquished the slavers and pirates from Vishang.

"This is where it stops," Doth said. He pointed to a wall that was apparently the same rugged stone as the other opposite. "I noticed it 'cause there's a crack down there at the bottom and a rat ran out and, and-" He foundered in his attempt to avoid the truth.

"I would have yelled if a rat came out of nowhere," Lamath said.

"Uh. Yes, I yelled, but then I figured that the rat must have come from something besides solid rock so I explored. I found this other rock that didn't match very well so I pushed it and twisted it." He demonstrated as he spoke and the stone panel slowly opened to a width only slightly wider than what the boy could slip through.

Lamath grasped the edge of the stone door and pushed it open a little further. Spider webs fell into the widened opening. They were heavy with a burden of dust that must have taken years to accumulate. Lamath considered the wisdom of going beyond the door and finding himself in the midst of a nest of Algunagada's priests.

"You told Gudran that you had explored beyond the door and found a ruined building. Could you describe it to me?" he asked Doth in a murmur.

The boy took the hint and lowered his own voice to a near whisper. "I saw a lot of chains along the wall where there were benches. The front end of the building is crushed down."

Lamath nodded. He recognized the description of the galley slave barracks. For several years there had been a debate about what should be done with the building. It had been wrecked by the crushing weight of the heavy galley Gald five years before when the rebels took Vishang. Some said the building should be repaired as a terrible reminder of the past. Others argued that it should be left as it was, for the same reason. The decision to raze the building had been made shortly before Saget brought word of the coming of the end. It had hardly seemed a profitable use of time and effort to raze a building in a city that soon must be abandoned.

As part of the decision making, Witheral had asked Lamath to survey the building. He had not been able to gain access through the entrance and had finally resorted to cutting a way up through the floor from a disused pier that ran along beside the building on the harbor side. He had discovered that although the front of the building had been crushed beyond restoration. The back portion was still sound.

He doubted that the priests of Algunagada had been able to enter the building, but it gave access to the port. It was perfect for his purposes. "Come with me," he told Doth. They edged through the opened panel and pushed away the trash and storage that the boy had described. The room they found themselves in was small and the door that led to the main part of the building had been torn from its hinges by the distortion of the frame when the Gald had crashed.

The danger that the door might fall was the main impediment to getting out through this route. "Run to the tunnel where the others are working to clear the way and bring back several of the older boys to help me," Lamath instructed Doth. "Bring one of the pry rods with you."

"There are some other boys who used to live out in the bog," Doth said. "Usually us town boys avoid them, but they could help you here."

"Would they follow you?" Lamath wondered aloud.

"I saw them watching us when you followed me here," he answered. "I'll tell them the captain needs them. They'll come."

Doth sprinted off toward the inner corridors, his small legs flashing in the light from the lamp Lamath held. The priest shook his head and chuckled, "The Captain!?" he muttered in bemusement at the long abandoned title. Then he turned back toward the door and began to pry it loose.

A piece of bronze that might have been the base of a lamp but was now twisted beyond recognition, served as a pry. The door came loose and he leapt to catch it before it could fall on the stone floor and make a racket. Leaning it against the wall, he began clearing away the barrels and sacks that had accumulated in the storage room in the years when the building had housed galley slaves.

Doth returned with a group of boys who hurried to help Lamath as soon as he explained what he wanted, emphasizing that silence must be maintained or the priests of Algunagada would hear them. After he had worked with them for a while, he noticed that one of the boys was clearly the leader. The other boys looked to him when they were unsure what to do next. He put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "What is your name son?" Lamath asked in a low voice.

"I'm Withnal," the boy whispered.

"Could you keep on here, making sure this job is done while I'm gone?" Lamath asked.

"I will," Withnal said.

"Remember, keep quiet," Lamath told him. "The priests of Algunagada may be just beyond the wall. If there is any noise, it could endanger all of us."

He left the boys to finish clearing the path and returned to the chamber where he had left his wife. He found Belnian awake feeding her infant son and Elianin sorting through a pile of clothing they had salvaged in their flight from the city. When she looked up, Lamath gestured for her to join him.

"We have a plan, but I need someone to help organize the evacuation," Lamath told her. Could you do it Elianin? Ordinarily, I would ask my wife."

Elianin glanced toward Belnian who nodded reassurance. Then she turned back to Lamath. "What do you want me to do?"

"We have found two means of leaving our hiding place without going through the town," Lamath explained. "Some boys led Gudran and Fetrik to a cave entrance that lets out on the sea side of the harbor. It would mean making a dangerous descent for some of the older and weaker people." He flicked a look toward Belnian and Elianin nodded.

"There is also a possible exit through the building that was used as a barracks for the galley slaves in the harbor area. I have a gang of boys clearing it now. I want you to contact those who you think will need to take the lower exit; Belnian, of course, and old Tomik, the scribe. There are others, mothers of young children and people who have some handicap that makes the prospect of shinnying down a cliff unlikely unless they could be carried. I leave it up to you to sort it out, Elianin. I'll send a boy named Doth to you when we are ready. He will show you where to take them."

Elianin grinned her delight that he would trust her with such a task. When he left, she returned to Belnian. "The weeks since my escape from the smothering life of a princess have been wonderful. Finding you again was one of the best things, next to seeing Irilik and following the Light."

"You must have wondered why I vanished from my father's home so soon after his death," Belnian said.

"Your stepmother hinted that you had eloped," Elianin said. "She pretended to be devastated by your disappearance. I'm not truly surprised to hear that it was her own treachery that sent you away. You have done and seen so much. How can I carry out this assignment Lamath has given me without disappointing him?"

"You've had good examples of how to lead. Just pretend that you are Virda. She is efficient and practical without being pushy; compassionate without being soft."

Elianin took on a look that was so similar to Virda's knowing maternal expression that Belnian smiled. "Exactly, now go out there and show what you can do. I'll be fine with the baby."

Elianin moved swiftly through the crowded corridors with her guidelines for choosing those who would take the lower route firmly in mind; attitude was as important as ability in certain choices. Balkir was old but he was agile enough, and he was a complainer who might create a problem when children were in tow. She decided he would go down the cliff.

On the other hand, old Tark would take on challenges that few would expect of a man with only one arm. She pulled him aside and explained the circumstances, letting him choose.

"I could help with the little ones," he ventured. "There are some mothers with several children to keep quiet. They like me and I think it would be best if I went with them instead of braving the climb."

In most cases, the choices were easily apparent. She spoke to those she picked as candidates for the escape through the barracks and told them to prepare themselves. "When I come for you, you must be ready to join me. Pack what you need now and gather your children. Dress in your dullest clothing to avoid drawing notice. You may find your sons are missing. Almost without exception, they are helping Lamath with the scheme."

"What of my little Doth?" a woman asked plaintively. "He is just a small boy."

"He is the one who will guide us to our escape," Elianin said.

"What about our daughters?" another woman asked.

"Those who are strong enough will join the men and women who go down the cliff unless they have a duty caring for other, smaller children. We need every able hand in this endeavor," she explained.

She stopped next at the area that had been set up as a commissary and found Belnian's twin daughters and other young children helping to pass out bread. The woman who was supervising the line quickly understood why the children were being returned to their mothers and helped Elianin lead them through the dim corridors.

Elianin's sorting out of those who would go through the lower exit was passed along as speculation and rumor. Soon everyone knew that those who had not been chosen by Elianin would likely have to take their chances on the cliff. There were no objections. She had done her task thoroughly and well.

Meanwhile, the men and boys who had been working to widen the tunnel finished their task as the last knob of rock yielded to the probes and pry bars. Following Gudran's instructions, several youths and men moved forward with a rope made from lengths of sturdy cloth braided together. All the ships had moved into the harbor at Malgrod's orders. There was none to see the men of Vishang as they clambered down the cliff and onto the narrow beach of loose rock exposed by the tide.

Lamath's planned to take the fleet by stealth. The ships hardly rocked in the protected harbor. The moon was a mere sliver in the sky. It was excellent weather for swimming for those familiar with the pitfalls of the harbor. The first few men who swarmed up the lines and over the rails of a ship were prepared to fight the sailors left behind on board.

They found the deck empty of men except for one lookout in the robes that marked him as one of Malgrod's priests. He was sleeping at his post and quickly dispatched. They found the galley slaves below, still chained to their benches. To a man, the slaves greeted the invaders as saviors. The news of the changes made in Tashvad when it became Vishang had traveled the sea lanes. Unchained, they volunteered to stay at their oars to aid the escape.

The next ship taken was primarily a sailing vessel. Once again, the watch was a laggardly priest. Gudran, expecting a fight when he opened the hatch cover, met a friend. "We wondered when you would come," Sangin said.

"What are you doing here?" Gudran asked.

"We were in the royal port of Avarnad picking up supplies when Malgrod swept down and confiscated every ship in port. It seemed to me that rather than fight, it would be best to go along. I would have aided you before, but we were tied up and locked in the ship when Malgrod went ashore. He must have known that most of the sailor's he impressed were likely to mutiny at the slightest chance."

"Are all the men aboard trustworthy?" Gudran asked.

"Most are my men and sworn to Irilik, but there are some who were arbitrarily assigned to this ship. What are our orders?"

"Part of the fleet is needed at the harbor's mouth to pick up those who have climbed down from a cave a few boys showed us. They had found their way into the corridors."

Sangin loosened the bonds of his comrades. "I'd wager it is the same cave we used to dig in when we were boys. I guess another generation proved more determined."

A few of the crew were unwilling to deny the oath they had made to Algunagada before they knew the outcome of the fray. They were bundled away with ropes on their hands and gags in their mouths.

A steady line of men, women, girls and boys made their way from the cave and down the face of the cliff on the side that faced the sea where none in Vishang could see them. They gathered on the narrow bight where the tide was already turning, lapping at the feet of some of them. The takeover must be completed soon or they would have no choice but to return to the cave and try again the next night.

In the harbor, the ships changed hands with little conflict. Some of the watchmen priests were still alert and were kept from giving an alarm by an even more vigilant team of stealthy boarders. There was no hesitation in dispatching those who openly wore the symbol of their loyalty to Malgrod. They were quickly stripped and drowned. Their robes were gathered and bundled ashore. As soon as the ships were all secured, small boats began to cluster near the pier where Lamath had cut into the slave barracks.

Elianin waited near the opening and saw the first of the boats as it nudged against the pier. For one moment she held her breath, hoping that it was their own people and not one of the priests. The sight of a familiar face at the oars reassured her. She turned and beckoned to the first of her charges, a mother with two young children. The woman slipped down through the opening while Elianin held her children, then she held out her arms and took them one by one. The two men aboard the boat settled the children and their mother and waited for the next passengers. As soon as the boat was full, it pulled away and another took its place.

Belnian had joined Elianin in the barracks, but she sat on a bench with her three children, waiting while the others took their place. Her patience was a much needed example in the dark room where only one dim lamp gave light to aid the escape. The fear of discovery was a palpable influence to push and shove ahead.

Old and young, halt and blind, the exodus continued. Elianin lost count of the number of boats that had been filled. Whimpering children were reassured and quieted. Silence was essential.

A child, unaccustomed to the motion of the boat, gave a shrill cry before it could be quieted. Elianin could not pause to lift her hands, but she prayed as she lowered yet another woman through the gap and handed down an infant afterwards. The baby giggled and snuggled into its mother's arms. An old woman was next. Soon another boat was full and moving away.

Malgrod felt certain that the people of Vishang were still somewhere in the city. The sense that they were waiting just out of sight, could not be banished. He prowled the city, searching for some entrance to a hiding place that his men had overlooked. A faint noise brought him to a halt. "I heard a child cry down by the harbor."

"Perhaps it was a gull," one of the priests who walked behind him muttered.

Malgrod whirled and tried to determine which of them had dared to contradict him. The deep cowls of their hooded robes hid their faces. He lifted his lamp and no glimmer of guilt showed in any of their hard eyes. They were all facile liars, an unfortunate trait that did not quite cancel out the usefulness of their callous willingness to murder at his command.

He pointed at one of them, "Bring ten men to the harbor and meet us there." Then he turned and stalked toward the lower city, certain that he would find a sign of the missing citizens of Vishang. His face twisted in a rictus of evil glee. Tomorrow there would be a sacrifice of obdurates when he burned the shrine.

Elianin turned to Belnian and her children, the last of all who had waited. Belnian handed her baby to Elianin who handed him down to the waiting sailor. Little Palian was next, followed by Dulin. Doth had stayed with Elianin, running errands and carrying messages. Now he slipped through the opening and stood on the low pier. Elianin followed him and helped Belnian down to stand beside her. The three of them looked at the small boat where the baby and his sisters, Palian and Dulin were already cuddled into the arms of two widows.

"The boat is full," the sailor said. "If we take any more, we could be swamped."

"Go, take the children to safety," Belnian urged. "We can wait for another boat."

The boat moved away into the dark, the oars so carefully wielded that hardly a splash betrayed its direction. The weather had been ideal for the escape, almost eerily calm, but once the boat was out of sight a breeze sprung up and Elianin shivered. She wrapped her cloak around her and looked worriedly at Belnian whose eyes were closed in her careworn face. It had been an exhausting day for both of them.

"Belnian, and Elianin, a harvest I had not dared to hope for," a hated voice crooned from above. They looked up and saw the leering face of Malgrod surrounded by four of his ruffian priests. He pointed to them and in a few moments the men by his side had scrambled down onto the low pier and roughly handed the two women up to stand before the high priest. Doth, hidden in the shadows under the barracks, went unnoticed.

Malgrod reached out and touched Belnian's cheek with the tips of his fingers. "You are more lovely than when I first fell in love with you. Your stepmother vowed you had died. Later I found that she had betrayed her bargain with me and sold you to slavers. If you swear the oath to Algunagada, you may be restored to the position I intended as my concubine."

"She'll never swear to Algunagada!" a shrill voice cried and Doth rushed from his hiding place to confront the looming men. Surprised by his sudden appearance almost under his feet, the bully priest holding Elianin lurched to catch him, leaving only one hand to hold the princess.

Elianin wrenched herself out of his grasp, leaving the shawl she had wrapped around her shoulders. "Run Doth. Tell someone that Belnian is captured." She skittered away down the pier and leaped onto the wharf.

Caught between pursuing Elianin or the boy, the bullies hesitated and earned a series of kicks from Malgrod. "Idiots!" the high priest screamed. He kept his grip on Belnian's shoulder and she, recently delivered of a child, had no energy to fight him.

"There are four of you. How could you let a mere child and a girl escape you?" Malgrod screamed in a fury that mottled his face with scarlet. Pulling Belnian after him, he ran from the wharf and followed after Elianin, urging his men to give chase.

When the men had followed Malgrod's example and clambered to the street beyond the dock, Elianin was still in sight. She was quick and lithe, skirting cargo that had been stacked near the wharf and darting into a narrow alley

Malgrod sent two of his men back to the pier to find Doth. The other two ran after Elianin. They lumbered along, hampered by their long robes. Elianin turned her head and glanced behind her to assess the chances of escaping her pursuers. With a cry, she made a misstep on the rough path and stumbled to her knees, then fell forward with the impetus of her run. She rolled and got to her feet to run again, but her mishap had taken just enough off her lead for the men who followed her to close in. They hemmed her in on either side of a walled corner and one leaped forward, falling on her and shoving her to the pavement.

She fought for breath against his crushing weight and the odor of sweat and filth. Finally the other man pulled him off and helped Elianin to her feet. When she realized that there was no further chance for escape she stood erect and waited to be taken back to Malgrod with dignity in her face. When her arms were clasped and tied behind her with one of the false priests' sashes, she did not let the pain of their rough handling show in her calm expression. When they led the princess back to Malgrod, he cursed them for taking so long to catch her.

Moments later the two other men returned from their pursuit of Doth. "Did you kill the child?" Malgrod demanded.

"He crawled into a hole," one of the priests whined. "We had no way to follow him."

Malgrod beat on the man with the rod of office he held in his hand. The bullies backed away, shielding their faces from his tantrum and he turned to Belnian who stood quietly within the grasp of his other hand.

"Will you swear to Algunagada?" he asked her. She turned her head away and refused him any answer.

"Then you will die in the morning alongside any other obdurates we find," he snarled. "It is a pity you will not accept my offer. You were a pretty thing, little older than a child when I first noticed you and decided to make you mine. I made a deal with your stepmother to have you. As you know, at the time I arranged your abduction I was not free to offer marriage. My horse faced wife still had connections powerful enough to give me pause. But that would not have stopped me from making you my wife now that I control Algunagada, and with him all Kishdu." He turned to Elianin who stood defiant with her golden eyes flashing in the light from the lamp he held. "Your cousin is unwise. I hope you are more sensible to what I offer."

Another group of dark-robed men hurried up the street to join their fellows. Malgrod shoved Belnian toward them. "Take this woman to the worship hall and prepare her to be sacrificed in the morning," he said. "Take your pleasure with her if you want, only do not mark her and make sure she is alive to feel the flame." Malgrod lifted his lamp and studied Belnian for her reaction to his callous permission for her ravishment. He smiled when he saw her cheeks pale with revulsion.

The man who had fallen on Elianin stroked her cheek and neck with an impudent finger. "What will you do with this one. It seems a pity to waste such tasty meat in burning," he grunted with a porcine wheeze.

"Give her to me," Malgrod growled. "Meanwhile, continue to search for the others. I cannot believe that these two women were left alone."

He turned his back and stalked away toward the house he had chosen for his residence with a firm grasp on Elianin. He smiled when Belnian cried out a pitiful farewell to her cousin.

The priest who had been given charge of Belnian was silent as he lifted her into his arms and carried her away from Malgrod. Instead of carrying her up toward the high part of the city where the new shrine had been surrounded by dry wood, waiting for destruction, the dark robed priests turned back toward the harbor. They carried Belnian down narrow stairs to a place not far from the pier that had been used for the evacuation from the galley slave barracks.

Belnian began to struggle, hoping to divert them from their path. If the priests found a boat at the pier, they might guess where her children were. She was still weak from childbirth and with every futile effort she gave a little moan of terror.

The man carrying her covered her mouth with his hand. "Be quiet," a beloved voice murmured close to her ear. "Malgrod will hear us."

"Lamath!" she whispered with all the love and gratitude of any prayer.

No further words were spoken. Wrapped in their borrowed robes, the men who had rescued Belnian were nearly invisible in the night. They walked further along the pier to two boats they had tied up at a mooring. Belnian was handed down into small arms that reached up to steady her. Doth was waiting in the boat.

One of the other men stepped down into the boat, but Lamath stayed on the pier with two others. "I must try to rescue Elianin," he said. "If we fail, and are captured, you must go quietly with Doth and Gudran. Our children need you."

In the highest part of the city Malgrod entered the ornate palace of the Oligarch that had been closed and unused for five years. He led Elianin into the wide audience hall where silk cushions and gilt carvings reflected the light of his lamp. After securing the door, he released her arm. "I thought your cousin was lovely years ago, but now I see that I had overlooked a prettier flower. Have you taken a lover Elianin? Is that what has made you into a woman instead of a stiff little girl?"

Elianin remained silent, but her eyes flashed with anger. Malgrod laughed and pulled her close, covering her mouth with his lips. She was stiff in his grasp and her mouth remained tight shut with her teeth locked against his intrusion. He put her away from him with a sneer of distaste. "You stink of that oaf who fell on you. I will show you to the baths and leave you alone to think of the consequences of refusing me. Shall I give you to the flames with your cousin tomorrow?"

Elianin's eyes lit with hope. There would be pain if she joined Belnian in her martyrdom, but she would willingly choose the fire over a life as Malgrod's toy.

Malgrod laughed again when he saw her expression of anticipation. "No. You will not be given the chance to escape me, even by fire. You know my wife, I can finally be rid of her, but while I wait to discard her there is no reason that I cannot establish a second residence here beyond her prying spies. I will pamper you, little princess, and Algunagada need never know that the bride intended for him is my concubine. You will resist at first, but that will only add piquancy to my pleasure, like spice in a sweet custard."

She remained stolidly silent, refusing to waste words that might only serve to amuse Malgrod. He took her arm again and led her to the bathing room that was down a flight of stairs in the cellar of the residence. At first she was afraid that he meant to bathe her himself, but he shoved her into the chamber and locked her in. She heard him laughing as he left her alone in the dark.

She could sense the presence of the bathing pool in the humid air of the room. This house was unfamiliar to her, but in the days she had spent in with Lamath and Belnian before they had to find refuge in the tunnels under the city, she had often used the bathing chamber in their home. Her brief glimpse of the room before Malgrod had shut the door had shown her a room not much different in its layout from what she had known.

She moved tentatively away from the door, sliding her feet along the floor to avoid falling into the pool. At last she felt the molded tile of the edge of the pool under her toes and stopped to lean down. The water was warm and she felt dirty from being handled by Malgrod and his bullies. Removing her over dress, she bathed her arms and face, scrubbing at her lips until the last imagined taint of Malgrod's kiss was washed away.

For a moment she was tempted to drown herself and escape forever the threat of a life of degradation and despair, but she remembered Doth's escape and stood. He might bring others, and while there was some chance of rescue, she would try to keep hope. She stood and put on her overdress, then found her way to the wall where she tried to relax and sleep.

With no light for reference, she could not know how much time had passed when the sounds of scraping stone from the wall behind her brought her awake, only to quiver with fear when she remembered where she was and what the sounds might mean. There was no way to tell how much time had passed since Malgrod had left her alone in the bathing room. He might be coming for her. A lamp flashed and she could not suppress a little wail of fear.

"Elianin!" It was Lamath's voice that spoke. He held the lamp to illuminate the room. She saw that one of the panels in the rear of the room stood open and recognized one of the hidden entrances to the tunnels beneath the city.

"How did you find me?" she asked.

"We saw Malgrod take you," Lamath explained.

"What of Belnian!" she whispered, half afraid to hear his answer.

"We have her safe," he answered. "I will explain later when we are safely away from here."

Lamath led her out of the bathing room and closed the panel behind him, securing it with the hidden latch. The two men he had brought with him were waiting in the corridor. They made their way through the tunnels and came out through the galley slave barracks onto the pier. Lamath went first and scouted for any sign of Malgrod's men. When he was certain there was no danger of discovery, he returned for Elianin and led her to the boats which were tied at the pier in concealment.

After helping Elianin aboard the small craft where Belnian huddled with Doth, Lamath stepped down into the boat and took the oars. The other men followed in the other boat. With deft strokes of their oars, they rowed the boats almost noiselessly toward the waiting ships. There was still danger of discovery while the ships lay close in the harbor and they kept silent until they were hauled aboard one of the ships and taken below. When it was safe to speak, Lamath explained their rescue.

"We had been waiting for the last boat from the barracks, but when it came, the two of you were not aboard and the women with our children said they had seen you captured. I knew that it would be unwise to send another boat to the same pier, so I took a few men in a couple of boats and rowed to the other side of the barracks near where the Gald was foundered by Walad five years ago. We found Doth there."

"I was trying to go down to the end of the harbor where the cliff starts, but I couldn't get past the wreckage," Doth said. "The boats with priests came toward me and I thought I was caught too." Doth's eyes went wide with remembered terror. "Then I saw it was the Captain. I told him the priests caught you."

"We took some robes from priests who were left to watch the ships," Lamath explained. "I had intended to take a group of men into the city and kidnap Malgrod. I thought we could use him as a hostage to ensure your safe return. After we picked up Doth, I headed for the other end of the wharf. We saw Malgrod and started toward him. It was a great surprise to me when he handed Belnian over to us."

"You could have captured him if I had not been there," Belnian lamented.

"Malgrod is not important," Lamath assured her.

"You might have used him as a hostage to gain relief from the god-king," Belnian persisted.

"I doubt Algunagada would give anything in return for Malgrod's release," Elianin said. "I suspect he would be highly relieved to be freed from his steward's plots. If I know my sister, Calanin, Algunagada probably has little time for anything but trying to please her."

While they spoke, the ship had begun to move. The breeze had freshened and the sail was filled. Lamath left them and went on deck to take the helm. He knew better than any other how to leave the harbor of Vishang. The ship glided past the last of the rocky shoals that had torn the bottoms from many Renonese vessels when Vishang was called Tashvad. After clearing the harbor, he took a northerly heading.

Lamath turned the wheel over to another man and returned to his wife who was sitting on a pile of rope near the rail with Elianin. Belnian held her sleeping infant near her cheek, savoring his tiny puffs of breath. Elianin held Dulin and Palian in either arm. They cuddled up to their mother's cousin, unaware of how close they had come to becoming orphans. Lamath picked up the twins and led his wife and her cousin to the lower deck. The area was crowded with the sleepy people they had rescued.

Elianin found a place to snuggle down next to the widows who had carried away Belnian's children and kept them safe. They made room for her and soon she fell asleep. Belnian followed Lamath to the captain's cabin which was his for the duration of the trip. While Lamath settled Palian and Dulin in the cot at the foot of the bed, she changed the clothing that had felt the grip of Malgrod and began to nurse her infant.

"Tonight Malgrod told me he had conspired in my abduction from Renon," she said.

"How was that?" Lamath asked as he settled down beside her on the wide bunk.

"He bribed my stepmother to pretend I had been stolen. She was to turn me over to him as a concubine. She was always quick to play a double game and sold me to the slavers when they offered a better price. I wonder what Malgrod did to take revenge when he discovered her treachery?"

Lamath smiled. "It is just as well I am taking you away. Who knows what other plots your beauty might inspire."

Belnian yawned. "My time for such things is past, but I should warn Elianin. She's twice as pretty as I ever was. I fear that soon she will wish she had a plainer face."

Lamath murmured sweet denials that any woman could be as lovely as his wife, but Belnian smiled indulgently. "I wonder if Virda could spare Tolat to keep an eye on her?"

* * *

Malgrod woke with anticipation of the coming sacrifice and the pleasure he would find with Elianin afterward. He was no romantic fool, thinking he could convince Elianin to accept him without resistance, but it would not diminish his enjoyment if she still resisted him after a night spent in the darkness of the baths.

A tumult in the corridor brought him upright in his bed. Someone pounded on his door, and then, not waiting for an answer, threw it open. "The ships are gone. The woman for the sacrifice is missing."

Malgrod stepped to the window that gave a view of the harbor and discovered the truth of the rude messenger's words. He sent the frantic messenger away and locked his door. For the first time in many years he knew real fear. He did not try to pray for release from the trap that had been sprung. He knew better than anyone that the deity he forced others to worship was a hollow sham. Algunagada was nothing more than a vain little man who had gained the throne through clever manipulation. Even if the God of Irilik were true, he would have no sympathy for one who had done his best to obliterate his believers and tear down his houses of worship.

Malgrod dressed and ordered his servant to bring breakfast. The men he had recruited were unlikely to organize quickly without his guidance. It would hours before they realized that they were trapped between the burning fens and the sea with no ships to take them from Vishang. Without the supplies on the vanished ships, the stores of food would soon be exhausted. When the bullies he had recruited found that there was little left to eat, they would turn on him like wild dogs.

The servant appeared with what must be a significant portion of the food they had scavenged from the deserted city. The bread was a little stale and the eggs were distinctly sulphurous. He kept the wine but waved the tray away and locked the door after the servant retreated.

Malgrod selected a small packet from his pouch of poisons. It was a match for the one he had given Calanin when he met her in the palace garden at Renon. He wondered what the silly little fool had done with the poison he had instructed her to feed Saaden and Elianin. A smile tilted his mouth with sour amusement when he thought of her offering a dose to Algunagada.

The tripod water heater was already steaming over the flame that warmed the room. He selected his favorite cup, a delicate hollow bud carved of one large emerald etched with golden tracery. It had been a gift from Algoth when they both were young. After pouring the hot water over the powdered death and adding a bit of wine to cool the brew, he settled by a window with a pleasant view and sipped the cup of poison.

Low on the horizon, the Flame of Algunagada had appeared as the astrologers had predicted. It was hardly visible, its long tale like a pale eyelash against the deep blue of the western sky. It did not appear to be broken, as Irilik had predicted. In that at least, the prophet had failed.

Malgrod thought of the warning Irilik had given. If it were true, this cup of poison would give him an easier end than the flaming death the young prophet had promised. He lifted the delicate cup to his lips and felt the numbing begin as a tingling in his feet.

The acrid odor of smoke was his first warning that the miscreant priests he had brought to Vishang had found a means of slaying him without trying to breach the solid lock on his door. He had shown them how to fire a building to get a quick result. The poison already numbed his legs enough to prevent him from running to the window. There would be no escape from fiery death. For a moment he thought of Elianin, still trapped below in the baths. Perhaps the fire would free her. He giggled at the irony of the thought.

Chapter 9 Gathering

The small village of Zedek had swollen to a crowded city of tents and brush huts. They filled the narrow valley and climbed the low hills that surrounded the sheltered inlet. Virda's sons had erected a home for their mother near the top of the tallest hill. It had a good view of the harbor and the sea beyond.

Saaden climbed the hill to visit his sister and found that Taleek and Janak were already there ahead of him. While they waited for Virda to appear and tell them why she had summoned them, they sat on the terraced porch near her door and looked out over the harbor.

"There should be more people gathered here," Saaden said when he surveyed the crowds that had gathered near the harbor to welcome Lamath's fleet. "The people of Kishdu have chosen to be blind."

"There are so many that we will be challenged to find deck space for all of them when we sail," Janak replied. "I had hoped we could take some breeding stock of horses, sheep, and cattle, but we cannot leave a child behind in order to take a calf."

"Zedek is building more boats," Saaden reminded him.

"But even he could not build sufficient boats for Kumnor's herd," Janak said. "Our greatest problem will be taking sufficient food. What do you say, Taleek?"

"Does Irilik say how long the voyage will last?" Taleek asked. "I cannot enter into discussions of provisions until I have some knowledge of the number of days we will spend on the sea."

Virda overheard their dour comments when she joined them. She smiled and batted her brother on the arm, "Now Saaden, I did not invite the three of you here to discuss such mundane worries. We must sail within a month. All must go. The Maker will provide for anything we need once we have done our best."

"Maker?" Janak quizzed her. "I thought it is the Radiance we worship."

She playfully boxed his ear with her hand. "Maker, Radiance, Yasa Dom- it is the same. You sound like some of the obdurates we rescued who sit around and argue about the proper name for our immortal deity instead of firming their arms with useful labor. Irilik has begun to use the title of Radiance for the one who leads him because it unites us all under a new name. The Holy Name never changes. But none of you have addressed the reason I asked you to come and meet with me."

"Then tell what concern we have that only you seem to have discerned," Saaden said.

"Irilik must marry," she said. "It is up to you to point him to his duty."

"He is little more than a boy!" Janak exclaimed.

"He is as old as you were when you married Mirla. As long as Irilik remains unmarried, Tedak will consider his duty to his master above his duty to the people," Virda explained. "With Tedak's talents, he would better serve as the leader of a sept."

"There are other, older men who could share our burden," Taleek said.

Saaden chuckled. "Virda is not so concerned with finding new leaders for septs as she is with the nature of Tedak's service. She has never reconciled herself to the way he addresses Irilik as Master."

Virda nodded. "Perhaps you could find other men to lead septs, but Tedak is Irilik's hereditary servant. Slavery and servitude must end before we reach the new land we are promised. Releasing slaves was the one thing Algun did that I never disputed ."

"I'm surprised to hear you speak anything good of Algun," Saaden said.

"The poor silly man! He is a fool," Virda admitted. "From what you've said, the prim little princess has a ring through his nose, but before he lost all good sense, he was right about ending servitude."

"Who would you have Irilik marry?" Janak asked. "There are maidens aplenty who look after him with yearning eyes, but I have not seen him offer any of them encouragement."

"Irilik must marry Elianin," Virda said. "Have you seen the way they look at each other when neither knows the other is watching."

"The boy is already overburdened with his duties," Taleek protested. "Would you add another problem to his load?"

Saaden shook his head to refute Taleek's cynical voice. He knew his friend was influenced by his difficulties with his wife, Lanin, who was still not fully reconciled to leaving Renon.

"Perhaps not marriage, but a betrothal would serve," Saaden mused. "We could approach Irilik in our capacity as counselors and advise him it is time to choose a wife. Virda could play the part she knows so well and bring the young people together."

Janak looked down the trail and saw Tolat running up the hill toward them. The youth had attached himself to Irilik as a messenger. "I think we can anticipate an urgent summons from our young prophet," he said.

In moments Tolat slid to a stop outside the perimeter Virda had marked off with fist-sized stones. Saaden nodded to him and gestured him closer.

"Jarayor, the father of Kumnor, has come from the east with evil news," Tolat gasped. "The priests of Algunagada have discovered where we are. The armies of Renon are gathering to march against us. Irilik has called for his council to meet for a reading of the Eye of Adanan before the evening ritual."

They sent the messenger on his way with a promise that they would attend as requested. Virda had joined Taleek, Janak and Saaden along with others such as Thalonon and Sangin as members of Irilik's council. Now that Lamath's ships had arrived, the body should be complete.

Saaden excused himself and climbed to the top of the hill. From this vantage he could see most of the encampment spread out below him. The number of people visible in the camp was deceptive. Many were already living aboard one of the nearly fifty ships that had gathered in the bay. It was an ill-assorted fleet ranging from tiny ships that would be hard-pressed to carry more than ten people to the great galleys that could accommodate more than a hundred passengers plus a crew. There were only six of the large galleys. When the ship Zedek was working on was finished, there would be seven, but the news that Algunagada's priests were gathering for an assault might mean they must leave before it could be ready.

Below him on the harbor side of the hill he could see bronze-smiths working at casting and hammering implements. They were Zedek's and Saget's men, practiced in the skill of providing marine implements. He was happy to see their skill. Without them, the proposed resettlement would have been difficult. Beyond the immediate need for mending swords and armor, there was the long range problem of settling in a new land without the technology that could produce metal tools.

He looked to the east where Kumnor's clan was camped. The great herd which had met Irilik's people two weeks before was already greatly reduced. Lines of drying racks, placed to catch the wind, were covered with slices of salted meat that would be placed in kegs when they were dry. When Kumnor had said that all he had was offered to the people who followed the light, it had not been a hollow claim. The herd that had been a heritage of generations had been slaughtered to provide food for the hungry crowds who had followed the prophet and dried as stores for the voyage to come.

Teams of harvesters were working on the grass-covered hills to the north gathering wild grain to be parched and threshed. A group of women knelt near the river bank below digging up succulent roots to be dried. These were Witheral's people from the bog. Aside from the Kumnorans, they were among the best organized and most generous of the gathered people.

Saaden lifted his hand to his brow to shade his eyes as he looked for his son Domsik. The youth had been difficult to find in the past weeks. He seldom attended the evening gatherings when the Light on Irilik's staff glowed to remind the people that the Radiance was with them. Meals were usually taken in a common dining tent and Domsik never sat with his family.

He recognized other youths in the scene of industry below. Arnath, Virda's oldest son, was helping caulk a boat with his brothers, Ralk and Falga. Their other brother, Tagnet, had disappeared from one of the ships weeks before. Saaden wondered what had become of the boy.

"Saaden! The hour of council has come," Virda's voice broke into his reverie. He turned and scrambled down the hill as fast as safety would allow, sliding on loose rocks along the way. It would be a while yet before the sun was low enough to activate the Eye of Adanan but he was eager to meet the newcomers to the council. Lamath would be there along with Zedek who had brought people to the gathering place from ports further to the north. He wondered if Jarayor, Kumnor's father would be at the council meeting.

As he crossed the village of tents set up near the harbor, he saw the new arrivals from Vishang being welcomed and given food. Two bright heads, one red-gold, the other more copper in hue, caught his eye and he veered toward them. Side by side, their resemblance alone was enough to prove the claim that Belnian was cousin to Elianin.

Elianin looked up from the child she was comforting and saw him. "Saaden! It is good to see you again. Is Ir--are the others all here?" Her suppressed question confirmed Virda's judgement.

"Everyone is here," he assured her. "You must have heard that a council meeting has been called. Lamath would have received a summons to attend."

Belnian smiled. "Lamath was off the ship and about his business long before we got things together and woke the children. I am sure that wherever he is, he got the message."

"We knew you would escape Vishang," Saaden said. "Irilik assured us days ago that all would go well, but how did you come by this fleet?"

"We stole it from Malgrod!" Elianin boasted with a laugh. "It is a story that deserves a full telling when we have more time. Someone just hung a blue flag on the top of that large tent near the shore. Does it have some significance?"

"It means I am late to the council meeting," Saaden admitted. "Radiance bless you until we meet again!" He turned and hurried away. When he entered the tent he saw that the other members of the council were already standing in a semicircle around the Eye of Adanan. The maps of Kishdu were supported on a panel where they would catch the light from the oracle device. Figures representing the various members of the council and the ships of the fleet lay close at hand.

Irilik had already lifted the side of the case and the light of the late afternoon sun crept up the edge of the table and began to fall on the colored gems within the crystal case. Saaden glanced around and saw that Lamath was present along with a grey-haired grizzled stranger whose resemblance to Kumnor named him as Jarayor, the young chief's father, who had brought news of the threatened invasion.

When the first brilliant rays from the Eye of Adanan illuminated the map, Saaden felt the same sacred thrill that he had experienced the first time he had witnessed the phenomenon. He knew now that Irilik had used the oracle device to help him plan a successful strategy in the taking of Tashvad, but the mystery and beauty of the artifact impressed him more than the practical application of its activation.

He had spent more than half of his life as a strategist and soldier. Many of the auguries that the Eye of Adanan provided were similar to the hunches he formed from years of experience. While he watched Tedak and Irilik use the figures and symbols to manipulate the information they received, he made a forecast of his own. They would find that the gangs of priests were approaching, but with Malgrod out of the picture, their progress would be slowed by their lack of leadership and the terrain of desert and mountains. The armies of Renon would prove a worse threat, but some of the soldiers would still feel some loyalty to Saaden. Even so, it would not avail to send men out to battle against them. It would be better to keep everyone in camp making preparations for their flight from Kishdu.

His attention wandered from Irilik and Tedak and the lights that flashed and danced on the maps they had prepared. The faces of the others in the council drew his gaze. The face of Kumnor's father was still firm and only slightly creased with signs of age. He seemed young to have resigned his chiefdom. Saaden wondered why he had been given the right to stand with the council. Would he reclaim leadership of his clan now that he had joined the gathering?

He looked around at the other members of the council. Lamath, Witheral, Thalonon and Zedek were all men with proven qualities of leadership. He knew that their opinions would be grounded in experience. These men gave a core of solid reliability to the council. The others came from varied backgrounds. Saget's battered visage betrayed his origins as a scavenging orphan on the wharves of Tashvad. Sangin seemed a little shy of the others. Without his wife, Kalmena standing at his side to give him backbone, he would not have been an asset to the group. Virda, Taleek, and Janak were as familiar to him as his own two hands and just as necessary. They had been the real backbone of the rebellion. Algun, who was now their enemy, had been little more than a bombastic figurehead. Irilik, though still gawky with youth, was a more impressive leader than the former rebel chief who now pretended to godhood.

His wandering thoughts were interrupted by Irilik's next words; a summation of what he had seen in his reading of the Oracle Device. "We thought we had a month before we must leave Kishdu, but it seems that we have little more than two weeks," Irilik said when the light had finally faded from the maps. "It will do no good to try to engage the priests and armies of Algunagada in battle. All of us must concentrate our efforts on preparing for our journey. I rely on you to continue with the work we are already doing. Are there any other issues to discuss?"

Virda stepped forward. "I have a concern to bring before the council."

Irilik acknowledged her brisk demand with a smile. "What can we do for you Virda?"

She set her hands on her hips and leaned toward him. "It is time you were married, Irilik. Tedak is needed as an administrator and I think it unwise to set an example of keeping an hereditary servant."

Irilik grinned and brushed an errant lock of hair away from his eyes. "You all know that Tedak is free to do what he will."

"We may believe that, but some of the people think that he is little more than a slave, bound to you without hope of release," Virda said.

"That is nonsense," Tedak replied. "If and when Irilik marries, I will still serve him."

Irilik shook his head and placed his hand on Tedak's shoulder. "Virda is right. Your talents are needed elsewhere. Tolat can perform most of what is needed, and I like the idea of marriage." His eyes fixed on Lamath and they exchanged a smile of understanding. It was no secret that a special bond had been established between Elianin and the young prophet.

"It is settled then," Virda pronounced with the satisfied smirk of a confirmed matchmaker. I think we all know who your bride should be. I will take charge of making the arrangements."

"I think I should take some part in notifying my choice of bride and her family," Irilik demurred.

"You may speak to the young woman, but otherwise, I will arrange all that is needed and proper. I think it would be best if you were married on the night before we sail. It would give us all a festival to lift our spirits before we must face the unknown." The other members of the council signaled their concurrence and the matter was concluded.

Sadden could only admire the despatch with which his sister had settled the matter of Irilik's marriage but he had an issue of his own to address. He raised his hand and Irilik acknowledged him.

"There is another matter that you should consider," Saaden said. "We need to adopt a code of laws. It should be done as soon as possible, but it will take time to write a code that satisfies all of the various people who have gathered to the light."

Lamath raised his hand to be recognized and when Irilik nodded he held up the books he had brought to give to Irilik. "Aganon gave a code of laws for Oliafed and it was written in the book of Jaroth. I gave the code to Witheral when he began to lead the council of Vishang."

Irilik took one of the books from Lamath's hands and opened it to the section that contained the code of laws. "This code was made by Aganon when his people fled the tyrant Valranagada. Will you read them for us Lamath?"

Lamath proceeded to read the fifteen major laws proposed by Aganon. When he had finished he closed the book and looked at Irilik.

The young prophet nodded. "I believe they will serve us well." The men and women of the council nodded thoughtfully as they realized that this was a code they could keep. It provided for harsh penalties, but in the circumstances, such were needed. A traitor among them at this time could mean death for all.

"There are rules that govern the behavior of the ruler as well," Irilik said, taking the book from Lamath and opening it to the relevant section. "This seems to apply to my current situation: "The High Priest shall choose a bride of the maidens of the people. She must not be given to folly, but must be a virgin, untouched by other men that the inheritance of the true lineage shall not be in dispute." A blush suffused his cheeks when he realized the particular application of the law to his own situation and he handed the book back to Lamath.

"I suggest we adopt the code of Aganon to govern our own affairs," Saaden said.

"Are any opposed to Saaden's suggestion?" Irilik asked. He looked around at the other members of the council and saw no indication of dissent. "We must not treat our laws frivolously. If there is an objection to any article of the law, the objection must be brought before the entire council and discussed and considered. All who will support and affirm the code of Aganon as our law, please indicate and give your pledge of support."

He raised his own hand in the ancient sign of oath taking and all of the others followed suit. Tedak, serving as scribe of the council, recorded the covenant.

"I will read the code to the gathering this evening after the evening ritual and ask the people if they will support it," Irilik said.

"I suggest that Tedak should make a copy of the code of laws for each of us who head a sept," Taleek said. "It will help me a great deal if I can show that the judgements I make are based on a written code and not merely my whim of the moment."

Tedak nodded. "If Tolat will help with my duties for Irilik, I will have time to make the copies before we leave Kishdu."

Virda stepped forward with a roll of cloth. "I made this cloth for Irilik so that he could keep his journal on a surface that could not suffer the fate of the books of Jaroth and Omnikar. You may use it to write a copy of the laws."

Irilik examined the cloth. It was woven so finely that the individual threads were hardly visible, and the surface was smooth and dense. He smiled. "Thank you Virda. From henceforth all our important laws and prophecies shall be kept on cloth like this in one long, uncut record that cannot easily be tampered with."

The low sound of a bell interrupted any further discussions. It was time to meet for the evening gathering when Irilik would perform the daily ritual. As first councilor to the prophet, Saaden stayed behind when all but Tedak, Tolat, and Irilik left the tent and went to gather with their people. Tedak showed Tolat how to restore the Eye of Adanan to the carved loaf that had continued as its hiding place when it was not in use. Saaden helped Irilik don the robe, sash and cowl that he wore when he performed the evening ritual.

Saaden and Irilik left the others and walked toward the scaffolding where Irilik stood when he gave the prayers that would ask blessings on the meal and on the night to come. The sun had set, but there was still enough light to illuminate the children who were playing in the central clearing of the camp accompanied by several young women. The bright hair of Elianin glowed in the subdued light. Saaden saw that Irilik eyes were following Elianin with particular interest and he smiled to himself. It would be a fitting match.

Elianin looked up and her face lit with a smile when she saw Irilik. The young prophet stumbled a little, betraying where his thoughts had wandered.

"I think you are not opposed to the plan to make a marriage as soon as possible." Saaden said with a wink. He supported the ladder while Irilik mounted to the top of the scaffold then he headed off toward his own tent where his wife, Enna, would be waiting for him to lead his family to the ritual. She had been a good wife, and unlike Taleek, he felt his life had been blessed by marriage. Only one concern flawed his domestic contentment. Domsik had a way of avoiding him. He had begun to suspect that his son was unable to see the light that glowed so brightly to his own eyes.

He watched while the people assembled around him. Stars spangled the night sky above when the last latecomers hurried to their places. Irilik reached upward with his hand and with a practiced movement, opened the orb of intricate metal work that Kumnor's smith had wrought for him. The light of the Stone of Truth flooded the valley and an involuntary gasp of wonder sighed through the crowd. The prophet set the orb on the top of the new staff that had been made for him by one of Witheral's people. It was carved with leaves and flowers like a living vine and at the top it formed a resting place for the orb that was like a lantern because it could both conceal and reveal the light.

Irilik raised his hands and his face and closed his eyes and paused before beginning his prayer. Silence fell on the multitude while they listened. The hush was broken only by the coos and giggles of a few infants, a sound like birdsong that enhanced the reverent mood of the gathering. "We come before the Maker, The Radiance, the bearer of the Holy Name who is and will be. We witness by receiving the light of truth on our faces that we have received Yasa Dom into our hearts. We praise and thank our eternal King who has led us from the vales of death and dishonor-"

The prayer went on for a few minutes more but tonight it was shorter than usual. When Irilik finally spoke the ritual benediction that ended the prayer, the people were still looking upward, expecting more. They were not disappointed.

"Tonight the council has taken an oath to support and keep the ancient Code of Laws given to Aganon. The laws concern ways in which men and women rebel against the light. In the days to come, all of you will have the opportunity to view the particular points of the law that was made to help mankind keep to the true path. There are fifteen sections to the general code, but in essence, there are four key points of the law. You will not murder, you will not steal, you will not perjure yourselves, you will not commit adultery. I ask you now, are you willing to honor the Code of Aganon?"

Irilik's voice penetrated to the last row of the gathering and with one voice the people shouted their pledge to keep the law. Saaden felt a fervor seize him as he added his voice to the multitude. With his intellect and integrity he had given his oath in the presence of other members of the council, but now he gave affirmation to the law with his entire heart and soul. The Light on the top of the staff seemed to take on the luster of midday for a few precious moments. Shaken by the experience of being a small part of an exultant whole, Sadden took Enna's hand and pressed it in his own as they moved toward the dining tents.

The coverings of the tents had been rolled back to accommodate the crowd that had grown now that Lamath's people had joined the gathering. The multitude was still filled with the exultation of the meeting, greeting each other and making quiet conversation, but the attitude of reverence continued. Sadden felt for the first time that every man, woman and child in the great assembly was as dear to him as a sister or brother.

He watched Irilik leave the scaffolding where he had prayed and administered the oath. A smile tilted the general's lips when he saw the young prophet approach the family of Lamath and Belnian where Elianin sat with a child on either side. His approach was hesitant. He hardly seemed the same man who had stood only moments before in a posture of leadership. Saaden turned away from the sight and concentrated his attention on his own family.

Irilik felt his voice shake when he hailed Lamath. Everyone in the family turned their eyes toward him, even the infant Belnian held in her arms looked up. The child still had the deep, night-dark eyes of early infancy and Irilik wondered if he eventually would have the dark eyes of his father, Lamath, or the golden eyes of Belnian.

"Is there some news from the council that you need to discuss with me?" Lamath asked.

"No, I thought I would eat with you and then walk back to the boat with you," Irilik said. "I want you to tell me what you can about the seas that lie to the west."

"Lamath knows better than most what you will find beyond the islands of Anwat," Belnian replied. "He has told me how he sailed the straits as a pirate, waiting to fall on the ships of Renon."

Lamath took Irilik's request seriously, seeming unaware of the real reason for the young prophet's presence in his family gathering. Irilik and Elianin traded shy glances, but every time Irilik tried to direct a question to her, there was an interruption. Finally Lamath stood, signaling an end to the meal.

"Momma, I want to play with Gailal," Palian cried, pulling at her mother's free hand and waving to Kumnor's son who was almost dwarfed by his father's horned hat which he had balanced on his head.

"It is late Palian," Lamath replied, taking his balky child up into his arms. "Tomorrow you can come and play with Gailal and the other children. Now we must get back to the ship and say the prayers for the sailors who stayed on board."

Irilik had hoped to spend a few minutes alone with Elianin, but she had picked up the other twin, Dulin and was amusing the child with a tiny toy she had woven from a piece of grass. He walked with the family, conversing with Lamath but keenly aware of every word that Elianin murmured to the child in her arms.

When they reached the narrow jetty that led to their boat, Irilik bade them all farewell and turned back toward his own tent. "Irilik!" Lamath called. "I have something to ask of you."

Irilik walked out on the jetty to where Lamath was waiting. "Belnian has just reminded me of a concern she has," the captain explained. He led Irilik a little aside to put them out of hearing range of the women and children who were waiting in the boat.

Irilik's mouth dried and his heart beat harder. This was the moment to ask Lamath for his permission to court Elianin. As her nearest available male relative, it could his right to grant the privilege. "I-I want to ask Elianin to marry me," he stuttered.

"It is not my place to grant or refuse that privilege," Lamath said. "When Elianin decided to leave the formal betrothal her father had arranged for her, she became her own agent in the matter of marriage. Talk to her yourself. But that is not why I called you back. Belnian is worried about the safety of her cousin. She is a young and beautiful woman. If all who have joined us came because they saw the light, it would not be a concern, but there are many men who followed their leaders into the gathering. Could you spare Tolat to watch out for Elianin?"

"Gladly," Irilik replied. "I will ask him tonight."

Lamath grabbed his shoulder and squeezed it in a gesture of silent approval, then he turned back to join his family in the boat and return to his ship. Irilik watched them row away, the bright heads of the women and children gradually dimming in the darkness of the harbor. He knew he would see Elianin in the morning, and he grasped that hope to banish the tightening of his chest when he could see her no longer. Finally, only the faint splash of water from Lamath's oars remained to tell him where they were.

He stood staring out into the harbor until the murmur of the surf along the narrow shingle was the only sound he heard. Bright hope for a future with Elianin intermingled with a gnawing sense that it could never be. Too many times he had dreamed of similar scenes, Elianin near him, then taken away. He turned his back on the dark silhouettes of the ships that filled the harbor and walked toward his tent. As usual, Tedak waited up for him, but Tolat sat there as well.

"A gloomy face for a bridegroom!" Tedak teased.

"Not quite a bridegroom yet," Irilik reminded him. "I must court the lady first. What if she will not have me?"

Tolat shook his head and chuckled. "Elianin is yours, mind and soul. It is evident to anyone who sees the two of you together."

Irilik's expression changed from pensiveness to joy at Tolat's reassurance. "I will ask her formally tomorrow. Tolat, Lamath said that it might be wise to set a watch on Elianin. He reminded me that not all who joined us have the same motives. Could you spare time from your duties to keep track of where she is and who is paying her unwonted attention?"

"I will do as you ask," Tolat said with a gesture that turned his words into a covenant.

Reassured, Irilik turned to the small tasks that still remained before he slept. His last act of every day was to open his journal and record the things that had taken place. Tonight's record covered several pages. The arrival of Lamath's people with Malgrod's fleet, the decision to adopt Aganon's Code, the sweet promise he had glimpsed in Elianin's quick glances, all were equally important to him. He hesitated at writing down his feelings about the princess. This was, after all, a record he was keeping for a people. His private thoughts about Elianin would remain unwritten.

Irilik slept dreamlessly, or if he dreamed, they were not dreams that lingered when he woke to the scent of a delicious breakfast. He rose and washed himself in a basin of warm water that Tedak had provided before leaving the tent.

Tedak was busy making dumplings in a simmering spiced broth, but Tolat was not in the small yard that Tedak had marked out with stones. When Tedak saw Irilik glance around for the other man he smiled. "Tolat saw Elianin headed for the fields with the twins and Kumnor's boys. The children have been asked to glean after the women. It will keep them busy and out of trouble, and it might even result in a little extra wild grain. Tolat volunteered to help the boys trap conys. It will keep him near enough to Elianin that he can guard her as you asked."

"I've been a sluggard to lay abed while others were working," Irilik said with a yawn.

"I could have waked you earlier, but it is only just past dawn, and you were up late writing your journal. It was good to see you sleep undisturbed by warning dreams."

While Irilik was eating a committee of men approached, led by Lamath. With the date of sailing moved up, they wanted to discuss the appropriate placing of the ships within the formation that would take to sea.

"It will take every seaworthy vessel we have, loaded full, to transport all the people who have gathered," Lamath said. "I am wary of some of the ships. They could be swamped if there is stormy weather."

"The augury seems to promise that we will have fair weather," Irilik said.

Saget, Zedek and a few of the other prospective captains fell into a discussion of technical aspects of the voyage that Irilik was unable to follow. When one of them suggested that he should consult the Eye of Adanan on some matter, he stood, the better to be heard.

"We cannot consult the oracle device for every detail of our passage," he explained. "We have been working on methods to yield more information from each session, but we cannot know every variable that might affect the reading. It is far better for you to do the best you can with the skill you have. I understand that several among you are the finest sailors in Kishdu. It is important for you to rely on resolving your problems with the skills and experience you have without leaning on an oracle."

"He speaks the truth," Lamath said. "It is nearly time for the noon meal. I fear we have been wasting his time."

"I have learned a few things," Irilik assured him. "I have full confidence that you will plan well. If you still have questions about the general aspects of your plans when you have worked with them for several more days, we will try to convert the questions into symbols that will yield an answer from the Eye of Adanan before we sail."

Irilik had intended to seek out Elianin following the noon meal, but she was surrounded by children, and he was asked to settle a dispute between two of the council members. Kalmena wanted to send out small boats to find more fish to dry, but Taleek felt that it was more important to use the available drying racks for preparing journey meat from the Valdasian herd.

They had each been rehearsing their urgent reasons for the policy they preferred. When Irilik welcomed them into the tent, he forestalled their acrimony by introducing a concern of his own.

"With departure imminent we should begin loading the ships," Irilik said. "Kalmena, would you and Sangin take charge of allotting cargo space and organize your people to ferry the baggage to the ships. Taleek can provide you with an inventory of the storage available once we provide a minimal allowance of space for the people. There will be certain individuals who will argue that they must be granted more space for their belongings, but I know you have the ability to convince them of the need to be moderate, without injuring their feelings."

Kalmena was quick to see the need for her skills and Taleek was grateful to dispose of a task he had dreaded. They went off together, conferring about a common cause.

Saaden had been standing just outside the council tent, waiting to discuss another matter with Irilik. He overheard the conference and was smiling when Irilik asked him to enter.

"You have a skill for leadership that I have not previously appreciated," Saaden said. "How did you know that Taleek was dreading the arguments he would receive from everyone who felt their allotment had been shorted and that Kalmena would welcome a chance to mediate between need and want? I would have sent the two of them off on separate tasks instead of harnessing them together in a team."

"Taleek and Kalmena both have skills and strengths that will prove invaluable to us when we reach our journey's end," Irilik explained. "The attitudes that cause conflict between them are the same things that make them a good team. Taleek is rational and careful. Kalmena is generous and optimistic. Anyone who has dealings with her is bound to feel that she is giving them every possible allowance without hurting someone else."

Saaden smiled at the way Irilik had ignored the praise offered for himself and had concentrated on those he had helped and enlisted. He could not but compare the young leader with Algun. Both of them had a knack of inspiring others to follow them, but Irilik was almost entirely unselfish. Perhaps it was his youth, but on the other hand, Algun had been as young when he urged that there was no crime in stealing the lands and wealth of landlords, however blameless they were. He had condemned them as a class. It was a great irony that Algun had, in the end, been named Lord of all the land by his new confederates.

"What did you want to tell me?" Irilik asked.

"I have come to ask you if we should keep to our septs when we sail," Saaden explained. "There could be trouble brewing among those of us who have a large contingent of the un-enlightened. There are sailors and soldiers who have come to the gathering not because they saw the light, but because they followed those who did. I fear that if the voyage lasts for a long time, they will be the first to question the wisdom of our flight from Kishdu."

Irilik frowned. This was not the first time the question of the unenlightened had been raised, but it could cause a lot of trouble if he tried to test everyone for worthiness and cast aside those who could not see the light.

"I think that we should keep to our septs, as we have determined them. You will be the one most burdened by defectors since there are more potential dissenters among the soldiers who have signed on with your sept. If we test the people, and cast out those who fail, they might combine against us before we sail."

Saaden nodded. "I had reasoned it out the same way, and hoped you would reassure me. I must confess that my own ability to see the light has not been consistent. I try daily to open my heart more fully to the Radiance, but sometimes it is a struggle."

"It is a struggle for me as well, and I fight it daily," Irilik assured him. "When I feel that I am secure against the luring voice of the Liar, he will use some cunning trap of pride or reason to undermine my devotion. Of one thing I am sure: there can be nothing more precious than seeing the light of the Stone of Truth, or all will be lost to darkness."

Saaden was not the last to seek Irilik's counsel and daylight was nearly spent when the prophet left the council tent. A bank of looming, dark clouds along the western horizon would prevent a reading of the Eye of Adanan, but the prevailing wind promised to keep them from causing rain nearby. Irilik looked to see if Elianin was finally free of her young charges. He scanned the area for a glimpse of her distinctive golden hair and saw her on the far side of the city of tents, too far away for him to hail her.

Musing on the various concerns of the day, Irilik proceeded toward the scaffolding where Tedak waited with his robes of ceremony to help him dress for the evening ritual. A lilting voice intruded on his reverie before he reached his goal.

"Irilik, why are you frowning?" Elianin asked breathlessly.

He turned and saw from her rosy cheeks and tossed curls that she had been running to catch up to him. He smiled. "I have been wishing that I could find a moment alone with you to ask you something."

She glanced around. They were still far enough from the scaffolding that Tedak could not overhear them and the nearby tents gave them shelter from the eyes of any others. "What did you want to ask me?" Elianin asked him.

"I have dreamed for nearly six years of a girl with golden eyes who laughed at me," he said. "Why did you laugh?"

"My mother had said that she wanted to make a betrothal between me and Orelank's heir. The High Priest was old and had great fearsome eyebrows. I was afraid that his heir would be a middle-aged man with a frightening scowl," Elianin said with an impish smile. "When I saw you, I laughed with joy. Later, when I thought you had died in Oliafed, I cried."

Her face had fallen into a somber expression with the memory of that desolate time. Other shadowed thoughts followed; the betrothal to Algunagada, the night she had feared that Malgrod would destroy her innocence.

Irilik lifted her chin with his hand. "You accused me of wearing a heavy face, but this frown of yours destroys my peace. What thoughts could make your eyes so sad?"

The errant lock that always threatened to fall over his right eye was a temptation to her fingers and she brushed it aside with a tender gesture while her smile returned. "Nothing in the past should shadow our future. Do you have any other questions for me?" Elianin asked.

"It has been decreed that I must marry, and I can think of no other wife for myself but you," he said. "The nuptial preparations are already underway. Will you marry me on the eve of our voyage from Kishdu?"

"It is the dearest hope of my heart to be your bride," she whispered. They lifted their right hands and placed them together palm to palm in an intimate sign of their troth.

"Elianin, where are you?" a plaintive childish voice called from not far away.

"I must go," Elianin murmured. "The children will tease me mercilessly if they find me lingering here alone with you." She turned and dashed away with a toss of her fiery curls. A joyful little laugh was the last Irilik heard of her voice before she disappeared around the side of a tent.

Irilik walked toward Tedak, letting his wide smile tell his servant most of what he needed to know. Tedak grinned and pounded Irilik on the back in a sign of congratulation. Then he put on an expression of seemly propriety and held out the robe of ceremony. "Will I still serve in this way when you have a wife to care for your other needs?" he asked.

Irilik considered the question as he adjusted the blue edged shawl over his shoulders. "It seems strange to me that I would marry a princess only to have her cook my breakfast and wash my clothing. Maybe I should learn a little more of how to take care of myself. Whatever else happens, you will always share these priestly tasks, as long as we share the same city of residence."

Tedak gave a little grunt, his stolid face not quite scowling. "What makes you think we will ever live in different cities?"

Irilik did not explain the brief insight that had shown him a patriarch with greying hair performing priestly functions for his own family. The patriarch was Tedak and he wore the same robes of ceremony that Irilik himself had just assumed. Without answering Tedak, he mounted the scaffolding to pray.

Irilik had hoped the next day would provide another opportunity to speak to Elianin. He soon realized that he would have to be content with her promise. A group of refugees arrived from the north, bringing a report of Gravika. When Tedak came to the council tent with several of the new arrivals, Irilik invited them to meet with him. His sisters had married the Gravikan teamsters who had saved them from bondage. Perhaps they were among the newcomers.

The refugees from Gravika were a ragged group, some of them wounded from encounters with Malgrod's bullies. He recognized most of them, old soldiers from his days with the rebels, but neither Mancut, Falil's husband, nor Argul, Bethin's patient mate, were among them. Somehow he felt it would be intrusive on the privacy of his sisters to ask outright about them, but one of the men gratified his curiosity unknowingly.

"Gravika was a tough nut for Malgrod's priests to crack. They are mostly teamsters there, rough men who take orders from none who are not willing to pay the freight. Two of them, Argul and Mancut, are the nearest things to leaders the others will tolerate. They and their wives and families took their herds and escaped into the northern waste when they were warned of the coming of Algunagada's priests. Many of the other teamsters followed them before your messengers came to warn of what must come."

Irilik had hoped that somehow his sisters would hear of him and join the Gathering. At least they had not yielded to the priests of Algunagada. His visions had shown him that the far north would not be as badly affected by the broken star as the rest of Kishdu. He murmured a silent prayer for the safety of his sisters and their families.

In council meeting that afternoon, Janak proposed that Garad be added to the council. "The priest is already serving as my close aide, but many of the men and women coming from Gravika have asked to join my sept. Those who joined us when we called ourselves The Army of the Stone, might willingly accept Garad as their head."

Saaden stood and spoke in favor of Janak's suggestion. There were none to speak against it. The council unanimously approved the addition of another member. "Tedak, please ask Garad to join us," Irilik said. "We might choose him, but he must be willing to accept the calling."

While they waited for the priest to come, other matters of concern were raised. They were questions of hygiene and safety that everyone had some opinion about. Irilik's mind wandered from the question of rationing water and he thought of Elianin. He would have liked to have her meet his sisters, the only two members of his family still living. Bethin would probably have been full of advice and warning for a young bride. Had Falil ever come to love Mancut? Could you learn to love someone who was not your choice? At least he would never have to face the issue. Elianin had been his choice when he had no choice. A brief pang of regret for the unknown girl of Oliafed who had been betrothed to him, brought a frown of sorrow to his face.

"You dislike the plan of digging more offal pits, Irilik?" Saaden asked concerned at what he determined was a show of disapproval on Irilik's face.

Irilik came out of his reverie and blushed when he saw that every member of the council was staring at him. "No, I have no problems with your proposition," he said. "You have far more experience of such matters than I. I hardly know why you need me here."

"You often offer insights that we value," Thalonon assured him.

Virda nodded. "I cannot count the times you have smoothed ruffled waters when we argued about some issue. Most of us have strong opinions and this council could degenerate into a wrangle without your mediation." The others added reassurances that he was needed, but far from easing him, they let him know that he would not easily find excuses to leave them to their deliberations and seek out Elianin.

Garad entered the council tent to a warm show of welcome from the others. "Janak has proposed that you become the leader of a sept," Irilik said. "You have served by his side long enough to know what the duties will entail. Are you willing to undertake the responsibility?"

Garad did not accept immediately. He looked around at the members of the council with an assessing survey. He met encouraging glances. Finally, he nodded. Irilik liked him better for the hesitation.

The robes the priest was wearing gave Irilik an idea for a possible relief from the pressures of his own duties. "Perhaps Garad and Lamath could sometimes lead the evening ritual," he said.

Lamath smiled and shook his head. "I will wait until we are in the new land you have promised us. I have little enough time with my family as it is. Garad's wife and children will find their time with him is rationed once others have a call on him."

Garad nodded. "You unify us, Irilik. Even those who do not see the Light are attracted to your honesty and familiar with your voice. I'm afraid that if others begin to take over your public duties, there will be gossip that we are usurping your authority."

Irilik could not argue. He felt as if the pressure of his position intensified and he resigned himself to waiting until he was wed to Elianin before he would enjoy the precious privacy that would let them speak of all that lay between them.

At least he had the daily reports of Tolat who had given his pledge to keep an eye out for Elianin whenever he could be spared from running errands for Irilik and the council. The former scullion recounted stories of Elianin's kindness and generosity that made Irilik smile. He anticipated the day of their marriage with increasing impatience.

Chapter 10 Ambition

Domsik peered around him. He had gained some skill in giving the illusion that he saw as well at night as any other, and when he was near the campfires, it was not much of a challenge. Here, beyond the light from the fires, he was virtually blind. He heard low feminine laughter coming from a covert of bushes that appeared only as lighter blotches against the black of the night. "Tarsha, are you there?" he whispered.

"Of course I am here," the girl replied. "I was laughing because of this little lizard that thinks my leg is a tree. See! He is on my hand now."

Domsik stuttered his admiration for the invisible reptile. "Do you think anyone in the camp can see us?" he asked.

"We are out of sight of the camp. Why is that important to you?" she asked. "What did you want to tell me?"

He used the sound of her voice to find where she was, sidling closer until he could feel the ends of her mane of black curls touching his face. "Why are you coming so close to me?" Tarsha teased. "Did you want to take the lizard from my arm?"

He grabbed for her, covering her mouth with his own to prevent her from crying out and holding her close against him. He trapped her arms with one arm while he used the other hand to rip at the ties that secured her bodice to her skirt. She twisted and he took it for encouragement, fondling the bare flesh he encountered when the cord gave way.

Given his previous experience with the harlots of Bagnin, he expected her to relax against him after a playful resistance, opening her mouth and welcoming his advances. Instead she fought his intruding hands. She was like a wild animal twisting in his arms. He became rougher, grinding her against him to demonstrate his intent.

She bit his lips and raked his sides with her fingernails. Somehow she entangled his legs with her own and sent him tumbling to the ground. A sharp boulder beneath him knocked the breath out of him and he was too busy fighting for breath to hold on to her.

Tarsha did not end the fight after gaining her freedom. She leaped up and began to kick him in the stomach and face. He sheltered his face with his hands and brought his knees up to protect his vitals. She changed the direction of her assault, kicking him in the tender places of his back.

"How dare you think I would welcome your advances," Tarsha hissed. "I should remove your only claims for being a man." She pricked him with the point of dagger.

"You never protested. You met me here in private," he reminded her. "You must have known what I intended."

"I was a fool to listen to your flattery," she said, keeping her voice low to avoid bringing notice on their conflict. "Because I accept some burden in misleading you, I will not kill or mark you with my knife for this assault. But beware, if my brother or father hears the slightest whisper of the affront you have given me, you will be hung between two bulls and parted from your skin. No one offers such an insult to the women of the Valdasi and lives. I am not for such as you. My destiny has been declared."

Domsik rolled to his feet, his posture low and chastened. "I will tell none what we have done!" he muttered.

"We did nothing. You assaulted me," she sneered. "I should have known better than to have trusted you."

He started back towards the encampment but Tarsha grabbed his tunic and stayed him by holding her dagger to his ribs. "You are a dog, not worthy to share the Light of the Stone of Truth with decent men. Go, and I will say nothing of why you had to slink away. None will be surprised at your exile. It is no secret that you cannot see the Light."

Domsik felt the prick of the point of her dagger and knew she meant her threat. There was blood and sweat running down his face. Even if Tarsha permitted him to return to the camp, he would be hard put to explain the state of his torn clothing and bruised face. He swerved and ran from Tarsha, northward away from the camp. Fear and frustration drove him, but there was also a small portion of shame. What would his father think when he heard that he had chosen to desert?

He ran until he tired and fell. Rain began to fall, wetting and chilling him. After staggering up and splashing through a stream, he found refuge under a dense bush, but the night passed miserably. Every time he woke from a disturbed doze, he cursed Tarsha for luring him with her flirtatious eyes and laughing returns to his compliments. She had led him on, only to deny him satisfaction for the lust she had inspired.

When daylight came he found more permanent shelter in a low cave near the weedy stream that had drenched him the night before. He huddled there through most of the day, shivering with chill and anger. Necessity finally forced him out into the dull light of the afternoon. The people of the Gathering had been thorough in gleaning the land. Hunger forced him to experiment with eating frogs and tadpoles and digging for the shoots of reeds. His wounds were painful, but not serious.

When night came Domsik's belly ached, denying him all but fitful sleep. He had always prided himself on careful grooming, but with his clothing torn and muddy and his skin rank with blood and sweat he felt the misery of his situation keenly. He entered one more mark against Tarsha's name.

He spent two nights and a day away from the gathering, but finally, even though he professed to despise the people who followed Irilik, he sneaked within sight of the camp and watched them as they prepared for their journey. He skulked at a careful distance, avoiding the Valdasian section of the camp lest Tarsha see him and carry out her threats. He tried to think of some way to regain his place among them and take revenge on the virago who had shamed him..

He was unable to see much of what was going on, but one person caught his notice and held it. The bright hair of Elianin was a beacon amidst the darker hair of the other disciples of Irilik. Domsik watched her as she led children to the waist high meadows to glean whatever grain had not been harvested by the older women. She made a game of the labor and the sound of her laughter tantalized the fugitive.

Domsik's anger and frustration over Tarsha's rejection transmuted into another focus as the days passed. He lusted after Elianin. Somehow he would succeed with her where he had failed with the wild Valdasian shrew. There was another reason to take her. He remembered an obscure point of the law that had been accepted by the Gathering. A man who took the maidenhood of a woman was required to marry her. With Elianin in his power, he could force the Gathering to take him back in full standing.

One day one of the smaller children wandered away from the group and became mired in a small patch of bog not far from where Domsik lay in hiding. The cries of the little girl brought Elianin hurrying to her rescue and the means for abducting the princess was born in Domsik's mind.

The next day he watched while another child wandered beyond the group. He followed a locust and ignored Elianin's call when she lost track of him in the tall grass. This time it was not the child, but Domsik himself who began to cry with a falsetto voice. He moved through the grass, keeping low and luring her further from the other gleaners. Finally, he slithered over a small hill and waited for her in a hollow on the other side, occasionally repeating his false cries.

The capture was absurdly easy. Elianin appeared on the brow of the hill above him and he grasped her ankles, pulling her down to him. She did not react immediately as Tarsha had done, but seemed almost stunned to find him looming up before her with a gag and ropes, twisted from reeds, ready in his hand. Her one quick cry, as quickly stifled by the gag he thrust into her mouth, could easily have been taken as a cry from the wandering child.

He tied her hands and started off toward his hidden burrow at a skulking run with Elianin stumbling and sometimes falling behind him at the end of his rope. Remembering his treatment at the hands of Tarsha, he spared no pity for her. When the rope yanked as she fell, he dragged her for a while before pausing to let her get to her feet. There would be no fight left in her by the time they reached his cave.

The children, curious to see what had taken Elianin so long, saw the wandering child returning with his locust cupped in his hand and questioned him. He said he had heard someone crying, but that was all he knew. For a little longer the children searched for her. They were joined by Tolat who had come to summon Elianin and the children back from the fields for the noon meal.

"Where is Elianin?" he asked the children.

"She went to find a child who was crying," a little girl answered.

"Do you know which child it was?" Tolat asked. He had already noted that none of them seemed to be missing.

The little girl shrugged. "The cries came from over there, near the edge of the marsh. The other day I got stuck and Elianin warned us not to go that way again."

Tolat remembered the figure he had seen lurking near the edge of the marsh and a cold shiver ran over his skin. He had been wary of Domsik for weeks and was not reassured when the smooth-tongued braggart had disappeared. He turned to the children. "I will fetch Elianin. You run back and get your lunch. If you see Saaden or Irilik, tell them I want them to join me."

The fear that someone had abducted Elianin urged him not to linger to tell others his suspicions or consult about what should be done. There was no time to waste. He soon found the track, marked by bloodied rocks and scuffed footprints that told their own story of what had taken place. The signs confirmed his worst suspicions.

At one point Domsik had gone into a stream and Tolat wasted precious minutes searching for the place on the opposite bank where his quarry had emerged. At last he found the track again and raced along, praying that he would not be too late to save Elianin.

She was intended for Irilik, it was only fitting that the princess of Renon should marry the Prophet of the Radiance. Tomorrow had been set aside for the wedding festival, the final act in a busy day before the people of the gathering took ship and sailed to the unknown lands in the west.

The thoughts of the impending wedding hardly touched his anxious mind. Far more urgent were his fears for Elianin's safety in the hands of the rogue who had taken her. Tolat had loved her hopelessly and completely from their first acquaintance when she had come to the Light. His love accommodated the idea that she must be preserved for Irilik, who was second in Tolat's heart only to Elianin.

His worst fears were realized when he topped the rise that hid the marshy hollow and saw her body stretched out on the ground below. For a dreadful moment he feared she had been murdered as well as ravished. Her skirts were rucked up past her thighs, her mouth and hands bound with filthy rags and twisted reed ropes. A swelling purple bruise marked her forehead above closed eyes.

Tolat paid no mind to the man who had his back turned while he washed himself in the stream. He ran down the shallow incline and knelt at Elianin's side. The flutter of a pulsing vein in her forehead reassured him that she was alive. With tender hands he pulled her skirts down to protect her pale skin from the harsh sun, then reached up to untie the cloth that held a gag in her mouth. The knot was greasy and tight. He reached for his knife to cut the band.

"Do not touch her. She is mine!" Domsik screamed with rage when he turned and noticed Tolat's presence. He grabbed Tolat's shoulder and wrenched him back from Elianin. Tolat fell backwards and Domsik boasted of his crime. "I have taken her maidenhood. She must be my bride."

He laughed at the look of outrage on the other man's face. "Go back and tell them to prepare for my marriage."

Tolat staggered to his feet and tried to dodge around Domsik and return to tending Elianin, his knife ready in his hands to cut the knot that bound her mouth.

"Stop!" Domsik shouted. When Tolat did not respond to his order, Domsik grabbed him by the shoulders and tried to drag him away from Elianin. He had always viewed Tolat as a cripple and had often taunted him for his lameness. He did not expect the sturdy resistance to his demand. Enraged, he tried to trip Tolat and managed to bring him to the ground.

Tolat's knife came between them as he fell toward Domsik. It was a long, sharp blade, meant for butchering. He felt numb horror as the knife housed itself hilt deep in Domsik's chest.

Astonishment filled the rogue's face, then terror. He lurched upward as Tolat pulled the knife free. A gabbled protest broke from Domsik's lips as he fell back again, but Tolat had no further care for him. He wrenched himself away from Domsik's grasping hands and returned to Elianin. He wiped the blood from blade of the knife and cut her bonds. While Domsik struggled for his last breath, rolling onto his stomach as he fought for life, Elianin gasped her first full breath since he had abducted her.

Tolat gave her water to drink from his waterskin, then began to wash her wounds. "I am sorry I could not come sooner, my lady," he murmured. "I should have been more careful of your safety. I was given a trust to watch over you and I have failed. I saw him lurking near the gleaners. I should have guessed his purpose."

Elianin had been staring upward, her eyes glazed by the violence that had bruised her body and mind. Tolat's words seemed to recall her from the refuge of her shock. Her shoulders began to quiver and tears flooded her eyes.

"You could not have known what he intended," she said. "He must have watched me for a long time before he caught me alone. He boasted that I would be his means to have leadership and influence among the people. He said it was prescribed in the law."

"Surely if the law prescribes such behavior, the law must be changed," Tolat said.

"What if I am found with child?" Elianin asked.

"Irilik will marry you, whatever has happened here," Tolat assured her.

"He cannot," Elianin explained as tears of sorrow blinded her eyes. "He is High Priest and must not marry a woman who has lost her maidenhood."

"It was not your fault!" Tolat insisted. "Irilik is an honorable man. He loves you. Whoever fathered your child, Irilik will treat it as his own."

"I know what he would want to do, but the law forbids," Elianin insisted.

"Then damn the law!" Tolat cried. "We will not tell them what went forth here. I will say I saved you from ravishment."

"We cannot lie and still see the Light," Elianin reminded him. "I must tell the truth of what was done. I would not lose the Light, even to gain Irilik. He is the last of the Priests of Oliafed and the First Prophet of the Radiance. His first son must be of the priestly lineage, not the suspected by-blow of a rogue."

"Then I will marry you!" Tolat earnestly declared. "None should care what parentage my children have."

Elianin closed her eyes and let herself relax in Tolat's arms. A sad, small smile tilted her lips. She had long suspected Tolat's devotion to her, but until now she had believed it was merely an adjunct of his great devotion to Irilik.

It was thus that Irilik and Saaden found them. The two men had been together when the child had come from the meadow with the summons from Tolat. Saaden was as curious as Irilik to know why the former scullion had summoned both of them. When they found the ominous track, they sped their steps.

At first they were reassured by the scene below. Elianin seemed to lay safe, supported by Tolat. Domsik's body had come to rest face down and it appeared that he had been given a blow on the back of his head that had rendered him unconscious. A few steps revealed the truth when Saaden recognized the spreading stain on the ground beneath his son. He gave a heartbroken cry and rushed to Domsik's side.

Irilik ignored the dead man and stooped down to touch Elianin's cheek. "Are you hurt?" he asked.

"I am dead to you," she whispered. "I live, but what Domsik has done has parted us forever."

"Whatever happened here, I will not give you up. Tomorrow we will marry!" Irilik insisted.

Saaden turned his back on Domsik and came to stand over Irilik. "She speaks the truth Irilik. You have taken an oath to support the law. You know what it requires. Even more sadly, he who takes a life must pay with his life. Tolat has no relationship to Elianin or any duty that would justify killing Domsik under the requirements of the law. Only her male relatives or her appointed guards would be allowed such action without paying the price."

"Are you mad!?" Irilik cried. "You tell me that your craven son's crimes must be answered on the heads of the innocent! I will give my own life for Tolat's, if a life is required."

"There is a remedy," Elianin's faint murmur stopped their quarrel. The men listened carefully while she explained in a voice that faltered with the strain. "In the books of Postemi it is written that if a man takes the life of an only son, the father of the dead man may require the killer to fill the place of his son."

Irilik nodded. "We had a similar tradition in Oliafed, but it deals with accidental death, not murder."

"We wrestled," Tolat said. "I did not plan to take his life."

"If Saaden adopts Tolat, his own family must be denied and he must act from that day forward as a true son to the bereaved father," Irilik said. "He becomes as one dead to his own parents."

"I call on you to witness my decision, Irilik," Saaden declared. "I require Tolat to abjure his family and inheritance and serve henceforth as my son," His gaze was averted from the body of Domsik and his voice shook as he pronounced the words that adopted Tolat as his son.

"I have no family to abjure," Tolat said. "They were all killed during the rebel wars with Renon."

"Then you should have no reason to protest the adoption," Irilik said. "I so witness. From henceforth you will act in all ways as the son of Saaden and serve him as if he were your true father."

"There must be a remedy for the other law as well," Tolat pleaded. "I would gladly marry Elianin and give whatever child she bears my fatherhood and protection, but surely there is some way to satisfy the law so that you may marry her. The people have prepared for the wedding."

"It cannot be," Saaden said. "If Irilik denies the oath he has taken, he will lose his right to lead the Gathering. He knows that the Eye of Adanan will not yield oracles to one who is a deceiver or an oath breaker. Furthermore, Elianin knows this as well as he does and she will not consent to marry him."

"Tarsha will marry the Prophet!" the guttural accents of Jarayor surprised them all. They looked up and saw Kumnor's father standing at the top of the rise above the cave. He held Tarsha's arm in a firm grip and pulled her down the slope toward the others.

"I foresaw that they would be married from the time that Kumnor first returned from Vishang," Jarayor said after he came to a stop in front of them. "I did not know when or how it would come to pass, and once I saw how things were with Irilik and Elianin, I resisted the knowledge, but all my prayers and pleadings for another answer have been denied. Tomorrow, when the veil of Irilik's bride is lifted, it must be Tarsha's face the people see. Otherwise, disaster will overtake the Gathering."

His words reminded Irilik of the futile dreams in which he had pursued Elianin only to have her wrenched away or lost. He wanted to renounce the words of Jarayor, but they resonated with a fate that had haunted his dreams for years.

"I am to blame for what has come to pass," Tarsha cried. "I knew what he was." She spat towards the body of Domsik, "When he tried to assault me, I resisted, but then I let him go without taking his life as the law of the Valdasi requires. If I had told my brother, or used my own knife on him, he would not have done this thing. I must pay the price of my dereliction and marry Irilik."

"You must not marry me out of a sense of guilt," Irilik protested. "I know how you hate me. From the first moment you saw me I could see it in your eyes. Only yesterday when we met, you glared at me as if I had offended you."

"I do not hate you," Tarsha murmured. "Many years ago my father told me that I was destined to marry you. Valdasi women choose their husbands. It was a right I had expected to exercise. No other man caught my interest, but I did not want to marry a stranger without any choice in the matter. That was why I seemed so angry at the beginning. Later, my anger was from a different cause. I discovered that you were the man I loved and would have chosen gladly, but your heart was already given to Elianin. The rage you saw in my eyes is jealousy. It has kept me from seeing the Light in full radiance."

"Tolat has agreed to marry Elianin, and she must have a husband to protect her if Domsik's crime bears fruit," Saaden said. "Irilik cannot marry Elianin without forfeiting his right to lead, and Tarsha is a fitting substitute. The Valdasi will rejoice to see the sister of their chief honored in such a way."

"But all the people expect Irilik to marry Elianin!" Tolat protested. "How will they react to another woman's face when the bridal veil is lifted."

"I suspect they will view it as a bridal jest," Elianin murmured.

Saaden nodded. "It is a common practice among the coastal people such as Zedek's sailors and Sangin's fishermen, to conceal the truth of which woman is the true object of a courting. They will be surprised to see Tarsha under the veil, but they will think you are honoring their practices."

"I would take Elianin away, abandoning the Gathering and all else, if it were possible for me to do so and live," Irilik said.

"I would not go with you, even if you could leave," Elianin murmured. "You must marry Tarsha and I will marry Tolat. It cannot be otherwise." Her words faded away as she swooned.

Tarsha rushed forward, pushing the others aside and kneeling over Elianin. "Go Tolat, fetch my brother's wife, Kapanadel. The rest of you should bury Domsik. We must conceal what has taken place here. Some will doubt because Irilik did not foresee what would happen to Elianin."

Tolat, seeing that Tarsha would not yield Elianin to his charge, turned and ran toward the camp of the Valdasi. Saaden was the first to obey Tarsha's demand that something be done about the body. He walked to where Domsik lay and lifted the empty shell of his son in his arms. For a moment he stood and silently prayed for strength for what must be done. He thought of his wife, Enna, and the years she had spend trying to raise their son to be a proper man. Who was responsible for the twisted thoughts that had driven Domsik? Was it his own failure because he had been so often absent, fighting wars and planning sieges? He would have to go to his wife as soon as possible and let her know what had become of her only son. At least she would be spared the years of yearning loss that would result if he were too cowardly to tell her.

Resigning himself to facing her tears, Saaden carried the body to the low cave Domsik had used for a shelter and lowered it into the opening. Jarayor and Irilik brought stones and earth to cover the cavity. Irilik struggled with himself to avoid cursing Domsik's body and found a few bland words to seal the grave. They washed the stained grass with water from the stream. Soon it sprang up clean, concealing the blood soaked earth where Domsik had died.

When Tolat returned with Kapanadel there was no sign of gore, but her keen eyes detected the fresh earth and rubble that heaped over the shallow cave. Her gaze went to Jarayor who put his left hand in front of his mouth and raised his right hand. She repeated the gesture, giving oath that nothing of what she saw or suspected would pass her lips.

"A story must be spread through the gathering that Elianin and Tarsha have withdrawn to prepare for their weddings," Saaden said.

Elianin's eyelids fluttered and she signaled a need to speak. "Belnian will be disappointed," she murmured. "She expects to dress me for the ceremony."

"It cannot be helped," Kumnor's wife assured her while she applied a poultice to bring down the swelling on Elianin's brow. "You cannot be seen in this state if secrecy is to be preserved. I will speak to her and try to calm her without revealing the reason for concealment."

Irilik felt that his fate was being rearranged by other hands and he had no recourse. Tolat had joined the two women who were tending Elianin and it was only fitting. Tomorrow, the day that should have been the crowning moment of Irilik's life, when he pledged to share his life with his beloved, had turned into a nightmare of loss. He could not believe Tarsha's protest that she had come to love him. It was evident she believed herself responsible for Elianin's ravishment and was determined to pay the price. "I must go apart," he said. "I will come tomorrow at the appointed time for the wedding."

Jarayor nodded. "It is right that you fast and purify yourself before the nuptials."

Irilik sent Jarayor a look of incredulity. He had no intention of fasting and purifying himself for his wedding to Tarsha. He must, however, be alone and without distraction for the hours ahead or he would utterly give way to the rage that threatened to overcome him. He felt that somehow Tolat had robbed him when he killed Domsik. It should have been his own hand that took the life of the rogue. He was haunted by his feeling that Elianin was too willing to abandon her promise to marry him. Tarsha had shown more sympathy to him than any of the others.

"Perhaps someone should go with him," Tolat said when Irilik headed northward away from the hollow.

"He must be alone," Jarayor said. "His soul has been wrenched. None can give him healing but his Master. He will keep his vow and return for the wedding. I have seen that it must be so."

"You might have warned him," Saaden said.

"Do you think he would have accepted my words?" Jarayor asked. "I was forced to keep my own counsel until events fulfilled the evidence I was given in my visions. I did not know how the wedding of Irilik and Tarsha would come to pass. I only knew it must be so."

Once, Saaden would have argued with the seer, but he had learned to respect the words of visionary men since joining Irilik. "I will return to the camp and do what I can to pave the way for the change of plans. Lamath must be told that a change has been made, since he will perform the ceremony. Virda has been making preparations for the wedding feast and must know that there will be two weddings. She could help calm the children who returned without Elianin. They will have started rumors by now."

"We will carry Elianin to our camp," Tarsha said. "It will keep her out of sight of the curious until her bruises can be treated."

Saaden nodded and watched Kapanadel shift a long shawl under Elianin. Tolat and Jarayor grasped the ends and lifted her gently to be carried between them. Kapanadel and Tarsha walked alongside the makeshift litter. Their skirts hid Elianin from view as they proceeded toward the Valdasian camp.

The general turned back toward the site and checked to see if anything had been overlooked that might betray the secret they had determined to keep. The leveled grass where Elianin had lain was the only thing to catch his eye.

He walked over to the plot of grass and knelt. With a gentle hand he began to brush it erect, but the bent stem of a tiny flower broke under his fingers. The odor of the bruised blossom rose and the scent brought tears that blurred his eyes.

Saaden was the veteran of hundreds of battles and he had stoically faced death a thousand times, but his strength failed him now and he wept with bitter tears. He struggled to repress the aching sorrow for Irilik and Elianin, and his dead son who had somehow gone so wrong. He rose and wiped his eyes. There was no time to indulge his personal emotions. Lamath must be told, and Virda prepared for the change of plans.

He walked back into the camp and was intercepted by Tedak. "Have you seen Irilik?"

"He has gone apart to prepare himself for his wedding," Saaden answered.

Tedak made an impatient gesture with his hand. "I wish he had warned me of his plans. Lamath sent me with a message for him."

"I will speak to Lamath," Saaden said. "Irilik will return in time for the ceremony tomorrow. We cannot expect him to always be at our beck and call."

Tedak's eyebrows rose with surprise at Saaden's brusque rebuke, but he nodded his sympathy with Irilik's need to have a few hours of privacy. "I will tell others that Irilik will not be available until tomorrow. Is there anything I can do for you?"

"Could you ask Virda and Lamath to join me at the council tent?" Saaden asked.

Tedak gave a brief inclination of his head and hurried away. Saaden saw Enna supervising a group of girls who were packing boxes with dried meat. He turned aside to avoid meeting her. He did not know if his eyes were red, but she would guess immediately that something was wrong, and he must speak to her where no others could witness what he said.

He made his way to the council tent and waited for his sister and Lamath to join him. He tried to prepare a suitable story to tell them. He would not lie, but perhaps they would be satisfied with part of the truth. He was still not prepared when Virda bustled into the tent. "Tedak said you wanted to see me. Has Irilik called a council meeting?"

"Irilik has withdrawn to prepare himself for the wedding," Saaden answered.

Lamath entered only a moment later. "I overheard you telling Virda that Irilik had withdrawn. "I am surprised he didn't tell me what he planned to do."

"There has been a change in the wedding plans and Irilik needs time to adjust himself," Saaden said.

"A change?" Virda questioned.

"Jarayor has revealed that Tarsha and Irilik must wed," Saaden said.

Virda gave a scoffing laugh. "Why should Irilik heed what Jarayor says. He is only a Valdasian wanderer."

"He is a Seer," Lamath said. "Why did he not say something sooner?"

"Elianin will have a broken heart!" Virda cried. "How could Irilik abandon their troth on the eve of the wedding?"

"Elianin knows, and is willing to marry another," Saaden said, wondering how much he would have to reveal.

"Another!" Virda exclaimed. "Don't tell me she will marry Tedak. I hardly think it suitable that she marries a servant."

"She will marry Tolat," Saaden answered.

Virda raised her brows and fell onto a bench as her knees gave way in shock. "I have known for a long time that Tolat loved Elianin, but I thought that he would never speak of it. What will others say when Elianin marries a youth who is not only a cripple, but an orphan?"

"I have adopted him," Saaden said. "From henceforth, you must consider him as my son."

Lamath had been silent. He sensed that Saaden was keeping something back, but he trusted that the general had told the truth, as far as he was willing to speak. "Why have you called us here?"

"The two of you must set the pattern for the others. Lamath, with Irilik gone, you must perform the evening ritual. You might explain briefly that Irilik has withdrawn to prepare himself for his marriage. Among the fishermen, that is when the bride is mock abducted by the friends of the groom. It might prepare many for the change of brides."

"I am familiar with the tradition of bride abduction," Lamath said. "Why not simply announce that Irilik is acting according to Jarayor's vision."

Virda shook her head. "There are some who still regard the Valdasians with suspicion and fear after all they have given. The choice of bride will be better accepted if it is seen as Irilik's choice, rather than Jarayor's demand. You heard my outburst when I first heard the news. On the other hand. Some will delight in seeing the daughter of Algoth married to a scullion. Most of us are subject to envy at times. I cannot fault Elianin, but there are some who are a little soured by her beauty and apparent good fortune in being chosen as bride to Irilik. This alternative marriage to Tolat will bring her a great deal of sympathy."

"Do you doubt that Tolat will make a good husband for her?" Lamath asked.

Virda gave a bark of humor. "If Saaden were not ready to adopt him, I would willingly take him for a son. He saved my life, and I know of no other young man, save my own Arnath, who would make a better husband for Elianin if Irilik is already claimed. I'd best be about spreading a bit of gossip. People will be eager to see who will be married in the second wedding."

Lamath nodded. His one real objection to the change of plans was how it would affect Belnian. He sometimes wondered if his wife had not become too involved in the fortunes of her young cousin. It would be a blow to her pride when she found that Elianin had married anyone other than Irilik. He wondered if he should prepare her for the substitution. "I will try to do what I can to make things go well tomorrow."

Saaden let out a slow sigh of relief. Neither Lamath nor Virda had suggested that anything other than Jarayor's prophecy was responsible for the change of brides. They were both acute and intelligent. If they did not suspect that there was another motive, perhaps Domsik's role need never be revealed.

He left the council tent and made his way to Enna. She looked up and saw the faint redness around his eyes. "Domsik?" her lips moved soundlessly. He nodded and she turned her tasks over to another woman and followed her husband to the end of the beach where none could overhear them.

"What have you heard?" she asked, her eyes averted but with her fingers tightly clenched within his joined hands.

"Domsik is dead and I am adopting Tolat," Saaden said.

Enna's knees buckled and he supported her on his arm. "Why did you hurry to adopt another son?" she sobbed.

"Tomorrow Tolat will marry. His first child will be our grandchild," Saaden replied.

"Are you so eager for an heir?" she asked him angrily.

"I would give my life if I could have prevented Domsik's death," Saaden assured her. "Tolat will marry Elianin."

"But Elianin is marrying Irilik," Enna protested.

"You heard the reading of the law. Irilik cannot marry Elianin," Saaden said. "He must marry a maiden."

"Domsik?" Enna asked again, fearful of the answer.

"He assaulted Tarsha, but she resisted and he ran away," Saaden said. "Since then he has been watching Elianin. Today--"

She cut off any further explanation with a gesture of her hand. "How many know of his crime?" she asked.

"Tolat and Tarsha, Irilik and Jarayor, and Elianin and I are all who know the full details," Saaden assured her. "Would you like me to tell you what happened?"

Enna shook her head. He did not force her to hear any more. It was enough that he must bear the burden of Domsik's infamy. They walked together along the pebbled beach, well beyond the sight of others who might wonder at the tears that wet their cheeks. Finally Enna stopped walking and turned toward the sunset. "We have a grandchild already, and Elianin will give us other grandchildren. I will follow your example and welcome Tolat as a son."



Chapter 11 Deception

Belnian watched the two litters, each carrying a veiled bride, enter the area that had been marked off for the performance of the nuptials. A platform had been erected in the center of the clearing and Lamath stood behind the alter in his priestly robes, ready to perform the wedding ritual since Irilik himself was to be a participant.

When Saaden had come with word that there would be two weddings and two brides, she had been puzzled. When she was told that others would dress and prepare Elianin, she had become angry.

Her younger cousin had become like a sister to her. No matter what entreaties she made, Saaden would not tell her where the preparations were taking place. When she tried to use the bridal robes as a bargaining point, Saaden had assured her that there were others willing to provide the traditional garments. Finally she had yielded, but she had spent a restless night. The rumors spread by children who claimed that they had seen Elianin abducted had been countered by Saaden's claim that she was carried away so that the place of her preparation would be a secret.

The grooms walked up to stand on either side of Lamath as they waited for the litters to be lowered and the brides to kneel with them before the alter. Irilik looked drawn and the smile that was so characteristic to the young prophet was absent. Surely this should have been a time for him to rejoice. The identity of the other groom was not so great a surprise. Saaden had let it be known that he had adopted the former scullion as a son and was sponsoring his wedding to a young woman of good standing. Belnian suspected it would be Kumnor's sister, Tarsha, who would marry the servant. She must not have seen his low station as a bar to matrimony. Belnian felt it unlikely that the barbarous girl would object to any civilized groom.

Belnian tried to detect which of the brides was Elianin, but the patterns of the wedding clothes were near enough identical that she could not be certain which veil concealed the face of Elianin. One of her children tugged at her skirt and asked a question. As she turned away to answer the request, the brides stepped from their litters and knelt.

The words of the ritual were repeated twice, but Lamath spoke in a voice so low that only the participants could clearly hear his words. Belnian waited impatiently for the ceremony to end. If she was not able to dress Elianin, at least she would have charge of helping her out of the heavy robes and into lighter clothing for the festival that would follow.

Finally the lengthy exchange of oaths and promises was ended and the two couples stood before the people. The difference in the stature of the brides was Belnian's first clue that something was amiss. Elianin was tall and slim, Tarsha shorter and curvaceous. Even the heavy robes could not conceal the difference. When Irilik lifted the veil of his bride, the face revealed was Tarsha's. It came as an anticlimax that Tolat's bride was Elianin.

Murmurs of shock were followed by laughter. Most of the audience treated the surprise as a great joke. Belnian could not see any humor in the substitution. Her cousin was a princess of Renon, the destined bride of the God-king. It had been only seemly that she was to marry the High Priest of the Gathering. Marriage to a scullion, the servant of a servant, was quite another matter. Belnian swore to punish whoever bore responsibility for this insulting farce. Lamath must have been privy to the substitution or he could not have performed the ceremony. Blinded by tears of frustration and injured pride, Belnian rushed away from the clearing. Another would have to take her place in dressing Elianin.

Kapanadel witnessed her flight and guessed the cause. She had agreed to attend Tarsha. It would cause comment if none were present to help Elianin. She would serve for both of them if Belnian could not gather her senses in time.

When she entered the tent where the brides had withdrawn to remove their robes she saw that they were alone. "Belnian must have put great stock in your marriage to Irilik," Tarsha told Elianin.

Elianin nodded. "I do not think she realized how much she depended on me to rescue the family honor from the damage done by my father's bargain with Algunagada. She could bear to be a slave married to a pirate, but I was to have a higher destiny and give luster to both of us."

Tarsha shook her head. "I hope she swallows her pride before it swallows her. It was my pride that led us to this pass. I listened to Domsik's flattery because I recognized that you were a far more fitting wife for Irilik than I could ever be."

Elianin held out her hand to Tarsha. "Let us be friends. I cannot resent you for marrying Irilik. I forced him to it. I think he will come to love you when his heart has healed. Do not blame yourself for causing harm."

"But if I had done as I should, this would not have happened. You would have married Irilik as your heart demanded," Tarsha said.

Elianin shook her head, "Domsik was the only one to blame. If he had died at your hand, some other way would have been found to bring about the demands of destiny. Who knows? It might have caused us greater harm. Tolat is a good man, whatever his origin and ancestry, he serves the Light."

"I owe you a debt I can never repay." Tarsha insisted.

"Enough of these protests," Kapanadel insisted. "The wedding festival will not go forward without your presence. The faces of your husband's are too grave. You must make up for their doleful air with an excess of joy. If you cannot be happy about the wedding, find some other blessing to exalt your spirits. Surely both of you are blessed enough."

"I am blessed to have found a sister," Elianin ventured with a small smile.

Tarsha hugged her and returned a twisted little grin. "I am blessed that my brother never knew what harm I have wrought."

"A start!" Kapanadel cheered. "Now keep it up when you go forth to the festival."

If any doubted that the marriages had been other than what the participants wanted, there was no hint of it in the faces of the radiant brides. They stayed near each other, laughing shyly at the smallest excuse and smothering any gossip of jealousy or envy. Tolat and Irilik recognized the valiant effort of their wives and found ways to lift the gloom from their own faces.

Tagnet finally found the camp he had been searching for. He came to the gathering a few hours after the wedding occurred. He watched the mutual felicity of the married pairs and ground his teeth in frustration. For over a month he had wandered in the wastes north of Vishang searching for the port where he expected to find Elianin. To discover her on the very day that she was bound forever to a crippled servant was maddening. His brother Arnath seemed as happy with the wedding as any of the people who feasted and laughed around him. His mother, Virda, was quick to find him in the crowd and welcome him. As soon as she had grasped him to her with a crow of delight, she told him he was expected to labor at packing her belongings for the ship.

There was no opportunity to seek out Elianin and offer her his aid in escaping what surely must have been a humiliating marriage. He was forced to continue his pretense that he was able to see the light that was held by Irilik while he performed the final evening ritual before they would set sail.

When the long day of celebration finally ended only a few knew that the marriage had not been planned well ahead of time. Among them, only Belnian was not fully privy to what had brought about the substitution of Tarsha for Elianin. When the orb was opened and the Light revealed before the evening ritual, she did not see the shining. She was in the nether parts of the tent she shared with Lamath and their family. She had questioned her husband to no avail. Resentment that he would withhold secrets from her added to her sense of injury over Elianin's marriage.

From afar she had witnessed Elianin's joyful behavior at the festival and she had begun to believe that her cousin had been part of the conspiracy to deceive her. How long had Elianin been receiving Tolat's courtship? She knew that the two had known each other well before Elianin had come to Vishang. Did their plans to marry originate even before the gathering?

She herself had asked Tolat to keep an eye out for Elianin when they had met again at the gathering. He had seemed so innocently happy to assist her with her concerns for her cousin. Had he been plotting even then to steal Elianin's heart. Was Irilik part of the conspiracy to deceive her?

Before long Belnian had talked herself into a profound case of self pity. She cuddled her infant close, convinced that the tiny child was the only person truly loyal to her. Her older children, Palian and Dulin, willing to leave her side and attend the evening ritual with their father, were not to be trusted.

Even as she listened to the voice that urged her to sulk and subside in the morass of injured feelings, Belnian knew it was a foolish path to follow. Good sense urged her to get up and carry her infant out to join the others who had gathered for the last time on the soil of Kishdu.

Tomorrow they would sail on separate ships and it would be many days before she would see Elianin again, but the seductive voice that supported her sense of injury overwhelmed the impulse to join the others. When Lamath returned from the evening meal he found Belnian asleep with tears staining her pillow. He touched her cheek, willing her to wake so that he could tell her about the warning words Irilik had spoken at the final gathering before they sailed. She shrugged away from him and curled into a resistant ball.

Sighing, he checked their infant who slept peacefully in the cradle near their bed. Belnian had been anticipating the nuptials of Elianin and Irilik almost too avidly. Her own marriage had of necessity been celebrated without the ritual and festival usually allotted to the wedding of a high priest, but the circumstances in the city of Vishang had not allowed for extended ceremony. He wished he could have warned her of the change in brides, but he had agreed with Saaden that it would be best to keep the circumstances surrounding the exchange a secret.

The people had accepted the surprise as a joke that heightened their enjoyment of the festival. Most of them came from humble backgrounds and found satisfaction in the marriage of the princess to the former scullion. The Valdasians were unrestrained in their approval for the marriage of Tarsha and Irilik. For those unfamiliar with the tradition of bridal substitutions, the people of Teliafa and Sangin's fishermen had all been willing to explain.

Belnian was up early and had herself and her children rowed out to the ship that would be their home. She kept to herself with one excuse and another during the morning while preparations were being made to sail. When Elianin sent word that she would like to visit, Belnian sent a message that she was too busy to meet again before they sailed.

Small boats filled the harbor ferrying passengers and cargo to the fleet. One by one the ships were filled. Irilik and Tarsha were established in the central ship, the ship whose lofty mast would carry the stone of truth at its height. The light would keep the fleet together at night and gather them after a storm. Zedek was the captain and half the clan of Kumnor filled the decks along with the people of Zedek's village.

Elianin and Tolat had a tiny cabin in a ship captained by Saget. Lamath's ship, surrounded by smaller ships that carried most of the people from the fens, was the largest of any in the fleet and would bring up the rear. There were other competent captains among the fleet, but all acknowledged the expertise of Zedek, Saget and Lamath. It was fitting that they sailed the greatest of the ships and guarded the points of the fleet.

The tide was running and it was time to depart. Tarsha stood on shore saying farewell to her father who refused to accompany the fleet. "The flaming star will scourge the lands to the south, but there will be many people left who will need someone to give them succor," he told her. "Kumnor knows the choice I have made. Irilik has given me copies of the books of the prophets. I bid you farewell. The priests of Algunagada will soon come and I must be far from this place." He had been given charge of the several cattle that remained of the vast herd Kumnor had committed to the Gathering. Kumnor's lead cow and Tarsha's young bull were among the few that had not been slaughtered to provide meat and leather to supply the exodus.

Irilik hailed Tarsha urgently. The men who would row her to the ship were waiting. There was no time to argue or plead for her father to change his mind, and even if she had the time, she knew it would be to no avail. "Go in the Light," she cried as the small boat carried her toward the ship where her new husband waited.

The fleet sailed in a wedge with Zedek's ship leading as they headed toward the unknown. The winds that drove them westward were strong and the seas rough but the ships were well provisioned and even the smallest of them survived the first storms. The shining of the Light reassured them each night when darkness fell on the face of the deep. It seemed another, surer star.

As days became weeks, most of the people learned to live with the pitching decks, but Belnian discovered early that she had no stomach for the voyage. When Lamath approached her with remedies and suggestions, she turned her back to him. Finally he left her to suffer in increasing resentment while he carried out the duties of his post.

For Belnian the days of misery and loneliness seemed endless. Wynora, her mother-in-law, visited her several times a day and tended the children. Finally she grew impatient with Belnian's sullen refusal to try her remedies. "I will leave you in peace. There is a woman who is willing to suckle your son. Perhaps you will recover more quickly if what little you can bear to swallow is saved for yourself."

"Go," Belnian whined. "Take him to another. He was the last who truly loved me. Now there is none who cares."

"I will take him to someone who has what he needs, but as soon as you can, you must take on the responsibilities of motherhood again. Your children need you," Wynora briskly assured her.

Belnian turned her back, but Wynora's words had formed a wedge that worked its way into her malaise. When night came, she decided she could venture on deck while none could see her. Her legs were unsteady from her long illness and she grasped rails and bulkheads as she pulled herself toward the hatch. The fresh smell of the air from outside the ship overcame her fear that someone might notice how thin and drawn she had become.

The deck was crowded with sleeping people. She stepped past them, her constant state of self-pity challenged by the witness that she should count herself fortunate to have a cabin for herself while others slept with nothing but stars as a ceiling. Three of the crewmen were gathered near the rudder engaged in a quiet argument. Each of them was pointing in a different direction.

Curious about their indecision, Belnian crept closer. One of the men saw her and grabbed her shoulder. "Lady Belnian, you must help us. Captain Lamath gave us our bearings when his watch ended, but the wind has shifted and the ship has changed its course. None of us is able to see the Light but we knew how tired the Captain was and none of us confessed our lack. Show us where the lead ship lies so that we may adjust the course.

Belnian nodded and turned to survey the horizon. She realized the price of her long malaise of spirit when she realized she could see nothing other than the stars. A dim glow flickered in the direction of the prow of the ship, but she could not believe it was the Stone of Truth. It could as easily be a reflection of the tailed star that loomed ever nearer the earth. The voice that encouraged her to pity herself for injured pride returned and urged her to pretend she saw the Light. As she considered the pretense, even the dim glow she thought she had seen dimmed and disappeared.

If she admitted that the horizon was dark to her, the men would know that she was no better than they. She raised her hand and pointed at random to the horizon. "There it is. The Light is there."

She turned from them and hurried down the deck toward the hatch. A cry came from one of the sleepers as she trod on his foot and she muttered a quick apology without stopping. The unaccustomed exercise had made her dizzy and she tripped at the entrance to the hatch, nearly losing her footing and falling. She grabbed at the rail that surrounded the hatch on three sides and waited until she was clear-headed enough to risk the narrow ladder that led to the deck below.

She latched the cabin door and burrowed into the blankets, trying in vain to hide from the memory of her deception. How had she lost the ability to see the Light? She tried to remember when she had last seen the sacred shining and realized that it had been at the gathering the night before Elianin's wedding.

On the night after the wedding she had hidden herself away in a bout of self-pity. The same cozening voice that had gently lead her deeper into a morass of injured pride intruded in her mind again, cajoling her to remember how everyone had abandoned her, even her tiny son. Now she recognized the source. She had listened to Lamath's account of how the Liar had tried to make him betray Irilik and Tedak, but she thought she was too strong in spirit to fall prey to such an influence. It had been an error of pride, the same pride that had made her lie to the sailors lest they discover her failings.

She tossed restlessly, fighting against the painful admission of her guilt. Finally she stood and ventured forth to warn her husband about her lie. She had asked Lamath to leave her alone weeks ago when the voyage first began. Now she had no idea of how to find him. She had only a vague idea of the placement of the various cabins, having steadfastly refused to leave her own before this night. At last she found Wynora and shook her shoulder to wake her.

"I have done a dreadful thing," she whispered urgently. "I must find Lamath."

"Come," Wynora said. She moved Palian closer to Dulin in the center of the narrow cot they had shared with her and donned a robe. They passed others who were sleeping in every corner, most of them cushioned only by the few belongings they had brought on the journey. Belnian remembered the ample cabin she had kept for herself and felt a flush of cleansing guilt.

Wynora led her to the deck and past the same sleepers she had passed earlier. At last they came to the narrow stern of the boat not far from where she had conferred with the doubtful sailors. Now she could see the humped shape of someone sleeping under the scant covering of a ragged blanket.

How could Lamath shame her by using such a covering? She recognized the source of the question in her mind and took the blame on herself. Lamath had asked for a blanket when she first denied him their bed, and she had spared only this one. Could she expect him to take from any of the others who had much less?

"Lamath," she murmured urgently, "You must wake!"

He lurched up to a sitting position and stared at her. "What are you doing here?" he asked.

"I have come to my senses, but it may be too late," she cried. "Earlier tonight I came on deck to clear my head with a breath of fresh air. Some of your sailors were arguing over the bearing they should take. They trusted that I would show them the Light. I can no longer see it, but I lied to them and they set their course accordingly."

Lamath hardly let her finish before he was on his feet. He leaped to the top of the highest part of the ship and searched the horizon. "Mother, come here. I may have lost the right to discern the light in my anger at Belnian. Can you see it?"

Wynora joined him and searched the sea. "It is gone. How long ago did you change the watch?"

Lamath looked upward at the constellations that rule a seaman's life. "The halo of Jaroth was barely visible below the tail of the Lizard when I changed the watch. It has been hours. I gave the helm over not long after sundown, as soon as I could see the Light and take my bearings. The wind is fresh and we are running before it. Zedek's ship could be just below the horizon, or he could be many miles beyond. There is no way of knowing now."

"Then we are lost," Belnian moaned. "I have no reason to live, knowing what I have become."

She ran toward the rail, meaning to leap into the sea below, but Wynora caught her before she could carry out her threat. The seeress turned to Lamath. "I will tend her. You must do what you can to correct our course."

"You know what Irilik said," Lamath answered. "He warned us what might happen if we did not make certain that the men who manned the helm were able to see the Light. It was my error that brought us to this pass. I should have been more zealous in testing the men before I slept."

"What does he mean?" Belnian asked Wynora after she was again in her cabin. "What did Irilik say?"

"The Eye of Adanan gave warning that some of the ships would be lost from the main body, but we are not doomed. Irilik indicated that we will find safety, but we will be cut off from the others."

Belnian dropped her head into her hands. "I have been listening to the Liar. I was willing to give up everything, my husband, my children, to cling to the tatters of my pride. This is a just judgement on me that I may never see Elianin again, It seems a harsh thing that the rest of you must suffer for my folly."

"You could not mislead the sailors if Lamath had made sure that at least one of them could see the Light," Wynora reminded her. "Instead of sinking back into self-pity, you must help him with his guilt. Instead of moping here, get up and clean yourself. Fix a meal for him and let him know that he is not alone."

Belnian stood and began to wash herself. She found her prettiest gown and combed her hair. Wynora nodded. "I will bring the children back to your cabin when you are ready. They have been too long without you. If you begin to eat you may still be able to suckle your infant"

Belnian had hoarded a few delicacies of dried fruit and honey-cake while she was still sunk in self pity. She set them at the side of the tray of rich gruel and salted meat that she obtained from the galley. Lamath stood at the helm, his brow furrowed with worry while he searched the horizon. The first light of dawn began to turn the sea blue-grey.

When he saw Belnian, his eyes widened and he darted a worried glance toward the rail around the deck. "I will not try to escape my guilt again," she assured him. "Wynora says you will take all the blame on yourself, but I know that if I had cared properly for you and given you the love and comfort you deserve, you would have had more attention to spare for your duties."

"No, Belnian," Lamath protested. "I must bear the blame alone. I knew that many of the sailors had joined the gathering only because they followed men like Sangin and Zedek who followed the Light. I should have tested them regularly to make sure they would be able to stand the night watch. If even one of the men I left at the helm had seen the Light, nothing you did could have changed their direction."

"Then let me at least give you nourishment," she pleaded. "Wynora will bring our children to the cabin when your watch is over. They need us to be parents to them more than we need to wallow in our mutual guilt."

He held out his hand. "Come, wife. Stand by me and look for the masts of the rest of the fleet while I eat the food you prepared for me. I've set the course to carry us due west. Perhaps we will yet intersect the path of the other ships."

The day passed with no sign of any masts other than the ships immediately around them. When night fell, Lamath retired with Belnian, leaving Wynora to scan the horizon. If any could see the Light and give a course correction, it would be the seeress.

When morning came, Wynora reported that there was no change in their situation. Lamath called an assembly of the family leaders. Signal flags brought the captains of the smaller ships that surrounded them and depended on their guidance. When all were gathered Lamath addressed them. "We have lost sight of the Light," he said. "I did not give adequate testing to those who manned the helm at night."

There was a moment of stunned silence, then the men and women began to protest. "We will be lost at sea. We are doomed!"

"We are not far from landfall," Lamath's voice rose over their protests. "I have seen the signs of foliage in the waves. Yesterday I saw a log. Irilik said we should sail to the west, and so we have. Remember his words at the last gathering in Kishdu. He warned that we might be lost and separated from the others, but he assured us that we would survive."

"Is mere survival enough for you!" one of the men shouted. "If we had remained in Kishdu, we might have survived."

"Can you ignore the signs in the heavens!" Belnian cried. The shock of hearing her voice, for those who had not seen her for several weeks, was sufficient to bring silence. "Irilik said that Kishdu would be burned and we see the flame growing larger every night. He promised we would be led to a new home, and Lamath has every skill needed to take us there."

There were murmurs when she finished her spirited support of Lamath, but the loud challenges were stilled. "If all of us were worthy to see the Light, there would have been no variation from the true course." she said in lower tones that reached their hearts. The long days at sea, when boredom had given birth to petty disputes, had dimmed the Light in many eyes.

"We must all renew our vows to follow Witheral and Lamath as our leaders," a woman cried. Her words were supported with a shout of acclaim from the others.

Lamath beckoned to Witheral and the two of them stood together to receive the renewed pledges of the people they led. Wynora put her arm around Belnian and smiled. "We will do well enough if we can maintain this mood until we find a landing place. It may be worth losing the leadership of the Light to regain the light within ourselves."

As if to bless her words, the next morning brought the sight of a line of green along the western horizon. Lamath sent word to signal the other ships. As the hours passed they seemed to come no closer, until Lamath realized that the land toward which they headed was a wide estuary. To others of the gathering it would have seemed a discouraging prospect, but the people on Lamath's ships were from Vishang and the bog. They were well accustomed to finding nourishment and homes in such a setting.

When night drew down they were close enough to the green expanse to go warily, taking frequent soundings. Lamath called for anchors to be dropped until morning. A few brave boys leaped overboard and swam to the nearest tussocks of reed. Their harvest of bird's eggs, green shoots, and snails encouraged others to venture forth. Soon the moonlit sea around the ships filled with laughing people.

Lamath sounded the ship's horn and they came reluctantly on board. "Tomorrow we must try to find solid land. Save your energy for disembarking," he told those who questioned him.

They coasted along the edges of the marsh for most of the following day. A boy who had been fishing from the stern brought up a fish and bit its neck to kill it. He looked puzzled and licked his fingers. "Captain! The water is fresh!" he yelled.

Lamath hurried to the boy and examined the fish. He ran his finger along the glistening scales and tasted the moisture he gathered. "You're right!" he exclaimed. This is not sea water, we must be in the mouth of a river." He looked below and saw the cloudy silt that confirmed his finding. Scanning the horizon he saw low hummocks rising several feet above the surrounding marsh.

"Bring Witheral to me," he told the boy. The child ran off, waving his fish as if it were a banner to advertise his errand.

When the clan chief joined him Lamath pointed to the highest of the hummocks to be seen from the deck of the ship. "Could we use such a place to establish our landing?"

"I think we must," Witheral replied. "There are other hummocks nearby. I see no sign of a rocky outcrop like that which held the city of Vishang. The soundings indicate that the bottom is rising. Soon we will not be able to venture any further with the bigger ships."

"I will try to find a channel that will take us nearer the largest hummock," Lamath said. "Meanwhile, send out teams to gather reeds to make rafts. I doubt I will get close enough to the hummocks to land. The ships' boats will serve for some of us, but we must have shallower transport."

Many of the people had been eyeing the passing marsh with assessing eyes. It was much like the home that Malgrod had burned. When Witheral gave out word that they would try for the hummocks, they cheered his decision and eagerly volunteered to plunge into the water and gather reeds.

Soon a small fleet of rafts bobbed alongside the larger ships while Lamath warily signaled his oarsmen to enter a narrow channel that led away from the river toward the larger hummocks. Before long he felt the drag of mud on the hull of his ship. He had run aground, but the largest of the hummocks was only a few yards away. He climbed up the mast to survey the area and realized that the hummock was larger than he had thought at first. It was a long elevation that he had seen from front on. There were tall, strange growths with tufts of leaves sprouting from the tops of long, narrow trunks at the center of the hummock. They were not like any tree Lamath had ever seen, but such a length of stem, capable of supporting the crown, must be useful for building.

"We have found a home," he shouted to the people watching him from the deck. "All hands make ready to disembark."

His words were greeted by a cheer. As evening approached the water was filled with people towing their belongings away from the ships toward the hummock.

The foam they kicked up was lit as if with fire light and Belnian glanced up. The flaming star that had been named the Flame of Nagada, was clear in the night sky.

Lamath followed her gaze and hugged her close. "Tonight will see the doom of Renon," he murmured. "I have seen smaller stars fall in the years I sailed, they made bright streaks of light in the sky. This is the largest I have ever witnessed. We are lucky to be far from Kishdu now."

Wynora had been tired by helping others and she curled up in her shawl to take a nap. Suddenly she started up and hurried to find her son. "Lamath, I have just dreamed of flood and destruction. I fear the sea will rise and wreck the ships."

Lamath assessed the height of the hummock. "Have the people gather at the topmost parts of the land. Even there we may be challenged by the waves that could be caused by the impact of the flame of Algunagada when it scours Kishdu if it strikes the sea. Have them link their families with ropes and tie them to the trees."

Soon the ship was entirely abandoned. The people took Wynora's warning seriously, knowing that she was gifted with the same spiritual sight that had made them willing to follow Irilik.

By the time the last light of the sun faded from the sky, the people were waiting fearfully together. There were nearly two hundred of them gazing at the ominous tailed star that had broken and given birth to smaller fragments. One of them suddenly flared into dazzling brightness and skidded across the sky toward the east, almost too fast for their eyes to follow.

A long time seemed to pass while they huddled together. Their first hint that Wynora's vision had been true was the wild tossing of the lamp Lamath had attached to the mast of his ship. They heard the creaking of the timbers and the ship lifted and plunged toward the hummock on which they stood. Lamath prayed aloud, his voice imploring the Radiance to save them.

They heard the tearing of timbers and the air was filled with debris. The lamp crashed at Lamath's feet and the long mast missed the edge of the crowd by inches as it measured its length along the summit.

Water laden with debris flooded around the feet of those who stood lowest on the summit, swirling up to their knees and tearing at them. The ropes they had tied to the trees held firm and when the water receded in a rush, they rejoiced that none were lost. Just as some of them began to untie the ropes that held them another wave crashed against the hummock. They grasped for safety and held on until the last of the waves subsided.

"It is over," Wynora said. "We must wait until tomorrow to assess what damage was done. Thank the Radiance that our lives have been preserved and we have found a land that will nourish us."

Lamath raised his hands and prayed aloud, fervently asking for guidance and giving thanks for being preserved from the broken star.

The ground and most of their clothing was wet, but the climate was warm. Some of the younger people decided to wash away the debris that had spattered them by swimming and soon a crowd of laughing people was playing in the water, relieved of the worst of their fears and willing to celebrate the preservation of their lives.

Lamath coaxed Belnian to join him in the water. She handed her babe to Wynora and shyly took his hand. Soon she was laughing and playing like a child. The stars above shone with a radiance that rivaled the Stone of Truth when she had been most worthy. At last, wet and weary, but filled with joy and love, Belnian returned to the hummock and cuddled together with her family, each warming and being warmed by the close presence of the others.



Chapter 12 Mutiny

Days after discovering that Lamath's group of ships had been lost, the others of the Gathering made landfall. A small natural harbor would accommodate only a few of their ships and the others continued north a short ways. Saaden and his sept camped near the harbor. The other ships set their anchor on broad shoals and the people were ferried to the shore where they landed on a broad desert beach backed by a barrier of steep cliffs. A brackish stream ran across the beach but its source, high on one of the cliffs, was tufted with greenery, promising a fresh spring.

Before the ships were fully unloaded, several venturous boys made their way to the source of the brook and filled water skins with clean water, a welcome relief after drinking the stale liquid from the barrels on the ships.

Irilik climbed the cliff with Tarsha in order to set up the Eye of Adanan to catch the evening sun. Tarsha had taken over most of the tasks once handled by Tedak and Tolat. From the top of the cliff they could see mountains on the western horizon beyond a broad waste of scrub. While Irilik unpacked the figures he had prepared, Tarsha bent over to set up the screen that held the maps.

"Set up the Eye of Adanan while I prepare the prompts," Irilik said a little abruptly from behind her. She smiled to herself at the tone of his voice. It had not taken her long to discover the reason for his attacks of propriety. It meant he had been watching her body as she knelt in front of him and was abashed by his thoughts.

Their marriage was still more contract than courtship. The crowded conditions of the ship where their small cabin lay in close conjunction with several others, discouraged frequent marital intimacy, and Irilik seemed to think she had married him only out of a sense of guilt. His doubt resulted in a careful relationship, more polite than passionate.

Tolat and Tedak had conspired to turn their duties over to Irilik's wife and Tarsha had tried to demonstrate that she could be an able assistant. When Irilik expressed his surprise that his new wife could write elegantly, as well as speak the tongue of the southerners, she explained that Kumnor had kept to the Valdasian tongue even though their mother was a woman of Bagnin. He had seen for himself that her father was far more fluent than his son.

They brushed shoulders as they worked to prepare for the reading. She was tempted to tease him by stealing a kiss, but the gravity of his expression convinced her to put a rein on her impulses. She noticed that one of the prompts he had prepared was a tiny outline of a ship with Lamath's name inscribed on the sail. "Do you think we will find the location of Lamath's people?" she asked.

"I believe that they are safe, but when we are finished here, I intend to send Zedek southward with a few ships to find them."

She was grateful that he had developed the habit of confiding in her. It was one more small step toward a full partnership. "Have you had more dreams?" she asked when he looked up to gauge the position of the sun. He nodded.

"I had a dream last night of drowning and destruction. The star that Malgrod named the Flame of Nagada was mixed in somehow."

He lifted a small drawing of the tailed star that was now clearly visible high in the evening sky. "The end of Renon is destined to come soon, but I doubt the effects will be limited to Kishdu. Zedek has told me of monumental waves that occurred after an earthquake. If a piece of the comet hits the sea, the resulting wave could destroy our ships."

The light of the sun reached the proper angle to activate the Eye of Adanan. As daughter of a Valdasian chief, Tarsha wore a treasure of gold and jewels that many princesses might envy, but none could rival the beauty of the gems suspended in the Oracle Device when the evening light began to dance and scintillate among them.

The rays of brilliant color flashed over the surface of the map and it immediately became evident that disaster was imminent. A line of scarlet light rolled over the sea from the east and exploded to cover the shoreline Irilik had marked. Intuitively, Tarsha reached out and inscribed a line depicting the edge of the cliffs. Irilik followed her cue and put all the symbols representing their people behind the line of the cliffs. The ominous scarlet subsided. Irilik had set the calendar to represent the next week. He adjusted it rapidly, to narrow the forecast.

"Tomorrow night!" he cried. "We must start now to warn the people. You must warn Saaden and his people. There is no time to lose"

"Will Lamath and his people be safe?" Tarsha asked.

Irilik adjusted the calendar and placed the ship with Lamath's symbol on the map. The results were strange. The ship itself was engulfed in scarlet light, but the symbol of Lamath's name glowed green.

"The reading seems to indicate that Lamath's ship will be destroyed, but his people will survive somehow," Irilik assured his wife. "Wynora is a seeress, she may well receive a warning of what will come."

The light gleaming from the Eye of Adanan dimmed to quiescence. They quickly packed the device into its case and Tarsha put it in her shoulder pack. Irilik carried the rolled maps and folded screen to an outcrop of large stones and hid them. Then both of them returned to the edge of the cliff and descended as rapidly as possible to the beach. Irilik ascended the scaffolding that had been constructed in their first hours on shore and sounded a horn to call the people who were on the beach into an assembly. Tarsha began to run down the beach toward the small harbor where the ships of Saaden's sept lay at anchor.

The lives of hundreds of people might depend on her and she ran even when a pain began to beat in her side with every step. The face of the cliff had crumbled where a peninsula jutted into the water, forming a natural breakwater for the harbor that lay ahead of her. When she came in sight of the cluster of stones that marked the beginning of the harbor, she slowed and stopped to catch her breath and prayed for strength. The sound of voices from beyond the stone formation heartened her. She could tell others her message and return to Irilik. Taking a deep breath, she started forward. Then the meaning of the words that were being spoken stopped her. She ducked low and approached the stones with stealthy steps.

"We will take the ships and return to Kishdu. When my father sees our captive, he will reward us well." Tarsha did not recognize the voice of the ringleader but his words suggested he might be one of Virda's sons.

"How will you lure Irilik to the ship?" another man challenged.

"One of you will tell him that a child is lost. I will also take Elianin. It is no secret that the princess is the woman he wanted to marry before Kumnor forced him to marry his sister. When Irilik is told that he must come with us or see her die, I have no doubt of the choice he will make."

"And how do you plan to take Elianin?" yet another man asked.

"That I will not tell you," the leader said. "Meet me here tomorrow night. Gather whatever supplies you can take without arousing notice. Volunteer for ferrying cargo from the ships out on the shoals and divert some here. There are at least a hundred men and women who have expressed sympathy with our cause. We cannot take all of them, but be sure I will bring some of the prettier women."

There was a low chuckle in response to his salacious sally. "Get Tarsha!" one of the men laughed. "She would make an armful for any man."

"I would sooner take a she-wolf on board!" the leader snarled. "I heard that she killed Domsik for nothing more than flirting with her. Stay clear of her."

Tarsha smiled her appreciation of this twisted rumor, better to have it whispered that she had been responsible for Domsik's disappearance than to have Tolat blamed for the villain's death.

If she could see the leader's face she could give a full report to Irilik. She glanced around to find a place to hide. The men in the rocky covert could end their meeting at any time. The low rocks washed by the surf a few steps away from where she had stopped to spy on the plotters would provide a place to hide. Without hesitation, she waded into the surf.

When the men ended their meeting and began to disperse, she saw that she would be discovered if she tried to move close enough to recognize them. If she ducked under the water to keep completely out of sight, the Eye of Adanan in her shoulder pack might not survive immersion. While she worked her way around the sea edge and slithered over the top of the rocks that guarded the natural harbor, she prayed that none of the rogues would look toward her

There were five ships in the harbor, most of them still fully occupied by people who saw no reason to leave the ships until permanent shelters were erected ashore. The largest ship, where Saaden had his headquarters rode at anchor only a few yards from where Tarsha concealed herself from the shore.

A lamp on the deck revealed a large man who leaned over the rails of the ship looking intently toward the side of the harbor where Tarsha had emerged. She couldn't quite see who stood there.

"Who is there?" Saaden's voice asked.

Gasping with relief , Tarsha stood. "I come from Irilik. There is danger for all who stay in the ships. You must leave the harbor and climb the cliffs before sunset tomorrow."

"Tarsha?" Saaden asked. He lifted the lamp and recognized her mane of wild dark curls. "I will send a boat for you."

"No, I must return to Irilik," she insisted. "There is danger from mutineers. If anyone tries to dissuade you from leaving the ships, do not listen to them."

Saaden nodded and turned to carry out her instructions. She was grateful for his unquestioning obedience. Now she must find a way to return and warn Irilik and Elianin of the plots against them. She walked along the narrow, rocky peninsula that sheltered the harbor, peering around in the darkness for a place to descend from its sheer height without returning to the beach.

A hand grasped her ankle and she knew a moment of panic. She had been found out! Without hesitating, she grabbed her knife and swept it down toward her feet. A scream of pain and gabbled curses erupted from the harbor below and the hold on her ankle released. The noise of oars splashing betrayed the presence of a boat.

"Fool, she is alerted now. You should have waited," a man hissed.

Without stopping to consider the folly of the move, Tarsha leaped from the wall toward the voice below. She landed in a small boat, setting it to swinging wildly. The men aboard were tossed out of the boat but Tarsha had learned early to ride a bucking calf. This was not so different. The boat finally quieted under the counter movements of her legs and torso. She grappled for an oar and found it just in time to use it on the head of one of the men who had caught the side of the boat and tried to pull himself aboard. She swung the oar with all her might and it rebounded from his head.

The blow ended any further attempt to retake the boat. She listened for a few moments. The sound of murmured cursing alerted her to the location of the other man. As soon as she knew where he was clinging to the rocks of the harbor, she lowered herself in the boat and wielded the oar to move closer. It was an unaccustomed exercise, but she soon had the knack of it. When she was near the villain she hailed him.

"I know what you plan. If you are wise, you will flee before morning comes and your wounds betray your identity to Saaden."

He made no reply, but she could hear his gasping breath. Convinced that she had planted a healthy fear in him, she turned the boat and headed for the mouth of the harbor. It would deprive him of a boat, and give her some headway in her return to Irilik.

After a short time of fighting the surf, she realized it would be easier to walk along the beach. The moon had risen, revealing a pale, empty stretch of sand. She tested the depth of the water with her oar and when it was shallow enough, she slid into the hip deep water, retaining the oar as a weapon in case she should have another encounter with the ring leader or one of his cronies. Before leaving the boat, she tipped it until it began to take on water. It sank quickly, assuring her that the men who had pursued her would be denied its use for their mutinous designs.

The aura of the Stone of Truth lit the area beyond the peninsula and she began to run toward the safety she would find within its glow. When she rounded the outcropping of cliff she saw Irilik busy organizing the removal from the beach. He stood conferring with several members of the council who were directing their people.

Several ropes draped from the heights of the cliffs to the beach below. Men and women with children clinging to their backs swarmed up the ropes. Rope baskets were lowered for those too old or feeble to make the climb.

Tarsha looked around for Elianin and finally saw her bright head near the upper end of one of the ropes. She carried a child bound to her back with leather straps. As soon as she had reached the upper end of the rope and handed the child to another woman, she made her way to another rope that was being used by those returning to the beach to take on yet another burden.

Tarsha hurried to the bottom of the rope and waited for Elianin to descend. She landed with a little jump and turned to Tarsha. "Your skirts are soaked and covered with sand! What have you been doing?"

Tarsha brushed at a patch of sand on her tunic and shook her head. "Never mind the state of my clothes. There are men conspiring to steal a ship and take Irilik back to Kishdu. They plan to take you captive and use you as a lure if they cannot convince Irilik to go with them by other means. We must warn Irilik of their plot and get you to a safe place where they cannot find you."

"Do you know who they are?" Elianin asked.

"I can only speculate. I did not get a clear view of their faces, but I overheard their plotting when I went down the beach to warn Saaden that he must evacuate his people to the tops of the cliffs. It was dark, but two of them attacked me after I warned Saaden. Come, it is not safe for you here on the open beach!" Tarsha grabbed Elianin's arm and trying to lead her toward one of the dangling lines.

Elianin balked, betraying a strength that surprised Tarsha. "I will not cower in a hiding place while others are in danger!"

"But they will use you as a lure for Irilik," Tarsha argued.

"It wouldn't matter if they took me, or you, or the smallest child as a lure. Irilik would go if he thought it necessary. Rather than hiding, I think it would be better to keep watch on him and stay together. Tolat and Tedak must be told as well. If we tell Irilik of the defection, he might go out to the ship and try to convince them to return. It would be a perfect opportunity for them to abduct him."

Tarsha nodded. The two women grasped hands to avoiding losing each other in the crowd that surrounded the ends of the ropes and began to look for the two men who had been called servants of Irilik before new responsibilities made them the servants of all.

They found Tedak with Taleek making an inventory of the remaining ship supplies while Tolat arranged for baskets to carry the material up the cliff. They had no reason to exclude Taleek from their news and he summoned Janak as soon as he heard Tarsha's story. The word spread among those who were undeniably faithful to the prophet and every man or woman who had been heard to complain or doubt became an object of inquiry.

They discovered that a number of men and several women were neither on the heights of the cliffs nor on the beach making preparations to evacuate. Several boats were found to be missing from the shore. Taleek felt uneasy that his wife might have joined the mutiny until he found Lanin helping with a group of children in one of the camps that had been established at the edge of the precipice. Reassured that she was not one of the mutineers, he continued with a census of his sept.

Irilik, unaware of the anxiety of his council members to keep him always under their eyes, kept busy carrying children up to the top of the cliffs. He had engaged in an informal competition with Kumnor to see which of them could make the most trips. The Valdasian clan chief had the advantage of greater muscles, but he was correspondingly heavy. They were so absorbed in their genial contest that they did not detect the activities of the other council members as night passed into morning and the evacuation continued.

Tarsha waited for them at the end of their final trip up the cliff with the last of the children. She quickly drew Kumnor aside while Irilik led his young charge to the camp. "Guard Irilik. There is a conspiracy abroad," she hastily warned her brother. Irilik returned and she was forced to end her message without giving more details. Irilik flashed Tarsha a grin when he saw her and she realized that he was too tired to maintain his usual reserve.

"Come Irilik," Kumnor said. "Someone has set up a steam tent. Both of us could use a cleansing."

Tarsha watched them stagger off together, making a parody of the real fatigue they felt after hours of unremitting labor. She doubted there was any need to worry about Kumnor failing to guard the prophet. She headed for the sweat tent that had been erected for women. The sand that had impregnated her clothing during her adventures had worn her skin raw in places where the seams chafed her flesh. It was good to give over her guard of Irilik and relax while steam cleansed her body.

She found Irilik sleeping in the tent that had been set up for them and settled down by his side. The last of the cargo would have been hoisted to safety at the tops of the cliff. Now they only had to wait for the disaster Irilik had predicted. She did not settle down beside her husband, but squatted by the foot of their cot. She would watch and guard him.

She tried to fight off the fatigue she felt from more than two days and a night of unremitting worry and labor. From the first sight of land the previous morning she had remained on the deck of Saget's ship, scanning the unpromising scene ahead. As a nomad from her youth, she had grown expert in analyzing the promise or the lack thereof of any landscape. The desert shore held no promise. She would not have chosen it as a landing.

A tiny rodent wiggled under the edge of the tent and wiggled its nose. Suddenly it leaped on a many-legged insect that crawled from beneath a little rock nearby. The cracking noise made when sharp-toothed jaws crunched down on the carapace was barely discernible. The rodent scurried away with its prize and Tarsha blinked. Had she slept for a moment?

To keep herself awake, Tarsha tried to make an inventory of the resources they had noticed during the day they had spent on the beach. It was a short list, but even as she thought of it, her eyelids grew heavier and she teetered on her heels. Finally she decided that there was no need to be uncomfortable while she watched over Irilik. She shivered in the chill air. It would be warmer if she lay down beside her husband and shared his blanket. She fell into sleep as into a well as soon as she was warmly wrapped into the blanket and cuddled next to Irilik.

The entrance of someone into the tent disturbed her sleep. Her mind still wandered in the fields of dreaming, a place where Irilik loved her without reservation.

"Come, a child is missing. We must find him," the voice urged.

Irilik got up and pulled on his tunic so quickly that Tarsha still lay half dazed, puzzling over the familiar sound of the voice that summoned him. A cold realization fully woke her only seconds after her husband left the tent. Irilik had been summoned by one of the men who had planned the mutiny.

Tarsha scrambled into her clothes and rushed from the tent. She looked around but saw no sign of Irilik even though it had been but a moment since he followed the conspirator. She rushed to Tolat's tent which lay close at hand. Without warning, she dashed into the tent and stopped short. Elianin and Tolat slept close together in each others arms.

After a momentary shock and a surge of jealousy for their evident closeness, Tarsha realized she should have known that Elianin would make certain her husband had every reason to believe that her children were his own. Elianin had assured her that the features of the Postemi ran true in every generation, but Tolat would be happier if he thought that any children she bore were the product of his own loins.

There was no equivalent reason for Irilik to treasure the intimacies of marriage. He had done his duty by Tarsha, and nothing more. The prescriptions in the code were quite specific. He kept the minimum requirement of conjugal duty law and turned to her with clumsy expediency once in every moon phase.

Tolat murmured in his sleep, reminding her of her errand. "Come, they have lured Irilik away with the tale that a child is missing."

Her urgent plea came out as a whisper and neither of the sleepers were disturbed. Tarsha did not try again. She could not let them know she had intruded on their privacy. She backed out of the tent and turned to survey the camp. If she raised a general alarm, the mutineers would be warned and might flee with Irilik.

Which of the others would serve to lead men against the mutineers? Tarsha quickly considered what she knew of the various leaders and decided that Saaden was the man who could best do the job. Although he was not close by, he was encamped near the harbor where the mutineers planned to gather. Tarsha ran to the edge of the cliff and searched the beach and sea beyond. There was no sign of either men or boats.

She returned to the tent she shared with Irilik and tracked a muddled set of footprints from the opening. Those that overlay the rest told the story of what had happened. Irilik had followed the other man toward the heavy line of bushes that lay to the south, nearer the harbor. For a moment she hesitated and glanced around. It was folly to venture off alone, but if she waited further precious minutes would be lost. She ran along the course the men had taken and tried to reassure herself that Irilik would live. The prophets of Oliafed wrote that the line of priests would not die out. Irilik would not die until his seed was assured and she had recent proof that she did not yet carry his child.

Tarsha followed the set of tracks to the midway point between the harbor and the camp where the main body of people had ascended the cliffs. Here the cliff had caved away onto the beach below and she recognized the place from the night before. The evidence in the dry soil at her feet showed that Irilik had been met by several other men and a scuffle had occurred. Then the tracks led to the edge of the drop-off where large boulders made a rough ramp nearly to the edge of the sea.

Peering over the edge, Tarsha saw the column of men nearing the harbor. Irilik lay limp, his head dangling ominously as two of the larger men carried him between them. There were at least ten men, but no more, evidence that their leader had overestimated the number of recruits to the mutiny, but it was more men than she cared to challenge without aid from others.

Her eyes were drawn to the dark shape of the boat she had swamped in the shallows below. It might be the only means of reaching the ship where Irilik would be confined until it sailed. She hesitated for a moment, wondering if she should make the attempt herself.

The same logic that she had used when she left the camp alone applied to using Saaden's people. If the mutineers saw a large force of men coming against them, they might murder Irilik and set sail. On the other hand, if she were taken prisoner, there would be no one to tell what had happened.

She drew back from the edge of the cliff and ran on toward the tents above the harbor where Saaden and his people set up camp after her warning the night before. Her mind filled with thoughts of what might be happening in the harbor below. Was the ship ready to sail? Had the capture of Irilik been the final preparation for the journey before they set sail for Kishdu?

There had been talk of using Elianin as bait to lure Irilik, but the man who had ventured the plan seemed to be interested in Elianin for her own sake as well. Would they return to the camp and take the former princess from the arms of her young husband? Would Tolat be murdered? The fear that her decision to act alone might result in harm to her friends haunted Tarsha while she ran through the dense, thorny bushes, hardly heeding the branches that tore at her clothes and raked the skin of her hands and face.

She stumbled into Sadden's camp just as the people were rising after sleeping off their urgent labors of the night. A woman screamed when Tarsha appeared but she looked around for Saaden, careless of the wild appearance of her tangled hair and ripped clothing.

"Tarsha!" Saaden appeared before her and took her arm. "What has brought you here in this wild state? Has the other camp been destroyed?"

"No! The mutineers have taken Irilik!" Tarsha gasped. "They plan to sail back to Kishdu and give him to Algunagada."

"Fools!" Saaden growled. "Only a miracle could have brought us to land so soon. There are no captains fit to make the return trip. All men capable of the feat are true believers in the Light."

"Hurry!" Tarsha begged. "I think they will set sail as soon as the tide runs deep enough. There is no time to waste."

"I'll bring some men," Saaden said, "If we approach openly they might kill Irilik. If only we had a boat, I might take it around to the mouth of the harbor and surprise them from the rear."

"I ditched a small boat yesterday," Tarsha said. "It is still sound. Come, I'll show you where it is."

Others had gathered, curious to know why Irilik's wife appeared in such a state of disarray. The news of Irilik's capture ran through the camp and soon there were many eager volunteers to help rescue the prophet. Saaden glanced around and pointed to five men and one woman. "The rest of you must stay here on the cliff and prepare to join the main camp. If something goes wrong with our plan, the colony must be saved."

His people obeyed without question or pause. Those he had chosen returned in mere moments with light packs, weapons, and sturdy boots. Tarsha glanced at the woman who wore the distinctive garb of a dancing Varshani with veils and drapes that somehow covered her from pate to calf but left the impression of allure. An enameled hilt peeking from her embroidered belt gave the only hint that she was more than an ornament to the expedition. Tarsha patted the long knife that she wore at her own waist. Then she led Saaden and his chosen band out of the camp. They followed so silently at her heels that she glanced around to make sure they were behind her.

They came to the broken cliff and Saaden surveyed the scene below. They could see the tracks of the mutineers in the tide-swept sand of the beach. Tarsha pointed to the dark shape beneath the shallow waves that betrayed the presence of the boat.

"I would tell you to return to the camp and get some rest, Tarsha. But I think it would be a waste of time," Saaden said.

She nodded at his insight and knew he would do more than any other man to effect a rescue, but her fear remained undiluted. Saaden looked around and summoned the other woman to him. "I want the two of you to go into their camp. Lira can share her drapes and shawls with Tarsha. Cover your faces, but show your ankles. Flirt with the mutineers and divert them. They will not suspect your true motives."

Lira began to follow Saaden's instructions even as he spoke. Within a short time Tarsha's distinctive embroidered vest and split riding skirt was covered with a wide, bright shawl that wound around her and tucked into her belt. Her face and hair were concealed with a sheer, spangled scarf that revealed only her flashing eyes. Lira pulled off Tarsha's boots and wrapped some of her own bangles around Tarsha's ankles. Saaden gave a low chuckle when the disguise was complete.

"A fool might easily mistake the spark of revenge in your eyes for passion of quite another kind," he told Tarsha before turning to Lira. "We will wait for a while. When I hear your flute, Lira, I will know that it is time for us to set up our ambush."

The two women found a path down to the beach. Lira began to walk with a swinging gait that made the gemmed chains around her ankles jingle. Tarsha imitated her. The danger of their errand encouraged her to excess and soon she had surpassed her instructor. Her own ankles were decorated with the tattoos distinctive to Valdasians but Lira had provided her with two wide bracelets that covered the telltale tattoos and jangled with each step.

The sound of their approach brought an appreciative audience to ogle their arrival at the harbor. "Varshanian women!" one man shouted. "Dance for us."

"We will dance for your leader," Lira answered.

"We are waiting for him," another, older man said. "Why did you come to the harbor?" He eyed them suspiciously.

"We hear you are returning to Kishdu," Lira said. "It will be better for us there than here where there is only sand and thorns."

"Dance for us and prove you are not merely farm girls gotten up in fancy clothes," a younger man demanded.

Tarsha looked around. The group of laughing men and glaring women gave the lie to the lead conspirator's claim that a crowd would join the mutiny. "Our dances are for all, if your leader is not here. Surely this is not the total of the mutineer group? We were told there were more than a hundred willing to desert and return to Kishdu."

The older man snarled, "There are more gathered to see you than should be. Get your dancing over with, then show these fools what little they can expect from such as you. These louts have left the ship unattended. If you do not dance, I will know you only want to cause trouble."

Lira lifted the flute to her lips and Tarsha began to spin and beat the rhythm of the tune with her feet. Varshanians were noted for their dancing, but they were in no way superior to the Valdasians who kept the dancing of their women for the privacy of their own campfires instead of letting them display themselves at every country fair where a yokel might be willing to spend his pay for the sight of a shapely, bangle covered ankle.

Tarsha used the entire harbor front as her platform, dancing here and there, followed by the ogling men. Her keen glance skipped from man to man, seeming to promise an earthly paradise while every other glance searched the ships for a sign of her young husband. She noticed the boat containing Saaden and the other men steal into the harbor as the sun began to set. They headed straight for one of the larger ships and she noticed the flicker of something blue hanging from one of the portholes, barely visible from the harbor side. She knew it was Irilik's tunic, used to signal for help. She shouted her joy, letting the fools who followed her every movement think it was appreciation for their applause that inspired her triumphant shriek.

She continued to dance ever more wildly as she deliberately led her audience to the far side of the harbor, away from the sight of the boat engaged in the rescue of her beloved. She saw the boat leave the harbor with five men aboard and knew her task neared an end. Her ankles and knees shook with the strain of her extended performance and with Irilik safe in the hands of Saaden, she no longer had any reason to keep on. Lira seemed to sense her fatigue and gave one last trill on her flute.

Tarsha fell to the ground in a dramatic climax to her performance, her hands spread out gracefully before her, her head bowed as she struggled against the darkness that hovered over her mind. Irilik had escaped but she was surrounded by men who might at any moment discover the ruse that had cost them their captive. It was a life for a life. An exchange she gladly made.

Lira interrupted her fatalistic expectation with an announcement. "Will any man accept my bridal challenge?" Tarsha glanced up and saw the other woman standing with her flute now in her belt and the curved knife in her hand. Varshanian women were known for two qualities that seemed mutually exclusive. No other women were so publicly seductive, and none so intent on protecting their virtue.

"I should have warned you that these dancers are the worst kind of cheats," the older man sneered at the young men around him who gaped at Lira's gleaming blade. "Your price is too high, woman. We have no need for your teasing ways."

"I would wed her!" a young man shouted.

"You would die on her blade," the older man scoffed. "Varshanians marry their own kind. I have seldom known a dancer to lose a bridal challenge. When I was a young fool I tried. It cost me the thumb and two fingers of my left hand, yet would any of you be willing to challenge me?"

Murmuring and mumbling, the mutineers hesitated. Then they turned and walked away from Lira and Tarsha. The old man laughed derisively at the two dancers who had so suddenly been abandoned by their audience. "Go. If you want to return to Kishdu, you will have to find others to dance to your tune."

Lira helped Tarsha to her feet and they walked away with their heads bowed. "I have never seen such a dance," the Varshanian woman whispered when they were well beyond the hearing of the old mutineer.

"It was a dance for the life of my husband," Tarsha said. "He is saved, but as soon as his disappearance is discovered, we might be doomed. We should hurry."

"No, if we hurry, our ploy will be suspected," Lira counseled. "Slow down. Act discouraged by their rejection. We were lucky that old cynic was part of the plot. Otherwise, you might have caused a riot with your dance."

Tarsha accepted Lira's counsel. When the outcry came at the discovery of Irilik's escape, they were not followed. The final red rays of sunset lit the tumbled rocks of the landslide as the two weary women found their way to the top of the cliff. Irilik waited there with Saaden and the others who had rescued him. He stared at Tarsha as if at an apparition and she realized that with her dancer's veils she seemed a stranger to him.

She unwound the scarf and shawl and leaned down to remove the bangles and bracelets from her ankles. Fatigue overcame her when she was bent over and she tumbled at his feet. The last rays of the sun lit the ironic smile on her face as he leaned to pick her up and support her with his arm.

"Tarsha, I didn't recognize you when I saw you dancing. It was a brave thing you did," he murmured.

She felt too weary to keep up the careful constraint that usually marked their relationship and she rested against his side. His words of praise were sweet. Admiration was not love, but at least it was better than the cool emotions inspired by mere duty.

"Can you tell us anything more about the catastrophe Tarsha warned us about last night?" Saaden asked. Irilik turned to the speak to Saaden, releasing Tarsha to stand on her own while he gave further details of what he had seen in the Eye of Adanan.

Lira quickly moved to Tarsha's side, replacing the arm that Irilik had so casually withdrawn when distracted by Saaden's question. "Come with me, I have ointments for your bruises and a brew of leaves that will ease you muscles," the dancer said.

Tarsha was tempted to look back and see if Irilik even noticed that she was leaving him to go with Lira, but she feared that she would see that he had entirely forgotten her presence as he gave instruction and counsel. Lira led her to a tent where a young boy fed twigs into a minuscule fire beneath a tripod cooking pot.

"This is my son, Paran," Lira said, introducing the bright-eyed boy to her new friend. "This is Tarsha. She is a heroine."

The boy turned eager eyes to his mother and begged to hear details. Lira satisfied his curiosity while she added dried leaves to the simmering water in the cooking pot and rubbed a soothing balm over Tarsha's scratched arms and legs.

"Is this witgall ointment?" Tarsha asked, detecting the familiar scent of one of Kapanadel's favorite remedies.

"You know of it?" Lira asked. "Are you a medicine woman as well as a dancer?"

"My brother's wife is the medicine woman of our sept," Tarsha replied. "You have probably heard of Kapanadel. I am certain she will soon be testing every unfamiliar root and leaf to discover its possible uses in her pharmacopeia."

"I would be grateful for any knowledge she is willing to share with me," Lira said. "The familiar remedies may be scarce in this new land."

A bell rang, interrupting their discussion. Paran leaped up and ran out of the tent to see what had caused the signal. Lira helped Tarsha to her still aching feet after helping her pull on her boots. "I would counsel you to rest until you recover your strength, but I sense my words would be wasted. At least you have no need to hurry back to the other camp."

Her supposition reminded Tarsha that Elianin had not been warned that Irilik had been taken and her life, or Tolat's could be in danger. She rushed from the tent, leaving Lira protesting her hurry and began to run back toward the main camp. Irilik caught up with her and blocked her path. She tried to make her way past him, but he held her by the shoulders. "You are taxing your strength beyond reason," he pleaded with her. "Stop and tell me why you went rushing away from Saaden's camp."

"The rebel leader threatened to abduct Elianin," Tarsha gasped. "I must find out if she and Tolat are safe."

Irilik released her shoulders and began to run in the same course she had been following. She lagged behind, then stopped and sagged to the ground. Irilik would watch out for Elianin and Tolat. She could leave their fate in his hands.

It was nearing evening again and the darkness that had made Tarsha swoon at Irilik's feet while she still wore a dancer's disguise earlier after the rescue, returned to cloud her mind and steal the last of her strength. There were no thorns or rocks in the area immediately around her and the sandy soil still held warmth from the day. Alone and exhausted she fell asleep.

Irilik found everyone in camp busy and Elianin and Tolat were keeping a group of young children occupied while their parents prepared for whatever the coming night would bring. He soon learned that he was one of the few responsible adults who had not already been alerted to the danger of the mutineers.

There seemed to be no threat to Elianin and Tolat, and Irilik's attention was diverted to other concerns as the sun began to set. Something niggled in the back of his mind, but as leader of the exodus, he was the ultimate appeal for any conflict that could not be settled by the leaders of the septs and as soon as he settled one minor crisis, another took its place.

He was discussing the problem of rationing water with Taleek and Janak when Saaden approached him. Irilik turned to welcome the other leader with a smile, but his smile foundered when he met the cool reproof in Saaden's eyes. He quickly excused himself to the other men and went aside with Saaden to ask what concerned him.

"Have your people settled and prepared for the coming storm?" Irilik asked when they were out of hearing of Taleek and Janak.

"I have taken care of all who are under my care and responsibility. Can you say the same?" Saaden challenged him.

"I have no sept-" Irilik began.

"You have a wife. Can you tell me where she is?" Saaden asked.

The Stone of Truth illuminated the camp with a light bright enough to see the furthest reaches. There were at least a hundred women with the same curly dark hair as Tarsha. Irilik could only positively identify Elianin because of her bright hair. "I am sure Tarsha is alright," Irilik temporized. "The mutineers threatened to kidnap Elianin."

"I found Tarsha collapsed in exhaustion on a low part of the cliff that could be swamped if the wave you predict rises high enough. I knew it would shame you if I carried her into either camp so I carried her to a place where her safety won't be threatened and left my cape to cover her."

Irilik paled with chagrin. The worry that had nibbled at the back of his mind, the occasional concern that he had quickly suppressed before it could be recognized suddenly revealed itself. "Would you please take me to her?" he asked Saaden.

"Only if you can explain how you permitted yourself this dereliction," Saaden said. "I know Tarsha was not your first choice for a bride, but it would be better to annul the marriage now than to subject her to further humiliation."

"I cannot explain adequately why I left her, but neither do I want to lose Tarsha. She had begun to run back here to warn Elianin and I caught up with her. I did not know about the mutiny until the moment of my abduction. I left her behind when I ran on to warn Tolat and his wife."

Saaden considered his words. "It is well you did not try to excuse yourself with anything other than a description of how you lost track of her. I will give you a chance to redeem yourself with Tarsha, but I will be watching you henceforth."

Saaden led Irilik away from the camp and around a low hill where the light from the Stone of Truth did not penetrate fully. A body that seemed too small to be his vital wife huddled in the shadow of a bush under Saaden's cape.

Irilik ran forward and gathered Tarsha into his arms. Her body shivered, more with exhaustion than cold. "Tarsha," he murmured. "I am sorry I did not take care to see you home and safe."

"Are the others safe," she asked with a quavering voice.

"They are safe. We left the mutineers to seek their own destiny. If what I have predicted takes place, they will be destroyed. There is little that we can do now that night has come."

Irilik stood and carried Tarsha back to their tent. He built a warming fire and prepared a nourishing soup for her dinner while she huddled under a blanket still shivering. She had always been the one to care for him. He had become accustomed to think of her as energetic and competent, almost like a force of nature.

While he lifted a spoon to Tarsha's lips and encouraged her to sip, he wondered at his failure to take care of her before Saaden prompted him. Perhaps he had been in retreat from the unexpected revelation of emotion that had occurred when he found that it was she who had danced before the mutineers and diverted them while he was rescued. In the first few moments after she had tumbled at his feet, her smooth skin marked by thorns and grey with exhaustion, he had known a wave of emotion that defied his previous notions of what love meant.

The thought that he could so easily transfer his devotion from Elianin to Tarsha disturbed him and he had eagerly turned to talk with Saaden, leaving Tarsha to depart with Lira. When she had suddenly begun to run toward the camp, he had followed. It must have seemed to her that his worry was all for Elianin. He examined the notion and rejected it.

Tarsha looked toward the opening of their tent and gasped. Irilik followed the direction of her gaze and stood. "The comet has split. The time is near."

"Tarsha, do you want to rest, or do you want to come with me to witness the waves?" he asked.

"Thank you for the courtesy of asking me," she said with a weary smile. "I should have trusted you with the information that I overheard the mutineers. It could have saved both of us a lot of trouble. From henceforth we must keep our wedding vows by sharing such things. I will come with you to the edge of the cliff."



Chapter 13 Sons of Irilik

By the light of the Stone of Truth, the people of Irilik watched the destruction that raged on the beach and halfway up the cliff as great waves rose out of the sea and smashed against the sand and rocks. The fleet that had carried them from Kishdu were lifted high into the air on the back of the monstrous walls of water, then tossed like toys against the face of the cliff and reduced to splinters and shards.

The people returned to their tents and gave private prayers of thanks. Some mourned those they had left behind them in Kishdu to perish. If there had been any doubt before, the splitting of the comet, the deadly waves had banished it.

When morning came and the waters receded, they returned to the edge of the cliff to view the ruin left behind. They knelt in prayer in the light of a new day and waited for Irilik's words. There would be no return to the ruined cities of Kishdu. Even if they had been minded to build a boat, the scrubby bushes provided little in the way of suitable timber.

Irilik stood with Tarsha by his side. Unconscious of the gesture, he held her hand. His love for Elianin had faded into a childish dream, but the woman next to him had risked her life to save him. There would be no more careful scheduling of his time with her, to be close to her side no mere duty. He would happily yield to the feelings that had seemed somehow furtive and shameful just the day before. He lost track of the serious purpose that had led him to call the assembly as he remembered his first glimpse of the dance Tarsha had performed to divert the mutineers from his rescue.

He had not known that it was Tarsha beneath the veils and the thoughts her dance had caused had made him red with shame when he first saw the raw passion in her movements. She would never dance so again for any other man, but Kumnor had advised him that it was the pleasure and duty of Valdasian women to dance for their husbands.

"Irilik?" Tarsha gently prompted.

He looked up and blushed at the avenues his mind pursued while a thousand people looked up to him for words of wisdom. He clasped Tarsha's waist and pulled her nearer to his side. He stammered a little as he began to speak. A murmur of indulgent laughter rose to greet his hesitation. Most of the adults had heard rumors that their young leader was unhappy with his marriage and the evidence of his affection for Tarsha reassured them.

"I had hoped we could send ships south to search for Lamath's people, but that is impossible now," he announced. "From the evidence of the Eye of Adanan, I believe our brothers and sisters from Vishang and the fens are safe. They have the books of the prophets, the Law, and able leaders including Lamath who is a priest. I will pray that in time we may re-establish our brotherhood, but for now, our path lies to the west. The spring that we use on the beach is sufficient to supply us with water for the first of our journey, but we cannot stay here in our numbers. You will have two weeks to prepare for the trek."

There were a few murmurs at the news that they must travel into the waste, but the mutineers had been destroyed with the ships they had attempted to take. It seemed that no serious dissent remained.

"There are no cattle or horses to pull our burdens and no lumber to build even simple carts," Irilik continued. We will have to carry what we need to survive; food, water, seeds, and basic tools. You must decide what you are willing to carry, but the lighter we travel, the sooner we will reach a place where we will find timber and water, and good ground for planting crops."

For some in the crowd there was no issue of choosing what to take. They had been forced to flee from their homes with little but the clothes on their backs. Others had salvaged things that had been valuable to them before joining the Gathering. Tarsha decided to set an example to all. She stripped off the fortune in silver, gold and gems that she habitually wore around her neck and waist and handed them to Irilik. He hesitated, then publicly accepted her jewelry and carried them to a pit that had been dug for garbage. The people watched as he added all but one extra set of his robes to the pit, then began to toss earth on top of them.

The example prompted others to come forward with their own offerings to necessity. Lanin crept forward with a basket of bright cloth and the embroidery needles and floss that had been her pride. When she lifted them to throw them on the growing pile within the pit, Irilik stayed her hand. "These needles are tools that will be needed. You can use the cloth and thread to patch and mend our clothes, and bring a bit of beauty with your skill."

Tears flooded the woman's eyes. Instead of sacrificing the precious implements of her craft, she stripped off the heavy bracelets and necklaces that she had purchased in Renon. With a light heart, she tossed the jeweled metal onto the pile.

Her example spurred others to give up the items of vanity that they had clung to through the worst persecution. The women of Kumnor's tribe laughed as they competed to add rings and bangles, necklaces and brooches to the pit. Only those tokens that had real meaning were retained; a tiny ring that had belonged to Saaden's daughter in her childhood, now worn around Enna's neck on a thong of silk, the medal impressed with the image of Aganon that Tolat had received from his grandmother. Irilik stopped those who tried to throw away harps and other instruments.

"We must have music in our lives. I consider harps and horns as important as shovels and spades," he said.

When the divestiture was finished, the heap rose above the edges of the pit, a fortune in jewels and fine clothing that might have tempted any thief. Brush was brought and piled over the mass, then Tarsha stepped forward to light a fire. Instead of staring at the blaze, the people turned away and set about the business of preparing for the trek to come. The gems suspended in the Eye of Adanan were the only jewels they would take with them when they searched for a new home.

Tedak had become a member of the council in Lamath's stead and headed up a small but loyal group. It became a popular pastime of his people to sponsor potential mates for their young chief. Irilik smiled at the various tactics they used to lure Tedak into noticing a likely mate, but he knew that Tedak's feelings of obligation to him would only end when more important duties commanded all of his attention.

In the intimacy of their tent, he confided his concerns to Tarsha. "I hardly know what to do about Tedak's refusal to court a bride. I don't want to order him to marry someone, but I am almost tempted to that extreme."

"I believe I have the answer to your problem," Tarsha said. "Lira, the Varshanian dancer who helped me divert the mutineers while you escaped, has become a friend of mine. She is a young widow with a son, Paran. Few men are willing to accept the rearing of the child when there are so many maidens willing to marry a single man. Why is it that more women than men saw the Light?"

Irilik shook his head, knowing he had no real answer for the question. A few members of the council had urged that polygamy would be necessary to provide every woman with a husband, but Irilik felt that the practice led too easily to excess. He would wait to see that every man had one wife before considering the idea that some men should have several.

Tarsha smiled and cuddled closer. "Lira will share our supper tomorrow night. I am happy that you discontinued the mass meals. They were suitable to the Gathering, but now that we have begun to pattern a new life, privacy is best except at festivals."

"You say Lira will share our supper, but how will that aid Tedak?" Irilik asked.

"You will invite him to share supper with us too. You must ask Tedak to teach Paran some of the skills that only fathers seem to provide. We will not act as if we want Lira to marry Tedak. That would only scare him."

"But we really do want him to marry her?" he asked, settling her close enough to kiss. She sighed with content and did not answer. Matchmaking took second place to match mending and the hours she had Irilik to herself were far too precious to interrupt.

The next evening, when Tedak entered their hearth ring and saw the lovely Varshanian dancer helping Tarsha with the preparation of the meal, he tried to hide his scowl. Irilik clumsily tried to show Paran how to string a bow and Tedak drifted toward the two males. Irilik deliberately fumbled the task and soon Tedak edged him aside to demonstrate the proper way to set the string. Irilik left them together once he saw that Tedak was absorbed in helping the boy.

Tarsha placed Tedak as far from Lira as possible during the meal, but that only meant he faced her instead of being seated next to her. Paran took the seat next to him and the boy kept up a steady stream of questions to the man who had become his new hero by the simple fact of taking notice of his needs and answering his queries. Before long he had drawn Tedak into a conversation about the dangers and possibilities of the new land. He asked Tedak to teach him how to hunt. Lira remained silent, but her eyes glowed when she looked at the man who took such interest in her son.

Irilik watched the interplay with amusement, but his attentions were not wholly with his friend. That evening he had seen puzzling indications in the Eye of Adanan. Mingled colors of dark and bright had appeared in the west, moving toward their camp. The darkness was negligible, and the clear hues that surrounded it more than compensated for the small threat. He decided it would be wise to set watchmen on the west as well as along the beach where they had been patrolling for possible survivors of the mutiny.

Early on the morning of their fourth day of preparations, a cry from one of the watchmen interrupted their work. The people looked up and saw four strangers with a litter carried between them coming from the west. Irilik went to greet them and found Tagnet lying injured and incoherent in the litter. Virda rushed forward to take charge of her son while Irilik tried to understand the speech of the visitors.

By means of signs and drawings on the earth between them, he followed their meaning after an initial phase of establishing common terms. They had been drawn to the light of the Stone of Truth and had followed it across the waste for five days. On the day before they reached the camp, they had encountered Tagnet near death from exposure. He had a broken leg which had already begun to heal in a crooked line.

When evening neared, Irilik stopped by Virda's tent to interview Tagnet. The young man could barely speak through his grimaces of pain, but he told Irilik that he had become injured while looking for firewood and had despaired of being found. Virda, listening to their halting conversation, waited until Tagnet turned his head and closed his eye, then she turned to Irilik. "I had hoped Tagnet was not among the mutineers, but until now, I thought I had lost him. I should have gone in search of him when I first missed him."

Irilik nodded but he kept his own counsel. He suspected that Tagnet had been part of the mutiny. Tarsha had told him of her conviction that the leader was one of Virda's sons, intent on regaining his father's favor. Tagnet's injury would have kept him from meeting with the others as promised on the night of the great waves that had destroyed their stolen ships. A darkness about Tagnet disturbed the prophet. It was like the darkness he had seen in the Eye of Adanan two evenings before.

If he told Virda of his suspicions, she might believe him, but if his hunches were wrong, they could cause needless hurt. He knew of the heartbreak Enna had experienced when Saaden told her of the reason for Domsik's death. With brothers as steady as Virda's other sons, it seemed unlikely that Tagnet could cause serious problems. "I hope he will soon recover," Irilik said. "Has Kapanadel seen his injury?"

"He would not allow Kapanadel to treat him," Virda said. "He says he doubts the efficacy of her medicines because she is Valdasian."

Irilik shook his head. "I hope you don't support his opinion. Kapanadel is the most skilled healer in our company."

"I know," Virda muttered. She looked away and Irilik guessed at her disquiet.

Without speaking, he extended his hand and offered the comfort of his grip. She bid him farewell just as silently with a return of pressure on his hand, then she returned to nursing Tagnet.

Irilik returned to the strangers who had carried Tagnet into camp. The overcast sky in the west prevented him from making a reading of the oracle device, but he had seen a hint of their coming in his previous readings. The pure, bright colors of the intimated advent reassured him that they would make a favorable addition to his people.

Over the next few days, Irilik's long, halting conversations with the natives kept him too busy to notice the preoccupation of Tedak who often excused himself after the evening ritual rather than stopping by to share a meal with Irilik and Tarsha as he was used to.

The four men from the west told Irilik their names. The oldest man, apparently the leader of the others pointed to himself and said, "Kaldar." At first Irilik thought it might be an honorific, but another man named himself 'Remig' and the other two followed with the names Palad and Boral.

In time he learned that they were chiefs from the mountains in the west where they had first seen the light of the Stone of Truth. They had been meeting near one of the peaks, searching the east for the sign their wise men had decreed must come when the broken star fell. At noon they left the camp to eat, and when evening came, the strangers always stood respectfully for the evening ritual, then faded back into the waste, only to come again the next day. The others of the Gathering gave them wide clearance, not quite certain whether to welcome them or fear them. They seemed to have nothing in common except for a willingness to follow Irilik. The problem of fear and prejudice against the natives worried Irilik and he hoped that time would bring tolerance.

One morning while Irilik was questioning the chiefs about possible places to settle, one of the children in Garad's sept was stung by an evil looking insect and ran crying to her mother. Remig leaped up and hurried after the youngster. He took some leaves from his belt pouch and crushed them, then he placed them over the sting and bound them with a thong of leather. By demonstration, he showed the mother how to care for the sting. Others had gathered to watch, drawn by the child's screams. They applauded Remig with relieved laughs and cheers when the child stopped crying and extended her small arms to hug him around the neck.

When noon came, instead of fading into the brush to eat in privacy, the chiefs soon returned bearing baskets of roots and fruit. Tarsha and Elianin were among the first to step forward and take some of the fruit. They tasted cautiously, then smiled and bit down with enthusiasm. For some time afterward, the scene resembled a marketplace where the women responsible for preparing family meals tasted and tested the new textures and scents of the native food.

Palad and Boral strung large lizards on spits and set them over a fire. Soon the delicious smell of roasting meat lured even the most cautious to sample the savory flesh.

Irilik watched with relief when he saw how the gifts of food changed the edgy suspicion with which most of his people had viewed the natives. Caution turned to acceptance and welcome. The problem of provisions had been constant. Some, such as Kapanadel, had been venturesome in trying to find new foods from plants and animals that were strange to them, but most had been conservative, limiting their diets to the few things that were similar to what they had known in Kishdu. With hunger as a prod, and the example of the natives, new tastes and smells were more readily accepted.

A small golden fruit the natives called a nuka grew on low trees that were widely distributed wherever there was any hint of water. The initial taste was mouth puckering and even Kapanadel had avoided them. The natives showed how to choose the riper fruits that had paled from the bright orange of first fruit and become a little withered. When squeezed, they provided a slightly sweet, astringent drink. The juice resisted spoilage, as well as preserving anything soaked in it.

One morning, Kaldar brought Irilik a net bag filled with succulent peeled sections of some vegetable or fruit he could not identify. The refreshing flesh of the plant seemed to satisfy both hunger and thirst. Soon Irilik looked forward to the treat whenever he gathered to confer with the natives. One day, instead of bringing the peeled sections, the chief brought leaves and demonstrated how to peel them.

Irilik was surprised to find that his favorite food was the peeled leaf of one of the most troublesome plants they had encountered. The people called it spear-leaf from the shape of the notched leaves that could give a nasty wound to the incautious. Not many were brave enough to risk the burning feeling of encountering spear leaf in order to peel and eat the leaves, but Irilik soon learned the trick of cutting the skin, then grasping the leaf by the top and bottom and peeling away the notched edges where the stinging barbs were concentrated.

Within a week of the appearance of the native chiefs, they had gained acceptance from all but a few of Irilik's followers. The children had taken to wearing shells strung on thongs around their necks in the manner of the natives. Most of the youngsters became expert at finding nuka fruits and the small rodents called pikas. They easily picked up words and phrases of the native language and taught their parents in turn.

Meanwhile, Irilik made progress in finding a place to settle his people. Using a large hide, he marked the coastline and indicated that he wanted the chiefs to show him the lay of the land. Boral leaned forward and marked triangles with charcoal to represent the mountains in the west. "Our land," he said.

Kaldar picked up a piece of charcoal and began to make marks on the maps beyond the mountains while the other men discussed what he was doing. There was a gasp of surprise when he drew an oval with lines running to it. He turned to the others and began to speak to them in tones that Irilik recognized as a formal speech or poem with careful repetitions and rhymes. Although he understood only a little of what was said, it seemed that Kaldar's words had disturbed the others.

Kaldar turned back to the map and began to mark a path that led from the beach to the mountains and then to the oval. Palad and Boral, stood and made the sign of rejection. They turned their backs on Kaldar and withdrew from the council tent. Kaldar and Remig, seemed uneasy. Apparently Irilik's attempts to find a favorable settlement had reached an impasse. The work of many days stalled with no result.

Kaldar and Remig stood and bowed formally, their discussions at an end. Irilik realized he must do something to restore their discussions. The map on the floor in front of him reminded him of a resource he had not yet used. He stood and bowed. "When the sun is near the mountains, join me with Palad and Boral on the rise outside the camp."

The chiefs nodded and took their leave and Irilik glanced anxiously toward the mountains. For several days he had been unable to use the oracle device because of high clouds that rode the peaks almost every evening. He closed his eyes and raised his hands in prayer. "By Yasa Dom I ask that light be given and a path be found," he pleaded.

When the sun lowered toward the peaks that evening the sky remained clear. Irilik wondered if only Remig and Kaldar would come, but to his relief, there were four men waiting on the rise when the sun began to set. Tarsha accompanied him when he walked to meet the chiefs carrying the Eye of Adanan. She had become like a second pair of hands for him, anticipating his needs more quickly than Tedak.

After greeting the chiefs with a formality that emphasized the importance of their errand, Irilik and Tarsha placed the maps and the symbols that stood proxy for the various people near at hand with one map and a calendar propped against the supporting screen. Tarsha had judged to a nicety when it would be best to lift the side of the Eye of Adanan and let the rays of the sun play over the gems suspended within.

A gasp of awed delight broke from the lips of the chiefs when they saw the brilliant colors that burst from the Eye of Adanan and bathed the map with definite designs. The path Kaldar had marked glowed with gold and green.

There were flashes of red and dull purple as Irilik manipulated the calendar display. He tried various combinations while the light lasted, but nothing eliminated the tell-tale signs of danger and death. It appeared that a speedy progress to the oval Kaldar had drawn was the best course to take. The oval itself glowed with brilliant blue, as if the essence of a summer sky had been distilled before it faded as the sun set behind the mountains.

"Timora!" Kaldar proclaimed.

"Timora!" the other chiefs echoed.

"Timora, the holy lake," Irilik whispered. "Timora is the heart of this new land, Okishdu. In the valley of Timora we will build a city that will never fall, nor will any but the High Priest of Yasa Dom rule within its gates."

Tarsha did not question his words. She took a scribing tool and slate from her sash pocket and quickly inscribed what he had said. While she wrote, Kaldar made a speech to his fellow chiefs that rang with conviction.

This time they did not argue. The evidence provided by the Eye of Adanan confirmed the decision Kaldar had offered earlier. The chiefs turned to Irilik and intoned phrases that he could not quite translate. Each in turn, they offered their right hands in a curious grip, then bowed and departed for their unseen camp in the bush.

"We have a destination for our trek, and only just in time," Irilik remarked as he and Tarsha packed away the maps and symbols. "I have known that a way would be provided, but I thought we would find our home in the foothills just beyond the mountains."

"It is just as well that you have something other than your own opinion to go by," Tarsha said. "From what I saw, we will be going almost as far again as from here to the mountains. I hope Timora is worth the effort."

"It will be," Irilik assured her. "From time to time I have dreamed of a beautiful valley surrounding a lake of the hue we saw in the oracle device. I think it must be Timora that was shown to me."

"May it be so," Tarsha answered. She had never known a permanent settlement as lovely as the wide steppes where her people wandered in her youth. For Irilik's sake she hoped the valley that would be their home was fertile and green, but her own heart would always yearn for wide ranges and distant vistas.

Tarsha stored the Eye of Adanan in the battered case that Tedak had carved so long ago and secured it in a pouch around her waist while Irilik packed away the other implements and tokens they had used. They joined hands and walked down from the rise together.

In the distance they saw a man and boy bent over something on the ground. Irilik recognized Tedak with Paran. "At least Lira's son has found a friend, even if Tedak is too shy to find a bride," Irilik remarked. Tarsha only smiled.

Two days before the time Irilik had marked for their departure for the western mountains, Tedak approached him with Paran and Lira. "I have come to ask you to marry me to Lira. I want her for my wife and Paran for a son. I will adopt him as my own with all the rights of inheritance of a son of my own body."

It was a happy surprise to Irilik, but Tarsha's smile betrayed smug satisfaction. "We must hold a wedding festival," she said. "It will be a fine thing to celebrate on the eve of our departure for Timora."

Her words reminded Irilik of another wedding, one that had been far less happy for him when it happened. He took his wife's hand and squeezed it fondly. He hoped that Tedak and Lira would enjoy the same felicity that had finally come to him. Tarsha had become a part of him, as useful as his hands and as indispensable as his heart.

They celebrated the festival of Tedak's marriage to Lira on the cliffs above the beach. The wreckage of the ships had long since been burned as fuel, the lines and metal salvaged to make tools. Now the sand below the cliffs lay clean, marked only by the tracks of fishermen and children hunting shells. During the day, Tarsha was busy with the bride while Irilik took final counsel with the four native chiefs who had gathered to the light.

When evening neared, the sounds of harps and horns announced that the hour of the wedding had come. Irilik stood and bowed to the chiefs then left the council tent to put on his ceremonial robes. Tarsha waited for him, dressed in her best of the two sets of clothing she had not discarded. In place of jewels, bright embroidery adorned the bodice and hem.

The wedding took place as the final rays of sunset painted the sky with glorious color. The lattice of the Orb had been opened and the glow of the Stone of Truth began to replace the light of the sun, sending its light over the assembly that gathered to witness the marriage. Irilik stood on a platform before a narrow altar dressed in his priestly robes of white and blue. Tedak and Lira knelt before him with Paran between them.

Irilik looked from the face of his former servant to that of the lovely dancer and smiled. Tarsha had been wise in managing the match between the two. He would never have seen the potential without her guidance. Tedak had always been a pattern of propriety and modesty. He sometimes seemed immune to the charms of women. While Irilik paused in the ritual, he saw the couple kneeling before him steal a quick, fond glance at each other before their eyes came to light on the bowed head of Paran. Their joined hands on the alter made a tell-tale flexing that betrayed how willing they were to be joined.

Irilik restrained the grin that tried to spread his mouth from a moderate smile. This was a high and holy ceremony, his joy might show in his voice, but his face retained the dignity he felt necessary to the event. When he had received the vows of both Lira and Tedak, he turned to Paran and took his right hand. He set it on the joined hands of Tedak and Lira, and said the words that joined Paran to both of them as if he had been born to Tedak. he signaled them to rise and turn.

The people roared their approval of the match. The savory scents of the wedding feast filled the air and Irilik raised his hands to signal that it was time to perform the evening ritual and ask a blessing on the coming night. Before he could speak he saw Kaldar moving toward him through the crowd below followed by the other chiefs. His hand was upraised in a gesture that indicated he intended an announcement of his own.

The chief turned when he reached the step beneath the alter and raised both hands. The other chiefs knelt and bowed their heads. "We would be sons of Irilik and Tedak!" Kaldar proclaimed in a voice that carried to the crowd below. "We would be adopted."

Palad and Boral turned to Tedak, Kaldar and Remig to Irilik. They were old enough to be parents to the young men they had chosen as adoptive fathers but Irilik had no doubt of the significance of Kaldar's announcement. There could be no more certain alliance than that of kindred. He summoned the chiefs forward and repeated the ceremony that had bound Paran to Tedak. First he bound Kaldar and Remig to himself as sons, then he turned and repeated the binding to make Palad and Boral sons to Tedak.

When he looked up from saying the words and taking the oaths that bound him to Kaldar and Remig, he saw that other natives had joined the throng below. From their dress and their numbers, they were the people these chiefs led, come to join the gathering. The implications of his adoption of Kaldar and Remig were suddenly evident. With his binding words, he had become the virtual father of several hundred men, women and children. For a moment he wondered how his people would react to the sudden appearance of the tribes, but refugees from Kishdu had learned to value the skills the chiefs shared with them and they showed little reservation as they welcomed the newcomers.

Irilik raised his hands and invoked the blessing of the Radiance on all assembled. The scent of the various dishes prepared for the wedding feast encouraged a resounding amen from the crowd. The newcomers came with gifts of meat and fruit that were eagerly accepted by the men and women in charge of preparing the feast.

Irilik and Tarsha descended from the altar on the scaffolding and found their places near the head of a table spread with food. The people now adopted by them through their chiefs spread out behind them. The feast began quietly enough as eating took precedence to visiting. Gradually laughter and song livened up the night.

The children of the two peoples were bolder than their parents. With their hunger satisfied, they began to play games and chatter. Paran struck up a friendship with a native boy near his own age and as soon as his mother's head turned to receive compliments on her marriage, he ran off with the other boy to search the beach for shells.

"Surely this alliance comes from the Maker," Lira said. "The people in this new land He has given us must either be our friends or our foes."

Irilik nodded. "There are many who will hate us," he said as he remembered the tell-tale signs of red and purple that had marked their path to Timora.

"From what I have seen," Tedak said, "We have superior weapons. I have no doubt that Kaldar and his people know much about the way the other natives fight, and with such as Saaden and Janak as leaders, we will easily win any contest of arms."

"Is there no way to avoid fighting?" Lira asked.

Irilik shook his head. "I have seen the signs of death and war, no matter how we bend our path. The first contest will come before we reach the mountains. It will be our greatest test. I must warn the members of the council to prepare their people."

"You have given orders that we must be prepared to leave here at dawn," Tedak said. "When will you tell the council?"

"Tomorrow evening after our first day of march I will call them together," Irilik said. "By then we will have a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses of our people on the march. Many of them have never faced the test of their endurance in such a setting. We know from our own experience with the rebel army in Kishdu, that will alone is not enough, and it is not the strength of a man's body but the fiber of his soul that makes a good campaigner. We can count on Virda and Saaden along with others, such as Taleek and Janak, but some other members of the council may find it more difficult on march. They will listen better to the plans we must make when they have experienced some of the ordeal imposed by overland travel. It is much different from sailing in a ship."

Tarsha laughed softly. "You seem to think that the sailors will prove less capable of marching than they were of sailing. You may be surprised. They are hearty men and women. It is just as likely that some of us who had grown accustomed to riding will have more difficulty adjusting to using our own feet."

"We will have other concerns to present to the council," Irilik said. "My status in the council will probably change with this new development. Previously I have been without a sept of my own. I was free to act as a mediator because no favoritism would be involved. The adoption of Kaldar and Remig made me equal with the other council members."

"You could make the chiefs members of the council," Tedak said. "Your adoption was a sign of accepting them into the Gathering, not quite the same as the ceremony performed when men and women pledge to one of us as a sept leader. We need someone to preside among us."

"Would Palad and Boral be members of the council as well?" Irilik asked. "It is time that you fulfilled the responsibilities that were forecast for you before we fled Kishdu. You have a few others pledged to you, but it would seem the natives have provided you with an entire a sept of your own."

"Is this the time and place to discuss such things?" Tarsha laughed. "This is a wedding and Lira is prepared to perform her bridal dance."

Irilik looked up and saw Lira standing in a clearing at the center of the crowd. He glanced at Tedak and realized that his friend had no idea of what was to come. He felt some sympathy for his former servant when he recalled his own chagrin when he had realized that it had been Tarsha beneath the veils of the vivid dancer who had distracted the mutineers from his escape.

"I must play the pipes for her," Tarsha said, rising and removing the musical instrument from her belt pouch.

"You may play the pipes for Lira, but remember, your dances are only for me," Irilik insisted with a mock frown.

Tarsha gave him an impudent grin and twitched her skirt to set the fringe fluttering. "I will dance for you tonight, if that is your wish."

"In our tent, when there are no others present," he insisted.

She laughed. "I have given you my promise, don't tempt me to break my bond just to spite your jealousy," she warned playfully.

"Why should you be jealous of a dance?" Tedak asked Irilik as Tarsha made her way to Lira's side.

"Watch your wife dance, and doubtless you will exact the same promise from her," Irilik warned with a knowing smile.

Tedak had never seen a Varshanian dancer perform. His duties had kept him away from the fairs and festivals in Kishdu where they usually showed their skill and made their challenges. He settled back on his elbow, prepared to enjoy the dance.

The gilt thread embroidery on Lira's shawls and veils caught the light of the campfires surrounding the clearing. She had followed Tarsha's example and yielded up most of her jewelry to the offal pit, but she still retained a few delicate chains around her ankles. They glittered as her feet began to move.

Tarsha had practiced to play the pipes with the same melody that Lira had used when Tarsha had danced for the mutineers. She was still not quite as expert as her friend, but those who listened were held rapt by the dancer and did not seem to notice any dissonance.

Irilik was more interested in Tedak's reaction to the dance than in the dance itself. Tedak's casual pose became taut with tension and his hands curled into fists. He glared around him at the rapt audience.

"How long does this go on?" he whispered urgently to Irilik.

"Longer than you want," Irilik answered with a sympathetic smile.

Lira's feet stamped out the rhythm of the dance, her body moving with lithe grace as her hands waved sinuously, seeming to sketch promises of ecstacy in the firelight. She turned toward Tedak and all her attention focused on him. She moved toward him, each step forward countered by another that took her back a little. Tedak stood, drawn to his feet by the invitation of her gestures. Without will to do otherwise, he waited for her to join him.

The melody increased its urgency and Tedak moved to join Lira. His feet stamped in counter rhythm to hers and she smiled encouragement. Finally they touched hands and began to circle. Those watching felt their breath constrict at the blazing looks the bridal pair exchanged.

Irilik smiled with bemusement at the transformation in his friend. Tedak had always been modest and reserved, practical and conservative. Now he danced before more than a thousand watching eyes, his emotions high and clear for all to see.

Tarsha's face lifted with joy lighting her eyes as she played the pipes for the dancing pair. Irilik saw her delight and felt jealous of Tedak. He had watched his wife dance, but had never danced with her. Tonight, in the privacy of their tent, he would ask her to show him how to dance as Tedak danced.

Tedak and Lira drew closer as they circled. Their arms were extended wide, only their palms touching. The final trilling of the pipes signaled the climax of the dance when they were still a hair's breadth apart. A sigh went through the crowd, followed by cries for more.

Lira shook her head and Tedak led her to their places at the head of the circle. Tarsha put her pipes away and came to sit by Irilik, but others brought out harps and pipes. Soon the clearing filled with other dancers, but none as graceful or emotion fraught as the couple who now sat quietly beside each other waiting with ill concealed impatience for the celebration to end.

"Mother, may I stay with Argadil tonight?" Paran asked, coming up behind his mother with his new friend.

Lira nodded and her child gave a yelp of happiness before running off with the native boy.

Tedak yawned elaborately and Irilik smiled at his former servant. "I think we will be forgiven if we leave the feast early," Irilik said. "You and I will have to rise before the others to strike our tents. We will march a long way tomorrow."

Only a few tents remained standing, most of the people having elected to take advantage of the clear weather to get an earlier start in the morning by packing their shelters and sleeping in the open. Tedak and Irilik were among the few who had desired privacy enough to get up before the others to make an early start in.



Chapter 14 Corom

Irilik woke later than he had intended, but finally the sound of people moving around and calling out directions could not be ignored. His plans to be among the first awake had been ambitious. He left Tarsha sleeping, but when he returned from relieving himself and washing, he found her up and dressed with breakfast ready for him. While he ate, she struck the tent and packed it into a neat, small bundle, all the time singing a merry Valdasian song about traveling on. He hoped that the others shared some of her enthusiasm. For himself, the days ahead were fraught with worry. He hoped they would not lose any more of their people as they had lost Lamath's sept, but he could not ignore the threat of war.

The addition of the native tribes made a brief council meeting necessary, but the council tent had already been packed away so they met beyond the rise where Irilik had been given confirmation of their path to Timora. Kaldar and the other chiefs were accepted without question by the other members of the council when they joined the meeting.

The only matter of discussion was the order of march. The addition of several hundred natives made it necessary to change the original plan. Saaden had given careful thought to the matter and addressed the others.

"I suggest that Irilik lead the way with Kaldar and Remig and their tribes. Tedak and his new sept can bring up the rear. They know the land and its dangers and will be able to speak for us when we meet others of their kind. The rest of us could line up in order of the time when our septs were formed. Since Kumnor was a chief before the rest of us formed our septs, his Valdasians should come behind Irilik."

Irilik looked around. No one dissented. "Please show your hands to approve Saaden's plan," he said. Everyone present, including the chiefs, raised their hands and nodded.

"I take it as a good omen that we have settled the matter with such efficiency," Irilik said with a grin. Some council meetings had been bogged down with partisan arguments and the others could appreciate his joy. They hurried away to organize their people in the order that had been decided and Irilik returned to the scaffolding, the last structure that remained on the cliffs above the beach.

He climbed the steps and raised his hands, waiting while silence fell over the assembled people of the Gathering. He ignored the babbling of a few children too young to heed the meaning of the ceremony. When all but the youngest were looking up, he bowed his head.

"Through the gate of Yasa Dom, we come before the Maker, the Radiance who has led us to this land. Bless our path and lead us to water and food. Keep us from danger and despair. Soften the hearts of our enemies that we may pass unharmed to our new home, Timora."

This was the first time that most had heard the name of the place where they were bound and the people echoed the word with a sound of reverence and hope. Only a few remained untouched by the very name of the sacred lake.

Tagnet wore an ironic half-smile as he studied those around him through eyes veiled by his lashes. He had lost the core of his supporters in the mutiny when the great waves destroyed their ship, but time and trouble would doubtless provide him with others who would listen to his skepticism. He would bide his time and watch. He was burdened by a crooked leg, but he found that sympathy could be used as a tool to work his will. His mother would do nearly anything he wished, and through her he had the near rule of his brothers. He was one of the few who carried no burdens as they set out for the west.

By the time Irilik and Kaldar led off the caravan in late morning. The scaffolding still stood, the only sign that a virtual city had covered the cliffs above the beach. The people of the gathering were strung out in a wide swath of humanity that took advantage of every edible they found in their path, whether animal or vegetable. Those things that were doubtful, they saved until they could consult one of the natives.

The energetic pace of the morning flagged and soon some of the people were lagged behind the pace of the march. Irilik slowed his own pace to accommodate the weaker members, but those who had proved hardiest took on some of the burden of those who were having trouble.

He was surprised to see Kumnor falter and slow his pace. Some of the natives offered to share his load, a greater pack than any others had tried to assume, and he reluctantly agreed rather than fall behind.

Perhaps if Kumnor had not been forced by aching feet to yield up some of the load he carried, he would not have been willing to indulge in behavior that nearly proved disastrous. At midday the caravan reached a narrow, winding river that had carved a broad grassy valley through the surrounding arid plains. It bore to the south, coming from the north and would not serve for very long as a path, however preferable it would be to have the water and game it promised.

Several herds of large grazing animals were scattered on the plain. When Kumnor gestured to them, Kaldar said, "Corum," and made the sign for danger.

The Valdasian moved away, thoughtfully surveying the wide horns and compact bodies of the beasts. They grazed contemptuously close to the crowd of people who were enjoying the period of rest and refreshment after a hard march.

The first hint of Kumnor's intention came when he gave a wild, triumphant hoot. Irilik looked up and saw the familiar sign of Kumnor's horned hat riding high above the horns of a speeding animal. The spectacle brought the resting people to their feet as they cheered and shouted at the display of bucking and bravado.

Kumnor's wife stood ready with her healing herbs and bandages in the eventuality that her foolhardy husband met a rock when he finally parted company with the angry lead cow. The native sons and daughters of Irilik and Tedak were clearly terrified. Their eyes rolled with wonder as the contest between man and beast went on and on.

Irilik thought nothing could have kept him so rapt as Kumnor's contest with the beast, but then he heard another, higher whoop and saw Tarsha on the back of another of the animals. He knew he had grown fond of her in the past few weeks, but the sight of her tangled curls tossing wildly to the rhythm of the whirling, jumping cow took his breath away and made his stomach drop. He ran toward her, then stopped and began to pray with all the intensity in his power.

It was a matter of wonder to all but the Valdasians when their chief and his sister finally triumphed over the animals they rode. Irilik expressed his worry in sharp words when he approached Tarsha. She stood grinning and glowing with satisfaction. One of her hands firmly gripped the tender nose of her captured cow while the fingers of the other deftly twisted several thongs together into a line.

"We have delayed the march because of your foolishness!" Irilik scolded her, too upset to remember that they were surrounded by a gaping crowd.

"We have gained animals to carry some of the load," she countered. "These are not near so fierce as the cattle we kept in Kishdu. Ask Kumnor if you doubt me."

She turned and stalked away with her captured corum, followed by a crowd of chattering natives. They gave all their sympathy to her. Irilik fumed at himself. He should have waited until his fear and temper had softened before speaking to her. Now he had given her cause to hate him by rebuking her in front of others.

Kumnor's feat was well received by all now that it had proven successful. He demonstrated that with control of the lead cow, many of the herd could be led. The Valdasians began to consider how to convince the other animals to carry burdens. Kumnor's clan rejoiced at the prospect of finding a herd to replace the one they had sacrificed for the good of all while they were in Kishdu. It was well into the afternoon when the caravan continued, but the pace quickened with a lighter load.

Tarsha and Kumnor rode their corums well to the north of the rest of the people as the afternoon passed. More than half of the herd stayed behind under the leadership of another cow when they left the grassy river valley, but there were enough following the lead of Kumnor and Tarsha's animals to promise transport and food for some time to come.

When dusk fell, Kaldar indicated that they should make camp near the base of a series of bluffs that spread a broad, steep front that blocked their view of the mountains. Irilik had to admit that the progress they had made during the day had not been unduly affected by the antics of Kumnor and Tarsha. If anything, the pace set by the corums helped maintain the pace of the entire group.

Irilik sent messengers to the various members of the council to meet him at the top of the bluff in front of them as soon as the caravan halted. They joined him in the shade of a broad tree with narrow leaves. Tarsha came with the means of making a record of their meeting but he wondered if she would wait for him after the meeting ended so he could apologize to her as publicly as he had rebuked her. He could hardly accuse her of avoiding him earlier in the evening when anyone could see it took time and patience before the corum she had ridden was hobbled and willing to settle with water and fodder under the governance of another Valdasian girl.

Irilik invited Kaldar to address the council because of his knowledge of the countryside and the enemies they would face. The native had quickly picked up basic words and concepts in the language spoken by those of the gathering. Once all were assembled, Irilik turned to him and asked him to explain what they had seen in the Eye of Adanan.

"Timora far," Kaldar said as he demonstrated his meaning by referring to the map Irilik had prepared. "Many angry." He held up two fingers and pointed to the moon overhead.

"There will be an attack after another night has passed," Irilik interpreted. "After today's march you should know how to place your people for the best defense."

"Kumnor's feat with the corum has changed things," Saaden said. "Before today, I would have said it was best to put our warriors around the entire perimeter, but if Kumnor can lead the herd along the sides with Tarsha's help--" he glanced toward Kumnor and Tarsha and they nodded. "From what I have seen, the natives will not try to break through the herds but will concentrate their attack on our front and rear. We can place most of our armed men at those points and become nearly invincible."

"Perhaps it would be best if we submitted our plan to a higher power than Saaden," Virda said as she patted her brother's shoulder by way of silent apology for her doubt. "The factor of the herd was not presented before now. It could be that with the escort of the corums, we will not be subject to attack. Kaldar's people seem to regard Tarsha and Kumnor with almost as much awe as they show the Stone of Truth."

"We will not be able to consult the Eye of Adanan again until we are west of the bluffs," Irilik explained.

"I think it would be best to make Saaden's plan our ordinary order of march," Taleek said. "Even in Kishdu I doubt that many would have ventured to attack a force so well arrayed."

Irilik wanted to ask that Tarsha not be called upon to join in the defense of the perimeter on her captured corum, but the nodded approval of the council made it apparent that her abilities could not be sacrificed to his worries for her safety. Indeed, if her control of the corum could keep their enemies from attacking, many lives on both sides might be saved.

"What shall we do at night?" Janak asked.

"We must leave the Orb open so that the Stone of Truth will shine," Saaden said. "Our watchmen can see far with its radiance. Those who see the light will not attack. Those who cannot see it will make the blunders that could be expected of men who are fighting blind."

Irilik watched Kaldar's face and explained when he seemed puzzled. He had laughed aloud and nodded enthusiastically when the proposal to use the herd to protect them was suggested.

The meeting did not last as long as Irilik had feared. Before the others began to move away, he approached Tarsha. She turned to him with a question in her eyes. "I am sorry for reproaching you where others could hear," he said. "I am so fearful for your safety that I let my tongue outrun my good sense."

She nodded. "I forgive you, but until I am carrying a child, there is no reason for you to fear."

Content that they had mended the breach between, but still not able to conqure his worry, Irilik took her hand and they returned to the camp. On the way they passed Kaldar and Kumnor who were trying earnestly to overcome their lack of a common tongue. At least Kumnor could understand some of what Kaldar said in the borrowed speech he had learned from Irilik.

The fruits of their discussion were seen early the next morning before most of the camp woke. Kumnor began to train several of the native youths to catch and ride corums. It was not an easy task and some were not able to master even the most rudimentary techniques, but most of them persisted with the example of Tarsha's riding to goad them on.

Irilik could not like the sight of his wife riding so perilously high on her wild mount, but the benefits, both for defense and transport of attaching the herd of corums was universally approved. He kept to the side on which Kumnor rode and avoided the sight of Tarsha. Now and then he heard her call directions and could not avoid looking toward her. He always regretted the impulse when a new shock of worry chilled his blood.

He wondered why her bravado bothered him now. He had admired her skill and grace when he first saw the Valdasians ride to join them in the Gathering. Now every lurching turn of her beast made his stomach churn and he remembered how fragile her neck seemed under her silky mane of dark curls. If anything happened to her it would be worse than hurt to his own limbs. When had this curious empathy begun? She had somehow become linked to his heart and mind as if she were part of his own flesh, the more precious part.

They traveled without incident throughout another day, but the western sky still hid behind the bluffs. They slept and rose again to face the day that the battle had been predicted by the Eye of Adanan.

The day wore on with no sign of opposition. Irilik felt confident that they could win against any foe, but at what cost of lives he could not say. He continued to worry about his wife. His mind was so fixed on the problem of protecting Tarsha, probably against her will, that he paid little heed to the landscape ahead of him. A troop of men with weapons ready to hand blocked his sight of the immediate path, but when they suddenly halted and drew their weapons with a rattle of metal and bone, he saw a large body of armed men confronting them from the side of a low hill not far distant.

This seemed to contradict the signs given by the oracle device. The dissonance of oracle and reality brought him to a stumbling halt. Kaldar hurried to his side and began to gesture toward the assembled army.

"Chief speak."

"You and Saaden speak," Irilik said, thinking any warrior would be more intimidated by the weathered visages and wary eyes of the two old leaders.

"No! Light Bearer. You speak." Kaldar insisted.

Irilik nodded. It seemed that these people had prophecies of their own in which he played a part. He slapped the dust from his priestly robes and ran his fingers through his hair to brush out the tangles. He could do at such short notice about the ragged beard that had begun to sprout from his cheeks and chin when it became apparent that water was too precious to be spared on such vanities as shaving.

"Tarsha go," Kaldar added. He gave a peculiar whistle that warbled like one of the noisy night birds of the waste. Tarsha turned her mount with only a few small leaps and rode the cow toward them.

"Kaldar says we must go out to meet the chief who leads the army on the hill," Irilik said. "He seems to think that both of us are required."

A grin split Tarsha's face and she gave a merry whoop, startling her skittish mount into a small display of bucking. Irilik felt his belly clench with every lurch of Tarsha's supple body as she fought the animal to a standstill again.

She maintained her beast to a steady walk once Irilik proceeded into the wide gap between the warriors who stood at the head of his people and the mass of painted men who faced them. The chief or spokesman who walked toward them at the same pace was short and wizened with age, but a weight of colorful feathers and seeds formed a towering headdress that marked his status. Irilik carried only the staff with the Orb fastened to the top. It was an attractive object, but would only show its power after sundown when the Stone of Truth began to glow.

The chief seemed to be wary of Tarsha's nervous corum. He edged to the side to face Irilik head on. When they were only a few feet from each other he cast down a roll that opened to discharge a number of carved sticks and began to talk.

Kaldar had followed Irilik and his voice made the young prophet jump when it erupted from immediately behind him in a spate of anger. When he had finished his indignant oration he spoke in a lower tone to Irilik and gestured to complete his meaning. "Land for Tarsha. I say no!"

Irilik shook his head to underline Kaldar's argument. With an impulse he recognized as given from a higher source, he lifted his staff high above his head and pointed toward the direction of the vale of Timora according to Kaldar's addition to the map. "Timora!" he exclaimed.

The chief reacted almost as if he had received a physical blow. He staggered back for a step or two, then bowed himself nearly double and pushed the carved sticks toward Irilik's feet with a frightened gabble that seemed to amuse Kaldar. "He give land, no Tarsha."

Irilik stood with the staff above his head and tried to maintain a fine disdain for the arrows and spears of the small army confronting him. The chief backed away, still cringing. As soon as he had reached the first ranks of the army, the men began to back away, their heads nodding with deference.

A few did not back away. Instead, they cast down their weapons and began to crawl toward Irilik with pleas he could not understand. Kaldar enlightened him with one brief word. "Sons," he said.

They made camp not long afterward, once they were certain the army had retreated well out of range of a sneak attack. Kaldar had been questioning the volunteers as he walked with Irilik. Finally he seemed satisfied of their honest intent to join the Gathering.

"Give them to Saaden," he told Irilik. It seemed a wise suggestion. It would place them third in the order of march, surrounded on all sides by other septs, and if they were able warriors, Saaden could make use of them once they had proved themselves.

They had passed most of the bluffs and the mountains were still far enough that they would offer no restriction to the setting sun. Irilik climbed a bluff with Tarsha and Virda, who wanted to have the confirmation of the Eye of Adanan for the plans Saaden suggested.

Irilik propped up the map and Tarsha held the Eye of Adanan. When the open face of the crystal case threw rays of light on the map, they showed a pattern far less tainted by warnings of war. As Irilik had feared, there was only positive sanction given for Kumnor and Tarsha as tamers of corums. He had no excuse to restrain his wife. Virda seemed heartened by the reading. "I should have trusted Saaden's wisdom, but Tagnet has urged me to be more independent from my brother."

Tarsha raised her brow in surprise. No one who knew Virda would have accused her of lacking independence from Saaden. If anything, her lame son seemed to dominate her since his rescue by the chiefs. Few would question a mother's devotion to one of her children, but Tarsha suspected that Tagnet was more his father's child. She had never met Algunagada, but she had heard stories of his ability to turn others to his will.

"I think we can trust Saaden, whatever Tagnet says," Irilik assured Virda. He wondered if it had been mistaken kindness when he had decided to not warn her about the darkness that dimmed the aura of her son. Should he say something now?

While he dithered about warning Virda, Tarsha packed away the Eye of Adanan and rolled up the map. "Come," Tarsha said. "I must see to my mount and there is an adoption to be performed. Will you become the father of a multitude before I have even borne a child."

"The men who joined us today will become part of Saaden's sept," Irilik said, distracted from the problem of Tagnet. "Kaldar made the recommendation, and I approve his reasoning."

"Saaden is a good leader," Virda approved. "I sometimes ask him to help me with the problems my people bring to me. I guess that is why Tagnet objected. He feels I should rely more on my sons to advise me."

Tarsha glanced at Irilik and saw him frown. "You could turn to Arnath when you need advice," Tarsha said. "He is a worthy man and well respected by the other members of the council."

Virda smiled at the suggestion. "Yes, Arnath will help me."

They returned to the camp and found that Kaldar had already begun preparations for the ritual adoption of the men who had joined them earlier that day. They had each been given a plain breech-clout, leaving off all other clothing as well as the weapons they had been encouraged to retrieve after initially casting them away. The marks of their former allegiance had been washed away and any tattoos covered with plain clay that blended with the color of their skin.

A small scaffolding of branches and tent poles had been erected near the center of the camp. Saaden stood ready near the base of the scaffold. Tedak held the ritual robes that Irilik would wear. There was little left for Irilik to do. He climbed the scaffold, initially testing the strength of the spindly structure and finding that it was sturdy enough for the purpose. At the top, he turned and stood before the altar.

Saaden climbed up to stand beside him and one by one those who had chosen to join them ascended and extended their hands for the ritual of adoption. After clasping their hands with Saaden and repeating the words that Kaldar had taught them, each of them descended and made way for another to take their place.

It was nearly dark before the last of the adopted sons of Saaden had joined the other people at the base of the scaffolding. Not all the people of the Gathering had assembled to watch the adoptions. The scent of roasts and stews began to waft over the assembly, indicating that the evening meal would soon be served. Tonight would be another festival to welcome the new members of Saaden's sept and celebrate the withdrawal of the threat of war.

Not every foe would yield so easily as the people who had met them this day, but when Irilik conducted the evening ritual, he thanked the Radiance for the promise he had seen in the Eye of Adanan. For those who had witnessed a darker prediction on the cliffs two days before, it was a reassurance that they would not meet with as much resistance as they had feared.

They met no further opposition before they reached the base of the mountain range, but with each night a few recruits were added to their company. Sometimes they came as family groups, and sometimes as single individuals, both men and women and several children. The Light of the Stone of Truth had called them to become a part of the new nation.

The long column traveled into the mountains in the same formation that Saaden had suggested at the beginning of their trek. Armed men were placed fore and aft and the corum herd under Kumnor and Tarsha guarded the flanks. Kumnor's training had borne fruit and nearly every beast but the youngest calves bore either a rider or a load. Those of the natives who could manage a corum were considered part of Kumnor's tribe. They soon learned the rudiments of Valdasian speech.

The progress of the caravan slowed when they reached the rugged mountain passes. They were forced to close ranks and the rocky flanks of the peaks provided little food. Kumnor and a few of his men led some of the calves away from the main herd. When the men returned without the calves, they carried meat. To those who had become fond of the antics of the playful beasts, it was a painful necessity to eat their share of the succulent meat.

They came to an upland meadow where they could spread wide again and dig for tubers and gather berries. Herds of a smaller, fleet-footed grazing animal that Kaldar called bacal, provided them with meat enough to spare the remaining corum calves. Irilik declared a day of rest and repair. Sandals and boots had been holed and worn by the rocky paths they had followed into the mountains.

Kaldar and Irilik walked to the notch that led to the downward track. To the northwest the mountains marched in serried ranks to the distant horizon. There were still a few mountains to the west, and one of them towered over the others, its divided peak covered with snow.

"Vald, great mountain," Kaldar named the peak. "Our land south." He gestured to indicate a swath of lower hills.

"Will you stay in your land when we pass through the mountains?" Irilik asked.

"We go to Timora," Kaldar answered. "Ogandash fight you. We fight them."

"I will take a reading from the Eye of Adanan this afternoon," Irilik assured the chief. "We will not be taken by surprise."

When he returned to the notch that gave a view of the western lands, he brought the members of the council. Tarsha helped him set up the maps and tokens for the reading. Kaldar provided several pieces of bark paper with symbols marked on them. They stood for the people who inhabited the land through which they must pass to reach Timora.

When the light was right, they lifted the face of the crystal case and watched the indications of the light patterns. Tedak had become expert in moving the star charts to indicate the passage of time.

The council watched anxiously while Irilik placed the tokens on the top of the crystal case. The bark paper tokens brought the dull purple and dread scarlet of war and death. No matter how Irilik combined the other tokens, the warning remained. The main battle would come at night, but there would be skirmishes for several days along their path of march.

"Could we take an alternate path?" Garad asked.

When Irilik moved the token that represented their company to a different location on the map, the indications were worse. They must follow path drawn by Kaldar at the beginning of the trek.

"We have been blessed to avoid real conflict thus far, but a battle is inevitable," Irilik said when the light began to fade and the display of lights from the Eye of Adanan dimmed and disappeared.

Saaden gave a grunt of dismissal and turned to the others. "We must prepare ourselves for protecting those who cannot fight. I suggest we stay here for another two days and train for the battle. Those who cannot fight will make certain that all our weapons and protective gear are in good repair. I have been thinking of a strategy that might be effective against those tribes who have not seen our mounted Valdasians."

Irilik's smile of relief was infectious. To have such a general in charge of their defense was no mean thing. "Don't forget, they will attack us at night, when we will have a clear advantage."

"They surely will see the Light of the Stone of Truth and withdraw!" Garad suggested hopefully.

Kaldar shook his head. "Ogandash evil, no light."

Saaden's first order of business the next morning was to have Kaldar and the chiefs assemble their men along with those other natives who had joined the Gathering. Those who had learned to ride corums were excepted from the meeting.

He divided them into two groups and asked them to plan a mock battle with sticks instead of spears and hollow reeds for arrows. After giving them several hours to prepare their battle strategy, Saaden gave the signal for the contest to begin.

With whoops and howls the two sides engaged. Some held back and shot the reed arrows high above the heads of their own men into the ranks of the 'enemy'. It was a lively contest, hard fought, with honor as the prize for prevailing. More than a few real injuries resulting from the fray.

When Saaden gave the signal for the conflict to end and the wounded had been hauled away for tending, the chiefs assembled and Saaden advised them of improvements they could make. "Is this how our enemy will fight?" he asked.

"They not warn," Kaldar said.

"They fight by stealth and attack under the cover of darkness?" Saaden asked. Kaldar nodded.

Saaden was familiar with the tactic. He had used it many times himself. "We will use some of their own tactics against them. The accuracy of your bowmen is impressive. Choose your best men and bring them to me."

Meanwhile, with the aid of veterans of Saaden's army, Janak and Taleek began to drill the men and women who had come from Kishdu. Every able bodied adult was given a weapon of some kind. Only mothers of small children, pregnant women, including Elianin who had recently discovered that she was carrying a child, and Irilik, were excepted from the drills. They were kept busy providing food and sharpening weapons for those who would fight.

When Irilik protested that he should bear part of the risk, Saaden gave him a grim smile. "You will stand on a prominence and hold the your staff with the Stone of Truth above the battle. If any among the enemy are able to see the Light, you will be a prime target. Even if they are unable to see you, there is a risk of misfire from our own warriors."

For nearly a week the drills and planning continued. When they finally packed their tents and moved down from the mountain valley, the people seemed almost eager for the coming battle. Irilik had been kept busy with various tasks, but Saaden had not given him every detail of his strategy. He looked around to see where Tarsha was and realized that the corums and their riders were not accompanying them. He strode forward to Saaden. "Have you decided not to use the corums in the fight?"

"I will use them, but not until the battle is engaged," Saaden replied. "They will delay leaving the meadow until tomorrow morning."

Irilik failed to find an adequate reason to ask that Tarsha be spared from fighting alongside the other corum riders. He would have to trust Saaden's strategy to protect her.

For two days they proceeded downward through passes in the mountains, navigating rocky tracks that were sometimes so narrow that they must walk single-file. At last they came to the forested foothills and scouts reported that they were being surrounded by a great battle force.

They made camp before noon that day. According to Saaden's direction trees were cut in a wide swath around the area of their encampment and they erected a tall scaffold in the center of the camp with the raw timber. A circle of trees was left surrounding the scaffold and the branches were hacked away by some of Zedek's sailors who had often worked tall timber for masts. Sharpened logs were erected between the stripped trees, forming a sturdy palisade. The small children and their mothers were housed within the palisade. A second, slanted set of sharpened logs with their points set outward protected the inner camp surrounding the scaffold where Irilik would stand. Hundreds of tents were raised in series of successive rings outside the double palisade, seemingly vulnerable to attack from the cleared edges of the forest.

The preparations were completed by mid-afternoon and Irilik mounted the scaffold to perform the evening ritual well ahead of the hour that he usually spoke the final benediction on the day. He raised his hands and bowed his head and waited for a long moment, surrounded by the expectant silence of his people. Even the smallest children seemed affected by the mood and only the singing of a forest bird broke the silence.

"By the gate of Yasa Dom, we come in supplication," Irilik finally pleaded. "Bless us with victory over foes of the Light."

He tried to say other words; some guarantee that none of them would give their lives or suffer injury, but his mouth would not respond to the desperate orders of his rational self. He finally lowered his hands and ended the ritual.

With the expectation that they would not be required to fight until darkness fell, the people ate and rested through the remaining afternoon. If any spy watched them, he could have missed the weapons smuggled into all but the outermost rings of huts and the erection of walkways inside the palisade where arrows were stacked so thick that they seemed like bundles of twigs. Bladders full of rendered fat and piles of fat-wood were carried into the first rank of tents.

Tension became palpable as twilight faded and stars spangled the inky black of the sky overhead. The moon was the thinnest possible sliver low in the sky, offering no light. Irilik climbed to his place on the scaffold and opened the Orb, flooding the clearing with the clear, steady glow of the Stone of Truth. Kaldar's best bowmen took their places around the walkways inside the palisade, standing three deep, ready to fire their bows in relays.

In the stillness, Irilik heard a sound that filled him with anxiety. It was the bellow of an angry corum, not more than a league or two away. Saaden had not shared his plans for the corums, and Irilik guessed it was because the old soldier wanted to spare him any undue fear. The strategy had failed. With nothing more to do than hold the Stone of Truth aloft, Irilik had plenty of time for idle thoughts. Fears for Tarsha's safety nearly stopped his breath.

Suddenly stealthy movement along the edge of the clearing wrenched his attention to the battle ahead. Like ants, the painted warriors of the enemy swarmed out of the trees. They ran lightly and silently across the gap between the edge of the clearing and the first of the rings of tents.

Equally silently, the bowmen on the palisade nocked their arrows and let them fly toward the edges of the encampment. The first rank of the enemy fell beneath the deadly accuracy of the missiles, but they were followed by others who overran their comrades and leaped toward the tents. The walls of the tents were suddenly engulfed in flame, blinding the attackers as the fat-wood and oil were set alight. They faltered, but did not stop. They jumped through the flames and began a screeching ululation, calculated to strike fear into their victims as they reached the next rank of tents. The walls of the tents were wrenched aside by the soldiers hiding within and swords flashed into action.

The foe came on, seemingly unstoppable, but with each successive wave, hundreds more fell to the arrows from the palisade while individual contests of arms commenced throughout the clearing. Irilik saw Remig fall under the club of one of the attackers. Other men and women of the Gathering were felled by the ferocity of their enemy, but his people had the advantage of seeing their foe and time and time again it made the difference between death and minor injury.

Irilik wondered how long it could go on. The stacks of arrows within the palisade had dwindled to a fraction of their former size. Soon there would be none left for the archers who continued to fire a steady rain of sharpened stone and molded bronze around the perimeters of the clearing. When it seemed that the supply would fail before the foe was stopped, the sound of a whooping shout from the forest caused the archers to lower their bows.

Horned riders bearing torches high above their heads thundered into the clearing, screaming with banshee yells. They must have appeared demonic to the enemy warriors who could only see the flaring torches shining on the horned caps and painted faces of Kumnor and his troop of corum riders. With whips and clubs swinging, the riders charged into the battle, sparing their own and taking a deadly toll of the enemy.

The sudden attack from their rear by unimaginable apparitions broke the spirit of the attackers and they faltered in the fight. Some seemed to lose the strange fervor that had driven them through fire to fight, and they fled, dragging their wounded with them, but there were still many who fought on. Irilik flinched at the slaughter that followed. Saaden had advised his soldiers against trying to take captives after Kaldar had warned him about the nature of the foe.

Irilik had spent five years with the rebel armies, but he had somehow always managed to avoid the midst of battle. Even so, he had never heard of any that had been so destructive to one side. He wanted to rejoice in the victory, but he was so sickened by the gore that ran like water in a storm, that he could only cling to the staff that he still held erect above the clearing and watch to see Tarsha still safely mounted on her corum.

At least the children were all within the palisade, protected from the sight of the battle. Some of them had served to bring arrows to the archers, but the walls of the palisade reached too high for them to witness what went forth in the clearing below.

The last fanatic attacker stumbled and fell beneath a stroke of Janak's sword. Saaden looked up toward Irilik who gave the sign that no more enemy warriors remained alive within the clearing. Saaden lifted the horn that rested on a strap over his shoulder and gave the signal that announced the battle's end.

It was a dreary business that followed as the night wore on. While the wounded and dead of their friends were cared for, the men and women who had fought so valiantly dragged the bodies of their enemies beyond the edge of the clearing and piled them out of sight in the forest. There were too many of them to bury, but all the people who had fought so hard to defend their lives and freedom were determined that when morning came and the rude gate of the palisade opened, the worst evidences of the battle would be banished from the children's sight.

Irilik could not stay away from the grisly work. He summoned one of the archers to hold his staff and climbed down the scaffold and left the palisade. As he labored with others to drag the enemy warriors into the woods, he saw the explanation for their blindness to the light. They were cannibals, wearing the grisly remains of their victims on belts and armlets.

When the sun rose, the people struck their tents and moved on. They would not stay where the ground was sodden with the blood of men and women, whether friends or foes. Only thirty-two of the people of the Gathering, including the natives, had died, and fewer than a hundred had suffered more than minor wounds. Still, the loss was deeply felt.

They halted and made camp again at noon. The bodies of those who had fallen to the enemy were wrapped in bark and burned after Irilik pronounced a blessing on their souls. The meal that followed the funeral was a solemn feast at first, then Kaldar told a story about Remig in his youth. Smiles appeared and others added reminiscences about others who had died. They had all perished valiantly in defense of right. Sorrow continued, but there was a leaven of gratitude and the sense that none of them could have chosen a better way to die than in defending the lives and freedom of their friends.

Kapanadel and others with knowledge of herbs and remedies kept busy through the rest of the day and into the next morning. One man died of fever from a festering wound given by the cultist's filthy spears, but he was the last sacrifice the battle exacted. After performing the rites that would guide his soul, Irilik sought out Kaldar.

"The Eye of Adanan seemed to show that this battle would be our greatest test, but I was surprised to see how many came against us."

"The evil ones combined to keep you from Timora," Kaldar explained. "Others may come, but not so many."

"You must speak to Saaden and tell him what we might expect," Irilik said.

"Saaden knows. He is a great warrior," Kaldar answered with aplomb.

They resumed their march, taking advantage of the wood of the forest to erect a simple palisade each night. There was no attempt to attack them in the daylight, but for three more nights, scattered attacks came from the forest. As the Gathering drew near Timora, they found recently abandoned towns with the signs of vicious practices still evident in human scalps and skins stretched on racks to dry.

Two nights passed with no further attacks. They made camp early on the third day with no contact with the enemy, Saaden asked Irilik if he could make a reading of the Eye of Adanan. "I am wary of the absence of any attack for the past few days. Has the enemy realized that they cannot attack us by night and left the field, or are they massing for one last attempt to prevent us from entering Timora?"

"What does Kaldar say?" Irilik asked.

"He seems to doubt that we will enter Timora without further difficulties," Saaden said, but he speaks of the Guardians of the Vale, not these cannibals who have been fighting us."

Irilik agreed that it would be wise to consult the Eye of Adanan. He required a place where he would have an unobstructed view of the setting sun, but they were traveling through dense forest. He looked around and saw two tall trees that stood next to each other and reached well above the forest surrounding them. "Do you think that a couple of Zedek's mast makers could erect a platform for me between those trees within the hour?" he asked Saaden.

"At least they can try," the general replied.

Faced with the challenge, the mast makers quickly assessed the situation and called for axes. Soon they had removed most of the branches from the lower trunks of the two trees and began to weave them together in a platform that was level with the tops of other trees nearby.

Tarsha returned from tethering her Corum and watched the procedure with a dubious eye. "I hope you don't expect me to climb up with you," she said. "I have ridden a bucking corum and a swaying boat, but heights always make my middle churn."

"I will ask one of the mast makers to assist me," Irilik said. "It should not take long."

As soon as the mast makers signaled that the platform would hold him, Irilik began to ascend the tree. The stubs of branches provided a convenient ladder and soon he was able to pull himself onto the platform. He had a fine view of the western sky, but the platform swayed with every gust of wind.

He asked one of the mast makers to hold the map while he prepared the Eye of Adanan for the reading. The tokens he had brought with him were marked with several symbols and there were four sky charts to represent the days to come.

With careful movements, he lifted the lid of the Eye of Adanan and began to place the tokens on the top of the case. The sun shone on the lenses at the proper angle for just a moment and the rays of light began to bathe the map. Then a gust of wind lifted the tokens and sent them spinning downward. Irilik caught only a brief glimpse of mingled colors as the tokens lifted away, then the platform began to sway more violently and he lost his balance and fell to his knees.

The Eye of Adanan fell from his hands and rebounded from the leafy platform. Irilik snatched it up and closed the lid. The near loss of the oracle device drove away all other concerns. "Fold the map and bring it down. I cannot risk the Eye of Adanan again."

Saaden and Tarsha were waiting for Irilik at the bottom of the trees. Tarsha held the tokens for the reading in her hand. "Did you see anything that was worth risking your neck to discover?" she asked him tartly.

"I cannot be sure of what I saw," Irilik said. "The tokens were blown away before I could determine anything certain. We will have to wait to make a reading until I can stand on solid ground and see the horizon."

"I am sorry I goaded you to risk both your neck and the Eye of Adanan," Saaden said. "For thirty years I trusted my own good sense, I guess I can trust it for a few more days."





Chapter 15 Timora

The people of the Gathering were still a day's march away from their goal when they came to a burned over area where seedlings pushed up through the ashy ground between the burned stumps of trees. Irilik paused and looked toward the west. Long practice had taught him to assess the level of the horizon that would produce a reading from the oracle device. "We will camp here tonight. I want to make a reading of the Eye of Adanan," he told Kaldar.

His brief reading on the platform in trees had tantalized him with brief flashes of warning before wind blew away the tokens. After so much hardship and the recent battle, he wanted to be certain that the entry into the vale of Timora would be a success. The council attended him while he erected the maps and Tarsha stood by to assist and record the oracles he read.

Tarsha placed the tokens that represented the people of the gathering on the map that depicted Timora and stood back. Irilik raised the face of the crystal case. As the sunlight struck the lenses and prisms of the oracle device, the colors of blood and death stained every trail that led to the vale. Murmurs of shock ran through the council. "Will the enemy waylay us?" Saaden asked.

Kaldar stepped forward and picked up the lone figure marked with Irilik's name. He brushed all others aside. "Light Bearer, alone, at night," he said as he placed the figure over the oval that stood for Timora. The lights began to dance with pure blue and gold, bathing the lone figure in promising hues.

"I will go tonight," Irilik said. "The rest of you must follow in the morning."

"I will come with you," Tarsha insisted.

"No!" Kaldar said. "Light Bearer, alone."

Irilik suspected that Tarsha was finally experiencing some of what he had felt when he watched her daily flirtation with danger as she rode her corum. Now it was his turn to challenge his courage. He told the people to build up their fires. "I must take the Stone of Truth with me. It is the key to Timora."

Tarsha insisted on supplying him with every delicacy she could find and loaded him down with more than adequate amounts of food and water. "Do you believe I will fail if I go alone?" he asked her.

She blushed and shook her head. "I doubt you will fail if the Eye of Adanan predicts success, but you have never ventured anywhere without a servant or others to stand with you. You carry no weapon."

"You have inspired the native youths to learn to ride corums and fight the cannibals with your example of courage. As the leader of this people I can hardly do less than this small, solitary journey."

Irilik left the encampment after performing the evening ritual. Tarsha hugged him fiercely then stood at the edge of the camp and sent her prayers after him. The light from the Stone of Truth on his staff surrounded him, seeming almost to shine from his body as he walked into the forest. She could see the glow of the Light long after she had lost sight of him between the trees. Finally she whispered farewell and returned to join Tolat and Elianin at their campfire. Attempts at idle conversation died as each of them prayed silently for his success. They trusted in the oracle, but the evidence of an enemy presence persisted and the possibility of failure haunted them.

Although Irilik could see as clearly as at noon as far ahead as the forest permitted, he felt the loneliness of his position even before the sounds of the camp faded behind him. Small animals, insects and those that lived in the day woke to the false dawn of his light and filled the night around him with faint rustles and chittering calls. He lifted the light a little higher to keep the flying beetles and moths from flying into his eyes and hitting his face.

The land rose gently at first, but it rose more steeply as the hours passed. Sheer sided chasms kept him from taking a straight path and the land dipped and climbed again. The stars and moon were masked by a low-lying cloud cover that glowed with the reflection of the Stone of Truth. He knew that he must have been traveling for hours, and when he saw what appeared to be familiar land-marks, he feared that he had been going in circles, retracing the same path. His breath came hard and his legs began to ache with the effort of climbing.

He found a place beside a chuckling stream to rest and drink some of the nuka juice that Tarsha had packed for him. Nuka was not the least of the gifts the natives had introduced to the people of the gathering. He glanced around to see if there was any spear leaf nearby. Then he remembered that the plant grew best in dry lands. They had not seen any for several days since leaving the vicinity of Mount Vald.

He looked upward, but the overcast sky gave him no clue of how far he had come or how far he needed to go before he reached his goal. He rose, driven by the knowledge that he must reach Timora before sunrise. Before he began to climb again, he divested himself of the pack of food and drink Tarsha had urged on him and cached it in a shallow cave near a the stream.

Unease crept into his mind with his growing fatigue and he began to imagine that armed enemies lurked just out of range of the Light. At any moment he might be confronted with the figure of a cannibal set on murder.

"Wait until dawn and make certain of your position," a voice tempted. Irilik shook his head and gave a rueful smile

"Old Liar, you have betrayed your hand. By Yasa Dom, I banish you." His neck had itched with fear that he was followed, but he knew that none who meant him ill could see him. To those whose hearts bore the taint of the Liar he would only be a dark shape in a greater darkness. After detecting the voice of doubt and discouragement for what it was, Irilik straightened his shoulders and walked with more confidence, nevertheless, his ears remained alert for any sound of pursuit and his eyes felt strained with examining the furthest limits of the light that shone around him.

A light wind rustled the leaves of the trees and blew away the overcast above him. He checked the stars and saw that his course was as straight as he could expect with the detours imposed by the lay of the land. Soon after the clouds dispersed, Irilik noted that the sky had lightened a little to the east and he hurried his steps, fearful that he would fail his errand.

The incline grew steeper and he began to reach forward with his free hand to grab rocks and branches to pull himself upward. The vale of Timora must be near or all was lost. Kaldar had made the requirement clear. The guardians of the vale would welcome him if they could see the Light. Otherwise, he would be treated the same as any other intruder on the sacred ground of the vale where men from the outside had been barred for as long as Kaldar's people remembered.

In his haste, Irilik nearly pitched head first over the lip of the precipice he had climbed. A shout from beyond warned him and he stood and held the staff that bore the Stone of Truth aloft to see ahead. A few more steps would have carried him into the void.

He moved forward cautiously, then stood on the stony brink and gazed with wonder at the landscape below. The oval Kaldar had drawn had seemed a convention to describe the shape of a lake, but below him stretched a gleaming dark blue oval so perfect that it seemed handmade by the art and artifice of a giant.

While Irilik stood with the staff upraised to see more of the vale of Timora, the sun began to rise and dawn flooded the vale with gentle color. The lake below him shone as blue as the sky at noon even in the pale light of dawn. Flowering bushes lined the shore with vivid color. Between the lake and the encircling hills, copses of fruit trees and blooming vines scattered over a grassy expanse starred with flowers.

While Irilik looked for the one who had shouted the warning, a group of small men began to assemble from under the trees and around the bushes. They wore loincloths and carried long, narrow staffs. Irilik saw a tiny path, hardly more than a rain scored rill in the stone of the cliff below him and he stretched to relieve his burning muscles and began to make his way down the steep incline with a prayer that he wouldn't stumble and roll to their feet in a heap.

Somehow he made it down without faltering and the guardians of Timora came to meet him with a song of welcome. They carried leaf woven trays of fruit and gourds filled with juice and water. He heard their songs and knew their meaning, even though he had never before heard their language.

"Light-Bearer, we have waited long for you. Have you come alone?" the nearest of them said when he stopped only an arm's length away.

"My people follow me. Before night falls, they will enter Timora," Irilik replied. He looked up and around and saw that the precipice he had topped was the highest prominence above the vale. "They must find an easier path than the one I took."

The small people around him laughed with child-like amusement. Their leader enlightened Irilik about their glee. "You could only have entered the vale of Timora by that path. You must have been led by the Light to follow it."

"Surely it is the most difficult means to enter the vale?" Irilik asked.

"It is the only path that is not planted with burning vines and ambushed with hidden dead-falls and pits. If your people are coming, we must prepare the way for them. First you must tell us what you will do with Timora."

"I come to build a city for the worship of the Radiance. I come to give you the sacred name by which his people should know their maker," Irilik replied. He did not know what tongue he spoke, the guardian nodded and turned to address his people.

"This is the Light-Bearer. Our long vigil is at an end." His words were greeted with cheers.

"We will make a path and mark it with white stones and prepare a feast for your people, then we will return to our land," the spokesman said. "We have waited long for you, Light-Bearer. It was our task to keep the evil ones from polluting the holy valley. Much blood was spilled to carry out our work. Now we are free to return to our home in the forests."

Irilik wondered how such small, seemingly carefree people could have served as effective guardians to the Vale. His unasked question was answered when a lizard scurried across a rock not far from where he stood. In an instant, one of the small men raised a long, hollow reed to his lips and a dart spat forth from the end, spearing the lizard's leg. With hardly a flinch to indicate it had been hit, the lizard lay down and stopped breathing. Irilik shuddered. The weapon was soundless and sure. He was grateful that it had been used against his enemies and not against the people he led.

Irilik talked with the guardians of Timora while he helped them dismantle the traps and pit-falls that guarded the easiest entrance to the vale. They warned him against touching innocuous looking flowering vines that twined over the trees and rocks. One of them tossed a ball of wadded grass toward a vine and Irilik watched the tendrils of the vine twine around the ball and pull it toward a fleshy flower. The petals closed over the ball of grass and the guardian grinned. "If it had been an animal, it would dissolve in the flower," he said.

Irilik helped them mark a path for his people to follow. He put his mark on every fifth stone to prove that he had been part of the process. Finally the long hours he had spent finding Timora began to tell on him and he grew drowsy. He stumbled a little and put out his hand to steady himself. One of the guardians grabbed his hand just before it lighted on one of the glossy leaves that covered a ubiquitous vine. "Burn vine." the little man said. "You must leave it in place until all of the Ogandash perish."

With a hand on Irilik's elbow he led him back to the vale. "Come. You must rest before your people arrive to join you," the guardian said. He took him to a shady glade and brought him fruit and a mat for him to lie down on.

Irilik settled to the mat and lay still as he listened to the sounds of laughter and song. A sense of peace that he had never known before filled him with sweet rest. He forgot the many questions that he had wanted to ask about the history of the land and how the guardians had come to keep it safe as he closed his eyes and drifted into sleep.

When he woke, he saw that it was well into afternoon. He rose and went in search of the elder who had given him his first welcome. He found him with the others near an outcropping of stone. Looking closer, Irilik saw weathered carvings and realized that the stones were the last remains of a man-made structure.

"This was the temple in the days before our fathers found this land," the old guardian explained. "The men and women who lived here forsook the truth and turned to evil ways. They lost the memory of Yasa Dom."

"What happened to them?" Irilik asked.

"No evil thing can flourish in the Vale of Timora. Those who turned against the truth made war on one another until they were destroyed. When we were summoned, there was no one left, and we sealed the vale."

Irilik's imagination provided a vivid picture of the end of the people who had polluted Timora and he shuddered. It was like the story of his native land, Kishdu. "Who summoned you?" he asked.

The ancient guardian smiled, "You know His name. It is the same who led you here. When we saw the sign of the flaming star, we knew you would soon come," the elder explained.

It was much like the story Kaldar had told Irilik. It had been no accident that Kaldar and his people had found them soon after they landed. The sign of the flaming star had been known in this land and those who remembered the prophecies of olden times had come toward the eastern coast to find the Light-Bearer who carried the shining stone.

Suddenly, as evening neared, the guardians stood and picked up their weapons and other meager belongings. The elder extended his right hand upright to Irilik and they touched palm to palm. "We thank you for relieving our long vigil. Now at last we can go home."

The others added prayers for his health and long life and with a soft chanting refrain of the song with which they had greeted him, they seemed to disappear into the foliage that surrounded the lake. They left behind a feast of fruit and small game on wide grass mats.

Irilik heard a faint shout from the head of the pass and looked up to see the first arrivals of his people. He heard their cries of wonder as they caught their first site of the azure blue of Timora's holy waters and the pleasant copses of fruit and flowers that made a garden of the vale.

He walked toward the wide pass to meet his people, but the language of the guardians remained in his mind. When he first gave greeting to Saaden and Tarsha who led the others, they looked at him with puzzled smiles, wondering at the words he spoke. He smiled at his mistake and tried again. "Welcome to Timora, our home for as long as we honor the truth."

After Irilik performed the evening ritual the people of the Gathering feasted on the meat and fruit provided by their absent hosts. Irilik settled down by Saaden and Tarsha for the meal.

"We met no opposition when we followed you, but Kaldar lost your track early this morning and led us into the vale by another path he knew of," Saaden said.

"My way led over the precipice on the northeast of the vale," Irilik said.

Tarsha peered at the lofty cliff and gave a little whistle. "Why that way when the other path is apparently shorter and far less difficult. I'm surprised you didn't fall."

"I received a warning or I might have fallen," Irilik said. "Until I came, there were no other open paths. We spent hours cutting away burnvine and other dangers and clearing the path you took."

Saaden looked around with a frown. "You speak of others. I can see from the feast and the path that there were many hands involved in preparations."

"There were many here to guard the vale until I came," Irilik said. "By now they have retreated into the jungles on the south of the vale."

"How could the citadel of Oliafed fall, and this vale remain unconquered?" Saaden said.

"Oliafed fell because of betrayal from within," Irilik said. "I tried to give warning, but none would listen. The Guardian priests of my first home turned to astrology and prevented open access to the words of the prophets. When I tried to tell them what I had seen in the Eye of Adanan, they ignored me and discounted my prophecies. The Guardians of Timora remained faithful to their trust. It kept them safe from all the evil that raged around them."

Saaden was silent as he reflected on his own tendency to second-guess Irilik. He could understand how easy it might have been for the young prophet's superiors to discount his warnings. "I will heed the warning in what you have told us."

After sunset when the Stone of Truth provided the only light within the vale, the people rose from their feast and made their final camp. Irilik called the council to meet with him. While others prepared for sleep, the men and women of the council began to plan for the years to come.

"Tomorrow we will begin to build the city of Timora," Irilik said. "It must do justice to the setting the Radiance has provided for us. We can put off clearing fields and planting. There is ample fruit and game to provide for us while we build."

"The trees in the surrounding hills are tall and will provide good timber for our homes and shrine," Tedak remarked.

"I noticed an outcrop of pale granite not far from the vale," Taleek said. "If we build with stone, our city will last. Surely Janak knows enough of stonework to instruct others."

Irilik nodded. "I have seen a vision of what Timora will be. It will shine like a city carved from pearls. Timber will be needed for braces and scaffolding while we build, but it was no accident that Taleek saw the source of stone before he had even entered the vale."

"I noticed that there are warm springs near the head of the lake," Thalonon ventured. "We should build our city where we can take advantage of the springs. Some of my people have sorely missed the baths that were part of their lives when we lived near the sea."

Irilik turned and looked out over the deep water of the sacred lake. "When I took my vows as a priest, I was given a ritual bath," he said. "It signified a cleansing that prepared me for my duties. It seems well that all who have joined us receive the ritual."

Garad nodded. "We should renew the vows made when we joined the Gathering. A ritual cleansing would provide a significant sign of our renewal."

Virda had been silent, but now her face lit and she lifted her hand to signal her response. "Let us resolve that tomorrow's first structure will be a pavilion for bathing and blessing with the renewal ritual."

Irilik turned to her. "I approve of your suggestion. We will do so."

She looked toward him and summoned a tired smile. When had she become so small? His first memories of her laughing, rotund face had stayed with him, even when illness and deliberate poisoning by Malgrod's cronies had reduced her to a shadow of what she had been.

Tedak stood and raised his hand. "I think that all of us are tired and quite willing to delay any further planning until we have had a good night's rest."

There was gentle laughter and general approval of his suggestion. When the others had dispersed, Irilik stood with Tarsha's hand cradled in his own and looked out over the glimmer of moonlight on the sacred lake. Among the dreams that had haunted his youth, this scene had lingered like a balm. A sense of homecoming filled his heart.

When morning came Irilik crept from his tent and ran toward the lake that shimmered with gold and deep blue like a shard of dawn. He thought himself alone, but the sound of hammering greeted him when he raised his head from his first sublime submersion in the cool water. The proposed pavilion rose further along the shore, lacking only a roof. A crew of carpenters under the direction of Arnath had nearly completed the structure.

Irilik waded out of the water and dried himself before walking over to inspect their work. "I did not hear the sounds of your axes when I woke," he said.

"We cut these logs last night while you were in council with the other leaders," Arnath explained. "I had planned to build a house for my mother. It would be the first permanent residence she has lived in since her childhood, but when she came back to her tent last night, she explained the need for a pavilion."

Irilik lifted the end of a log and helped maneuver it into position to be lifted to the beams overhead. Before the building had finished roofing the pavilion the shore of the lake nearby began to fill with people wearing simple white smocks, no more than widths of cloth sewn together up the edges with holes left for the arms and a hole for the head, hastily sewn for the bathing ceremony the council had approved the night before.

Tedak appeared with Irilik's ritual robes. "I think you should let others complete the pavilion," he suggested. "As soon as it is finished, you must be ready to perform the renewal washings."

"I'm amazed that the word of the washing ritual spread so quickly," Irilik said.

"All of us welcome the idea of bathing, and to bathe in such a cause at such a time is more than welcome. The members of the council made sure their people were informed."

Virda was first in line, her diminished frame even more noticeable in the simple shroud-like robe she wore. Irilik stood waist deep near the end of the steps that led down from the pavilion and held out his hand for her. She came to him over the rounded pebbles of the narrow beach, quaking with strong emotion and shivering with the morning chill.

The words for the renewal ceremony flowed into his mind with the touch of her hand in his. Calling upon the sacred name, he blessed her and instructed her to take another step until she was fully immersed in the water, then he helped her rise from the water and handed her into the arms of her oldest son, Arnath. He wrapped her in a warm shawl and carried her to the shore while Garad walked toward Irilik.

After performing the ritual for the other priest, Irilik asked him to help. One after another, they washed and blessed the people who waited. First among them were the other members of the Council, but hundreds more gathered as the morning ripened toward noon.

At noon Tarsha called a halt and insisted that her husband and Garad stop and eat. "They are turning blue with cold. Give them time to rest, otherwise they will go the way of poor old Virda," she chided the few who raised objections at the pause.

"Virda?" Irilik asked. "What has happened to Virda?"

"Did you never notice how frail she has become?" Tarsha asked. "Ever since she nursed Tagnet back to health, giving him her arm and carrying most of his baggage on the march to Vald, she has been losing strength."

"The shock of the cold water!" Irilik exclaimed. "What have I done?"

"You gave her the gift that kept her hope alive," Tarsha assured him. "When Tagnet accepted the vows and received the renewal washing, it made her happy to see him repentant. It was finally possible for her to give up the fight and rest."

"I did not notice Tagnet among all the others," Irilik mused after he swallowed a mouthful of bread. "I am glad to know that Virda is resting. She looked ill."

Tarsha took his hand and looked into his eyes to make sure he took her meaning. "She is resting with the righteous who can never again know pain. She died an hour ago. She gave me this new roll of scroll cloth she wove for you."

Irilik accepted the scroll cloth, but he could not speak. Grief welled up in him. He wanted nothing more than to withdraw and pray for Virda's soul, but hundreds still waited on the shore. He felt torn between caring for the needs of the many who waited, and performing a funeral for his beloved friend.

"Is there no other than Garad who can help you?" Tedak asked him.

Irilik looked at his former servant and remembered the brief vision he had experienced before they left the shores of Kishdu. He had seen Tedak in priestly robes, serving as a patriarch to his people. In his vision, Tedak had been old, with gray hair. But Irilik saw no reason to delay the ordination.

The members of the council had gathered in quiet support, knowing that the death of Virda would be a burden that Irilik might find hard to bear. They had already accepted the responsibility of becoming like fathers to the people of their septs, there would be no better time to complete their authority.

"I always planned to ordain the members of the council," Irilik said. "In vision, I have seen Tedak serving in a priestly robe. What better time to initiate all of you to the blessing priesthood that Garad bears, and let you begin with this ritual of washing? If we all work together, we might finish before sunset."

One by one they stepped forward and kneeled before him with Saaden the first to accept the solemn obligations that priesthood involved. When he stood, his eyes were moist, but he covered his emotion with a rueful chuckle. "Who would have thought of this end for an old soldier?"

Kaldar was next, smiling so widely that the grin almost seemed to stretch his face beyond its bounds when he stood and took a blue strip of cloth that would serve as his stole of office.

When Sangin approached holding Kalmena's hand, Irilik asked them to kneel together. From the beginning, they had shared the responsibilities of leading their clan. Kalmena would share in Sangin's office as his support and counselor.

The others followed in turn and as he placed his hands on their heads Irilik recalled the circumstances of their lives that had led them to join his cause. Most of them were somewhat older than their youthful prophet but none of them had questioned his right to lead.

Last of all, Tedak knelt and Irilik placed his hands on his head. The words of promise and exhortation that had flowed so easily when the others had knelt before him and received the lesser priesthood of blessing and teaching, seemed to stick in his throat. The silence began to worry Irilik and he said a silent prayer for relief from his muteness. Words began to flow, and he recognized that he was not the source. "Through Yasa Dom, I bless you with the rights of your fathers, the lineage of Paralek, who served with Aganon and saw the face of light. Through your loins, seers shall be given to the people, as it was in times before. Truth and righteousness shall ever proceed from your mouth, and you will always stand as first friend to those who lead. You know what you have seen. Keep these things in your heart and rejoice."

When the words no longer came to him, Irilik lifted his hands from Tedak's head and extended a hand to help his former servant to his feet. "I think you know that it was not I who gave you that blessing," the prophet murmured so others could not hear.

Tedak nodded. "You spoke of things you could not have known about. Those who were called the servants of the High Priest knew that they had been called by reason of their inheritance. They were called the hidden priesthood, and not even Gandifer suspected what my father truly was."

Blue shawls and white robes were found for those who had been ordained by Irilik and they waded into the water to take up their work. Irilik took his place near Tedak and Kaldar.

The words of the blessing that had become an almost automatic litany while Irilik worked his way through the throng that morning, became a reminder of Virda, the first to receive them. His heart and soul went into every blessing that he gave thereafter.

When sunset approached, Tarsha once again called on her prerogative as Irilik's wife and asked Saaden to help her coax Irilik out of the water. Many of the other new priests had retreated from the water already, but Tedak and Kaldar seemed determined to wait until Irilik stopped. Saaden stood before the people still waiting to be washed. "We will return tomorrow. Go to your homes and prepare for the evening ritual." Some pushed forward, protesting that they were willing to wait through the night if necessary.

Irilik waded ashore and took a towel from Tarsha. "Tomorrow I will come again, along with these others who I have ordained, but now it is fitting that we honor Virda and lay her to rest."

Shamefaced at forgetting the funeral, the urgent crowd retreated.

At dusk when the Stone of Truth began to light the vale, Irilik stood before Virda's tomb and performed the evening ritual. After asking a benediction on the people and their labors, he closed his prayer. He turned and raised his hands again. Enna and Mirla had washed Virda and dressed her in a burial robe that Lanin had sewn. Arnath and his younger brothers had prepared the tomb for their mother, the first permanent structure erected in Timora.

Tagnet had excused himself from the labor, coughing and claiming that his brief immersion had affected him adversely. Farol, a woman of Garad's sept, saw him shivering and hastened to bring him a blanket. She was young and pretty, and very warm-hearted. Tagnet let her care for him and exaggerated his limp when she led him to a broad stone where he could rest while he watched his mother's funeral. He let a few tears slide down his cheeks and Farol offered her handkerchief. Tagnet contorted his grin of triumph into a grateful smile. Virda was gone, but he had found someone better to replace her. Farol had the strength that his mother had lost.

He peered around him and saw several nearby who seemed as blind as he to the mysterious light that allegedly shown at the top of Irilik's staff. Their eyes shifted from side to side to get a clue of where to look. They had followed others into the water and received the dubious benefit of Irilik's new-coined ritual of washing, but it had been the pressure to conform with the expectations of others that had led them to make the vow. Their minds would be open to his suggestions of doubt. It was a small beginning but he saw the future rich before him.

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