Chapter 1 Exiles
The boundary between clan Algire and clan Terifil was little more than a dried up stream, dim in the cloudy night. Tharen touched the pouch at his neck, tempted to use the Stone inside to light his way. The clouds parted and the rising moon lit the rock-strewn defile enough for him to follow the path. With his ears alert for the sounds of warriors, he held his staff ready in his hand.
He had lingered too long jousting with his friends of clan Terifil. Egon had shown him how to handle the bronze battle sword, a far different weapon from the brasswood staff Tharen carried. It could shatter a poorly wrought bronze sword, but Mareklans were priests and merchants, living in tents and traveling the lands of Okishdu to preach and trade. They did not use their staffs to kill.
No Mareklan should stray from their compound this late at night when warrior clans sought battle. During the day the truce held and no Janakan would raise his hand against a Mareklan. At night, any man would be taken as an enemy if he could not respond with the proper signs and passwords.
Again a cloud covered the moon and the path dipped through a misty hollow. Tharen focused on the sounds that surrounded him. The crack of a breaking twig, a spatter of small stones, meant trouble. The regular thud of running feet warned him that in moments a battle would erupt nearby.
Whispered signals surrounded him as warriors took their positions. On the left were men from Clan Algire, on the right, those of Clan Terifil. Any of them would take him for an enemy in the darkness.
The battle broke like a storm around him. A challenge came and he had no words to respond. A weapon descended toward his head with a rush of air. He blocked the blow by thrusting against the flat of the blade with his staff and heard an eerie ring that sent chills through all who heard it. This was no bronze sword. His antagonist must be Darm, the son of Malinkra, matriarch of Clan Algire. He was the only man alive who carried a star sword from the forge of the Wizard Smith.
Tharen could barely see the dark outline of Darm, reared back to bring his sword down in another slashing cut. Tharen shot his staff straight forward and it plunged toward Darm's skull in a killing blow.
At the last moment he pulled the blow enough so that it only stunned his opponent. Darm teetered, then fell. The sword fell from his grasp, striking sparks against rocks on the path.
. When another man moved to take up Darm's sword, Tharen acted without thinking of consequences, he tripped him the warrior with a back blow of his staff, picked up the sword and ran.
A pack of Algire warriors followed him, screaming with rage and calls for revenge. It took all his skill and cunning to evade them. Knowing that they would expect him to dash down the path toward the village of Clan Terifil, he climbed out of the gully and scrambled to a stony ledge near the top of a hill.
He dropped to the ground, curling his body around the sword and letting his cloak settle over and around him hoping to be taken a boulder on the rocky hillside. One of his pursuers paused close by and called out to his cohort, "I see no one up here. Search the valley."
Tharen waited to hear the man above him move away, but there was no further sound. His arms and legs began to ache from his cramped position. He yearned to shift his weight. Then he heard the voice again, still close at hand. "Did any of you see who took the sword? We must win it back for Clan Algire." There were mutters of speculation, but no mention of Tharen's name.
Finally the lookout moved away, his battle buskins crunching on dried weeds. At length a small animal squeaked near his head and Tharen sensed that the men who hunted him were gone.
He sat up and stretched while he waited for the cramps in his legs to subside. Ants had invaded his tunic while he lay concealed. By the time he had brushed them away, the tingling feeling in his limbs had faded and he was able to stand and make his way home to the Mareklan compound.
The ladle of Withna, patterned in stars, had turned on its end overhead. Soon morning would reveal his presence in Algire clan territory. With the sword in his possession he would be seen as a warrior, fair game for any who wanted to take it from him.
By now the men from the night sorties would be long in their beds, but their wives, sisters and aunts, their mothers and younger brothers, would be up and about, tilling the terraced fields and keeping an eye out for intruders. As a Mareklan, he would usually walk among them undisturbed, but he carried the star sword and he would be outlaw in Janakan lands until he discarded or hid the weapon.
His father stood at the door of the family tent when he finally reached the wide clearing that held the Mareklan tents. Although Tharen had been taller than his father since the year before, Korenen seemed to loom in the pale dawn. He pointed at the tip of the star sword that extended beneath the edge of Tharen's cloak, catching the first rays of dawn on its glittering edge. "What have you done?"
"I am not at fault. I was caught in the midst of a battle," Tharen said.
"You could have been home by sundown," Korenen said. "You stayed to learn sword craft from the warriors of Terifil. If you had acted as a Mareklan should, you would not have been part of the battle."
There was a question in his father's eyes but Tharen shook his head. "I killed no man. I only defended myself with my staff."
"Janakans permit us to live among them because we offer them no threat and we prepare the youths and maidens for their visits to Timora," his father said.
"We also bring them baubles in trade for their blades," Tharek replied.
It was an old argument between them. Mareklans claimed no land for themselves, but lived in temporary encampments. They traveled far and wide through Okishdu to bringing the luxuries of other cities to the widow-smiths of Janaka. The swords, knives and ax blades received in trade were valued by soldiers and woodsmen in the other lands.
It had been a long and profitable relationship, but Tharen was one of a few who felt that trading had long since supplanted the errand of preaching given them by the Prophet Irilik, centuries before.
"Our ancient alliance with the people of Janaka could be broken by such as you, a youth who cares more for swordplay than for the traditions of his people," Korenen countered. "If any Janakan sees you with the star sword of Algire he will do all in his power to take the sword, and with it, your head."
"Another warrior reached for it after Darm dropped it, but he had no right!" Tharen said.
"If Darm is not dead, you must return it to him. If you cannot find him, turn the sword over to his mother, Malinkra. She has another son who might be more worthy to carry such a weapon."
"There is nothing wrong with Darm," Tharen protested. "He could not have worn the sword for so long if he were not expert. He did not expect my staff to be a worthy weapon."
Korenen's scowl gave way to a reluctant smile. Then he stiffened his face again. "This is not a time to brag about your skill with the staff. You are well enough for your generation, but in my youth-," Korenen's frown eased and he reached forward to cuff his son on the shoulder. "You are probably as good as any I have known. You have the reach and speed that few can match. But you are Mareklan. We only carry swords and other blades as as trade goods. The oath made by our clan founder when his name was changed from Marek to Maren rules us. As long as we trade, we must not carry bladed weapons like other men. Unburden your pack of the blades you traded for with Clan Terifil and go find Darm."
"Can I eat before I go?" Tharen asked.
Korenen stood silent for a moment as if gathering his will. "With every hour that the star sword is in the hands of another, fury will fester in the Algire warriors. You must leave now, while the sun is still on the horizon and the warriors are at rest."
Korenen paused and raised his hand in a ritual gesture that stunned Tharen with its meaning. When his father spoke, the words fell like stones into water, leaving ripples of emotion. "Return without the sword, or do not return. From this moment until you come back with only your staff in hand, you are Tharek; of my loins, but not of Marekla."
He started back, wounded more than if his father had hit him. He saw the faces of his mother and his younger brothers and sisters staring at him with dread from the opening of the tent.
Tharek! An aweful name. It would signal to any Mareklan who met him, and asked to know his name, that he was an outcast. It would be his father's duty to inform the council about the ban if his son had not returned by sunset. It seemed excessive for a moment of folly. Thieves and abusers were banned. It meant exclusion from the hospitality of any Mareklan. No Mareklan woman would consent to marry him.
He must go swiftly before this went any further. The sword seemed to burn his hand. If he could have done so, he would have flung it from him. He hastily emptied his pack of the blades and axes he had traded for in Terifil and reached for the leather pouch that rested on his chest, suspended from a thong around his neck.
"No, I will not deprive you of your birthright," his father whispered in a voice that did not carry past him to those watching from the tent. "If you cannot return the sword, you must still bear the Stone."
Tharen grasped the pouch in his hand. The stone that was his heritage from the seventh son of Irilik made hardly a bump through the supple leather of the pouch. He turned to leave the campground and heard his mother stifle a cry of distress behind him.
He would have to make his way around the village of Terifil to reach Algire lands. A belt of scrub along the higher foothills offered concealment. The night had been cool, but the rising sun heated the rocky ground and glared from the dried tufts of grass that stuck up stiff and brittle from the hillside. Tharek moved with a loping stride and sweat ran down his face and neck. He would have tucked up his cape as was usual on such warm days, but it shielded most of the sword.
It had been folly to pick up Algire oc Baroka. Five of the stars swords had been buried with heroes who had died in old age. This sword alone had never been buried in a tomb. The warriors of clan Algire passed the sword on to their sons when they passed the age of battle.
None had ever defeated a warrior armed with one of the blue star swords. Tharen's moment of impulse had interrupted a centuries old tradition.
After passing Terifil territory he climbed to a ridge and swept the countryside with a wary eye. It would be as dangerous to seek out the widow smith, Malinkra, and try to give the sword to her as to find her son and return it to him. She was known as a fiery woman, her shoulders as broad as any man from her work at her forge.
A scream of challenge warned Tharek that his fate had come to meet him. He looked along the ridge line and saw Darm braced to confront him. The warrior wore nothing but battle paint and a loincloth beneath the beaded braids of his hair and beard. His feet were bare of the usual buskins and he held a great bronze battle sword over his head with both hands.
"I was coming to the tent of your father, Mareklan. None of the others recognized you last night. You took Algire oc Baroka while I lived. Now one of us must die."
"We need not fight," Tharek said. "I bring you the sword of my own will. I am not allowed to carry a weapon that is made to draw the blood of men."
"I cannot take the weapon while you live," Darm shouted. He leaped closer, but there was something lacking in his attack. His fierceness seem feigned. His glance slid to the blue gleam of the star sword, then jerked back to Tharek's face and he scowled.
"I will not use the sword against you." Tharek said. "I will not take your life, and I will not let you kill me." He cast his cloak aside and tossed the disputed sword on top of it. The ground was still damp with dew and he had heard that the star metal bled when damp. While it was in his custody, he would protect it.
Darm's courage seemed to increase once Tharek put the sword aside. He was a good swordsman, well taught in the tactics of thrust and parry. It was likely that like most Janakans he mistook the Mareklan reluctance to spill blood as mere cowardice and regarded Tharek's quick defeat of him the night before as nothing more than a mischance.
It would be foolish to assume that a sword carried by a son of Malinkra would be anything but the best the widow smith could forge. Tharek must keep Darm off balance. The narrow ridge they stood on had steep sides, but for fifty man-lengths the surrounding nop trees grew tall enough to hide their confrontation from others.
He waited for Darm to begin his rush, a tactic typical of Janakan fighters. They used the momentum to strike the first blow in the hope that it would end the battle. Usually it ended with a clash of swords and the long labor of trying to get through an opponent's guard in a round of slashing and blocking..
When the Janakan was almost upon him, Tharek threw himself to the side opposite the direction of Darm's already descending slash. The blade scraped the sleeve of his tunic, but he was under and behind Darm in an instant. The Janakan staggered for a few steps as he fought the momentum of his rush and tried to turn.
Tharek swung his staff low, aiming at the back of Darm's knees. The warrior fell. His sword jarred against the stone of the ridge with a clang and jerked free of his hands. In a moment Tharek was on top of the Janakan, his staff clamped over his hands, his knees planted on either side of Darm's chest.
"Listen to me," Tharek demanded.
"Kill me," Darm said. "If you do not, I will track you down. I will be as relentless as the ghost of Bendigh."
"Have you never heard of the first of the widow smiths?" Darm gasped as he fought for breath.
"I have heard many Janakan tales, but I do not remember hearing of Bendigh." Tharek answered. He shifted his weight a little so that Darm could breathe more easily.
"I came here to fight, not to tell stories," Darm muttered.
"And I will not let you up until you tell me of this ghost."
Darm turned his head and closed his eyes, his mouth set in a stubborn line. Tharek began to sing a ditty he had learned in Taleeka while on a trading trek the previous summer. His voice was pleasant and the song slightly scurrilous. It had at least a hundred verses that followed the tale of a Kumnoran shepherd in love with a Jaman wench.
Darm remained resolutely silent and stiff for ten verses. The refrain finally broke him. He began to whistle it between his teeth for a moment before he caught himself and bit his lips.
Tharek continued relentlessly. Darm began to struggle, flinging his body from side to side in an attempt to dislodge the Mareklan and trying to free his hands, but Tharek gave him no relief . He only sang a little more softly, aware that by now the noise might draw undue attention if someone wandered up the ridge.
"My brothers will come and slay us both!" Darm finally gasped.
"Why would they slay both of us?" Tharek asked after finishing the refrain yet again.
"They would slay you to regain the sword. They would slay me because I am outcast."
"And I am outcast until I rid myself of the sword," Tharek answered. "We are both caught in a stupid tangle of traditions. What would happen if I gave you the sword and went away so that none would know that I am still alive?"
"I would know. It would stain my honor to carry the sword I had not earned in mortal combat," Darm snarled.
"What if I bury the sword?"
"Until there is proof of your death, there would be those who would try to capture you and torture you to reveal the burial place," Darm said. "Once you put your hand on a star sword to possess it, you can only rid yourself of the burden through death or giving it to your heir."
"I have no son and I am not willing to die!" Tharek grunted. His frustration made him cruel and he gave a thump to the staff that ground Darm's wrists against the ridge stone. He heard the muffled exclamation of pain and shook his head. "Sorry. There must be some way out of this coil. I will not die. I am unwilling to kill you. I cannot return the sword unless I die, but if I keep it, I will die. I will not die for the sake of a piece of metal!"
Darm stopped trying to writhe free and Tharek relaxed his hold, but not enough to tempt another try at escape. Silence fell between them. Insects made busy little noises in the nearby trees. The day continued clear and fine, the breeze carrying just a hint of coming winter. Tharek shivered.
"There may be an alternative to death for either of us," Darm muttered at last.
"If I let you up, will you give me your word to reason with me instead of attacking me again?" Tharek asked.
Darm nodded. "I swear I will enter a truce until we resolve the impasse." He attempted to make the oath sign, but his arms were too numb to respond, even after Tharek acknowledged his promise and removed the staff.
Darm accepted the Mareklan's extended hand to help him stand and he limped to a tussock of dried grass where he sat and prepared to make his peace.
"I have known since I was a boy that I would be a warrior when I became man," Darm said. "I had another dream, an impossible dream. I wanted to be a smith. I hid in the shadows outside the forge where my mother wrought the blades that bring wealth to our clan. I listened to the story of Algire and wished I could have been the one who found the star stone. But I am Janakan and fated to be a warrior."
"As I have always known I would be a merchant, no matter that I yearned to learn sword-craft and be a warrior," Tharek said.
"Yet you will not use one of the finest weapons ever made as it was meant to be used," Darm reminded him.
"I have no quarrel with my clan's refusal to maim and kill when it is enough to stun and disarm," Tharek said.
"I will not argue about your means and methods, but now both of us are outcast. Do any others know that you won Algire oc Baroka from me?" Darm asked.
"My family knows, but I doubt my father or the others will want to tell the story. They believe I committed folly. I have earned the title of outcast for picking up the sword. I only wanted to keep it from the hands of a lesser warrior. My heedless action could shame my family. They know it could cost my life."
"And while most of my family and clan knows that I have lost the sword to another, none of them know that you are the man who defeated me. We must leave Janaka. Will your family help us?"
Tharek shook his head. "I was Tharen, Mareklan. Now I am Tharek, outcast. I remain my father's son, but I will not be allowed to take even the most basic support from any of my kinsmen."
"Then we will be as brothers. Swear by your first father in Okishdu that you will stand by me and I will do the same," Darm said.
He held up his hands in the sacred sign of promise and Tharek made the same gesture. Each swore by his forefather; Darm by Janak and Tharek by Irilik, that he would honor the promise of brotherhood.
Darm had come to the challenge dressed as if he were already dead, in nothing more than a loincloth, a small belt-pouch and the battle tokens woven into his beard and braids. He had even left behind the buskins that were worn by warriors, but removed from corpses that they not profane the pavement of the holy gate of heaven.
The days of fall remained warm, but the nights promised frosty weather. In his battle tattoos and fringed loincloth, Darm would be seen as a challenge to any warrior who met them. Tharek could do nothing about Darm's naked feet, but he could share his clothing. "Would you rather wear my tunic or my cape?" Tharek asked.
Darm studied the broad shoulders of his new companion. "Your tunic is too large for me. I will use your cape."
"I think it would be best if you wore my hat as well as my cape, at least until we leave Janakan lands you should do what you can to conceal your battle tokens. You could carry both swords concealed beneath the cape and I could carry my staff."
"If we meet any challenge, the star sword is your responsibility," Darm insisted. "The moment you ran away from the battle ground with the star sword in your hand, it became Tharek oc Baroka for you and your chosen heir. Only your death at the hands of an enemy can change that."
Tharek grimaced, "If the sword must bear my name unless I am willing to die to change it, then Tharek oc Baroka it shall be. But if you wear the cape, you should carry the sword for now."
"We must get as far from here as we can, or have you changed your mind about venturing?" Darm asked once he had accepted the cape and slung it around his shoulders.
"What of your wife and family?" Tharek asked the warrior.
Darm's face took on a look of remote hauteur, "I will not discuss them."
Tharek bit his lip and stood up. He had forgotten the story of Darm's loss. It had been a scandal that ran through the clans like a wander weed. Darm had killed a warrior of clan Demok in battle. The man's young widow had recently suffered the death of a child and when she learned of the death of her husband, she had gone mad. She had taken her revenge by setting fire to Darm's home. His wife and two young children had died in the fire.
The mad woman had been caught and returned to her clan. They had applied the penalties given to any who violated the sacrosanct status of women, children, and homes. Tharek did not care to think of the torture the poor mad creature had undergone.
It was painful enough that Darm had lost his wife and children in the fire. There was truly nothing to hold him in his village now that his mother had decreed his banishment for losing the star sword without forfeiting his life.
"You said you wished to become a smith," Tharek said, changing the subject in the hope that Darm would focus on something other than his loss.
"I have a needle made by Algire from the star stone," the Janakan said. "He made a hundred of them for his mother, but she refused to use them, saying they were haunted by the ghosts of those the star stone killed. Some were traded away to your clan. Others were given to Algire's daughters. The needles are magic."
"My father has one of the star needles," Tharek said. "We use them when the moon and stars are hidden by mists or when clouds conceal the sun. The needle points to the key star in the Ladle of Withna."
"The needles mark direction in the murk, but I believe they point the way to another star stone," Darm said. "When my needle is held near the star sword, it points to it."
Darm removed his belt pouch and spread out the contents between them. He unwrapped the needle and showed Tharek how it pointed to the sword. Tharek nodded, but his real interest was in the metal rod and the stone that were also in the pouch. "You have a fire strike and a flint."
The Janakan pushed the metal rod with his finger and nodded glumly. "Yes, I have a needle to help me find the star stone, and a strike and flint, but I have little else but my sword. I had resigned myself to the idea that I was going to die. I did not plan to begin an adventure."
"We have two swords and the means of making fire," Tharek said. "I will share my supplies with you. I always carry a water skin and belt pouches stocked with basic needs and supplies."
"Then we will go," Darm said. If there was a catch in his voice, Tharek ignored it. His own chest burned with the thought of leaving those who loved him. It was just as well he had never pledged his troth to Bithel. She was charming and beautiful, but their friendship had never ripened into love. Now that he had been named an outcast she would seek some other man to make her life with.
Darm knelt and drew a map on the ground with a sharp stone. "I know the lands around our village well, but I do not know what lies beyond. What have you learned in your treks?"
"We are close to the borders of Kumnora, and here," Tharek pointed, "twice as far in the other direction, lies the pilgrimage road maintained by Saadena's legionnaires. If you think your needle points to a star stone, then we should turn our path Withna-ward and head for Kumnora."
"You would venture into Kumnora's steppes? I have heard that the Kumnorans are hardly human. They live like animals without houses and are as fierce as the wirras they hunt. The only Kumnorans I have met are teamsters who are known for their wild appetites."
Tharek chuckled, "The Kumnorans have similar tales of their wild neighbors in Janaka. They are hospitable people and will help us, if we can find them. They have no towns or cities, but follow the herds of corums and bacals. They live in tents like Mareklans."
"We will go Withna-word through Kumnora," Darm decided.
Chapter 2 The Duel
They erased the signs of their confrontation, sweeping brush over the sandy loam and scattering the broken blades of dried grass. When they headed off the ridge they avoided known paths. At times they paused and listened or smelled the air. Now and then the scent of wood smoke warned them away from the presence of others.
They stood concealed near the trail when a cluster of girls passed along a path they must cross to continue their journey. The girls were hardly older than children, but even if they had not been protected by their gender and youth, the efficient daggers they carried close at hand in their sashes would have warned off any foolish enough to accost them.
As the laughing group disappeared from view, Darm gave a small sigh. "Is it true that nowhere in the world are women as lovely as in Janaka?" he asked.
Tharek laughed softly and gave a politic answer. "I have been on treks from Taleeka to Timora and never have I seen such women as live in Janaka." Every city and clan thought its women the fairest, although secretly he felt that only Mareklan women could truly aspire to beauty.
Not far from the path where they had watched the girls, they stopped to slake their thirst at a mountain spring. Herbs lined the grotto of the spring and they picked the bright leaves and dug up a few ota shoots that they wrapped in the leaves and ate raw. After satisfying their thirst, Tharek filled his water skin with the cool, fresh water.
They continued on after resting briefly, keeping clear of other humans and the dogs that guarded the clan orchards and villages. Neither had eaten breakfast and the water weed and ota shoots did not truly ease their hunger. The hours of steady travel without adequate food began to tell as aching in their midriffs. Late fruit still decked the branches of orchards near the villages they passed, but they could not risk venturing where others might see them.
When the sun neared its zenith they saw a wild bread-berry bush on a hillside well away from any habitation. The branches drooped under the weight of ripe fruit. They soon filled their stomachs with the bland but nourishing yellow globes.
"I wish I had a basket to carry some of these with us," Tharek said before he stripped another branch and put the handful of fruit in his mouth. "It is late in the year to gather food after we reach the steppes."
Darm snapped off several berry laden branches from the bush and tied them together at the ends with a twist of bark. "This is how my people gather wild berries. They will dry on the stem and be good for weeks."
Tharek nodded. "I'm glad to know that you are not too proud to gather berries."
Darm shrugged. "I can hardly ask you to provide my food and cook my meal when I already wear your clothing and depend on your knowledge."
As the sun began to sink behind the tops of the high mountains to the west, the companions came to a pass and saw the great plateau of the Kumnoran steppes stretching to the horizon. Another day's journey would take them across the border. They had long since left behind the clan-lands where Darm would be known on sight.
"We should find a camp-site before it grows dark," Tharek said. "We might find ourselves in the midst of a battle if we wait too long."
"You speak from experience," Darm growled. "What led you to come among us last night? I have never heard of a Mareklan seeking out a battle."
"I did not intend to mix with the warriors, but I should have known the risk when I stayed too long in swordplay with my friends." Tharek said. "Whatever my reasons, it is too late to change our destiny."
Darm gestured to the steppes. "There lies a new chance for me. I am not nearly as sorry as I should be. Life had grown stale for me. There is no honor in dying if it is your deepest desire. Since the fire killed my wife and children I have wanted to die. Today, for the first time in many seasons, I want to live."
Tharek's thoughts echoed Darm's sentiments. He had not yearned for death, but life had grown stale. He felt a sense of rising excitement at the thought of the prospects that lay ahead. He had stifled the desire to go beyond the set routine of his life. Mareklans traveled far in search of the goods they traded, and to discharge of their duties to their sacred lineage, but their lives were bound by care and cunning.
Tradition and authority seemed to have long since supplanted individual initiative. His people lived in an uneasy but profitable alliance with the Janakans, always avoiding the conflict that was the very core of life to the men of the battling clans.
"We are not callow boys, stealing away from home for a brief adventure," Tharek said.
Darm took a deep breath. "The air here is not much different from the air in Algire Village, but somehow it seems sweeter."
"Perhaps it is more a blessing than a curse that the two of us are outcast," Tharek said. "I had grown weary of the routine of my life. If I had not reached for your sword, thinking to save it from the hands of a less deserving warrior, I would have doubtless married a woman who deserves something more than my tepid regard. As it is, I doubt I could have asked for a better companion in my exile. Your dream of finding another star stone and winning your fame as a smith will give me a focus while I find a new direction for my life."
They stopped talking as the slope of the hill grew steeper. The scrub and low growth of the surrounding landscape offered little shelter. Finally they saw a copse of trees that promised a likely place to spend the night. The evergreen nop trees offered some protection from the weather and deep layers of old leaves covered the ground underneath the branches.
While Tharek looked around for the best place to spend the night, Darm walked to the edge of a nearby clearing and saw something that caught his attention. He knelt and scraped roots and dried grass away from the corroded remains of a broken sword pitted with green bronze rot.
"This was a battle ground in the years before our style of warfare changed."
"Is it safe to camp so near a battle ground?" Tharek asked.
"You have seen how our clans now fight. We use the edge of darkness and find some obscure border path to ambush our opponents. Many warriors are slain by a misstep that sends them down on their own swords. It is not easy to tell friends from foes in the darkness. No one uses the old battle grounds anymore. I regret the change."
The Janakan's words found an echo in Tharek's thoughts. His people had changed as well. From what he had read in the Scroll of History and Prophecy, the prophet's descendants had been intended to travel among the other clans and serve as teachers and scribes after the tribes had dispersed to their assigned lands in Okishdu.
In the first generation Mareklans taught as Irilik had asked them, ordaining local clergy and encouraging pilgrimages to Timora. But even in those earliest years the role of trade had begun to take precedence. The mobility of the priestly clan had led to commissions to carry various precious goods between the cities of Okishdu. With the rise of Saadena and the establishment of the pilgrimage roads, the emphasis on trade became the primary reason for Mareklan travels.
Darm gathered a small pile of dry wood and grass and struck sparks with his fire strike.
"Is it wise to light a fire?" Tharek asked.
Darm looked up with surprise in his face. "Could it do any harm while the sun is still high enough to hide a small flame?"
"I am more concerned about the smell than the light," Tharek answered. "On trek, we always hesitate to light fires where they might bring attention from others. There must be villages near a battle ground."
Darm quickly buried the fire. "I have never traveled very far from my village except when I went to Timora on pilgrimage as a youth, but how will we prepare our meals and keep ourselves warm at night if we have no fire?"
"There nop leaves piled deep on the ground beneath the trees. We will not be warm, but we will not freeze if we use them for bedding. We should eat cold food until we leave Janaka."
With a few deft movements, Tharek raked the long narrow leaves into two mounds to serve as beds. "As soon as we have relieved ourselves and eaten, we should cover ourselves with leaves. When the sun goes down it will get much colder."
They returned to the camp site after cleaning the sweat from their bodies with bundles of dried grass. Darm pulled bread berries from the branches he had harvested and Tharek measured out water for each of them. Then the Mareklan took a narrow blue cloth from his pouch and put it over his head. Darm watched while the other man raised his hands and began to pray. He raised his own hands, and silently repeated the words of invocation and gratitude.
Tharek modeled his prayer on the night ritual he had heard his father say a thousand times, but now he altered it to fit his circumstances.
"Through the Gate of Yasa Dom we seek the Radiance.
As children of earth, we seek the blessing of heaven.
As wanderers, we seek guidance on our journey."
Darm glanced up when the silence held and saw Tharek staring upward toward the moon, its pale face like a pearl shell pasted onto the lavender sky of evening. "The moon tonight reminds me of the light globes in the shrines of the Radiance in Timora."
Darm nodded. "We could almost think that the Radiance dwells in the moon when it is so beautiful. It is good that we can read the scrolls in Timora and know the truth. Irilik was wise to insist on the performance of pilgrimage. If I had not read the words of the Laws and the Compact and the Prophecy and History with my own eyes, I could easily be superstitious. In Janaka every village has a shrine where we gather to remember the Radiance."
Tharek folded the prayer scarf and put it away. "My people have no shrines except those in Timora. Irilik set us the task of reminding the other clans to remember the things he had taught. Yet how many think of holiness when they see a Mareklan?"
"When Mareklans appear the women think of baubles, and the men think of gems and feathers to enhance their battle dress," Darm admitted.
Tharek smiled ruefully, "We seem to forget why we have no homeland." He reached for the berries and his cup. "We should retire before the sun sets. I will cover you and then myself."
Darm found it difficult to relax once he had reclined on the bed of nop leaves. Tharek had covered him until only his eyes and nose were left clear. He knew that if he shifted he would lose the upper layer which already eased the cool of the night. It took all his discipline as a warrior to resist scratching at random itches. He felt a cramp in his leg. He was not used to continual travel, but pride had prevented him from asking Tharek to slow the pace.
He had spent long evenings in planning skirmishes against neighboring clans or engaging in battle. To lie utterly still in the twilight with nothing but the branches of nop trees and the moon overhead to hold his interest was one of the most difficult things he had ever done.
Somehow he finally slept but a jarring clash woke him with a start. He glanced toward Tharek and saw that the Mareklan had started from his bed of nop leaves. They both stared toward the battle ground. Two warrior's stood in the middle of the clearing with their swords joined in a clasp of groaning metal. They wore the helms and breastplates of another generation. Long white braids and beards gleamed in the moonlight. One of them was tall and gaunt, the other shorter with shoulders like a bull.
Darm shivered in superstitious awe. He had heard of such warriors, unable to sleep in peace in their graves because of the ingrained urge to battle. Then he saw their breath rising in white clouds over their heads when they gasped and groaned. These men were flesh, not spirit.
At last they jerked their swords free and ponderously lifted them above their heads to begin another attack. Again the bronze swords rang as they met blade to blade, then screeched and bucked with the force of the two old champions.
"The men of your village go forth like women to plow and plant and harvest the fields," the tall warrior growled.
"There are no widows in your village to delve for ore and work the forges. Your men are smiths and miners while their women gossip and spin," the brawny man replied.
The deadly insults inspired greater effort. With only the pale glow of the moon to light the scene, Darm and Tharek could see the veins that stood out on the brows of the old men. Their braided beards grew dark with spittle and beads of sweat gathered and ran in rivulets down their gnarled cheeks. Again and again their swords clashed. More insults poured forth.
"Die, and leave your fields for those who deserve the crops," the taller man screamed as he brought his blade crashing down.
"Die, and release your sons to battle me," the broad man yelled as he parried the other's blow.
They battled on, slowing as the hours passed until the metal of their swords no longer rang. They backed away from one another at last and stood in silence except for the whistling of their tortured breath.
"We will resolve this impasse on another night," the tall man finally gasped. "I must defeat you or see my clan become unmanned."
"I will return in three days," the other man replied. "Beware, there are those of my village who have not lost the will to fight. I will bring them to defeat you."
The tall man gave a hollow wheeze of laughter. "I have seen the striplings you call warriors. I will bring some of my grand-daughters to distract them. They will picnic together while we battle."
"There have been no brides stolen from either of our clans since this began," the broad man mourned. "The walls of our villages crumble and fall without mending."
"I will not lie down in my grave without seeing your funeral fire burning. I will defeat you when we meet again," the tall man screamed.
They turned their backs and retreated from the battle ground. Darm felt tears on his cheeks. The tragic scene frightened and dismayed him. He had heard of the practice of sending champions to represent the village. Inevitably one defeated the other and others would go forth after the penalty of a field or orchard had been paid. But even in the clans that practiced champion battle, all the young men trained and prepared themselves lest someday they were called on to defend the village honor in single combat.
How long had these two old champions fought? It must have taken decades for the results to be as bad as their insults implied. Could it be true that no brides had been taken in the ancient way?
He remembered his courtship of Belria. He had seen her from a distance as she and her sisters carried ore from their family mines. The sway of her hips under the heavy load she carried so gracefully on her head, the delicacy of her profile, and the merry laugh that rang forth when her sister told a joke had caught his attention.
He had begun to spy on her as she walked from field to village. Soon he learned her routine and would be waiting to display himself in all his battle finery for only a moment when she ventured forth to till the crops with the other women. His love grew until it seemed his chest would burst with emotion whenever she appeared.
The other young men of his clan taunted him to plan her abduction, but he did not want a reluctant bride. He began to leave small gifts for her where she would find them when she was alone and he let her catch glimpses of him when she found them. When she smiled and nodded before gathering up the trinkets, he made the next move. Two days later when the sun was high and she would be traveling to the well alone, he stood on a hill wearing his finest feathers and battle tokens.
She squinted up at him and gave a small cry of fright. If she had truly been frightened and wanted to summon help, she would have given a hearty scream that could be heard in the village. He had heard her give such a scream one day when a pack of feral dogs tried to corner her. While she slashed at them, her brothers and cousins had rushed to drive them away with their spears and swords.
The coy little scream she had given when she saw him posturing above her in his finery was a sign he had waited for. That night he gathered his closest friends and stealthily approached her village to abduct her. Of course, she had anticipated his actions and her friends were gathered along with some of the younger warriors to pursue them up the slope with screams and laughs. It had been a merry chase.
Because the match was friendly, the warriors carried wooden courtship swords. There were plenty of bruises as reminders of the mock battle, but no real wounds. He had carried her to the Shrine where his crippled uncle acted as priest and his mother and aunts had heaped flowers around the prayer stone.
Sweet Belria. Supple and merry and naughty. She had eased his loins and borne his children. Her small hands were scarred with the marks of her craft. She had been a promising apprentice smith to his mother. He could see Belria now as he best remembered her, a child slung on one hip, the other trotting by her side as she carried a load of blue-green ore balanced on her head.
He had refused to let such memories into his mind since the fire that had destroyed her and their little children. Now he wept unashamed. There were none here to ridicule his grief. They were not accustomed to widowers in Algire clan. The clan was rich with widows from the valiance of its warriors. If a blow landed that would leave the warrior crippled, he would taunt his opponent to make another, mortal, blow. Such was their high sense of honor.
Perhaps Algire warriors were so zealous in their bravery because their clan ancestor had been a smith, no fit occupation for a man. Only by giving him the title "Wizard Smith" and implying that his craft lay beyond the reach of mere women, could they alleviate the shame.
Darm felt uncomfortable with the ideas that flooded his mind. The memory of the shouted taunts of the two old warriors, his yearning for Belria, his belief that Algire had not used any magic, but only unusual talent and determination and the nearly pure ore of the star stones, combined in his mind. They seemed to coil like vines around his certainties, overcoming and choking them.
If he had been home in his village, such heretical thoughts would have been quickly banished in the raillery of his comrades. Now they would not be laid aside in favor of a joke or a sparring match. They clung and twined and grew. The questions flourished like weeds after rain.
Why should it be that for each man who died, a field must be forfeited? In his memory certain fields had been regularly traded back and forth between the clans as the blood of young warriors spilled out their lives and their funeral fires lit the sky. In the long run, there had been no real gain to his village. Those who bore the star sword did not die in battle, but all around them their brothers and cousins gave their lives.
Not every battle resulted in death, but the harvest of blood remained as certain as the harvest of the terraced fields. The clans spent much of their time grieving. Some men died soon after they entered the lists of the warrior societies, leaving only one child with their widows. Others managed to live for years, leaving large families when they died. But the villages seldom grew beyond the bounds first carved out hundreds of years before.
What would become of the villages of the two old warriors who had met in futile struggle on the battle ground? If they had been in the mountains where Algire clan lived, they would have soon outgrown their crop yields, and carved new terraced fields from the nearby hills, or famine would have reduced their ranks. Here on the border where only the indefinite and undefended boundary between Janaka and Kumnora could restrain the creation of new crop lands, the clans might continue to swell without paying the price of hunger. Perhaps that was why no young warriors wanted to join the battle with the ancient veterans and risk their lives for the sake of glory.
At first Darm rejected the conclusion of his train of thought. Surely there was more to the practice of making every man a warrior as soon has he had fathered a child than mere lack of arable land. It was a glorious thing to die---, but it had not been glorious to wade through the ashes of his home, looking for the dreaded proof that Belria and his children should be mourned.
Darm slept and woke and slept again, his dour musing melding with awful dreams. At last dawn lit the eastern sky, putting an end to the darkness and easing Darm's aching soul. He felt surprisingly warm within the cocoon of leaves, but he was weary in a way that no mere battle could have caused. He heard the rustle when Tharek woke and brushed away his bedding. The Mareklan headed into the forest to make his morning ablutions.
Darm struggled to his feet and walked in the opposite direction. He kept his eyes averted from the battle ground and the memory of the old warriors. New knowledge had burdened him during the night, but he held it at bay, not quite ready to deal with the revelations of his reason.
When Darm returned to the camp, Tharek had scattered the beds of leaves, leaving no sign that they had spent the night at the edge of the battle ground. Tharek's brief prayer broke the silence. They ate more bread berries and drank the last of the water. By the end of the day they would be well beyond the borders of Janaka if nothing interfered with their journey.
At mid-morning they came to a stream. "We will stop here and rest," Tharek said.
"We should fill the water skin, but I see no need to linger."
Tharek shook his head. "Your pride is useless if it means you are crippled. You have tried to hide your limping. You must have boots and we need other supplies. We have come far enough that I can venture safely into a village. Stay here and soak your feet in the stream. Give me your feathers and whatever battle tokens you can spare. Perhaps you could part with your beaded kilt fringe. I see that it is knotted on, not woven into your loincloth."
Darm did not argue. There would be little use for the decorations where they were going. He had no right to wear them now that he had turned his back on Clan Algire.
He put his feet into the stream and began to work at his braids. Unlike the warriors of Clan Terifil, who shaved their faces and heads and wore battle tattoos on their scalps and cheeks instead of their chests, Clan Algire warriors gloried in their hair and beards. They were braided and knotted then decked with feathers from the southern forests along with beads of Orenese shell and Jaman glass. Some battle tokens were made of gems and gold, high rewards for heroic actions, now meaningless when devoid of context.
Tharek stuffed his pack with grass to give evidence of plenty while Darm assembled a small pile of battle tokens. He kept back a moon shell, round and white, glistening with a rainbow shimmer. It had been a gift from Belria on the day she had told him she was pregnant with their first child. He had worn it at the knotted point of his beard, over his heart. Now he threaded it onto one of the thongs that had fastened his braids and tied it around his neck.
Tharek could not guess the cost of the assembled trinkets. Each one stood for a life. Darm had been a feared warrior. It was not the star sword alone that had built his reputation. After the deaths of his wife and family he had become careless of death, and therefore even more deadly.
There was nothing to show that the feathers and beads were trophies of battle. They glistened as innocently as if they were recently brought from the far southern forests where Mareklans traded for gorgeous feathers and the shells of jeweled insects, or the cities of Taleeka and Jama where skilled craftsmen worked rainbows into beads of glass and tin. There were a few precious gems from Mareklan goldsmiths. When warriors died, their battle tokens were buried with them and there was always a fresh market for Mareklan merchants and their exotic goods.
Tharek took his cape and hat and left the swords in concealment near where Darm sat with his feet in the cooling water of the stream. He looked around to get his bearings then headed down a path toward a village marked by rising columns of smoke.
As he approached the village he noticed that the fields and orchards had no walls or dogs guarding them, a sure sign that practices had changed from those prevailing in the rest of Janaka. The village was the largest he had ever seen in Janaka, rivaling the fortress hill-top city where the council sat. The fields north of the houses stretched toward the plains. Dogs barked when he first entered the suburbs of the town, but there was no other challenge to keep him from proceeding to the center of the village and setting up a display of the goods he had garnered from Darm.
Children were to first to respond to his presence. Some of them ran to fetch their parents. As news spread that a Mareklan merchant had appeared, a crowd of curious people gathered. "Where are the other merchants?" a woman called out to him.
"Times change," Tharek said succinctly. It seemed sufficient answer for the eager customers who gathered around and examined the merchandise he displayed. His surmise that beads and feathers would still be valued proved correct. Not only did the young men wear trinkets unearned in battle, but the women wore chains and beads and amulets. Tharek could have sold all of Darm's battle tokens within a few minutes, except that he was not trading for blades and implements of bronze.
There was some surprise when he asked for boots and clothes and other mundane items in exchange for the items he displayed, but soon his customers returned with the required goods. A bag of dried nuka fruit, a filter stone for clearing muddy water, sacks of meal and dried bread berries, and fresh baked matlas stuffed with meat and wrapped in leaves began to fill his pack.
Two sleeping skins and a warm cape of simple pattern were purchased with feathers of yellow and green. At last a woman appeared with buskins that should fit Darm and a man produced a tunic of fine twined Corum wool that rivaled Tharek's own for sturdy utility. These last two items were traded for pierced shells and a braid ring of glazed Taleekan tinware.
With vague hints that he would return, Tharek left the village and headed on a path oblique to his goal. Although he doubted he would be followed, he did not care to lead anyone close enough to the stream that they might see Darm waiting in his distinctive braids and beard
When he felt certain that he had not been followed, Tharek turned southward and approached the stream. A stranger sat near the stream where Tharek had left Darm and he stopped and took cover. What had become of his companion? The man turned and Tharek saw his profile and the tell-tale chest Tattoos of an Algiran warrior. He laughed aloud with relief.
The elaborate construction of braids and knots that had covered Darm's head and chin were gone. His face was as naked as Tharek's own, his cheeks bearing a few nicks in witness of the difficulty of shaving with a sword. He had removed the elaborate braids from his hair and pulled it back into a single plait fastened behind his head with a thong much like the queue that hung down Tharek's back.
"Do you mock me with your laughter?" Darm challenged.
"No. I did not recognize you. I would not have asked you to cut your beard, but it will make it easier to pass among strangers if you are not immediately recognized as a warrior of Algire Clan."
Darm nodded. "I thought as much, but I have new respect for the warriors of Terifil. It is not easy to shave, even with such a sword as Tharek oc Baroka."
Tharek laughed again. "The warriors of Terifil do not shave with swords. Their women are expert barbers. They use blades of obsidian that are sharper than any metal edge. It has a way of ensuring marital fidelity."
Darm smiled. "I can see the folly in putting one's throat in trust to an angry woman with an obsidian blade."
Their jokes hid the seriousness of Darm's sacrifice. Many warriors of Algire clan felt that their very manhood resided in the brave display of braids and knotted beards. By divesting himself of his beard, Darm gave proof that he would not retreat from their pact.
Darm treated his bruised feet with the poultices Tharek had obtained in the village. When he finished with his feet, he pulled the tunic over his head. It hid the tattoos that marked his chest and shoulders and completed the disguise begun when he had bound his hair and shaved his beard. It would be easy for him to pass as a Taleekan if they met any Janakans. Only the swords betrayed his identity.
"Wrap your sword halter and the swords in the cape and carry them," Tharek directed. Darm frowned, he would feel naked without his halter but he quickly carried out Tharek's suggestion.
Tharek lined the buskins he had purchased in the village with tufted Corum wool and gave them to Darm. They were a good fit and Darm found he was able to walk without limping once he tied the half-boots midway up his calves.
They made a meal of matlas filled with roasted meat before setting off again. The day remained clear and warm and most of the afternoon remained to continue their travel. It seemed likely they would be well past the border of Janaka before nightfall.
They gave the village where Tharek had traded a wide berth. Even so, they saw signs of spreading cultivation extending well past the line of hills that marked the border between Kumnora and Janaka. The increasing population, freed from the constraints of clan war, might soon bring about another level of conflict.
Kumnorans did not build villages or permanent camps, but they had fierce territorial instincts when it came to the steppes where they herded their cattle. Even the legions of the Saadenan emperor avoided intruding their roads and forts on the wilds of Kumnora.
The sandy soil and sparse vegetation of the steppes aided the travel of the companions. With his feet in well padded buskins, Darm easily kept up with Tharek's loping pace.
At sunset they stopped and made a full camp with no attempt to hide. They were far enough from the border that they would not be taken for intrusive Janakan farmers. Tharek left Darm to gather fuel and start a fire near a boulder where the heat would be stored and reflected. He mixed meal and water into dough for fresh matlas. The flat bread could be saved and used for several days, but the taste of nuka fruit and fried meat with fresh baked matla justified the effort. After they ate, Tharek and Darm gathered piles of dry vegetation and spread their sleeping skins.
The wind blew steadily, bringing the breath of northern glaciers to chill the night but Darm and Tharek were warm beneath their spread cloaks. They slept soundly with nothing to disturb them.
When they woke in the morning Darm savored the freedom to make a fire to heat water for making cala. They used the hot drink to to wash down matlas left over from their supper. Tharek offered to carry Darm's bed roll in his capacious pack, but the Janakan demurred. "You already carry most of our baggage."
"But you carry both of the swords," Tharek countered. "That great battle sword you wanted to use to take my head easily outweighs the supplies I purchased with your battle tokens."
They walked through the morning with no change in the monotonous landscape of grease brush, dry grass and needle bush, but the deceptively flat land concealed steep sided ravines, the result of erosion by small streams that ran in zigzagging paths toward the south. When they encountered a larger crevice that blocked their way, Tharek stopped and studied the landscape. "The wind is high. It might be better to climb down and follow this canyon for a while."
Darm agreed. "My nape itches from wariness up here in the open. The canyon will protect us from being detected by the natives."
Tharek shook his head. "It would be best for us if we encountered Kumnorans early in our trek. They could tell us the location of water holes and other resources. As long as we don't attempt a permanent settlement, they will welcome us."
Their concern over finding water was solved when they descended to the bottom of the ravine and found a narrow stream. Tharek knelt and tasted the water and was happy to empty the last of the warm, stale water from his water skin and refill it with fresh water from the stream.
Both men drank their fill and ate the remaining matlas before continuing their journey. Darm checked the direction they were traveling against the way the homing needle pointed and was satisfied with their route.
After hours of traveling along the crooked course of the stream, Darm suggested they should stop to eat. Tharek nodded after looking upward and seeing that the sun was hidden by the edge of the ravine.
After eating and resting they walked until stars began to appear in the darkening sky above them. Tharek located a flat, sandy area not far from the stream and they laid out their sleeping skins. After listening to Tharek perform the Evening Ritual, Darm rolled himself into the warm cloak and waited for sleep.
"Perhaps tomorrow we will find the star stone I'm looking for," Darm murmured before he closed his eyes to sleep. Tharek grunted an indefinite answer but he hoped the hunt would end before winter set in. They were ill prepared to face the blizzards that swept across the steppes at the close of the year. Their only real prospect of surviving a Kumnoran winter lay in finding a camp of natives willing to offer hospitality. Their outcast status could turn out to be an asset in gaining acceptance with Kumnorans as long as their stories were believed.
Chapter 3 Brasswood
They woke early to the shrill sound of a berry bird and Darm located the bush where the little fellow had his perch. There were still enough berries on the branches to make an adequate breakfast without disturbing the tiny nest.
The canyon became more twisted as they traveled. At mid-morning Tharek dropped his pack and looked around to assess their position. He saw something in the shadows of an overhanging ledge and turned to examine it more closely. "A brass-wood tree! I have never any but on the upper slopes of Mount Vald. I can make a staff for you to ease your travel and a sheath to hide the star sword."
He leaped over the shallow stream and ran toward a bushy growth on the further shore. Although it reached high above the surrounding vegetation, the stocky trunk could hardly be seen for the branches that clustered close to the soil. Fallen branches littered the ground beneath.
Tharek paid no attention to the tree itself, but searched among the fallen branches, lifting one, then another to compare it to his staff. At last he seemed satisfied and set aside one of the branches and began to search again.
Darm wandered over to watch. "What are you looking for?"
"I want to find a branch that is wide enough to act as a rack for your sword and narrow enough to provide a walking stick."
"A walking stick! I am not an old man in need of a cane."
Tharek laughed. "Neither am I an old man. But I would no more go on trek without a staff than I would go naked. We can rack your sword in such a way that you can use the staff as a support when we climb, or even as a weapon. We will save our strength and hasten the end of our journey."
Darm settled down on a sun-warmed stone and watched Tharek work. He did not quite understand how the Mareklan planned to accomplish his aim, but it felt good to take a rest he had not asked for. "Why are you using the dead branches instead of cutting fresh ones from the tree?"
Tharek used an obsidian blade to shape one of the branches he had chosen. His answer was choppy and dis-jointed, according to the work he was doing. "Green Brasswood is filled with sticky, acrid sap. Even if I could cut fresh branches, they would not do as well as these that have fallen from the tree and dried."
Darm grew restless as time passed with little apparent progress on the staffs. "It will take you all day to cut and shape that wood. I had no idea that brasswood was so hard."
"I have seen bronze swords break against a well wielded brasswood staff," Tharek answered. "It would draw too much attention if I carried two staffs, so I am going to conceal the star sword inside a staff. The hilt will be the upper third."
"I would help, but I have no idea of what you need," Darm said.
"Since I will probably be working on these branches for some time, you could try your hand at finding some fresh meat. There are fish in the stream and small animals in the long grass. Do you know how to make a snare?"
"Of course! You must think Janakan warriors a useless lot if you doubt that I could hunt small game," Darm said. "I should have thought of it myself," he muttered low enough that Tharek couldn't hear him.
Darm found a small bread-berry bush and used the fruit as bait to snare some pakas. The rodents were chubby with fat stored against their long winter hibernation. He skinned and gutted several and stuffed their cavities with a mixture of water herbs from the stream. After stringing them on several spits, he set them to roast over a fire made from dried grass and splinters of brasswood.
Tharek stood up and stretched. "I can't continue working with that smell to tempt me." He carried his tools and the branches of brasswood to the fireside.
Darm waited until Tharek pronounced a blessing and put away his priestly scarf. He was curious about the words the Mareklan used. Irilik, the First Prophet, had appointed each of his disciples as the high priest over his own family, but for his own descendants he had set the task of priesthood over all Okishdu.
A Janakan priest was responsible for teaching young people to read and write and figure, but no warrior admitted to retaining such things once he had fathered a child. His wife kept the accounts and family records. Darm would have given anything to be able to read his mother's journal. Malinkra kept an account of forging methods and ore mixtures that she would pass on to her daughters-in-law.
"Do you keep a journal?" he asked Tharek when the Mareklan had folded his prayer scarf and put it away. The question took Tharek by surprise.
"Perhaps I should begin to keep one. My father kept the records for our family. I guess I have been guilty of treating our expedition as nothing more than a jaunt. I know I cannot return to my family until I somehow lose the star sword, but it is difficult to comprehend that I might never return again."
"Then will you begin to keep a journal?" Darm persisted.
Tharek touched the pouch that hung near his throat and seemed to consider the idea, then he nodded. "I could relay the location of this brasswood tree to my people if I make a proper record."
"Surely there many trees like this," Darm said.
Tharek shook his head. "The only other brasswood trees I've seen grow in groves high on the shoulders of Mount Vald, the tallest mountain in Okishdu. Suitable branches are rare and valuable. Men have risked their lives to harvest brasswood."
The fire flared up as fat dripped from the roasting meat, reminding them of the reason they were sitting by the fire. Each of them took one of the roasted pakas and began to eat. With a nod and a smile as he reached for another helping, Tharek acknowledged his appreciation of the tasty meal.
When they finished eating Tharek looked for materials for a journal. He had hoped that the pale gray bark he had stripped from the staffs he was preparing would make a suitable temporary substitute for scroll cloth but the fragile bark flaked easily. He vowed to obtain a suitable supply of scroll cloth as soon as they found a settlement. Meanwhile he used the margins of a small scroll of scripture passages he kept in one of his belt pouches.
The last light of the sun disappeared, but Tharek still wanted to work on the staffs. Without thinking, he reached into the pouch at his throat and withdrew the tiny stone that his grandfather had given him as his birthright. A bright light came from the stone, filling the narrow ravine with a glow like the noonday sun. Darm leaped to his feet with a shout of superstitious awe.
"There is nothing to fear. It is the Stone of Truth that Irilik received in Kishdu," Tharek said.
"How did you come by the Stone of Truth?" Darm's voice grew husky with wonder.
"It is part of my heritage," Tharek said. "I am the direct descendant of the seventh son of Irilik."
"But you were cast out of your clan!"
"I may have been cast out of Marekla clan, but it was not for any crime that would put my worthiness in question. I am still of the priestly lineage, and if I survive our adventures, I might yet become a high priest in Timora."
Darm prostrated himself before Tharek, who reached out and brusquely jerked him to his feet.
"I am nothing more than what you already know of me, and even if I do become High Priest before I die, no man should bow like that to any but the Radiance."
Darm nodded and settled to his haunches. Tharek grinned. "I am reassured to know you can see the Stone of Truth. It means your vows to me were truly sworn."
"You doubted me?"
"Did you never doubt me?"
Darm lifted one side of his mouth in a wry smile. "I doubted, but I doubt no longer. If your father could end your relationship to the clan, and yet leave you with such a token, anyone should trust you."
They spoke no more about the brilliant light that emanated from the small stone Tharek had set on a branch where it would light his work. Darm went about the tasks of preparing foodstuffs for their trek. Soon he forgot that the clear white light that flooded the narrow ravine was anything unusual.
He was humble enough to have doubted his worthiness. It was reassuring to know he had passed the test set by the Radiance when he had given the stone to Irilik. With few exceptions, only the righteous had gathered to the Light and been saved from the Algunagada, the god-king.
He knew the story as well as any who had visited the sacred city of Timora and studied the scrolls housed in the great library.
His ancestor, Janak, had been among the first to join the Gathering. Janak had known Irilik when he was nothing more than an astronomer to Saaden, the greatest general in Kishdu.
Somehow, seeing the light of the fabled Stone of Truth brought Darm closer to those ancients who had been led to the new land and had spread across the face of Okishdu. Did Tharek look like his ancestor? Irilik had been known as a scholar and teacher. The statues in Timora had been made after his death and depicted a tall, gaunt man with a blade-like nose, deep eyes and a shock of hair that hardly receded from his broad brow in old age.
Darm squinted at Tharek who was still bent over the brasswood branches, deftly wielding tools of obsidian and bronze to transform the raw wood into hollowed staffs. Tharek's eyes were shadowed, emphasizing the bones of his face. A shiver of recognition ran up Darm's spine. Tharek was indeed a true Son of Irilik.
Tharek glanced up with a grin and the resemblance shattered. Had Irilik ever grinned with a broad white swathe of shining teeth? Or had he always been the sober, holy man the statues depicted.
"Have I grown a second head while I was working," Tharek said. "I can think of no other reason for you to stare at me like that."
"You bear an uncanny resemblance to the statues of Irilik I saw when I visited Timora years ago."
"I wonder that you did not notice it before," Tharek said. "It seems to increase as I grow older. Many of my clan look like Kumnorans. Tarsha, the wife of Irilik was Kumnor's sister."
"It may be the light in which I view you now that reminds me of the First Prophet," Darm said. "It is not like ordinary light. It seems to bring out the essence of the things it touches."
Tharek studied him and nodded. "I see what you mean. You no longer appear so much like a warrior to my eyes. I see in you a smith, a craftsman like your own honored ancestor. Have you never thought it curious that Janakans ignore the real nature of their first father in Okishdu? The scroll of history tells us that he was not a soldier like Saaden, but supervised the digging of mines under walls, the smelting of ore and the making of siege machines in the war against Renon. He chose the mountains as his clan land because he recognized the value of the ore."
Darm smiled in wry acknowledgment. "If you had told me such things a few days ago, before you won the sword of the Wizard Smith, I would have been obliged to challenge you for the insult. In spite of what can be read in the Scroll of History, Janakan's prefer to remember only that Janak was one of Saaden's officers in the war against Renon."
Tharek yawned and stretched, then peered up at the moon. "I always work too late when I use the Stone of Truth as a source of light. We should get some rest now but I'm not quite finished with the staffs. Would you mind if we stay in this camp for another day?"
Darm shook his head. "As long as the pakas keep coming for bread-berries, I'm in no hurry, but we will be sorry if winter catches us on the open steppe."
Tharek put aside his work and prepared his sleeping skin. "I should finish the staffs in a few more hours. We might be able to break camp before noon."
Darm woke to find Tharek already at work. A comfortable silence held between them as they went about their various tasks. The pakas continued to let themselves be lured into Darm's snares and by the time the sun stood high above them and Tharek was close to finishing his work, a number of them were roasting over one campfire and a dozen more were spread on a smoking rack over a damped camp fire made with plenty of green leaves to produce the aromatic smoke.
Wild game was scarce in Janaka where most of the meat was salted corom jerky made into the barbeque preferred by everyone. The succulent roasted pakas were a rare treat for both men. Soon the rodents would seek their burrows for the coming winter. Darm and Tharek ate more than was comfortable for either of them, conscious that it could be days before they would have their fill to eat again.
Darm lounged until his stomach settled and watched Tharek finish his work on the staffs. He had split one of the staffs and carved out the insides. He then rejoined the two pieces, using sap from scores he had made on the bark of the living brasswood tree. He bound the pieces with a long strap of leather.
"Hand me the wizard smith sword," Tharek told Darm.
Darm handed the sword across the quenched fire pit. Tharek examined the hilt, a work of bronze that later smiths had added to Algire's perfect blade.
"This hilt is cracked. It could fail anytime," Tharek murmured as he worked to loosen it. He picked up a stone and hit the hilt. It produced a dull sound that betrayed the existence of the fault. With a few more strikes of the stone the faulty hilt split and fell away. Tharek began to work the short end of the brasswood staff to receive the tang of the blade.
Darm studied Tharek's methods as he built a small, hot fire and began to melt a silvery metal and some curls of copper in a little bronze retort. "You didn't tell me you are a smith."
"I'm more of a tinker," Tharek explained. "Many Mareklans are fine gold-smiths, but we never aspire to work the metals that Janakan widow smiths use. Janakan bronze is unequaled by anyone. Jaman brass is brittle, but a good enough counterfeit for gold for those who want a transitory show. Taleekan tin and lead reach the apex for those forms of metal work, but nothing will hold against good bronze except this magic metal Algire found. I have heard something of the tale. Could you tell me more?"
Darm nodded. "The story of Algire is ingrained in the children of Algire clan by the elders. I could tell it to you piecemeal, but that would be easier to give the story as I heard it from my earliest years."
He settled himself and remained silent for a moment while he recalled the tale that every child in Algire village knew by heart, keeping a cadence to mark the verses with his fingers on his thigh.
"The stone that fell from heaven and killed all the warriors of three clans who had gathered to battle in the valley of Sheal was fire as it spun across the sky, but metal when it touched the ground. Algire was an initiate when the star fell, still under the rule of the matriarch of his tribe and not allowed to take part in battle. Until he married and fathered a child, he could not go on pilgrimage to the sacred city of Timora and receive the rites of Renewal. Only then, having given his seed to the clan and his soul to the Radiance, could he risk his body in warfare.
Algire ventured alone into the valley of Sheal and buried his brother. He returned his brother's bronze sword to the clan house. Then he returned to the place of the massacre.
No other dared to venture beyond the lip of the crater that cradled the fallen star. It glowed with a sullen red fire.
Algire's mother was the greatest of the widow smiths. Without a daughter to aid her in her forge, she had relied often on her younger son. He had learned the secrets of smelting and casting that gave him an insight into the glowing star that no other Janakan man had gained. He scraped the cooled surface of the rough shape and found a gleam of silvery blue beneath the brown crust that covered it.
There was no father to criticize, no brother to harangue him for doing women's work. Algire was left alone in the valley of Sheal to study and work with the fallen star. Those who saw him thought him merely mad. Even his mother had not guessed the ambition that drove him. Food and drink was left as for all those whose minds had been burned away by some horror that left only a needy body. The nights were lit by the fire of his forge, fed by the wood he scavenged when he was not busy with his hammer and bellows.
None knew for sure how long he labored, or how many failed attempts he had buried in the ground before he found success, but at last he brought the fruits of his labors to the fortress city of Janaka in the heart of the mountains. There the council of ancient warriors, those not lucky enough to lose their lives in battle, set rules for the contests that raged among the fraternal clans.
There Algire, his shoulders swollen to immense proportions by the labors of his smithing, his beard grown grey with ash and age, displayed the prizes he had wrought. He had made six of the star swords. Their shapes seeming fragile and unbalanced next to the curved, bronze battle swords that were prized by the warriors of Janaka.
He called for a challenge and none would accept at first. Finally Swilin, the head of the council, a man not fit for battle because of a missing arm, stepped forward. "I will test your new metal with this blade made by your own mother." One must humor those whose minds were lightly tethered lest their ghosts return to take revenge in death.
Algire was awkward. His solitary labors had left no time for practicing the art of swordplay. He lurched and swayed, barely evading the cuts and thrusts of Swilin's sword. Then he seemed to realize that it was not necessary to wound the old warrior, it would be enough to disarm him.
The council watched in pity at first, but their eyes lit with fear when Algire showed what one of his narrow swords could do. He lifted it to parry Swilin's blow and a strange new sound echoed through the council hall. A sharp ringing, then the scream of tortured bronze. When the swords dropped apart, Algire's sword gleamed with the same eerie perfection as before, but Swilin's heavy sword bore a deep notch, ruining the edge of the blade. Swilin called a halt to the contest by lowering his sword. "What do you ask for your swords?" he pleaded. He could have claimed that his handicap had given Algire the victory, but he would not wear such shame.
"My clan, and the other clans who lost their warriors to the star stone, have been driven away from their fields and forges," Algire declared. "Greed has fed on the tragedy of valiant men. Be warned. My swords will go to the striplings of these clans and they shall reclaim their lost lands."
Darm fell silent and Tharek realized that the story had ended. "How did Algire found a clan if he was old by the time the swords were finished?" he asked.
Darm stared at him for a moment as if waking from a trance. Then he recalled some of the phrases he had repeated from rote memory.
"He was only a boy when he began his labors, and he was about my age when he finished. He journeyed to Timora after distributing the other swords and keeping one for himself. He found a maiden to marry when he returned from the sacred city. Before he died, Algire had five sons."
"A large family for a man of Janaka," Tharek said. "He must have been a fine warrior."
"Little is said about his qualities as a warrior, but he died an old man and passed the sword along to his oldest son. The tradition has carried on in our clan. My father was not marked by wounds when he finally decided I was worthy to carry his sword. It is a rare thing to be an old man among Janakans."
"But your mother was the one who cast you out when I took your sword," Tharek said.
"My mother has the ruling of the clan," Darm said. "My father resides in Janaka, the only member of the warrior's council who chose that destiny for himself. Although my mother never became a widow, she holds that title as a result of her status as a smith. I doubt that any of my brothers will survive to join my father in the council now that you have taken the sword."
"Why did he make the swords straight rather than curved?" Tharek asked him.
Darm squinted his eyes in thought. Then he shook his head. "Who can know the minds of the ancients. The other clans claim that Algire was a mad man, but in truth, the straight sword has advantages over the traditional curved design when you take into account the qualities of the star metal. Bronze swords are cast, not wrought, but I will learn all this myself when I have found the star stone Withna-word."
While they talked, Tharek finished his work with the sword staff. He set it aside and turned to the other staff that he had smoothed and formed. He bored holes near the bottom of the staff and two thirds of the way up the length. He inserted wires of the same silvery metal through the holes and coiled and twisted them artfully until they formed a support that kept Darm's sword in place, but left it easily available in case of need.
"I would feel more comfortable carrying my sword across my back as I am accustomed," Darm said when Irilik demonstrated the device.
"You have gone to some trouble to disguise yourself. It will be in vain if anyone sees your silhouette with that great sword sticking up over your head. Practice removing the sword from the rack."
Darm found that the clasps Tharek had designed held the sword in place like springs, easily releasing the sword into his hand with a twist of his wrist, but keeping it secure against the staff otherwise. He walked around for a little while, using the staff as Tharek did, then quickly releasing the sword into his hand. Finally he nodded. "I feel naked without a sword harness on my back, but this arrangement has some merit."
He demonstrated his meaning by twisting the sword from the staff and then throwing the staff aside with a gesture that sent it clattering into a stump. Meanwhile, he wielded the sword in his accustomed two-fisted grip, chopping the top branches from a bush.
Tharek gave a bark of appreciative laughter for the tactic. "I see you no longer deprecate the effectiveness of the staff as a weapon."
"I would be a fool to underestimate the worth of a well wielded staff," Darm said. "I now realize that it was no mere accident that I lost the sword to you." He glanced upward and saw that the sun had not yet been hidden by the steep sides of the ravine. Tharek had cleared the few evidences of their stay. It was time to move on.
The floor of the ravine rose gradually but steadily until near nightfall when they walked with their heads on a level with the surrounding steppe. The reason for the rising elevation was evident directly to the north where a long, bald dome of rock spread for miles to either side. Other than the scant gray-green of grease bush along the lines scoured by eons of runoff water, there were no signs of life on the rocky face.
"We will have to go around the mountain, or go back," Darm said.
"I know of this place," Tharek said. "The dome of rock is not as deep as it is long. To go around will take many days, but from what I have heard, it can be crossed in a day or so. We are both well fed and my full water skin can sustain us for a couple of days. The greatest danger we will face if we climb over the dome would be a thunderstorm while we are exposed with no cover. I leave the choice to you."
Darm peered into the distance on either side. He took out his guiding needle. It pointed directly toward the dome. Finally he nodded. "We will begin toward the dome and start our climb as soon as you fill your water skin."
It took most of the remaining afternoon to reach the base of the mountain. After stopping briefly to eat and refresh themselves, they started up the face of the dome, finding their way through the maze of narrow crevices that marked the steep surface. At length, Darm felt exhaustion steal the strength from his legs and he looked around for a place to rest, but there was no relief in the slope. He looked up and saw Tharek well ahead of him and he struggled doggedly upward, grateful for the staff on which he leaned.
Moon-rise found them still struggling up an angle that challenged Darm's strength. There was still no place to rest as the stars slowly wheeled above their heads. Darm felt the chill of the wind on his back and shivered, but he would not complain. Tharek had given him the choice of routes.
At last there seemed to be some moderation in the angle of their climb. As the first faint light of dawn glowed along the eastern sky, they were able to walk erect and the curve of the dome began to level. Darm stopped and lowered his staff. He arched his back, rubbing the muscles that the long night of climbing had stiffened. "I think it would be well if we rested here for several hours," he said.
Tharek pointed to the western horizon where the growing light revealed a line of thunder-heads. Darm saw faint threads of lightning dancing through the blue-grey billows, lovely at a distance, but filled with a dire promise of terror if the storm drew closer. He shivered at the memory of the lightning charred body of a friend who had ignored the danger of a storm. The direction of the wind had veered due east.
Darm grimaced and nodded, accepting the necessity of continuing until they could find a refuge from the storm. At best, they would have several hours before the storm came near enough to threaten them.
While Darm leaned over to pick up his staff, Tharek draped his prayer shawl over his head and raised his arms in the posture of prayer. Once Darm was upright with the staff in his hand, Tharek began to pray.
"Through the gate of Yasa Dom, we come to plead for safety from the storm. Turn the wind that we may find rest and safety."
It was simple and direct and Darm could think of nothing to add to Tharek's pleading. They set out with no further delay. Darm fought to ignore the rising wind and the ominous rumbling that increased in volume as the scent of rain on stone grew stronger.
The broad, bald summit spread in front of them and Darm searched in vain for any sign of shelter. Soon thunder-heads loomed overhead. Forked lightning danced across the sky, followed immediately by crashing thunder. A mist of windblown moisture filled the air and made the stone under their feet slippery.
"We must lay down flat," Darm pleaded. "I have seen a friend die when he ignored the warnings and stood on the ridge in a storm. There is no cowardice in bending to the fury of a force of nature."
"The wind will turn," Tharek said calmly. "If it does not, and I am stricken, then it will be the proof that I am unworthy to wear the Stone of Truth."
"This is madness," Darm cried. "It is too late for the storm to pass us by."
As if to confirm his words, a ball of fire danced around them. It exploded with a brilliance and noise that left Darm dazzled and deaf. He stumbled onward blindly, knowing that Tharek continued even in the face of such a warning.
When he could see again, Tharek walked several paces in front of him, continuing on a track that led toward the blackened rock of the lightning strike. Darm shook his head and swallowed a curse as he remembered that the man in front of him used the Stone of Truth as casually as most men use a lamp.
Rain pelted on every side, lightening flashed around them in a cage of wiry light. Thunder roared and crashed continuously, but immediately around and in front of Darm and Tharek, the mist of moisture continued, gently luminous against the surrounding fury, as if a hand of air and light cupped over them and cleared the way before them.
The storm passed toward the east, trailing rain like misty drapery behind. When the danger of lightning was well past, one of the drapes of rain trailed over them, the fat drops doused them with a reminder of what they had escaped.
Darm laughed with joyous relief as he took off his sodden cloak and wrung it in his hands. "You said the wind would turn!"
"I asked for the wind to turn, it seemed the simple answer to our plight. Instead, a greater gift was given. Do you doubt that we have the favor of the Radiance?"
Darm shook his head. Tharek smiled and turned to wring water from his own wet clothing.
The stone of the summit began to steam as the sun came out and baked the rain away. Darm felt the heat like a balm after the chill and terror of the storm. "It is time to rest," he said.
Tharek did not counter the decision. He settled beside Darm who had dropped prone on the warming surface of the stone and hugged it. Darm turned onto his back and reveled in the bright blue of the sky overhead. He had survived many battles without this soaring sense of having evaded certain death.
After making sure the blade of the star sword was still covered with the light film of oil that protected it from corrosion, Tharek shared out meager shares of the bread-berries, smoked paka and water that would be their rations until they left the rocky dome. With their rolled cloaks for pillows, they fell asleep beneath the sun, careless of the stony surface beneath their outspread limbs.
Darm woke first. He stood and stretched and felt a rumble in his empty belly. The sun stood overhead and he was accustomed to a meal at this time of day. He would not ask Tharek for any more to eat or drink. He knew too well that they had at least half their journey over the mountain ahead of them.
He nudged Tharek with his toe and was gratified to see that the other man was slow to wake. It made him seem less formidable. The experience of the morning had been unsettling. Darm was accustomed to being first among his peers. Tharek's calm in the face of nature's rage had been daunting.
"We have far to go, and I think it would be better to use daylight while we can," Darm said.
Tharek nodded. "I should fix the Stone of Truth to the top of my staff as Irilik did at night fall. Then we could travel without caring for the light of the sun."
Darm looked at the long staff that gave no sign of its true function as a scabbard for the star sword. "Do you think the Radiance would favor having such a token displayed on top of a weapon? It seems to me you treat the Stone of Truth too lightly."
Tharek frowned. "There are many who would have it locked away in the Shrine in Timora where it would be used for nothing but an object of veneration. It was created as a tool, to light the way and call people to the Gathering. Irilik could have given it into the keeping of the Shrine. Instead, he chose to pass it on to his seventh son, along with the birthright of becoming High Priest in Timora. My grandfather waited until my mother was past bearing any other children, then he gave me the stone when I proved that I could see and work in its light. Think of the star swords that corroded into piles of useless rust because their owners treated them with the veneration common to a warrior's weapons. This sword I won from you is still bright and keen because it continued in use."
"It is not the same!" Darm insisted. "The star swords were wrought by the hand of a mortal man, whatever the source of their metal. The Stone of Truth was wrought by the hand of the Radiance. You should not risk offending Heaven by fixing it to the top of an implement of death."
Tharek stood for a moment with his jaw thrust out in a stubborn expression, then he shrugged and finally smiled. "I will heed your caution. There is a reason that my people never carried other methods of defending themselves and came to rely on their staffs. I will hide the stone until we truly need its light."
Satisfied, Darm lifted his own staff and prepared to start out on the next leg of their journey. He led the way now that the threat of the storm had passed. The lea side of the mountain presented a gradual slope. They did not pause except to take their bearings with the needle that pointed Withna-ward. Even when the sun had fallen beneath the western horizon, outlining the distant peaks of his homeland, Darm urged Tharek to continue.
"We will grow weaker as we go on without food or water. It is better to take advantage of our strength while we can."
"Have you never fasted before?" Tharek asked.
"Only on the eve of my Renewal Washing," Darm admitted. "I get weak and giddy when I go too long without food and drink."
"Then you must take my portion," Tharek said. "I make a practice of fasting and can easily go for a day or more without much ill effect. I cannot go without rest. Tonight you should eat and drink, then we will sleep until moon-rise."
Darm reluctantly agreed. At home in the ravines and ridges where his clan defended their lands, he would not be hindered by the dark, but this was unfamiliar ground. He could not ask Tharek to use the Stone of Truth to light their path after his earlier argument against using it as a mere convenience.
Tharek performed the evening ritual, then doled out half of the remaining bread-berries and water to Darm. He stood and walked away, leaving Darm to eat and drink without the burden of his presence. The thoughtful gesture reminded Darm that he had set up the situation because of his own limitation. When he finished eating, Darm took out the star needle and took one last reading. Tharek returned and they spread their sleeping skins and draped their capes over themselves for warmth. Sleep came quickly after the long, hard exercise of the previous night and day.
Tharek woke with his hackles raising and the sense of deadly danger. The moon had newly risen, its pale gold disk hovering like a vast nuka fruit on the edge of the earth, lighting the wide rocky slope with a soft silver glow.
Chapter 4 Wirra
The sterile stone stretched empty as far as Tharek could see, then the eerie cry of an outraged wirra tore the air. Without thinking, Tharek reached for the pouch at his neck and found the pebble shape of the Stone of Truth. Its light sprang forth as soon as he worked it free from the folds of leather.
Darm lurched up and stared around. "What is it?"
"Take up your sword and keep your staff at the ready," Tharek warned. "There's an angry wirra nearby. Have you ever seen one?"
"I've seen their cured skins and some of the Kumnoran teamsters wore ruffs of what they claimed were wirra manes. Are they as fierce as the Kumnorans claim?"
"I would sooner face a troop of Saadenan legionnaires than confront an angry wirra. I have seen full sized corums gutted by their teeth and claws. Only Kumnoran initiates would be foolhardy enough to track them for their skins."
"It will see us! Hide the light."
"Wirras hunt by night. They avoid light, whatever the source," Tharek held up the Stone of Truth to light the area around them. This is the best way I know to keep us safe."
Another sound interrupted the cries of a wirra. It was the sound of urgent human shouts. They came from the north and down the slope of the mountain. Tharek ran toward the voice, heedless of his danger in approaching nearer the wirra.
Although a skeptical voice in his mind questioned the impulsive response of his heart, Darm did not hesitate to follow. He tossed aside the staff and held his sword ready, plunging after Tharek down the stony slope.
Tharek had also armed himself with something sharper than a staff. The blade of the star sword glittered in the pure white light of the Stone of Truth he held before him to light the way and ward off the wirra. The two men slid and hopped down the slope, wildly fighting to keep their balance as they hurried to the rescue of the man who had called out when the stone flared into life.
The wirra was a huge male, his white mane narrowing down across his grey-blue shoulders and forming a tufted line that met the bush at the end of his tail. He paced around the base of a cluster of tall stones, stopping now and then to nuzzle at the body of his dead mate. He gave another paralyzing scream before leaping up to rake against the rock with palm length claws. A man clung to the top of the tallest rock. He swung a long knife whenever the wirra leaped close.
The huge cat dropped to all four feet and whirled toward Tharek and Darm as their scent was carried to him on the wind. He challenged them with another angry scream before bounding across the rocks toward them. Darm smelled the acrid odor of the combatant male and felt his limbs go slack.
This was something he had heard about, but had doubted until now. Tharek seemed less affected by the musk. He set himself between the wirra and Darm, slashing upward with the star sword as the beast leaped high to pounce on him. The blade opened a gash from the breast bone of the wirra to its lower jaw.
It ignored the deadly wound, knocking Tharek aside and trailing gore as it continued toward Darm. He forced his sword arm up, overcoming the strange paralysis that affected his muscles. His sword impaled the cat as it leaped onto him. Man and wirra tumbled head over tail down the incline of the mountain.
Darm felt the huge paws of the beast close around him, but the claws did not extend. The sticky warmth of the death wound drenched him. He wrenched his head aside from the wirra's final spasm and gasped for breath as Tharek ran to help him heave the heavy wirra off his chest and legs.
"I feared he killed you!" Tharek gasped when Darm stood and began to discard his bloodied clothing, revealing that he had suffered nothing more than a few cuts and bruises from his tumble.
"He would have if you had not killed him first," Darm said when he gained his breath. "I think he was dead when he reached me but didn't accept it yet."
"He will make a fine pelt," another voice announced in the guttural accents of Kumnora. "I think you will want this." The youth they had rescued handed the Stone of Truth to Tharek who had dropped it in his haste to save Darm.
"A pelt!" Darm gasped. "You risked your life for nothing more than a pelt?"
"I must earn my passage to Timora," the youth explained. "Ferna will not accept a man who has not bathed in the holy lake. Otherwise I would be content to make use of the water the teamsters bring."
"You may have both pelts if it will earn you the bride you want," Darm said. "I speak only for myself. Tharek may have a different idea of what should be done with the wirra hide."
The youth turned to Tharek and bowed. "I welcome the Son of Irilik and gladly offer my wirra pelt for the honor of touching the holy stone. I am Fozli, of Ba Ronig camp."
"I am Tharek, this is Darm. We both are outcasts."
"If you have no clan, my people will adopt you. Even Ferna would be impressed by one who carries the Stone of Truth."
Tharek smiled. The offer of adoption was no small thing and he did not mistake the sincerity of the offer. Kumnorans kept the bond of any adult member of their clan. Fozli's invitation would be honored by all his tribe.
He glanced at Darm and saw him staring at the needle he had taken from his pouch. It still pointed Withna-ward. The Janakan would go on with his search for the star stone. They had been together for only a few days, but a bond had developed between them.
"We are bound Withna-ward to find a star stone," Tharek explained. "Darm believes that he can be a great smith if he finds the magic metal that will make swords such as this." He held the star sword aloft and Fozli gaped at its silvery-blue shimmer.
"It is the sword of the Wizard Smith, Algire oc Baroka" he murmured in amazement. "Who are you to carry both the Stone of Truth and the sword of the Wizard Smith?"
"I am nothing more than a fool who took on the burden of a sword that I should not have touched. I must go on Withna-ward with my friend. Take both of the wirra pelts to your camp and buy your bride."
Fozli shook his head. "I can claim only the pelt of the wirra I killed. This larger pelt belongs to whichever of you chooses to claim it. I'm not certain which sword dealt the blow that ended its life, but it would be a pity to ruin such a prize by dividing it between you. You could make your fortune in Jama with such a pelt, even if you do not choose to wear it as a mark of valor."
"Tharek killed it. I was still in the grip of its musk," Darm said. "It was only after it had begun to die that I shook myself free of the fear."
"It was not fear that froze your limbs," Fozli said. "Sometimes it is the bravest of men who cannot raise their hands against a charging wirra. That is why I was up on the rocks. I had killed the female. Then I began to skin her without looking for a mate, ignoring the advice of my father who warned me that wirras always hunt in pairs. I climbed the stones to find a purchase for my bolika so that I could pull the skin off. Otherwise, the male would have taken me with ease."
He held up the sturdy line with a loop at one end and mimicked his actions, grimacing with fear and rolling his eyes wildly in mock terror. Tharek and Darm laughed, but the youth had truly been in danger, even if he made light of his fear now that he was safe.
"I know nothing of how to properly take the skin off a wirra," Tharek said. "I will need your assistance if I am to keep this skin."
Fozli was quick to demonstrate. His skinning knife was already out and he began to make deft cuts to release the pelt. Tharek watched him for a few minutes, then walked over to the other wirra.
It was smaller and the ruff did not extend down the spine as did the male's. Most of Fozli's spare bolika had been reduced to shreds by the claws of the male wirra, but the looped portion that he had attached to the pelt was still intact. Tharek had some experience with skinning smaller animals and he finished the job that Fozli had begun.
Fozli gave a crow of delight when he looked up from his own labors and saw Tharek approaching with the pelt. "If you will help me bury the carcasses, our work here will be done," he said.
Darm made a disgruntled noise in his throat but he helped to carry stones and pile them over the bodies. He had never felt any qualm killing and skinning the small game that he had eaten on the trail, but these magnificent beasts seemed somehow different. There had been no choice but to kill the male when he attacked them, but it seemed a waste to hunt them for nothing more than their pelts.
The thought surprised him. To die in battle had always seemed the pinnacle of honor when he lived as a warrior. If that were so, the male wirra had been given the best of deaths. Somehow the thought did not satisfy his reservations.
He had been forced to face a lot of unpalatable truths about himself lately. The loss of the star sword had forced him to see that it was not his skill alone that had kept him from defeat by others, it was an unfair advantage bestowed by the sword. The childhood dream of becoming a smith had been closer to the surface of his thoughts than he would have admitted before it became a possibility. Now he found that he harbored sympathies for animals that the warriors he had called his friends would have mocked.
"Come to Ba Ronig camp with me, and my sisters and mother will prepare the hide. The camp lies in the direction of your quest," Fozli said when the carcasses were buried and they were trying to decide what they should do with the pelt.
His insistent hospitality was difficult to resist. Tharek turned to Darm. "I hoped we would run across a camp of Kumnorans. We have little hope of surviving winter without their help."
Darm nodded. "I am curious to visit Fozli's family camp. We might be able to trade the pelt for supplies."
They followed Fozli through the scrub and wind bent trees of the low hills for several hours before they saw the herd of corums owned by Fozli's people. The animals began to careen about and bellow when they caught the scent of wirra. A crowd of people, alerted by the herd, ran to greet them.
A merry-eyed girl with dimples and bouncing curls stopped and stared at the trio of men. Her gaze skipped over Fozli who had elected to let Tharek and Darm carry the two pelts. Since Tharek's pelt was larger, and bore the distinctive back markings of a male, she sidled toward him, blushing and fluttering her lashes in an age-old indication of favor.
"Ferna, look!" Fozli addressed the girl. "I have had a successful hunt."
"These pelts belong to you?" the girl shrieked as she turned from Tharek and threw her arms around Fozli's neck.
"No, the male Wirra attacked while I was skinning the female. These two men saved my life. They are Tharek and Darm, my friends."
As soon as Fozli revealed that only the smaller, female pelt belonged to him, Ferna pushed him away. "You will never be able to make the pilgrimage to Timora at this rate," she pouted. "Fumor has gathered docil roots and dass while you were hunting wirra. He already has enough to trade for a team."
Fozli's genial features froze into a mask of anger. "I would not touch such trash, even for a pilgrimage. The sacred water brought by teamsters from Timora was good enough for my father. It will suffice for me."
He stalked past Ferna who tried to attach herself to Tharek, stroking the pelt and asking him pert questions in the manner of a practiced flirt. He had learned early to discourage mercenary women and Ferna's wiles were far from alluring.
Seeing that there was no response from Tharek, she turned to Darm. She thought to charm him by asking him questions about his origin, but her questions brought forth nothing but a chilly scowl.
Before they reached the tents of the camp, Ferna had veered away toward another man. Her laughter, high and shrill, followed them. Tharek looked toward Fozli whose glum face betrayed his disappointment. "Would you consider joining us on the quest for the star stone Darm is seeking?"
Fozli's mobile mouth tipped upward at one corner. "I am tempted by the offer, but first I must report my hunt to my father. I meant what I said to Ferna. It is past time for me to bathe in the sacred water and make my Renewal Pledges. Someday I intend to make a pilgrimage to Timora, but Ferna's betrayal has opened my eyes. When I go to Timora, it will not be in order to win the favor of a woman."
Part of Tharek's calling as a Son of Irilik was to encourage pilgrimages to Timora but he would not dispute Fozli's decision. Virtually every young man in Janaka performed a pilgrimage before he could undertake a career as a warrior, yet it seemed that little advantage carried forth into their adult lives where battle tokens were more valued than the words they had read from the sacred scrolls.
As they proceeded through the camp, Fozli let everyone they met know that Tharek carried the Stone of Truth. Soon an excited crowd had gathered.
The smell of roasting corum and parching grain goaded Darm's hunger. Water had been offered as soon as they were well inside the camp, but it could not satisfy the need for food that gnawed at his midsection. Tharek had taken only a few swallows of water instead of draining the cup as Darm had done. It gave Darm real respect for the self discipline of his friend, but he grew impatient when Tharek seemed more interested in answering the eager questions of the people who clustered around him than in accepting Fozli's invitation to enter his family's tent and partake of a meal.
Finally Darm grasped Tharek's elbow and steered him away from yet another group of women who had only just learned of the presence of such an eminence in the camp. Fozli had showed them which of the low tents belonged to his family. He held up the entrance flap to invite them to go inside.
They ducked down to go through the low entrance. Darm followed close behind Tharek and he stopped to stare as soon as he straightened up again. Nothing about the outside appearance of the tent, meant to blend in with the land like a mound of sand, had prepared him for the lush interior.
A series of openings in the roof of the tent let in the glow of sunlight which reflected from countless gleaming surfaces. Zylka cloth tapestries embroidered with scarlet and blue, picked out with glittering metallic threads covered the walls. Filigree metal lamps hung in the shadows, waiting until nightfall to be lit, and the richly patterned Virdanan rug in the center of the tent was covered with engraved dishes that gleamed silver and gold.
Another man might have underestimated the wealth displayed, thinking it was brass and tin, but Darm was familiar with the subtle luster of various metals and he recognized that every vessel and hanging was a treasure.
Fozli had followed Darm and gave him a push from behind when he hesitated just beyond the entrance of the tent after catching sight of the luxury within.
Darm stepped aside, but his eyes widened even further when Fozli formally introduced his mother and sisters. Kumnoran women dressed in dull colors when they walked abroad, but in their homes, they displayed the jewels that were a hallmark of their clan. Even the smallest girl was draped with several ropes of pearls and wore earrings set with jewels.
Fozli's mother wore half her family's wealth on her arms, neck and ears. She was a small woman, but her head lifted high to display the shoulder-length earrings that were hooked over her ears rather than straining her lobes with their weight of gold set with designs of pearls and gems. After a moment of posing, meant to impress the guests with the importance of her husband, she became a gracious hostess.
As soon as Fozli's father, Lantic, had pronounced the ritual blessing on the meal, Darm and Tharek were invited to take their places at the edge of the rug. Their hostess made sure their plates were kept heaped full as she and her daughters circulated with serving dishes.
The feast that followed was the richest Darm had ever seen. At last he held his hand up to forestall another serving, but Tharek's capacity for food was as impressive as his ability to fast. He held up his hand against further helpings only after all the other men at the table had asked for a bowl and towel with which to cleanse the grease and juices from their hands and faces.
The women had settled around a separate rug, but when Fozli stood, they fixed their eyes on him. He began to recite in rhyme. Tharek leaned close to Darm and explained. "He is telling of the hunt."
Tharek blushed when Fozli gestured toward him after miming the killing of the wirra. The Kumnorans gave hoots of doubt, but it was only part of the byplay of a hunting tale. Fozli gestured toward Tharek who obliged him by standing and drawing the sword.
Exclamations of awe followed a brief demonstration of its keen edge as Tharek peeled a single nuka fruit that rested on a plate near the center of the rug without touching it with anything other than the blade.
Fozli reached up and closed the light holes with flaps that tied. The tent was plunged into darkness. Tharek then reached into the pouch that hung around his neck and removed the small pebble that was called the Stone of Truth. Fozli's family gasped with delight. Every face filled with wonder. Tharek sat down and tucked the stone away when Fozli uncovered the light holes and continued his narrative.
It was early afternoon, but Darm was drowsy with satiety and fatigue. Fozli must have noticed his nodding head and glazed eyes because he brought his recitation to a close and whispered a suggestion to his mother.
The other guests and family members slipped away after making a brief obeisance to Tharek. Fozli's mother led Darm and Tharek through an opening into a side tent where soft cushions were heaped in generous piles. A deep basin of water was set at the side where they could wash before retiring.
Although it was only mid-afternoon, Darm did not question when Tharek put the prayer shawl over his head and pronounced the evening ritual. Darm thought it unlikely that either of them would rise from their beds until the following morning.
After he had washed and dressed in the loose clothing piled neatly near his bed, Darm settled into the cushions and fell asleep. His last conscious thought was that it would not be a bad thing to accept Fozli's invitation to become a member of his tribe.
Tharek rose from his bed and left Darm sleeping after several hours of rest. He went in search of Fozli's father, Lantic, a man he recognized from having met him years before during a trading expedition to Kumnora.
He found Lantic in the corral where calves were marked with ear notches to distinguish them from the herds of other tribes. Tharek waited while Lantic finished notching the ears of a lively calf held captive by a burly herdsman. He rubbed a bit of ointment on the slight wounds and signaled the herdsman to release the calf before looking up and acknowledging the visitor.
"I have come to seek your blessing," Tharek said.
"What could such as you want to be blessed by such as I?" Lantic replied.
"You are an elder of your tribe, a high priest. I saw you years ago when our people came to trade during the Quorm."
Lantic smiled, his eyes twinkling with humor as he nodded. "I thought I recognized you although you've grown somewhat since then. You were the boy who tried to ride a corum."
Tharek nodded. "I seem to have a knack for getting into trouble. I read that Tarsha, Irilik's wife, rode a corum from the coast when the people of the exodus made their way to Timora. I thought I could master any animal a girl could ride."
"But what you didn't know was that Tarsha's mount was an eastern corum. They are somewhat smaller and milder than the breed we herd here in Kumnora. We are fortunate to train a few of them as teams, but only a fool would try to ride one."
"I was a fool then, and it seems I am a fool now," Tharek confessed. "You heard the story of how I picked up Darm's sword almost by accident after bumbling into the middle of a battle. Now I'm wandering aimlessly without much purpose. I have adopted Darm's quest as a temporary goal, but I really have very little interest in the star stone he pursues. Yesterday my friend and I were kept from sure death the midst of a lightening storm. As far as I can see, there is no reason I merit such protection."
Lantic stood and gestured for Tharek to follow him. After walking some distance from the camp and climbing a small hill the elder paused and turned. "I have things to say to you that must be kept secret. Kumnorans memorize the scriptures instead of relying on consulting the sacred scrolls. Irilik foresaw this time when vows made long ago grow cold and men turn their hearts from the Radiance. Where you see accident, I see pattern. I know who and what you are. The signs are plain to me."
Tharek felt a thrill of wonder at Lantic's words. "Tell me. Who am I."
Lantic shook his head and smiled. "You are a Mareklan who carries a fabled sword. You are a Son of Irilik entrusted with the Stone of Truth. You will travel far in lands unmapped except in Timora's sacred shrine. Do not expect to live a peaceful life. You are sent to warn and rule in a new land and war will follow you all of your days."
Tharek stared at Lantic, perplexed, then shook his head. "I think you must confuse me with another."
Lantic put his hand on Tharek's shoulder and squeezed it in a fatherly gesture. "You will grow into your role. I am proud that Fozli has chosen to go with you. To some extent he will share your destiny. Now I will give you the blessing you requested. Listen well and you will know what you must do."
Lantic drew a prayer shawl from one of his belt pouches and placed it on his head. Tharek knelt before him waiting for the blessing. He knew a moment of regret that it was not his father who placed palms on his head and began the familiar address in the holy name.
He had always hoped to receive his father's blessing, but somehow there had never been occasion to receive it. On that last morning when he returned with the sword and faced Korenen he should have asked for a blessing before banishment became his lot. It was too late now.
With his mind caught in regret he hardly heard Lantic's words until almost too late. "-with the Stone of Truth to gather and make right, with the sword to defend and guard."
Lantic removed the prayer shawl and turned away. "Your thoughts were wandering. I should have known it would be fruitless to counsel you."
"At least tell me if we should set out for the quest tomorrow," Tharek said.
"The quest is part of your preparation," Lantic said. He smiled to indicate that he held no grudge for Tharek's failure to listen to the words of the blessing.
Feeling that he knew no more than when he had approached Lantic at the calf corral, Tharek returned to the tent and lay down to rest. He pondered Lantic's assertion that he had known a destiny that fit Tharek as soon as he knew his circumstances. It was likely something in the sacred scroll of history and prophecy that the Kumnorans could not read, but which they learned through recitation.
Tharek tried to recall anything that might fit his own situation. Darm's snores from the other side of tent reminded him that he needed sleep and underscored his inability to make sense of Lantic's words. With a sigh of resignation he performed the mental exercises that would keep him from laying awake any longer in futile speculation.
Fozli woke them hours later by loosening the coverings over the light holes and letting the early morning sun beam into the tent. "Come, I am still wet behind the ears from receiving my Renewal Washing. It is time to continue the quest for the star stone. Soon the year will turn and snow will block the way to the high plateaus Withna-ward. My mother and sisters will prepare the wirra pelts while we are away and my father has given provided us with supplies for the journey along with a dala to bear our packs."
"But we have done nothing to deserve such bounty," Tharek said.
"You saved the life of my father's only son! Do you call that nothing?" Fozli demanded. Then he grinned. "Even if I were the youngest of ten sons, you would have the honor and gratitude of my family. To have hosted a Son of Irilik who carries the Stone of Truth is a fine thing. To have hosted such a man who also carries the star sword will make our tribe welcome at any gathering of the people of Kumnora."
"Is it wise to broadcast Tharek's possession of the sword?" Darm asked. "No Janakan could pass up the temptation of trying to win it from him."
"No Kumnoran would think of letting the secret reach the wider world," Fozli vowed.
"What of the teamsters who go to Jama with cargoes of docil root and dass?" Tharek asked. "I have heard that they trade for gold, then drink and gamble until they are poor again. Such a man could easily betray his secrets while he is tipsy. Jama's brothels and gambling dens are notorious."
Fozli nodded. "There might be some risk, but the very men who would spread the tale would treat our story as mere fable. Among our tribe, only Fumor picks up the corum dung after the herd has eaten dass leaves. Only he digs docil roots. I have already heard him casting doubt on your identity and Ferna is quick to agree with his gibes. They claim that my father and mother were fooled with wizard tricks and shown a sword of tin."
Darm shook his head ruefully. "If Fumor and Ferna have the making of our reputations in Jama, we will be met as charlatans by everyone."
"Let the rogues of Jama despise you. Their contempt it would be a sign of favor to a man whose heart is right," Fozli said. "No other member of the tribe doubts your worth. Not only Tharek, but his bond brother, Darm, hold our respect."
Tharek had begun to dress and he was already fastening the ties of his boots. For a moment he did not reply to Fozli's reassurance. Finally he stood and tied his belt and adjusted his several pouches.
"I am sorry that even one member of your tribe doubts the truth. On the other hand, no thief will try to steal the sword or the Stone of Truth if they think I am a fraud. The stone would appear as nothing more than a dull pebble by those inclined to theft. As for the star sword," He lifted the staff and parried with it. "I doubt that any ordinary man could deal with the staff, let alone the sword that it conceals."
Darm chuckled wryly. "You mean no ordinary man would risk an encounter with a weapon in your hands. It is not an empty boast as I know all too well."
They were treated to a breakfast that nearly overwhelmed Darm with variety and plenty. It destroyed his last illusions that Kumnorans were less than any other people of Okishdu. He had to admit that the hospitality of Fozli's family exceeded the best his own tribe had ever offered, but then, Janakans were not known for hospitality, but for their warriors and their bronze.
The three set forth at last after Fozli insisted that they must be on their way with no further delay. The dala his father had provided to carry their provisions was a mild animal compared to a corum bull, but it still took considerable skill on Fozli's part to keep it going. Darm set their course after consulting his star needle.
Fozli soon proved his worth as a companion, finding water where there was no apparent sign to either of the other men, and displaying a knowledge of local plants and animals that kept them from making deadly mistakes.
Tharek located a plant with leaves that reminded him of leather root, an occasional trail food for Mareklans. Fozli explained that it was docil root, a drug that soon addicted those who chewed its roots.
Soon they settled into a routine. Each day Darm would check his needle and set their course. They traveled steadily but slowly, limited by the dala's pace which only quickened when the stolid beast smelled water. The dala was a sure guide to water sources, but irritatingly apt to stop and munch at tufts of grass or other growths. It seemed particularly found of a plant with leaves shaped much like lilies, but Fozli drove it away with his staff any time it stopped to nibble at the leaves.
When Darm questioned his zeal, Fozli explained that it was dass the dala favored. "It doesn't act as quickly on an animal this large as it would on a man foolish enough to try it in this form, but surely you have seen what comes of those who burn dass or steep the drug in wine? If I let my dala graze at every patch, he would soon become befuddled."
They traveled Withna-ward for two weeks with little to disturb their steady progress over the increasingly arid land except a numbing chill that increased daily.
"Kumnorans seldom come this far," Fozli said one evening while they huddled around a fire. "We have only enough provisions to go a little further. As it is, we will have to forage on our return to Ba Ronig camp."
"I had planned to stay and work with the star stone when I found it," Darm said.
"The breath of winter is already chill," Fozli said. "When the snows come they will heap above your head. When you locate the star stone, you should mark its place and then return to work it when summer comes and the snow is gone."
Darm stared into the meager fire. It was small because of the lack of vegetation growing on the stony ground. How could he build and fire a forge with no fuel? He took out the star needle and walked far enough from the camp that Tharek's sword would have no effect on its workings. It still pointed Withna-ward. How long could he subject his friends to the search that had begun to obsess him. He doubted they would turn back while he still had hope of finding his goal.
He returned to the camp and waited in silence while Tharek performed the evening ritual and Fozli sang a narrative song. The words seemed to recall things Darm had read in Timora, and he hummed along with melodies grown familiar as the weeks passed by.
The scant comfort of his bedding, which had seemed too warm weeks before, reminded him that winter's grip was closing around them. He turned and twisted on his sleeping skin, fighting the knowledge that his quest must go unsatisfied.
Chapter 5 Blizzard
The three men exchanged few words when morning came and they prepared to take the trail. Darm looked at the dark line of clouds in the northwest and turned to the others.
"I cannot ask you to go any further. I thought at first that I would find the star stone just beyond the borders of Janaka, then I convinced myself that it was always just ahead, beyond the next line of hills or bushes. I see now that I was over optimistic. We should return to Ba Ronig camp before it snows."
Tharek and Fozli looked at each other and exchanged grim smiles. "We were going to give you one more day," Tharek said. "Fozli told me yesterday that the sky shows signs of spawning a blizzard. We should return to the ridge we crossed yesterday and find shelter in the rocks."
Darm nodded. He was surprised at his lack of resentment for their plan to stop him. "I used the search for the star stone to conceal my desire to become a smith. I can never equal the expertise of my mother and the other Widow-smiths of Janaka, but what man could? I would be willing to go to Jama and work with brass or tin."
"I could show you a few things about metal craft," Tharek said. "It would be a beginning."
Fozli warmed his fingers with his breath where they extended beyond his mitts. "We should leave now that I've turned the dala to the south. The wind is ripening for a blizzard. We might not reach the ridge."
They set forth with as much speed as Fozli could muster from the dala. At first the animal seemed to want to stop and graze at every withered patch of grass. A wind began to blow steadily from behind them and the dala tossed its head and began to run, tearing the leads from Fozli's hands.
"It smells the blizzard coming," Fozli said. "We would do well to follow it. Corums know where to hold up against a storm."
Without the dala's plodding pace to delay them, they broke into a loping run. The dala had long since been lost to sight, but Fozli tracked it easily until they entered a region of loose stones. It was not yet noon, but the sky seemed to turn to lead above them. Small pellets of cold rain sliced through the air, turning to ice when they hit the ground. Darm slipped, but Fozli grabbed his arm before he fell.
"The ridge is just ahead," Tharek shouted above the whistling of the storm. There was no time to search for the dala. They tumbled over the stony ridge and found themselves in a rocky hollow. The wind danced aimlessly around the small depression, scattering its burden of flakes.
"Without that dass-addled animal we have no food," Fozli grunted, "but at least we are wearing most of the clothing we brought along. If we huddle together and spread our capes over us, we might survive the night."
"At least we won't be thirsty," Darm said as he raised a handful of snow to his lips.
Fozli grasped Darm's hand and kept it from his mouth. "Never eat snow unless it is covered with sweet juice and you are in a tent with a fire. It will steal the heat from your body. Pile some of it in a bowl and set it near us inside the capes. After it melts, it will no longer be dangerous."
Darm nodded. This was not his land and both Tharek and Fozli seemed to know more than he did about survival in the snow. When blizzards fell in Janaka, no one ventured out. Even the bravest warriors huddled in their houses near a hearth.
Tharek explored along the hollow and returned with several sticks of various lengths. "I thought it would be best to gather wood before it is buried by the snow. We can make a fire later when the storm is over."
Fozli nodded. "Give me the longer sticks. If we brace them against the rock face and hang our cloaks over them, we could have a sort of shelter."
Darm was reluctant to give up his cape, but he saw the sense in what Fozli suggested. The wind whipped the capes but Fozli weighted them with stones. Even so, it was cold in the flimsy shelter once they huddled inside and closed the last gap.
Darm tried to keep his teeth from chattering with no success. The tiny lean-to of sticks grew colder. Finally the capes began to sag under a weight of snow and Darm found that he could relax a little as the air inside te shelter became a little less chilly. He had been tensing up against the cold and felt shame for his shivering when the other men seemed unaffected by the chill. It was galling to think that he, a warrior, was weaker in this than either of the others.
"We could drink the melted snow and try to sleep," Tharek said. "but I suggest we find a way to occupy ourselves for the next few hours until night falls."
The other men nodded and Tharek took the Stone of Truth from the pouch at his neck, then he opened his capacious belt pouch and removed a set of tools.
"Those are your tinker's tools," Darm said. "Do you plan to teach me metal craft at such a time?"
"First I will discover what you can tell me," Tharek said. "You say you watched your mother when you were small. You must have learned something."
Darm let his thoughts roll back to the almost forgotten years when he had hidden in the corner of his mother's forge and listened to her gossip with the other women. "One of my aunt's seemed surprised that mother was such a fine smith when she was also known for her cooking. My mother laughed and told her that it was much the same thing. Both involved following the proper list of ingredients and cooking at the proper heat. The recipes are closely guarded, whether for bronze or barbeque."
Tharek nodded. "The ingredients are key in metal work. Tin and zinc seem much alike, but their effects are different when added to copper. The Jamans favor brass made from copper and zinc for its yellow color that some think mimics gold. If anyone were fool enough to carry a brass weapon, he would soon regret the choice. Bronze is made from tin and copper. Mareklans have been factors for the Taleekan lead and tin mines for many years, but none know the secret formulas of the Janakan widow-smiths. We know how much tin is carried into Janaka, but we cannot guess at the amount of copper that is mined in the mountains and carried to the forges."
Darm smiled. "Sometimes my mother muttered a little song while she was in her foundry. 'One in ten and never more, makes a metal strong and sure.' If her words referred to the proportions of copper and tin she used, she gave up one of her secrets without realizing it. My mother is known for the consistency of her product. One of her rivals makes stronger swords, when they have no flaw. All too many have flaws. She uses more tin than the other smiths and it makes the casting more difficult."
Tharek nodded. "I believe you speak of Lineral of clan Terifil. She has a life-long rivalry with your mother, Malinkra. There is no question that Malinkra's swords are preferred by all who know their weapons, but Lineral makes the best bells."
"Bells," Darm scoffed. "Where is the profit in bells?"
"The Emperor of Saadena has ordered an extensive set of bells from clan Terifil. It will bring great credit to Lineral and her family," Tharek said.
"Some teamsters from our clan have been contracted to carry the bells to Saadena when they are completed," Fozli said.
Darm scowled. The traditional rivalry between Janakan clans made them secretive. There was no way he could warn his mother about the great triumph that her rival would be certain to use against her.
Although it was nearly unheard of, land could be bought with goods as well as blood. A rich clan could purchase land from its poorer neighbors without contest of arms. It seemed against nature that such a thing could happen.
"Without the star sword, and Malinkra's reputation as the leading Widow-smith, clan Algire will soon go into decline," Darm muttered.
Tharek extended his hand to clutch Darm's shoulder. "You must put it behind you. Even if you could leave here now and go to Janaka, your mother would treat you as if you were dead. She would neither speak to you or hear your words."
Darm nodded. He reached for the sword he wore and traced the graceful lines of its hilt. Unlike the cracked hilt of the star sword that Tharek had discarded, Darm's weapon had been cast all of a piece. Leather had been twisted and braided around the grip, but otherwise there was no contamination of its unity.
In many ways his mother was like the swords she wrought, consistent and hard. Her heart might yearn for her son, but it would not turn her from duty. He had not returned to her with the star sword in the time allotted. Now he was no longer her son.
Fozli began singing one of his little songs, but this time Tharek stated the words in different form. As Darm listened he realized that it was the story of Irilik, the First Prophet, but from a different point of view as the story told in Irilik's scroll of prophecy and history displayed for all to study in the library in Timora.
The last verse ended with the banishment of the traitor Tagnet and the pioneering of Okishdu. Darm turned to Fozli. "How did you learn to recite the words of the sacred scroll?"
"It is not the words of the scroll, but the story of Irilik and his people that I learned," Fozli countered. "I neither read nor write."
"But there is an obligation to learn the Laws and Promises and the History and Prophecy before you can receive Renewal Washing," Darm said.
"Kumnor obeyed the rule, but not by teaching his people to read," Tharek explained. "All Kumnoran's learn the Laws and Promises as well as the History and Prophecy as they sit at the knees of their parents and learn to speak and sing. I would think that Fozli knows what is contained in the sacred scrolls better than you."
"Is there a rule against reading and writing among Kumnorans?"
"No rule, but firm tradition," Fozli said. "Kumnor did not know how to read or write, but he was our First Father in Okishdu. He is our hero, and what he did or did not do seems the proper way for Kumnorans to conduct their lives. Therefore, we do not learn to read or write."
"How long has it been since you tried to write or read?" Tharek asked Darm.
"What use has a warrior for reading and writing," Darm countered. "It is women's business, just as smithing and mining are women's business. However, I still remember how the letters are formed and their meaning. It would not be difficult to read if I had any reason to do so."
Tharek reached into a belt pouch and removed a compact roll of scroll cloth. The supple cloth was so closely woven that only the most minute inspection would reveal the weave. It was a Mareklan specialty and normally used only for the most important documents.
"Can you tell me what is written here?"
Darm took the scroll and found that his claim of being able to read was false. The shapes of the words tantalized him with a half-remembered meaning. Finally he sighed and handed the scroll back to Tharek.
"If I am to be your brother, and we are sworn to brotherhood," Tharek reminded Darm. "Then you must be able to read and write. What if I were taken prisoner and sent a note for you?"
Fozli laughed. "Surely if there were someone willing to deliver a message, he could speak it aloud."
Darm welcomed Fozli's support and countered Tharek's demand with a well-known example. "Saaden was the greatest general in Kishdu before the Gathering, and he could neither read nor write for more than half his life."
"But Saaden learned from Irilik," Fozli said. "He had been a great general when he was unlettered, but afterwards, he became the father of the greatest state in all Okishdu. There is no rival to Saadena."
Darm glared at Fozli for deserting his cause. "If you think it is important for me to recall the things I long ago forgot, then you should learn to read as well."
"It is something I have longed to do," Fozli said. "It is very well to know the words of the story of the founding of Okishdu and the rules and promises that our fathers gave, but I wish that I could read it from the scrolls that Irilik wrote with his own hand."
Cornered, Darm sulked and the light from the Stone of Truth seemed to dim. It was a warning he must heed. False pride had no place here where the only light was a reflection of his soul. "Very well, we have the time, and without doubt, Tharek will find the materials to teach us. When I remember how to read and write, I might be able to write down the memories of my mother's forge and recover the secrets of her craft."
While the storm continued, they studied. To Darm's relief, his claim that he had not forgotten was almost accurate. Once he was re-introduced to the sounds of the symbols, the meaning was at hand.
Fozli proved apt. Although his claim that Kumnorans neither read nor wrote was essentially true, they did use a system of simple signals and signs that were based on the written language other people used.
It was Tharek who finally called a halt. "The howling of the wind has eased and the air in here is growing stale. We must make an opening or risk losing our breath while we sleep."
Fozli set about creating a few gaps. The sudden draft of cold air was welcome in the stifling heat of the small space. Tharek began to put the Stone of Truth back into the pouch at his throat, then he hesitated. "There may be others lost in the storm and needing shelter," he said.
While the other men prepared to sleep, Tharek used the tip of the star sword to bore a hole near the end of the scabbard section of his staff. He pressed the Stone of Truth into the cavity and bound it in place with a strip of silver wire wound around the staff and twisted shut in a bezel around the stone.
He elevated the end of the staff through one of the openings Fozli had made and without its direct light, the shelter was dark enough for them to sleep. More snow had melted in their bowls while they studied and they took the edge off their thirst before Tharek pronounced the Evening Ritual. Their weariness overcame their hunger and they huddled together in the darkness and fell asleep.
Darm woke to the horrific memory of what seemed a nightmare before he realized that the scream of an angry wirra was not a dream. He struggled to find his sword in the dark. Fozli had already leapt from the shelter, his new bolika coiled and ready.
Tharek grasped his staff and the shelter tumbled to the ground, revealing a world of white and blue and red. Only a few feet away from them a struggle raged. The wirra, its body like a shadow on the snow, reared upward with its claws snarled in the dala's rough pelt. The dala tossed its head, seeking a purchase for its curling horns.
Gashes in the side of the dala spilled blood across the snow. Darm saw Fozli loping toward the embattled dala and shouted for him to stop. "It is too late. Your animal is as good as dead!"
Fozli did not hesitate. He slowly lengthened the amount of bolika that he whirled about his head, the weighted end whistling as it increased in speed. A good teamster could bring a full grown corum bull to the ground with a bolika. For such a man, the wirra would not be an exceptional challenge, but Darm thought it unlikely that Fozli had the experience and weight required. He lifted his sword and screamed a battle cry as he ran forward.
The bolika flew through the air and caught the wirra in its coils. The great cat fought the tangle of line. Once the wirra was entangled by the bolika, Fozli ran toward it. With a snarl of rage, it reared up to rip at him.
Darm had his sword ready. He slashed upward at the wirra to save his friend and his blow knocked the cat back against the dala. With a final bellow, the dala hooked the cat with one of its curling horns and stumbled to its knees beneath the weight. The animals lay entangled, their eyes dulling as their blood mingled in the snow.
Tharek pointed to the circle of wirra prints worn in the snow surrounding the shelter. "The wirra was kept at bay by the light. When the dala woke and struggled up from the snow, the wirra left off waiting for us and attacked another prey."
"If we are to survive until we reach my family's camp, we will need the meat of the dala for food and both pelts for covering," Fozli said. He pulled his bolika free of the wirra and rubbed it clean in the snow, then he tied it around the feet of the dala. Darm and Tharek helped him pull the animal free from the wirra's claws.
Fozli and Darm set to work skinning and butchering the dala while Tharek skinned the wirra. The day was bright and calm but very cold, making the work more difficult as the skins stiffened and froze. Fozli rubbed the skins with a concoction composed of various organs that reeked even in the frozen air.
"It will keep them from rotting when they are frozen," he explained. Tharek raised his brow and shared a puzzled stare with Darm.
By mid-day they were nearing the end of their labors and a long line of meat strips hung from lines of rawhide, drying as they froze. The sky darkened as another storm approached. The men retreated to their shelter as the first wind-driven snow stung their faces.
"At least the snow will keep other predators from the remains of the wirra," Fozli said. He turned the strips of dala meat that were spitted on a bone above the small fire they had built of bones and fat. It was a malodorous fuel, but effective.
Darm sipped at cala that Tharek had brewed with melted snow and a sprinkle of toasted grain from the dala's pack that had somehow escaped destruction. "How long will this storm last?" he asked.
"It could last for hours or days," Fozli said. "Thank the Radiance we have food and fuel and shelter."
After eating the meat, they put the fire out and began to study. The howling wind seemed louder than the night before, but with companionship and the knowledge that they had sufficient provisions, Darm and Fozli ignored the wind and concentrated on learning from Tharek.
The storm lasted through three days of snowfall alternating with winds that scoured the snow from the ridge and heaped it over the framework of the shelter. Later the wind reversed and blew much of the snow away. The lines of meat were frozen stiff, but inside the shelter it was often too warm from the fires they used for cooking and the insulation provided by the snow.
Fozli soon surpassed Darm in recognizing the symbols of the prayers and history on the scrolls that Tharek carried with him. "I would like to go to Timora," Fozli declared. "I want to study the sacred scrolls. It is a good thing to be able to sing the stories of Irilik and the Gathering, but I sense that there is much more I can learn now that I can read."
Whenever they were not studying the words of the small scroll from which Tharek was teaching, or taking care of necessities such as eating or sleeping, Darm and Tharek talked about the mysteries of metallurgy and Fozli worked on the hide of the dala and the pelt of the wirra. Darm was not interested in the secrets of Kumnoran leatherwork. It was enough to know that it involved smells that rivaled the burning of bone and fat.
The fourth day dawned still and clear. The three men ventured forth together for the first time since the day that Darm had killed the wirra. They stood on top of the ridge and looked around. Dark stones disturbed the white expanse of snow. The line of the ridge ran roughly south east. It could be traced by rocks that rose above the snow.
"If we follow the line of the ridge we will not be swallowed in drifts and there will be some small shelter in the lee of the ridge when it storms again," Fozli said.
Tharek nodded. "Will this path take us to Ba Ronig camp?"
Fozli raised his shoulders in a gesture of uncertainty. "I cannot be certain where the camp is now, but it is likely we will find another Kumnoran camp before too long and they might tell us where my people are."
Darm was as eager as either of the others to find Ba Ronig camp, his search for the star stone had ended, but Fozli's desire to visit Timora was contagious. If they could find the camp of Fozli's people, their pilgrimage could start from there.
The meat of the dala was not heavy after being frozen and dried. Tharek filled his pack with the meat and Fozli carried the hide and horns of the dala. Both would be made into clothing and useful implements by his people. Darm carried the pelt of the wirra, wearing it almost like a cape.
Fozli led the way as they started over the winding path marked by the ridge. Sometimes they encountered drifts and floundered for a time until they reached another section of shallow snow.
At night they erected the shelter, but the weather continued clear and cold. Fozli knew a hundred different ways to preserve body heat and protect them from winter's dangers. With the sun bright on the snow, he bound their eyes with strips of leather that left only narrow slits from which to see ahead.
After the second day of hiking, Tharek suggested that they might use the Stone of Truth to continue to walk at night but Fozli shook his head. "At least during the day we have some advantage from the sun. At night we have nothing but the icy moon that will steal the heat from our bodies."
"Do you think the moon is made of ice?" Darm asked.
"Much of the time it is the ice moon we see. At other times the fruit moon shines. The coldest moon wears a halo," Fozli explained.
"It is all the same moon," Tharek said. "I have seen the face of the moon both when it was as yellow as a ripe nuka and when it seemed a snowflake in the sky. It is always the same, even when it begins to darken as it loses the light of the sun."
The other men stared at him astonished. "I have seen the moon in the sky when the sun shines, but the sun is always gone when the moon shines brightest," Darm argued.
"Irilik was an astronomer for many years and wrote of what he knew," Tharek said. "My people have his writings about the sky. They are part of our legacy from him, just as both of you have legacies of knowledge from your First Fathers."
Darm and Fozli nodded. They could not argue when an ancestor was invoked.
The wind continued to blow the snow away from higher ground and pile it deeper in the hollows. At last the ridge stood nearly clear of snow and they had to detour down the face of the heights to get snow to melt for water every night.
When they camped Tharek extended the Stone of Truth out of the top of the shelter. Several times they found the marks of a predator who had been kept at bay by the light. Once it was the tracks of a wirra that dwarfed those they had killed.
Finally they saw the smoke of campfires on the southern horizon. That night they camped and discussed whether it would be better to head directly for the camp, or continue along the wavering line of the ridge which would take them east of the place where the campfire glowed dimly in the dusk. They could not agree on the course to take. Darm urged going straight for the campfires and Fozli urged the more cautious course of following the ridge. Tharek was silent.
When morning came they were greeted with joyous cries and crawled from their shelter to see that Ba Ronig camp had come to them. Fozli's father, Lantic, explained the mystery. "We saw the light from the Stone of Truth two nights ago and traveled toward it."
Darm's wirra hide was admired and exclaimed over. This time it was he who told the story of the quest and the killing of the wirra. The audience groaned with sympathetic disappointment when he told them that the star stone had never been found.
"You can return next summer," one of Fozli's sisters said.
"Someday I might return to search for the star stone, but for now I choose to go to Timora with Tharek and Fozli. It has been too long since I made a pilgrimage to the holy city."
"From here the best place to join the pilgrimage road is near Jama," Lantic said. You can follow it east to Saadena, then south through Tedaka. We will give you the purification rites before you begin your pilgrimage."
Darm knew nothing of what Kumnorans expected of those few among them who went to Timora as pilgrims, but when Fozli explained, he applauded the suggestion. For weeks he had subsisted on meat cooked over bones and fat. The reek of his clothes and skin felt like a physical presence. To live for a week on grain and roots and water, to daily steam in a sweat bath and then be cleansed with fresh water was a welcome change.
At the end of their week of purification the three young men were shaved until not a hair remained on their heads. They were dressed in the white woolen robes of pilgrims with belts of blue cloth. Inside each cloth belt was another of wirra hide that was bright blue from some secret in the tanning. Fozli's mother, knowing that much of their journey would take them over rough stone roads, provided sturdy boots lined with fleece. All of them carried staffs. Darm entrusted his sword to Fozli's father, Lantic.
Lantic, the high priest of his clan, made special dispensation for Tharek to carry the staff which concealed the star sword. In truth, he had no jurisdiction over a Son of Irilik, but his decision was due to his reluctance to have such an implement left in his camp. His family could become the target of Janakans eager to reclaim the prize.
The camp had been on the move while they completed the rites of purification. By the time the three young men were ready to set forth, Ba Ronig camp was only three days journey from Jama.
Chapter 6 Pilgrimage
Other than their staffs, Darm and Fozli carried nothing more than food pouches and water skins. It was the duty of those they met to provide pilgrims with simple food and a place to rest for the night. As a son of Irilik, Tharek was not bound by the same conventions, but he concealed his belt pouches beneath his robe to avoid confusion on behalf of those they met once they traveled on the pilgrimage road.
For the first two days of their journey the weather held clear and cold. Early in the morning of the third day they saw the huts and warehouses of Jama. "It is smaller than I expected," Fozli said. "When the people of Kumnora gather for the Quorm they fill a good sized valley."
"Jama is little more than a trading post," Tharek said. "They manufacture tawdry jewelry from brass, tin and glass and trade it for docil and dass from the rogue teamsters who no longer observe the covenants of their clans."
Fozli nodded. "Some, such as Fumor, find it easier to gather dass and docil roots than to hunt wirra and develop skill with a bolika. Jama offers him a market for his wares and vices to match his product."
"We can avoid Jama and join the pilgrimage road east of town," Tharek suggested.
"But our stores are almost exhausted and we need to find a place to sleep," Darm countered. "Surely the people of Jama observe the courtesy to pilgrims that the laws and compacts require."
Tharek shook his head. "They would as soon rob you as feed you. Mareklans generally avoid Jama. We purchase the glass and brass we want from factors in other cities. There is little there to tempt a decent man, but plenty for the weak."
"You are no longer bound by Mareklan rules," Darm reminded him.
"I am always bound by the rules. I cannot deny my birthright and still carry the Stone of Truth with honor," Tharek reminded him. "You seem eager to go into Jama. What can interest you in such a place."
Darm flushed, then spoke the truth. "It has been seven years since I made my pilgrimage as a boy. We spent the night in Jama, at an inn. It was evening when we entered the town and I can remember that there were beautiful women in the streets. They wore flashing jewels and smiled at me. After we entered the inn, the music and sound of women laughing were tempting, but my father kept me locked up through the night. I think that old allure stayed with me through the years. I wanted to see if it is still as exciting as it seemed to me then."
Tharek chuckled and Fozli laughed. They had sympathy for Darm's memories. The dull huddle of huts below them came alive only at night when lamps glittered in the streets and the taverns opened. Tharek's smile faded.
"The women you saw were bond-servants, condemned to their life as harlots because of parents who sold them to Orenese servant sellers. Other bond-servants can live a normal life when their seven years of servitude are over, but for girls sold into harlotry, there is little future. Now and then a teamster falls in love with a girl he has bought for the night and he buys her contract from the brothel keeper. Some go on to become mothers and wives, but others are traded from man to man. It is stain I would blot out if I could."
His words erased the last trace of allure from Darm's memories. Servant sellers were a plague fed by famine and drought. Janakans refused Orenese traders entry into their lands, but other clans were not as careful. Some clans limited bondage to adult men, but the law had not proscribed the bondage of women. Darm wondered how a man could sell a wife or daughter to satisfy his debts. It was a foreign idea to one raised in a land where the lives of women were sacrosanct.
They came to the pilgrimage road near nightfall. Behind them the lights of Jama glimmered and the sounds of women singing came to them faintly on the wind. It was meant to be a merry noise, but Darm could only scowl as he remembered why the women were in Jama.
"There is a hostel and legionary post not far from here," Tharek said. "We can rest there tonight."
It was late in the evening when they saw the stone building by the side of the road ahead. It was nearly square with crenelation around the flat roof. The shadowy silhouettes of pike-bearing guards at each corner of the roof and on either side of the door reassured them.
For generations the pilgrimage roads had been maintained and guarded by the legionnaires of Saadena. Pilgrims were granted free passage and hostels had been erected at intervals to protect them from the dangers of wild beasts or bad weather. The wind was growing colder and the thought of shelter beckoned.
"Stay!" a voice ordered when they had come within the light of a lamp mounted over the door. One of the guards lowered his pike to bar the door and the other pointed his pike toward them.
"We are pilgrims, bound for Timora," Fozli said in the ancient formula that should have brought a welcome.
The pike was raised and the door was swung open from within after the guard gave a patterned knock. When they passed the man, Tharek noticed a smirking expression that made him wary.
They were shown to a small room furnished with simple pallets of straw. The window was high and narrow, the better to keep the winter drafts from disturbing the sleepers. A basket of bread and a bowl for washing were set next to a full pitcher of water on a low bench. "It is not much," Darm grumbled after biting the bread and finding that it was stale.
"It is all you can expect in pilgrim hostels maintained by Saadenan legionnaires," Tharek said.
"There were not as many armed men when we passed here seven years ago," Darm recalled.
"Perhaps the wild tribes have been giving problems along the pilgrim way," Tharek said, but he was disquieted by the searching looks the guards at the door had given them. He welcomed the shelter of sturdy walls if there was trouble with thieves.
They wrapped themselves in their robes and went to sleep immediately after Tharek performed the evening ritual. Darm woke when he heard Tharek murmuring in his sleep. He turned over and tried to fall asleep again but suddenly light flooded the room and he turned to see Tharek fixing the stone of truth into the notch at the head of his sword-staff.
"I have dreamed a true dream, but I am puzzled by the meaning," Tharek answered when Fozli groaned and asked him why he had disturbed their sleep.
"I heard you moaning," Darm said. "Are we in danger?"
"I dreamed that this room had become a prison," Tharek said. "The bands of wirra leather that we wear inside our belts came loose and were rent lengthwise into nine bands. When that happened, the door of the prison opened, and we went free."
Darm glanced up at the narrow window high on the wall. "We could tie our belts together. If Fozli stood on our shoulders, he could reach the window and tie the end of the belts to a sturdy hold. Then we could climb through the window and escape."
Fozli shook his head. "We should be safe here in the hostel. What threatens us?" He stood and paced. "If the guards intend to imprison us, they would name us outlaws if we escaped. We must find out why we would be imprisoned. Tell me Tharek, did the nine bands go with us when the door opened and we went free?"
"One of the bands was left behind," Tharek said.
"Let me take your bands and I will split them as you saw in the dream," Fozli said. "It is not unknown for legionnaires to ask a toll of Kumnoran pilgrims. We are usually prepared to give them something. The bands were cut triple wide and folded to provide for such a thing." He took a small implement that was mounted with a blade of obsidian from a hidden pocket on the inside of his bread pouch and began to slit his own band.
Tharek frowned. "It is against the law to charge a toll of pilgrims! Saaden and his descendants pledged that they would always be free to use the roads. How long have Kumnorans been required to pay a toll?"
Fozli shrugged, "Others think that because we do not read and write, we do not know the law. Darm can tell you how Janakans regard Kumnorans. It is a common attitude among the other people of Okishdu who think us little better than the wild tribes in the east."
As soon as Fozli had finished cutting the bands of wirra hide into three lengths each, he rolled up five of them and handed them to Tharek. "Keep these safe. They are as good as gold in trade for the things we might need, or the tolls that may yet be charged of us." Tharek placed the rolled bands in one of his pouches and concealed them beneath one of the pallets.
Darm scowled at the stone walls surrounding them. "I should have kept my sword. That is one sure way to gain our freedom if anyone tries to keep us here."
"Would you be an outlaw, as well as outcast?" Tharek asked him. "Let Fozli speak for us. If either of us begins to speak, they will know that we are not Kumnoran. I would rather they continue to think we are brothers until I have a better idea of what is happening here."
Fozli held up his hand, warning them to silence. "I hear the sound of boots coming this way. Roll up in your robes and lie down on your pallets again. We must seem to be taken by surprise."
They tumbled into their cots so quickly that Tharek left the Stone of Truth in the top of his staff, uncovered. The door of the room was thrown open and four legionnaires with pikes crowded the entrance. They peered inside with the aid of a lamp that the captain held high. None of them looked toward the Stone of Truth which sent out a steady beam of bright light. Their failure to see its light confirmed Tharek's fear.
"Wake up and stand before us!" The captain yelled.
It was not difficult for the three young men to widen their eyes with surprise and fear when they had stumbled to their feet with armed men confronting them.
Darm instinctively reached for his staff as he rolled to his feet and the pike of one of the guards knocked it aside. "If you are pilgrims, why are you armed?" the guard captain challenged.
"We carry staffs. It is permitted for pilgrims to carry staffs," Fozli said.
"Disrobe and we will see what you carry," the captain demanded.
Darm hesitated but a cough from Tharek warned him to avoid any further confrontation. The guards could see that the loincloths and short tunics they wore under their robes left no room for anything that could be considered a weapon. Their bread pouches were empty of all but crumbs. Even so, after the three men were commanded to put on their robes, the captain did not dismiss the other guards.
"You are neither old men making a final pilgrimage, nor young enough to be seeking your Rites of Renewal in Timora. It is evident that you are not truly pilgrims. Therefore, the use of the hostel is not free for you. Since you have no means to pay for the bread and shelter you have taken, you are debtors and subject to the law of bondage until you pay your debts. It is the will of Marnat, Emperor of Saadena, that able bodied men be kept from imposing on his charity. You might well be among the thieves and other criminals who use the pretense of pilgrimage to go abroad unchallenged."
Fozli nodded. "You have done well, my friend. We can testify that you are observing your orders. You shall have your toll. We will take a good report of your zeal in protecting the interests of the emperor when we reach Saadena."
The captain stood straighter, his spear thumped the floor in a gesture of respect. Fozli untied his belt and removed the band of wirra leather folded into the cloth. After handing it to the guard captain, he retied the sash around his waist. The captain caressed the precious leather. His eyes went to the blue belts of the other two men and the light of avarice filled his face.
"We will go now and see if others are as zealous in keeping the Emperor's law as you," Fozli said. "If we do not go speedily to Saadena, inquiries will be made."
The guard captain hesitated for a moment more, then he turned and ordered his men to clear the doorway. Tharek quickly retrieved his pouches from beneath the pallet, certain by now that the clear light of the Stone of Truth would not reveal his actions. With staff in hand he followed his companions past the guards. They stood on either side of the corridor as Fozli led his friends from the hostel with the proud demeanor of one who truly was an agent of the emperor.
"You have a quick mind, Fozli," Tharek said as soon as they were well beyond the hearing of the legionnaires. "We must make haste along the road until we come near the next garrisoned hostel, then we will leave the road and make our way to Saadena without further risk of encountering the legionnaires of Marnat. Our white robes will blend with the snow and serve as shelter and disguise until we are near the city."
"What will we eat and drink?" Darm asked with his hand on the empty bread pouch at his side.
"Mareklans have ways," Fozli quoted. "It is well known that the merchant priests do not use the pilgrim roads and never stay in hostels. I'm certain Tharek has knowledge that will bring us safe to Saadena."
Tharek shook his head. "There are Mareklan way stations, but I will not be welcome now that I am outcast. If the three of us could survive our quest Withna-ward, the journey to Saadena should be no great challenge."
He peered into the scrub that lined the road and gave a grunt of satisfaction when he discovered the withered remains of a leather root plant. He left the path and searched for a digging stone. After selecting a long, narrow stone with a point on one end and a wedge on the other he scraped dry snow away from the base of the plant and dug into the sandy soil. Soon he had excavated the long tuber and pulled it free.
He scraped it with the wedge end of his digging stone then scrubbed it with snow. When it was clean, he used his sword to cut it lengthwise into three sections. Giving one to each of the other men, he lifted the remaining piece to his mouth and began to chew on the end of it.
Fozli examined his piece, "We use the fibers of leather root to make bolikas. I did not know they could be eaten."
Darm took a bite and made a face. "I cannot eat this. It is like chewing on a musty rope."
"This root was nearly dry. Think yourself fortunate. The roots are slimy and disgusting when they are full of sap. This will sustain us until we find something more nourishing. I have lived for a week or more on nothing more than leather root and water. Just keep chewing."
"I could make a line from the fibers when we have finished chewing our portions," Fozli said. "Our women soak leather root and beat it until the fibers are clean. If we find other leather roots, I could make a bolika."
Darm stared at Fozli who had begun chewing vigorously, then reluctantly returned the end of his fibrous portion to his mouth. As they walked he continued to chew and gradually grew accustomed to the earthy taste. By the time Tharek found another desiccated leather-root plant growing near the track, the pieces they had been chewing were little more than hanks of tough fiber. Darm took another portion without complaining and gave Fozli the fibers.
They added snow to the water in their water-skins and tucked them close to their sides. In their woolen robes, they were almost too warm in the bright, calm weather. The snow quickly melted from the heat of their bodies and they had adequate water to satisfy their thirst.
The garrisoned hostels were set along the pilgrim road at approximately a day's march for ordinary pilgrims which might include both the elderly and the very young. For three young men it was a shorter interval and they came in sight of the characteristic blocky shape of the garrison before mid-afternoon. Tharek led them off the road and into a gully that would shield their presence from the guards who stood watch on the crenelated roof.
"We could continue on to the hostel, but I think we would meet the same treatment there that we encountered at the garrison near Jama," Tharek said. "If the impressment of pilgrim men for debt after they have eaten bread and slept in the hostel is an official policy of Emperor Marnat, I must report the matter to the High Priest in Timora."
"The bribery of legionnaires is routine for Kumnorans," Fozli said. "It is the reason that any who wish to make a pilgrimage to Timora must find some way to gain extra wealth by hunting wirra or digging for docil roots and gathering dass. Because of the corruption of the legionnaires, some young men become outlaw and enter into partnerships with Jaman factors."
"Evil breeds evil," Tharek replied. "This day was foreseen by Irilik and other prophets. Timora itself is threatened by the ambition of Marnat. First I must make certain that it was official policy and not mere local avarice that made the guard captain try to cheat us of our freedom."
Darm finished chewing another leather root and tossed the remains to Fozli who was braiding the fiber into a line. "When I took my pilgrimage to Timora in my youth, we passed through Saadena. As pilgrims, we kept to the pilgrimage road, but there must be other ways to reach the city."
"We could go north of the road and keep to the waste," Tharek said. "There is danger from the wild tribes if we go that way. They show no mercy to the people of Okishdu. On the other hand, the people of Virdana who live in the valley of the Comor are wary of pilgrims who do not keep to the roads. Too many rascals have taken advantage of the law that requires generosity to pilgrims. The law is kept, but barely. Moldy bread and stale water will be our lot if we pass through Virdana in our white robes."
"I can cut the long skirts from our robes with my stripping tool and turn them into capes," Fozli said. "But it will not be as easy to change the color. These robes were woven of wool of rare white corums. They resist stains, the better to last through a pilgrimage."
Tharek studied the vegetation around them. "I think we need stench bulbs. They will stain anything."
Darm objected. "I know the staining power of stench bulbs, but I would rather brave the wild tribes than dye my robe with such a stink."
Fozli had nearly finished braiding his bolika and he looked around to find a smooth, round stone to braid into the end opposite the loop. Tharek was polishing and oiling the blade of the star sword to make certain no moisture had begun to stain it. Darm, with nothing to occupy his hands, was writing in the sandy soil of the gully with a stick. They seemed to have reached an impasse.
Fozli tightened the knot at the end of his bolika and looked up. "Even if we traveled in plain tunics, we would find little welcome here in the border lands and sooner or later we could be arrested by the legionnaires. I suggest we change the tables on those who would steal our freedom. One of us should go ahead to the garrison. If he is taken in the same snare that was laid for us last night, we will know for certain that the impressment is the Emperor's policy and not some whim of the captain near Jama. When the one taken is marched away to Saadena, they will doubtless split the garrison in order to provide an escort."
Darm smiled. "The two of us who are left behind can take on those who remain in the garrison and make them pay for their crime. Then we will rescue our fellow."
Tharek shook his head. "I would not risk losing the light of the Stone of Truth for the sake of freedom. If we accost the garrison, we will become outlaws. Those who let us go with a bribe near Jama will provide a description that will lead to our capture. There has to be another way."
They sat in silence for a while longer. Then Tharek stood and moved away up the gully. As he walked, he pulled his prayer shawl over his head. It was time to seek further light.
When he returned there was a wry smile on his face. "We will all go on to the garrison and let ourselves be taken."
Darm frowned, but he did not question the scheme. Fozli stood and wound the bolika around his waist under the leather band that held his breech cloth in place.
When they approached the garrison an hour later they saw that four men wearing white robes had been assembled in front of the entry arch. Two legionnaires guarded them. Beyond them an elderly Virdanan woman was pleading with the captain of the guard. "Please do not take my sons. They have wives and children. If they do not return, there will be hunger."
"The law is plain, old woman," the captain sneered. "The emperor needs able-bodied men to build his city and man his garrisons along the pilgrim road. I am instructed to arrest all who falsely wear the robes of pilgrims. How do I know that these are your sons? They stand accused of stealing the charity of the Emperor. They should have considered their wives and children before taking our bread and shelter."
"Allow at least one of them accompany me to my home," the woman pleaded.
"We will take the place of these men," Tharek said. "Let them go home with their mother."
His offer caught the captain's attention and he pushed the old woman out of his path and surveyed the sturdy strength of the newcomers. He looked from the long staffs they carried to the pikes of his men and backed away a step.
"Will you accept our offer?" Tharek asked.
"Three men for four is no bargain!" the captain shouted angrily. "You should be taken in custody for suggesting such a thing."
"But you have no reason for detaining us," Tharek pointed out. "We have not eaten the bread in this hostel, nor have we spent the night under your roof."
The captain looked back and forth between the quartet of farmers in his custody and the three strong young men who would earn far more credit with the emperor's agents. "Go with your mother!" he finally ordered his captives. The armed men warily approached Tharek, Darm and Fozli, their pikes held at the ready.
"We will go with you peacefully to Saadena," Tharek assured them. They started off down the road toward Saadena and the legionnaires ran to catch up to them.
"Where do we sleep tonight?" Tharek asked one of the guards after the sun had lowered to the edge of the western mountains.
"We are taking you to the gathering point for those who have been arrested on the pilgrim roads," the guard answered. "We should arrive not long after nightfall."
Soon afterward they encountered several other small groups of men in pilgrim robes, all guarded by legionnaires. They were beyond their first youth, but none were elderly. Marnat's orders had skirted the limits very carefully. The road became crowded with legionnaires and their captives. It was an uneasy assemblage.
The pilgrims who had been detained carried nothing but water skins and bread pouches. Even though they outnumbered the guards, they walked with their heads and shoulders bowed in submission.
The sun was fully set by the time they were all herded into a crude bastion of rock walls that wore a crown of bronze spikes. A captain of the legion stood by a scribe who counted them. "I am Koral, commander of this fortress. Henceforth, you must consider yourself property of Marnat, emperor of Saadena. You have abused the custom of the pilgrim ways and stolen bread and shelter. For seven years you will be bound to serve, as the law prescribes."
When he finished speaking, the men lined up and each of them was handed a clay cup of water and a few cold matlas. The cold was intense near the walls, but there were fires burning near the center of the compound. The prisoners huddled together near the fires while they finished eating the sparse rations.
Chapter 7 The Prophet
Tharek looked into the confused, dispirited faces of the men who had been coerced into serving as Marnat's slaves. His spirit was burdened by this evidence of evil. For six hundred years the rulers of Saadena had used the power of their strategic city for good. The pilgrim roads had been a network of value to every clan in Okishdu, providing safety and aid for pilgrims and transport for goods. Saadena had benefited from the wealth bestowed by the right to collect tolls of all but pilgrims who used the roads.
The arrogant legionnaires who guarded the captives were far from the ideal of stalwart charity that had been set by Saaden when he first established the roads. Tharek felt the pressure of prophecy in the heat that filled his chest and summoned the words of Irilik. If Marnat's oppression continued there would be war, not just the skirmishes with wild tribes from the north-east, or the clan battles of Janakan warriors. The conflict would spread over the face of Okishdu, with thousands slain.
His imagination, primed with an intimate knowledge of the clan battles of Janaka, provided him with a vivid picture of what was to come. He shuddered. Thinking that his friend was afraid of the guards, Darm assured him, "We could still escape if you fear the legionnaires."
"It is not the men, but the policies they follow that frighten me," Tharek said. "Irilik prophesied that an empire would arise in Okishdu that would work many of the same abominations that caused the destruction of Renon in Kishdu. The earth will shudder and rend and war will follow."
"I remember the prophecies,"Darm said. "Many generations will pass away before such things take place,"
"The time has come," Tharek stated. "Marnat thinks to raise himself above the other kings and rulers of Okishdu and claims to be emperor of all. I must go to Timora as soon as possible and give witness against him. He will be judged by the High Priest on the basis of the Scroll of Prophecy and History in the sacred library."
A guard passed by and scowled at the sound of a raised voice. He prodded Tharek with the blunt end of his spear before passing on to bully other prisoners.
"You should have thought of the need to go to Timora before you guided us back into the custody of Marnat's legionnaires," Darm hissed.
Tharek shut his eyes and placed his hands over the pouch at his throat that held the Stone of Truth. His face took on a look of distant contemplation, glowing softly as if lit with an inner fire. Finally he nodded. "This is all part of the pattern. We will find that the swiftest way to Timora lies through Saadena. I cannot avert Marnat's evil, but it seems I am destined to play some part in the chaos that follows."
"Fozli, go find what the guards are doing. Engage them in banter if necessary, but keep their attention from straying to the men in the compound. Darm, look at the wall near the south-east corner. Test the barbs on top of the wall. I think you will find that some of them are loose. Meanwhile, I have work to do."
The tone of his voice sent them off without further questions. Tharek removed the Stone of Truth from its hiding place in the pouch at his neck and cupped it in his hand so that it shone in front of him without revealing his face. He began to walk among the huddled pilgrims. To his dismay, many did not look up when he placed the light directly in front of them. Others looked up at him with wonder and hope. "Come to the light when you see the signal of three," he whispered to each one who acknowledged the light. One man looked toward the man who huddled near him.
"I cannot leave my brother," he whispered.
Tharek shone the light full into the face of the brother, but his eyes were like black pits, giving no indication that he saw anything but darkness. A tell-tale stain marked the corner of his mouth.
"He chews docil root?" Tharek asked.
"My parents hoped that a visit to the holy waters of Timora would banish his weakness."
Tharek shook his head. "The waters of Timora will not heal a willful evil. Bring him with you when the signal is given and take him home. Otherwise, he will slip deeper into his weakness."
When Tharek had made a circuit of the compound, he walked to the rear wall where Darm had found the loose barbs that Tharek's vision had shown him. A broad section, easily wide enough to allow several men to pass, had been cleared of barbs and Darm had placed large stones at the base of the wall that men could stand on to climb over and through the gap.
Tharek fixed the Stone of Truth into the setting he had prepared in the top of his sword staff and lifted it high. Then he began to turn it so that the light flashed three times. A gasp of surprise from beyond the wall betrayed the presence of a guard set to circle the compound. The man climbed up and over the wall, then bowed toward Tharek. "What would you have me do?" he asked.
"Do you swear to set the will of the Radiance ahead of your own life if need be?" Tharek asked.
The legionnaire raised his hand in the sign of oath. "I swear to do whatever you ask with no thought for my life."
"Return to your post outside the wall and help those who will soon make their way to safety," Tharek directed. When the man had let himself down, Tharek mused on the workings of the will of the Radiance. Surely this guard was the only legionnaire who could see the light of the Stone of Truth. It was no accident that he had been chosen to walk the rounds.
At the sign of the flashing light, the men Tharek had alerted began to separate themselves from those who had not responded to the Stone of Truth, moving slowly and stealthily to avoid drawing notice to the gathering that was taking place near the rear wall. Those left behind huddled closer to the dim warmth of the dying fires that provided the only light they could see.
"First, return to your homes," Tharek said in an intense, low voice that seemed to penetrate the night. "Warn others that the pilgrim roads have been corrupted into slave traps by the policies of Saadena's emperor, Marnat. You know what I am by the token I bear. I warn of plague and famine, storm and earthquake. Saadena will be destroyed for Marnat's pride. Prepare yourselves for a time of testing. Take this message abroad to all Okishdu."
The men raised their hands in the timeless sign of pledge, silently affirming their willingness to become messengers for the prophet. They had hoped to make a pilgrimage, but this was a greater, holier challenge. Their hopelessness in the face of the bullying legionnaires had humbled them. The appearance of one who bore the Stone of Irilik was a miracle of hope that made them eager to do his bidding.
In the midst of them, the docil addicted brother stared around him, vainly trying to discover what the others saw so clearly. He pulled at his brother's robe, urging him to return to the fire, his voice growing more strident.
Reluctantly, his brother took off his sash and bound his brother's mouth while others bound his hands. He was lifted by several men and carried over the wall. The legionnaire who stood outside the wall helped his brother lead him away.
As soon as the last of the men was safely over the wall, Tharek and Darm set to work to repair the gap. Soon there was no sign of the escape. More than a third of the captured men still remained in the compound huddled near the fires.
The legionnaire captain at the first hostel had made allegations that thieves and other criminals used the claim of being pilgrims as a cover. Tharek did not care to inquire as to why this remnant had been unable to see the light. There were enough of them left in the compound that the escape of the other pilgrims would go unnoticed until morning when a head count was made.
The sounds of raucous laughter came from the gate of the compound where Fozli was entertaining the guards with a story. Tharek took the Stone of Truth from his sword-staff and hid it in the pouch at his throat, bringing darkness to the compound once again.
At the gate, Fozli yawned and slumped. His words began to slur and his wit seemed to wane. The chief of the night guards stood and ordered him to leave the region near the gate. "We have heard enough of your foolishness. Go back with the other pilgrims. You will get nothing by trying to curry favor."
Fozli staggered wearily back to the rear of the compound to find Darm and Tharek. His act of fatigue was only partly feigned. When he found his companions they were whispering together. He squatted near enough to to listen.
"It is not too late to follow the others," Darm insisted.
"I must go to Saadena and warn the people of the city of what is coming," Tharek said. "If you and Fozli want to escape, then I will pray for you."
"What did you see in the vision you had?" Fozli asked.
"I saw myself preaching by night in the streets of Saadena. You and Darm were often by my side."
"Then we must stay with you," Darm said. "Why did you not tell me of the vision?"
"I do not want my visions to influence the decisions you make," Tharek said. "If you choose to leave me I will find others to help me."
Darm scowled. "You should have told me about the vision. I am bound to you by a vow of brotherhood, but now my obligation to follow you is even greater. You cannot carry out your duties to the Radiance without help. Saadena is full of Marnat's minions. Three of us are not enough, but it is better than if you went alone."
Tharek smiled ironically. "I only know that the three of us have been chosen. It may take years before our destiny plays out."
"Chosen!" Darm grunted. "It seems to me we blundered into this problem."
Tharek shrugged. "We can only follow the path that is opened for us. Tomorrow we will be found to be among the men who did not escape. There are not enough guards to pursue those who followed the light and found their freedom."
Darm's dour expression changed to a wide smile. "The morning promises to be interesting."
They moved closer to one of the now dying fires and huddled into their robes. A thick overcast had shielded their activities and the air seemed slightly warmer than it had been during the day. A damp, thick, snow began to fall.
As soon as the sun rose the guards began to wake their prisoners. It soon became evident that most of their captives were no longer huddled near the fires. The ground surrounding the compound was examined for evidence of the escape, but the snow that fell concealed their tracks. Those who remained were lined up next to the wall and Koral, the captain of the fortress, began to question them.
"What happened last night?" he asked the first man. An answer was encouraged by the chief of the night guards who put his pike against the man's chest and shoved him against the wall.
"A man came into the compound and led the others away," the prisoner gasped.
"Why did you stay?" Koral challenged.
"I could not see the signal. The man said there would be a signal," the prisoner said.
"Tell me exactly what was said," Koral demanded.
"I could not see the light. He said there would be a light."
The captain moved on to the next prisoner and received even less information. "I was asleep all night," the prisoner whimpered. "I saw nothing. I heard nothing."
Koral turned him over to one of the guards. "Take him away and convince him that ignorance is no excuse."
"I heard talking, but it made no sense to me and I was weary!" the man cried as he was dragged away for a closer examination.
Fozli stood third in line. The captain glared up at him. "What did you see?"
"When I returned from talking to the guards, I noticed that there seemed to be fewer men around the campfires."
Captain Koral turned to the night chief who had put his pike to Fozli's chest. "Did this man speak to you while you were guarding the compound last night?"
"He told us some foolish stories until we grew weary of his fables and I sent him away from the gate."
"You saw nothing amiss while he was speaking to you, no lights or strange sounds?" the captain asked.
"No, there was nothing but a few frightened yelps," the night chief answered. "I thought it was a docil addict crying out in his dreams. He is one of those missing along with his brother."
"You are a fool!" Koral sneered. "Why did you fail to set a watchman to circle the compound?"
"We set a watchman to circle the compound, but the man who was set to watch did not return. I thought he was visiting the harlot Bechanel who lives in the village and eventually I sent another man to circle the compound."
Koral held up his hand and summoned another guard. "Take the night chief into custody. He is to be stripped and flogged for his dereliction."
The night chief turned his pike from Fozli and launched it at Koral. It rebounded from the captain's bronze strapped leather breastplate and clattered to the stony ground of the compound.
Koral leaped at his rebellious subordinate, bearing him to the ground and fighting for control of a dagger that wavered between them. The scuffle between the two officers brought other legionnaires running.
Most of the prisoners, emboldened by the escape of the others during the night, took advantage of the disarray of their captors and ran toward the gate. They were quickly stopped by a couple of legionnaires at the opening. When Koral had at last re-established order and presided over the summary execution of the rebellious night chief, he turned to see Tharek, Fozli, and Darm still waiting patiently in the places they had held while everyone around them were trying to escape.
"You made no attempt to escape," the captain said.
"We are not prisoners," Tharek explained. "We intended to make a pilgrimage, but when we discovered that Emperor Marnat was recruiting servants and soldiers, we volunteered to take the places of several men who were being kept from taking their mother to Timora."
"You are volunteers?" Koral asked, incredulous. He summoned the man who had brought the three men to the gathering place. "Are these men your prisoners?"
The legionnaire scratched his head briefly. "They owed no debt for bread or housing, but they offered to take the place of four brothers who were escorting their mother on a pilgrimage."
"Volunteers!" Koral snorted. "The three of you are either fools or something worse." He pointed to Fozli. "I know that this one spent the evening entertaining my guards so they forgot their duty." He whirled and pointed his finger at Darm, then Tharek. "Did either of the two of you see what took place last night?"
Darm nodded. "A prophet with the Stone of Truth came to the men in the compound and offered them their freedom. Those who could see the light followed him."
"There was great light," Tharek added. "but we have sworn to go to Saadena and did not break our bond."
"You should have reported the escape to the guard!" the captain snarled.
"Would you have interfered with one who carried the Stone of Truth and spoke as a Son of Irilik?" Darm asked.
The question confounded Koral. To answer 'yes' would name him an infidel, to answer 'no' would name him disloyal to Marnat. After a moment of silence, he changed the subject. "Where did the prisoners go?"
"The prophet told them to return to their homes first, then they were to carry the warning he gave them to others," Darm answered. "He said that Saadena would be destroyed because of the evil Marnat has done and that war would cover the land."
"I heard him say that," one of the other prisoners volunteered. "I couldn't see him, or the light these men claimed that they saw, but I heard the prophet warn of earthquake and pestilence."
The captain stared around him at the line of prisoners whose robes had been torn and dirtied in their futile struggle to escape. Most of them nodded when his eyes rested on them.
"Prepare to return to Saadena immediately," Koral told his men. "As for the three of you," he swept Tharek, Darm, and Fozli with an angry gaze. "You will come with me and give evidence to the emperor of what you saw. First, we must find the errant watchman."
Saadena was less than a day's march away but their departure from the crude fortress was delayed by the Captain's decision to search for the missing guard. Bechanel, the harlot who was suspected of harboring him, was dragged from her home and questioned by the guards.
"That one was too proud for the likes of me," Bechanel said. "Best you search the home of the widow who lives on the other side of town."
When the widow and her three small children were brought before Koral, they admitted that they knew the guard, but only from his charity. "He saw me gathering twigs along the road and purchased a bundle of wood for me," one of the ragged children said. "He carried it home for me and gave my mother the job of washing his clothing."
Koral smirked at the young widow. "Is that all you did for him?"
The older of her two small sons balled his fists and rushed toward the captain. Tharek stepped forward and caught the child in his arms. "Why do you insult this good woman?" he asked Koral. "I heard the guard who was on watch last night. He saw the light and swore an oath to follow the prophet, even at the risk of his own life. Such a man would not have sullied the virtue of a widow."
Koral hesitated. Then he caught the look of spite in Bechanel's painted eyes. "Bring the harlot. She will have no more custom once we leave this place. Her neighbors might stone her for accusing the widow."
The woman scurried to gather her few gaudy possessions and joined the train of legionnaires and their captives. The widow stood with her arms around her children, waiting to be told her fate.
"Let her go," the captain ordered the guards who stood on either side. "We have wasted our time here."
When they finally set forth, Tharek and his friends went before the others. Koral had put them on parole, given their apparent willingness to accept servitude. The harlot danced ahead, happy to be taken to Saadena where she would find more custom.
She practiced her charms on Tharek, but his cold gaze soon turned her blandishments away. Next Fozli was subjected to her blunt flirtation. He was not as cool as Tharek in discouraging an artful woman, and he entered into a lively, joking conversation, but she soon discovered that his jests were all at her expense. Disgruntled, she tossed her gilded curls and set her Jaman earrings jingling. Darm was tongue-tied when she began to flirt with him.
Encouraged by his silence, she chattered and giggled at his side, matching his long strides with quick small steps that set the brass bangles at her ankles tinkling.
Darm was confused by a tangle of emotions. He had taken pity on the woman when she was first dragged before the captain. He remembered Tharek's description of how the women of Jama were sold into harlotry as children. Her false accusation of the widow had shocked him, but he was fascinated by her seductive ways.
The memory of his wife, Belria, so different from Bechanel, came to his mind and he saw the tawdry creature for what she was. His face grew grim and the harlot seem to realize that her game had grown cold.
She found a warmer welcome among the legionnaires. When she lagged and limped, they formed a rough palanquin with a few pikes and an extra cloak and she rode on toward Saadena carried high on the shoulders of two of her frequent customers.
As the sun neared the edge of the eastern horizon, they came to the city. Broad fields lay fallow under the blanket of new snow, but the landscape was a scene of activity. Lines of men struggled under heavy ropes pulling great blocks of stone toward the river that ran through the gap in Saadena's western wall.
Galley barges propelled by straining oarsmen carried other stones into the city. Along the top of the western wall, south of the river, the towers of a palace could be seen.
Koral ignored the paths that led to the river and directed Tharek to take the road that led up and over the edges of the cupped plateau in which the main part of the city was built. It was a steep climb, but the way was lined with shops and homes of mud bricks where merchants and farmers dickered over their wares.
At the edge of the plateau the humble suburbs gave way to the stone buildings of the imperial city. Tharek and his friends stopped for a moment and waited for the others to catch up to them. Fozli stared. "I never dreamed that so many people could live in one place."
The tall piers of a great bridge marked the edges of the river, but otherwise, the banks were so crowded that the water was hidden from sight. The smoke of fires filled the air with a haze that rose and hovered overhead.
This is a wonder," Fozli whispered. Tharek nodded, but his face was grim.
Chapter 8 The Emperor
Marnat stood on one of the newest towers of his palace and looked over his city. The great bridge spanning the river that ran through the city was only one of the many improvements he had made. In the workshops near the foot of the bridge craftsmen worked both night and day to provide embellishments for the palace. Gilt and glass mosaics sparkled in the sun.
Someday, Marnat vowed, he would replace the gilt with gold and the glass with carved gems. The income from his taxes had increased, proving that his policies were sound.
His ancestors had ignored the potential of using the legions who guarded the pilgrim ways. For centuries they had been nothing but guards against thieves with the tolls they collected used for little more than maintaining the roads.
Marnat had converted them into a true army and the tolls and taxes extracted from Virdana and beyond had begun to swell his treasury. The clever plan of drafting servants from the pilgrims had not been his own idea, but the man who had suggested it was well rewarded.
A train of men entered the city from the head of the pilgrimage trail. Marnat was briefly puzzled by the three tall men in pilgrim's robes who walked at the head of the train, then his gaze was caught by a woman who was carried above the heads of soldiers on a litter formed of spears. She seemed to shimmer in the twilight. She was still too far away for him to see her features, but the angle of her head, the grace of her form, was enough to warm his desire for novelty.
Cozaul, the emperor's steward, ever mindful of his master's wishes, saw the direction of Marnat's gaze. "Do you want the woman brought to you?" he asked.
Marnat nodded, then he turned his eyes to the others in the procession. The sight of men in pilgrim's robes, herded like sheep by his legionnaires, had grown common in Saadena in the past few months. The three pilgrims striding along without constraint at the head of the train were an anomaly. "Bring all of them to me. I will receive them in my new audience hall. Order the court to attend me there before the sun has fully set."
Cozaul did not venture to remind Marnat that the members of the court were already assembled in the great dining hall and had been waiting for nearly an hour to break the two day fast he had decreed. The emperor had no patience with the needs of others. Three stewards had lost their heads before Cozaul had been elevated to the post. He was determined to avoid Marnat's wrath. The position of steward under the profligate emperor offered a steady flow of bribes and rewards.
When Marnat entered the audience hall, he found that all his cousins and cronies were bowing with their foreheads to the ground as he had recently prescribed. Only one person still stood, but he had expected his sister Marinin to defy his orders. The day would come when she would also bow, and it would be the sweeter for her long defiance.
"Arise my friends," he said when he was seated on the jeweled bench that stood on a dais above their heads. He summoned a servant who carried a gilded bowl heaped with fruit. After pinching and prodding the pieces of fruit, releasing their fragrance to tantalize those who watched, he selected a ripe golden nuka fruit and bit into it. After he had savored a few bites, he tossed the rest of the fruit to the floor. It splattered on the rich Virdanan carpet. He smirked at the avid looks that followed the discarded morsel. It had been amusing to declare a two day fast preceding Saaden's Day, particularly since he had accepted himself from the requirement.
"Tonight we will celebrate the forefather who founded the city that has brought us wealth and the destiny of rule. Soon we will all feast, but first, I wish to be amused. Cozaul, bring in the procession."
There had been no opportunity for the legionnaires and their prisoners to refresh themselves. The fast that Marnat had declared kept all from using the wells and fountains that were a glory of the city of Saadena. They entered the audience hall still covered with the grime of their march.
In contrast, the robes of Tharek, Fozli, and Darm still shown pristine white and their youthful faces held no hint of abasement. At the rear of the procession, Bechanel reclined seductively on the palanquin her admirers had arranged. She leaned forward, extended her arms and bowed her head slowly to meet her knees. It was a movement calculated to make the most of her lithe, voluptuous form.
Marnat's eyes briefly surveyed the trio of proud pilgrims, but the harlot caught and held his attention. "What lady is this?" he asked.
"I am Bechanel, the most devoted of great Marnat's subjects."
"Welcome Bechanel. Your loyalty will be rewarded," Marnat smirked. He could hear the suppressed reactions of his scandalized courtiers. It made the elevation of the painted woman even more delicious. "You will be given the chief women's quarters and twelve servants. Go now, and await me."
Cozaul summoned servants to carry the harlot away, still mounted on the palanquin. Then he gestured Koral to come forward. "Captain, you were given command of the fortress where the false pilgrims are assembled for entry into Saadena. Why have you deserted your post?"
"Last night most of the men escaped. The circumstances were such that I knew you must hear of them," Koral replied.
Marnat's face reddened at the news and he leaped up from his bench and screamed. "You will be flogged and paraded through the streets. Then your father, your brothers and your cousins to the third degree will be taken to the execution yards, one for each of the men you have lost."
"Koral is innocent of blame," Tharek said. It was so unusual for anyone to interrupt one of Marnat's rages that a gasp of astonishment resonated through the room.
Marnat whirled and pointed at Tharek, "Who are you to interrupt your emperor?"
"I am only a servant," Tharek said, with a deep bow that acknowledged Marnat's position. "I was brought here to give evidence."
Marnat settled on his jeweled bench and considered the man who had interrupted him. He had acknowledged himself as a servant, but he was anything but servile. The evidence of the staff in his hands and the look of his face would name him a Mareklan, but Mareklans did not wear pilgrim's robes. "What is your name?"
"I am Tharek."
Marnat settled back, bringing his heel up to the edge of the bench and hugging his knee. His face twisted in thought. Then his eyes lit and he began to giggle. "You are outcast, a criminal guilty of some crime so awful that you no longer have claim on your people."
Tharek bowed his head in acknowledgment of the emperor's words. From the evidence at hand, he knew that Marnat would be more amused than shocked by his outcast state.
"And what of you?" Marnat asked Darm.
"I am also outcast," Darm admitted. "It seemed better to be a servant in Saadena than to wander without the aid of family."
Marnat giggled. "Three outcasts, willing to serve me. What better gift could I be granted."
Fozli did not contradict the emperor's assumption that he also lacked a claim on his clan.
"Now tell me why you claim that Koral deserves no blame in the loss of his prisoners," Marnat demanded.
"A prophet came in the night. He carried the Stone of Truth. It shown with a brilliance that rivaled noonday. Those who could see the light gathered to him and he led them to freedom," Darm said.
"It was as he says," Tharek affirmed.
"He speaks the truth," Fozli said.
Marnat stared from one to the other of the three witnesses. "Why did you not seek your own freedom."
"I saw the light, but I had pledged to serve you," Darm said. "The prophet warned that there would be storms and earthquakes and that Saadena would be destroyed."
Marnat giggled. "He was mad. Nothing can destroy this great city. I have determined that Saadena will rival ancient Renon. Today I am emperor of Saadena, but soon I will rule all Okishdu. No city can stand before the might of my legionnaires."
His vision of what would be kept him rapt for a moment, but then he whirled on Koral. "Why did you let this alleged prophet go free?"
"I was in my quarters. I did not see the light. I did not discover the escape until morning came," the captain said. "The man who was placed in charge of the night guard has been executed, but these witnesses have not told you the worst of what was done. The Prophet told the men he liberated to go out and tell others that your city will fall because you have broken the bond that Saaden made to Irilik, to provide safe passage on the pilgrim roads."
Marnat stood and paced. Finally he paused. "You must have known that I would punish you and all your family when you brought me news of the escape, Koral. Yet you came with these witnesses and warned me of the mischief that is going forth. Instead of fleeing to safety, you have proven your courage, or your stupidity, by hurrying to tell me of the threat. I retract my orders that the men of your family will suffer an ugly death. Instead, I give you the task of hunting down this prophet who threatens the serenity of my reign. If you find him, bring him to me and I will establish whether or not he is a fraud. Take this signet and you will have all that is necessary to the task. If you have not found this alleged prophet within a month, my sentence on you and your family will stand."
Koral bowed low after taking the signet from the hand of Marnat. He backed away, his head never rising above the level of his waist as he left the audience hall along with his weary troops. Marnat turned his attention back to the three pilgrims who stood before him. "You would be my servants? Attend me at my feast while I decide what use to make of you."
The courtiers, who had remained abased while Marnat considered the fate of Koral, raised their heads and examined the young men who had caught the interest of the emperor.
Marnat was not an easy sovereign to serve, either as servant or courtier. Many were imprisoned or executed for petty offenses. Perhaps these men could provide an avenue of approach to the fickle ruler. On the other hand, the harlot had a better chance of maintaining his interest. While they weighed the likelihood of influencing their emperor, they made their way back to the dining hall and the feast that had waited for several hours as sauces cooled and grease congealed.
As was Marnat's custom with his newest novelties, he directed that Tharek, Darm and Fozli would be seated near at hand, displacing those with greatest rank. While the other guests proceeded to eat the cold roasts and stale puddings, Marnat satisfied his own appetite with food that was hot and fresh.
The three young men shared serving dishes with the emperor, and their appetites had been whetted by two days of eating nothing more than leather root.
"You were Janakan?" Marnat asked of Darm.
Darm nodded and Marnat giggled. "I have just the task for you. You will work with my Tedakan smith as an apprentice."
Darm concealed his grin, bowing his head as if to give way gracefully.
"And you," Marnat turned to Fozli. "You are Kumnoran. You will serve me in my library. You will catalog my scrolls and slates." Fozli's face reflected his shock at this sudden fulfillment of his dearest wish, but Marnat mistook the tears that welled in Fozli's eyes as signs of chagrin and he giggled again.
Last of all the emperor turned to Tharek and studied him. "I have no Mareklan servants. I have wanted one. You are a proud race, ruling both men and women with your pretense of special privilege and virtue. Yet you own no land and raise no crops. Could it be that you disdain the thought of dirt under your fingernails? My sister Marinin is developing a garden. She has need of a set of strong shoulders and a healthy back to dig her furrows and plant her flower beds. Perhaps she will want you in her bed as well."
Tharek simply bowed his head, hiding his eyes beneath his lowered lashes. It was easy to discern that Marnat was seeking the best means of humiliating him and targeting his sister as well. It seemed Marnat's sister was as virtuous as her brother was decadent. Her face had paled when Marnat made his foul suggestion that she would take her servant as a lover.
Marnat grew bored with his game when he saw that none of the three men had protested their assignments. He summoned his steward. "I am weary of this company. The feast is ended."
He turned back to his three new servants before leaving the room and seeking the company of Bechanel. "You will dine with me tomorrow and let me know how much you enjoy the assignments I have made."
As soon as Marnat left the room the courtiers scrambled away from the table. The brevity of the meal and the condition of the food had not satisfied their hunger and before many minutes passed, the room was empty of all but the three new servants and Marinin.
"I would not ask you to take on the task my brother has assigned to you," the grave faced woman assured Tharek. "But you must do what he says, or he will find something far more onerous."
"I find no shame in helping you build a garden," Tharek said. "It is not the lack of love for flowers and soil that has kept my clan from farming. Mareklans do not plant because they have no land. We live in temporary camps and have no gardens of our own."
A shy smile warmed and brightened Marinin's face. "Come, it seems that all three of you have been abandoned. I will show you to quarters in the old part of the palace. They are not new enough to draw envy from the courtiers, but you will have comfort and privacy."
Marinin led them through the gaudy corridor that attached the new construction with the older halls. She gestured toward the hallway they were entering. "Barun, the great mason who supervised the building of the shrine in Timora, planned Saaden's palace six hundred years ago. Since then it has sufficed, with a few additions, for all the emperors that followed. My brother plans to wreck this older portion and replace it."
Tharek looked around at the stonework and shook his head. "It will not be easy to remove these walls. They were planned to stand for millennia."
"I pleaded with Marnat to let them be, but he only laughed at me. Perhaps if one of you made the suggestion, he would listen."
"Does Marnat ever listen to the words of other men?" Darm asked.
"If he can find some profit in it, he will listen to anyone. This scheme to indenture pilgrims was suggested by Garvok, the man Marnat calls his Hound. He would have set him on the trail of the prophet who liberated the pilgrims instead of entrusting the task to Koral, but Garvok is away on some business that I shudder to consider."
Marinin opened the door of a suite of rooms and invited them to enter. "I will send servants with bedding and towels. It seems you are to dine with Marnat tomorrow evening, but as you have seen, he enjoys making others miserable. I would advise you to eat your midday meal with the masons, they have the best provisions and the best cooks. There are baths down the stairs at the end of the corridor to the left."
"Where will I find the Tedakans?" Darm asked.
"Tedakans are efficient and by now they know that you have been assigned to them. Doubtless one of them will come for you. I will come for your friends. I can show Fozli to the library in this old wing of the palace and my garden is not far from here."
With that final instruction, Marinin nodded goodbye and left them alone to explore their quarters. Tharek seemed unimpressed, but even though Darm had been to Timora, he had never thought to live in an apartment such as this. Four rooms let off of the larger central room and each was appointed with a capacious bench chest and a wide bed along with assorted stools and tables. Several families could have lived in comfort in the suite of rooms.
Three of the bedrooms had windows that overlooked the city, the fourth had a light well that let in light and air but had no view. To the surprise of the other men, Tharek chose the room with the light well.
A knock came at their door and Darm opened it to find three servants loaded with piles of bedding, towels, and other amenities as Marinin had promised. As soon as they had deposited their burdens, Tharek thanked the servants and shut the door.
For a few minutes they stood at the windows and gazed out over the city below. They could see the looming barracks where indentured pilgrims were imprisoned. It was bound by a wall and there were towers at each of the four corners of the compound.
"I am going to find the baths and wash, then I'm going to bed," Tharek said.
"It is early yet," Darm protested. "We must begin work tomorrow. This evening we should explore the city."
"We will explore the city tonight, after we have slept," Tharek said. "I must begin to warn the people of Saadena. I need the two of you to stand watch and warn me if someone tries to stop me."
Neither of the others protested. They had set out on various quests, but this was an adventure beyond any they had imagined.
The bath showed its age in lime encrustations on the stone from which they had been carved. There was a boiler provided if they lit a fire in the wood that was stacked beneath the cauldron and wait until the heat perfused the bath.
"I would rather have an hour of extra sleep than wait until the water warms," Fozli said. The others agreed and they took quick baths in the cold water sluicing away the sweat and dirt of their travels.
The halls between the bath and their apartment were lined with many rooms, but all of them seemed long abandoned. When they returned to their apartment, Tharek closed the door and set a curious device beneath the latch. "It is a lock to protect us while we sleep. Mareklans seldom find the need to use them since we usually camp in open air, but none of us would go without one," he explained.
"We have little to steal except our lives," Fozli said.
"Exactly," Tharek answered grimly. "Marnat might decide to murder us in our sleep. I would not be surprised by anything he does. If he knew who I am, I would not live the night."
On that note, he put on his prayer scarf and raised his hands to perform the Evening Ritual. When he finished, the three men went to their separate rooms and tried to sleep.
Tharek woke the other two when it was dark outside. Instead of leading them out of the door or down from their windows, he led them to the light well in his room. "Fozli, bind our staffs together with your bolika. I will lower them to the pavement below this light well and we will follow."
Darm was full of questions, but he kept quiet. He could recognize the wisdom of Tharek's plan. If anyone was watching their rooms, they would see if someone climbed out of the window or walked through the door. He soon discovered what Tharek must have known before he suggested their means of exit. There were hand holds carved in the stone wall of the light-well.
They were shallow and gave evidence of many years disuse, but they were sufficient for the purpose of a stealthy exit. At the lower end they came out in a long, low hallway that served light-wells in other rooms as a means of cross ventilation for apartments with no windows.
The hallway ended in an opening closed off with bars of bronze. Tharek examined the mortar that held the bars in place and gave a grunt of satisfaction. "Darm, put your staff cross ways between these two bars and shove. Lend him your weight, Fozli."
At first nothing happened, but then the mortar broke loose and the bar slid out of place. There was just enough room for each of them to shinny through without their robes. Fozli's broad shoulders nearly stuck, but Darm and Tharek each grabbed one of his legs and pulled him through.
"How many nights am I expected to peel my shoulders like this?" Fozli asked with a grimace of pain.
"If we loosen another bar, you should pass easily," Darm said.
Tharek treated Fozli's abraded shoulders with an ointment that took away the sting. They put on their robes, took up their staffs and started along a culvert that led downward to the barracks where the pilgrims were kept.
When Darm saw where they were heading he tried to intervene. "There are guards on the walls to keep these men from escaping. Shouldn't you begin your preaching among the free men and women of the city?"
"When Marnat learns that the Prophet is in the city, he will double his precautions against letting these men escape."
"It takes more cunning to avoid a foe than meet them head-on," Fozli said. "I believe that is Tharek's purpose."
Tharek held up his hand for silence. They had reached the barracks. Close to the middle of the perimeter of the compound a small building jutted from the wall. At first it seemed that it was empty, but when Tharek opened the door he heard a whimper.
He held the Stone of Truth gripped tightly in his hand and he opened his fist to let the light show into the tiny room. Three women were huddled inside with several children. They were wearing grimy clothing and their faces were wan and thin.
Fozli, ever careful of his stomach, had brought a few matlas and his water skin. As soon as he saw the condition of the women and children, he pushed past Tharek and extended the food and drink.
"Who are you?" Tharek asked them.
"Our husbands and sons were taken by the emperor's guards. We followed, hoping that we could gain their freedom, but no one will give us a hearing," an older woman said while the others shared the food between their children.
Darm had been willing to help Tharek free the pilgrims, but this offense against women and children was an outrage to his soul. "We must help them," he insisted.
Tharek nodded. "Lead them back to our rooms, Darm. The three of us can share one room." He turned to the women again. "Are there other women like you?"
"There were many in the beginning, but most of them have been taken away as servants for the legionnaires. We were overlooked because once we realized that we would not be heard, we hid here. We go out at night to scavenge."
"Do you trust me?" Tharek asked her.
"How could I doubt the word of one who bears the Stone of Truth?"
"Where did you come from?"
"We came from the border of Virdana, near Tedaka, from a village called Farmin."
"Are there others from your village in the compound?"
The woman shook her head. "Farmin has been depleted by the servant sellers, they took most of our young people with no consequence. It is no secret that the Orenese are hand in glove with Marnat. Once it was sufficient for him to buy stolen men from others. Now he has found a way to steal their freedom with no intermediary."
The woman was well-spoken and Tharek guessed that it was she who had kept the others from being taken by the legionnaires. "Go with my friend and he will lead you to food and shelter. I will try to bring your husbands and sons to join you before the night is over."
Once Darm had led the women away with their children clinging to their skirts, Tharek searched the tiny building and found a few empty barrels and an old chest. "Help me carry these to the back wall of the building," he told Fozli. "Take the men to the empty rooms in the old palace when they join you."
They stacked the barrels on the chest and Tharek climbed to the roof, leaving Fozli to watch and warn if anyone approached. The roof of the shed was only slightly canted and high enough to give a view of the inside of the compound. Tharek placed the Stone of Truth on his staff and held it aloft. It flooded the pilgrim barracks with the clear pure light that rivaled the sun at midday, banishing every shadow.
The staff itself served to shadow Tharek's face, but the faces of the men who gazed up in wonder were filled with hope. The story of the prophet who had rescued men on the trail had spread like any gossip will, but most had doubted that the prophet would dare to enter Saadena.
"Are you prepared to leave your oppressors?" Tharek asked. His voice was quiet, hardly penetrating beyond the wall. As soon as he asked his question their answer was a shout of affirmation. The noise shook the timber towers where their guards stared down, puzzled to discover the cause of the sudden accolade.
Tharek tossed several barrels into the compound and those who could see him caught them. "Stack these and use them to climb over the rear wall after the light is gone. I will provide a distraction while you escape. Follow the man dressed in pilgrim robes bearing a staff. He will find shelter for you." Once again, his words were quiet enough to defeat the hearing of the guards, but the captured pilgrims heard them. Those who had not seen the light held back, unwilling to risk their safety on the words of a stranger.
Tharek hid the Stone of Truth and ducked down to hide his shape. It was important that the men who escaped see Fozli and not look for him.
Men began tumbling over the walls, each stopping to help another once he was free. Soon they thronged the narrow alley and Fozli started out toward the palace with a column of men following behind.
The sudden exodus of so many men could not go unnoticed. A troop of legionnaires trotted down the street and turned into the alley. Tharek stood and once again uncovered the Stone of Truth. Five men of the twenty in the troop glanced up and saw the light. The others moved in darkness, peering into the alley.
"You have heard of me, I am the Prophet. Doom will come to Saadena, you must flee."
His voice boomed in the narrow alley, echoing from stone walls and confusing the source. Only those who saw the Light knew where he was, and they would not betray him, instead, they shouted contradictory orders. The other legionnaires milled around and stumbled in the darkness while the last of the men following Fozli made their escape.
Tharek stayed flat against the roof for several hours while the guards continued searching. He had read Irilik's report that those who were evil would avoid the light and even though Tharek kept the token cupped within his hand, the behavior of the searchers seemed to offer proof that it was so. The men looked on other roofs, and searched the house below him several times.
Confident at last that he was safe, Tharek dozed. The last searching legionnaire gave up pursuit and scrambled down from a roof nearby, disturbing a roof tile that rattled down into the street, waking Tharek with its clatter. When he returned to the palace he found that more than one of the bronze bars at the entrance to the ventilation shaft were loose, but they had been put back in place with mud smeared to conceal the broken stone.
He made his way up the shaft to his room and found Darm and Fozli waiting for him. "We have settled everyone in the empty rooms along the corridor outside, but we fear they will be discovered if we try to find food for them."
"I noticed that a great deal of food was wasted at the emperor's table today. We should try to discover if it was discarded or used to feed others. I will inquire tomorrow. Meanwhile, there is plenty of water from the springs that fill the baths. How many men were rescued?"
"I counted over a hundred men," Fozli said. "I located the men from Farmin. They are with their families in our former rooms. We used the light well, not the door."
"Ask those who come from Farmin to join me in the central room," Tharek said.
When the men and women were assembled, Tharek entered the room. He carried the staff with the Stone of Truth so that they would know who he was. "I have chosen you to help me. Your wives have told me that your village was destroyed by the evil of Marnat. The Radiance will end his evil, but when a god moves his hand, the world shakes. The stones of Saadena will tumble and there will be war and famine even after Marnat is destroyed. I count on you to tell the others we freed tonight that they will be fed and kept safe until they can leave Saadena. If anyone leaves these halls before I give the signal, you could all be killed. When the sun rises in a few hours, my friends and I must leave you until night has come again."
The woman who had spoken to him in the house stood and held her hand aloft. The others followed her example. They repeated her words as she paused between the phrases.
"I vow that I will honor the words of The Prophet.- I will help the others who have followed the light - to keep order until we can escape from Saadena."
Tharek nodded and turned to return to his room. Fozli and Darm stayed to relay his instructions about how to find water and their hopes for food. They joined him a few minutes later and they both tumbled onto pallets they had spread on the floor, leaving the bed for Tharek. When he protested that one of them should have it, Darm stifled a yawn and Fozli explained. "You are no longer simply one of three companions. With your actions, you have raised yourself to eminence and we should maintain the reverence others would expect."
"Only when others can see us, I hope!"
"Don't worry," Fozli said. "You will still have to clean your own clothes. Now be quiet, we only have a few hours left for sleep."
Chapter 9 The Garden
Tharek woke when dim light filled the room. He listened for signs that families were crowded into the other rooms of the apartment. He was reassured but unsurprised when silence held.
A servant from the palace brought a tray of food. Almost as soon as the three men had finished eating less than a third of it, meaning to keep the rest for the hidden children, a Tedakan came to fetch Darm. After handing the food they had saved through the doors to the children, Tharek and Fozli waited for Marinin to come and show them where they would work that day.
"I wonder if she meant to come herself or send a servant?" Fozli said after nearly an hour passed with no sign of the emperor's sister. "Perhaps we should go and see if we can find her."
"I think it would be better if we wait," Tharek advised. Not much later someone knocked at the door of their apartment and they found Marinin outside. Her face was flushed and she panted as if she had been running.
"I wanted to come sooner, but there has been a great disturbance in the city and my brother kept me closeted for hours. He seems to think I know something about the prophet who freed more than a hundred prisoners last night."
"Why would he suspect you?" Tharek asked her.
"He knows that I hate his policies. Marnat never traveled to Timora as a youth. He holds himself above the requirements made of other men. He thinks I am a fanatic. I see how his actions fulfill the warnings written in Irilik's scroll of history and prophecy, and I tried to warn him."
"Do you know what I am?" Tharek asked.
She nodded. "I knew what you were as soon as I saw you. You look very like your ancestor, Irilik. What has happened to the people from the compound? Marnat has his legionnaires searching everywhere. They expected to find them wandering this morning, but there is no sign of them."
Tharek saw warning in Fozli's eyes, but he trusted Marinin. "They are in these rooms and in the other empty rooms of the old palace. They have water enough from the springs that feed the baths, but they need food and clothing."
Marinin nodded. "I can help you. Marnat forbids the servants to eat the food that has been served in the dining hall, even when the courtiers have wasted much of what was cooked. The food from the feast last night was due to be buried this morning, but I was able to prevent it from being destroyed."
"You must have suspected what I'd done."
A smile lit her face. "As soon as I heard about the escape, I found the servant in charge of the disposal and asked him to bring it to my garden so that I could try using it as mulch. Marnat promotes the idea that I am mad. It was intended to humiliate me, but at times it serves a purpose."
"Is there a way to reach your garden unobserved?"
"The garden is enclosed in high walls and the passage that leads to it is sheltered from all the windows in the new part of the palace. I think the two of you should be able to carry what is needed back here without risk of discovery."
Fozli and Tharek followed Marinin. There was no apparent opening in the wall, but she traced a carved outline of vines and blossoms and pressed one of the stone flowers. An entrance swung open and they walked inside. There were several gray tunics hanging from a stone that projected from the wall. Marinin removed the embroidered zylka cloth robe she wore and pulled one of the tunics over her head to protect her gown. Fozli and Tharek followed her example, removing their white pilgrim robes before putting on the simple tunics.
The food from the feast was piled near the door. It was a jumble of various rich foods. Some of the puddings and meats were spoiled beyond use, but after they had sorted out the worst, there was enough left to satisfy the appetites of men and women not too delicate to eat wilted fruit and stale bread.
Fozli and Tharek made several trips with the food while Marinin buried what was ruined under a heap of leaves and clippings that she kept in a corner. When the task was finished, Fozli left with directions to find the library.
Tharek had hardly glanced at the garden itself while he was busy sorting useful food from dross, but now he surveyed the varieties of plants and whistled soundlessly. "This is an impressive project. Did you do all of it yourself?"
"I seldom let others work in my garden. Marnat knew that and thought to make me argue against the task he gave you. Of course he did it in the most insulting manner."
"Let's not speak of Marnat when we have so much to do. I can see that you have seedlings ready to plant."
Marinin smiled. "What does a Mareklan know about seedlings and such. I don't mean to insult you as Marnat did, I have never known of a Mareklan with a garden."
"Have you never seen the gardens that surround the Shrine in Timora?"
"Of course I have. It must have been planted by one of the shrine servants, but who maintains it?"
"My great grandmother was the high-priestess in Timora when I was a child. She tended the garden of Virda. I can remember that my great-grandfather, the high-priest, often helped her."
Marinin nodded. "I should have known. Your people must hunger to sow and reap and tend as others do, but you have no land. Please plant the seedlings for me while I work on my latest project. I am trying to transplant spearleaf."
"I understood it is impossible to cultivate spear leaf," Tharek said. "Ever since Irilik, the high priests in Timora have tried to culture spearleaf in the gardens of the Shrine, but the plant seems to thrive only in the wastes such as the land above Orenon. There is nothing more delicious than the fresh peeled cores of the leaves."
"And few things more uncomfortable than a spearleaf sting," Marinin reminded him.
They worked for several hours in companionable silence. Tharek had not worked with soil since he was very young. The ancient priestess had taken him the garden of Virda and shown him how to thin the fruiting vines. He would always associate the fresh smell of sap with Vaneril.
"I have culled a basket full of spear leaves. If you peel them, you can take them to your guests," Marinin said when the sun was high. "Return in a few hours and we will weed the area around the fountain."
Tharek was eager to return to his quarters and check on the status of the people he had freed. His time in Saadena would be limited if anyone who had seen his face was caught and interrogated by Marnat's men. He had to find a way to lead the pilgrims to safety, both for their sake and for his own. He put his robe on over the gray tunic and left the garden.
When he entered the hallway that led to his quarters, the silence made him wonder for a moment if they had already gone. It was only after he found that the lock still secured the door of his room that he knew for certain that they were obeying his precautions.
He gave the patterned knock that identified him as a friend and heard the faint click of the lock as it released. The latch itself remained down. He lifted it and opened the door. The central room was as empty as might be expected.
When he shut the door and locked it again, the people he had hidden finally opened the doors of their rooms and greeted him with upraised hands.
"If the other pilgrims are as zealous in keeping silence, I doubt you presence will be detected for some time," Tharek murmured.
"We have food and water and shelter, but we still lack freedom," a woman said.
"What is your name?" Tharek asked her.
"I am Farin, and this is Warival, my son."
"Every day, every moment that you stay here in Saadena is a defeat of my purpose. I want the two of you to go to Timora and tell the High Priest what has been happening here. By the very nature of Marnat's offense, it should alarm those who rely on the safety of the pilgrim trails. He has been building his legionnaires into an army, not to protect the pilgrims of Okishdu, but to conquer all."
"We will go to Timora as soon as you find a way for us to leave the city," Warival assured him.
Tharek gave the basket of spear leaf cores to Farin and ate a few of them himself. If things worked out as he planned, this would be the last meal he would share with them. When he was finished, he stood. "I will send Fozli to lead you away from Saadena this evening. Tell the others to be ready."
He returned to the garden and spent several more hours working side by side with Marinin. She was a lovely woman, graceful and intelligent. Even after only hours of knowing her his heart was touched with an appeal far greater than any woman he had known. His idea of courting Benil now seemed a shallow and expedient sop to family expectations. Finally he asked her the question that had puzzled him since he had met her the day before.
"Are you a widow?"
Marinin shook her head. "I have never married. My father intended that I marry one of Taleeka's councilors. We met, and liked one another."
Marinin gave a little gulp and Tharek saw tears shining in her eyes. She looked away from him until she gained her composure. It was just as well she couldn't see his expression. His chagrin at knowing of her longing for another man would only distress her. He busied himself with digging a hole for a transplanted bush and she found some task that took her to the other end of the garden for a while. When she returned they worked together in silence Finally she explained what had happened to her swain.
"Before the nuptials were arranged, my father died. Marnat named himself my guardian and repudiated the betrothal. He is afraid that I will marry and have sons. Even though he has several daughters, none of his wives have yet produced an heir."
"I thought only Orenese practiced polygyny," Tharek said.
"Marnat took his wives one at a time, but when the first child of each was a daughter, the wives were each accused of some crime and executed. Three have failed to produce the heir he wants. The last girl he married now expects a child. I pray for her sake that she has a son."
Her matter of fact account of Marnat's evil was almost as shocking as what she said. It seemed there was no end to the emperor's crimes.
All of Marinin's maternal instincts seemed turned toward caring for her garden. The result was nearly miraculous. She had managed to take plants that had resisted cultivation since the settlement of Okishdu and grow them in various parts of the garden.
She kept a part of the wall that surrounded the garden dry and free of vines. A small patch of gray-green seemed to stain the warm gray surface. When Tharek leaned close to examine it he caught the characteristic odor of selan, a mold-like plant much valued for its extract, a medicine that quickly dulled the edge of pain. It was a rare and costly remedy.
The fragrance of night blossom began to scent the air, a sign that night was coming on. Both of them were expected to dine with Marnat and it was time to quit the garden.
Once again the courtiers had gathered. Once again Marnat kept them waiting while their food grew cold and stale. Tharek viewed the wasted delicacies with quite a different eye from most of those who stared at the congealing sauces and sweating meats. Tonight the people hiding in the old palace would dine well.
Finally Marnat appeared. After taking a few bites of freshly presented food, he stood and began to curse at everyone assembled at the table. "Someone here knows who this prophet is! He has robbed me of my laborers. I will put all of you to the test if another day passes without his capture. Go!"
The courtiers scuttled away, each trying to keep their head and shoulders bowed to avoid notice from their fickle ruler. Once again, when the room was nearly empty, only Marinin, Fozli, Darm and Tharek were left to catch the emperor's gaze.
"I set no men to watch your room last night," he told the three men while he studied their expressions. "I watched the windows myself and set a thread before your door. When you left the room, it would be disturbed."
"What happened?" Marinin asked him.
"Nothing!" Marnat growled. "I let thoughts of Bechanel distract me when midnight passed, but by then the miscreant who calls himself The Prophet had already committed his crime. I got up early when the report first came and found the thread on your threshold undisturbed. I suspected each of you, especially the Mareklan, but unless you are wizards who can walk through walls, I must find you free of blame."
"Why are you telling us these things?" Tharek asked.
"I just wanted you to know that you are watched. You should consider your rooms the same as cells in case you get any ideas of going out at night. Tell me, did you enjoy your tasks today?"
"I am weary," Tharek said. Fozli and Darm nodded in agreement.
Marnat smiled. "It is wearying to do labor that you hate. I hope you soon adjust to your new lives. Now go to your quarters and remember what I told you."
Marnat stalked away, leaving them alone in the dining hall. When a servant entered, Marinin beckoned to the man and whispered something to him. He nodded and quickly left the room.
"What did you say?" Darm asked.
"I told him that I would use the three of you to clear away the remnants of the feast. I will go and find a way to distract Marnat. It should serve to keep his attention focused on me if I remind him that he has not seen his wife for several weeks. He hates to be reminded of his duty. We will argue for an hour or so."
Marinin hurried away, leaving the three men to gather the food. They had not had a chance to eat anything themselves because of Marnat's eccentric behavior at the beginning of the meal. There was plenty for everyone and they ate their fill when they finally reached the rooms where the pilgrims were hiding.
Tharek alerted Fozli to watch for the signal of the Stone of Truth, then lead the people from the palace and to the south. "The words I use in warning should mislead any who are listening but cannot see me. I doubt they will search the path you take."
Once again they slept through the evening hours. Tharek woke as soon as darkness fell. He slipped away with Darm, making his way through the city by some sense that warned him when to hurry, when to stop and wait. They reached the river and Tharek climbed one of the great towers that stood at the northern end of the bridge. He fixed the Stone of Truth to the top of the tower with a piece of nop gum and hurried downward as people began to gather to the light.
"Come with me," he called. Those who had come out of mere curiosity when their neighbors and family members had been drawn by the light, could not see the tall young men who spoke. They could only join the crowd that moved toward the north part of the city.
Even though the Stone of Truth was on the tower, it illuminated Tharek where he stood on another roof top. When a crowd had gathered, he began to speak. Those who could see him listened raptly. Those who heard only his voice were struck with fear. There were legionnaires among the crowd who gathered. The bright white robe that gleamed with the reflection of the light was only a confusion of darkness to those steeped in Marnat's creed.
"The captives of evil shall flee to the north where the land will not rupture as Saadena falls. I saw Saadena as it were in a dream. The mighty towers were fallen. Only the Shrine, and the old palace where righteous emperors of Saadena once ruled remained intact. All else was ash and refuse. If you can see my face, you have seen the Light and know that what I say is true. All who linger in Saadena will become slaves and for generations your sons and daughters will pay the price of your fear."
His warning words had an immediate effect on many. They could not doubt what he said with such a proof. They turned and hurried home to make their preparations.
Those in the crowd who could not see him, milled about looking for him while he slipped away. Koral and his troop arrived and began to round up those who might provide some clue about the identity of the prophet. The one coherent thing that seemed to stand out when they questioned those who lingered was that the captives were headed north.
Koral sent his lieutenants to summon help and the conviction that their escaped prisoners were leaving Saadena through the northern passes sent most of Marnat's forces away from the city in pursuit. Koral planned to encircle the indentured pilgrims and he sent troops through the eastern gate to travel north to link up with his other men.
Meanwhile, Fozli mustered all the people in his charge and led them carefully away by the steep southern path. They had hours to make the journey to a place where dawn would not leave them open to discovery. Sarin and Warival knew the route to take from previous journeys to Saadena when they were free.
Fozli gathered a few bushes and dragged them behind him when he finally bid them farewell a few hours later. He could see the beacon of the Stone of Truth still lighting up the sky and he wondered why Tharek had not completed his work and returned. After an hour or so of waiting for the others to appear at the opening into the palace, he crawled through himself and climbed up the light well to the room they shared.
To his surprise, he found the two men sleeping peacefully. He shook Tharek's shoulder to wake him. "I can still see the Light out there. How could you abandon it?'
Tharek yawned and sat up. "I did not abandon it. Any of us can see it clearly from the glow that comes through the window in the other room. Do you worry that someone will climb the tower of the bridge and steal it?"
Fozli shook his head after thinking about the question. "I forgot that if a man thought to steal it, he would not be able to see it."
Tharek smiled. "I will go and retrieve it before dawn."
"I thought you would want me to report on how the pilgrims are doing," Fozli said.
"We could see you easily from the window in the other room. When I saw you turn and start to drag the bushes, I knew you had everything in hand. You have done well."
Satisfied at last, Fozli slipped out of his boots and sash and lay down on his pallet. As he drifted off to sleep, he could not escape the feeling that it all had been too easy.
Tharek waited until the others were softly snoring, then he rose and slipped into the gray tunic that he wore beneath his robe except when he was gardening. His blue cloth sash tied around his head and low over his eyes, made a turban like those worn by Marnat's servants. He exited through the light-well and made his way into the city. Even in the early hours before dawn, there were patrols of legionnaires in the streets looking for the vanished pilgrim prisoners.
A contingent of men guarded either end of the bridge to keep people from gathering and staring upward at the light that still glowed from one of the towers. Tharek walked up to the captain of the group and waited for a moment to be acknowledged.
"I have come from the palace to find the light that draws people to the tower," he said.
The tunic and the turban were his badges of office and the problem of the alleged light that so many claimed to see was sufficient reason to let him pass. The officer ushered him through the guards.
Tharek climbed the tower and took the little stone into his hand. A sigh rose from many throats when he closed it in his fist and closed off the light. He returned to the officer who demanded to see what he had found.
Tharek opened his hand and the holy light shone forth. The officer stared at what he saw as no more than a pebble, but one of his men was made of finer stuff. "You are the prophet!" he gasped with awe. "Tell me what to do and where to go!"
"Flee from Saadena if you would save you soul," Tharek said. Before he finished speaking, he tucked the stone into its pouch and turned to run. After a brief, surprised pause, the captain sent his men racing after him, but Tharek was young and strong and lightly dressed. Many of the legionnaires were past their prime and all of them were armored against the possibility of riot.
Several of them cast their spears, but once again, those who could not see the light, could not see the light bearer clearly and their spears fell short or went long. Tharek was driven from the area of the culvert where he could make his way back to the palace unseen. He had no friends to give him refuge in the city, and even if he had, he would not have drawn the legionnaires down on them.
He could hear their their boots clattering on the stone. A number of small booths had been erected against a wall, their sheltering canopies held up with poles. He grabbed one of the poles as he ran by, collapsing the canopy on the heads of the leading legionnaires. Still they came and when he dodged around a corner, he stopped and turned, waiting for them.
Five men who had outdistanced their fellow guards came headlong after him. Tharek wielded the canopy pole with all the skill and force of long experience. For a brief time the odds seemed overwhelming, but the passageway in which he fought was just wide enough to provide ideal conditions for a staff; too narrow for the men to work their way around to surround him, but wide enough to accommodate his swing.
The staff was thicker than his own, but it was old pilk wood, dense and almost as hard as basswood after it had been aged. This must have been a very old piece of wood because two of the short swords carried by the legionnaires shattered on it. The disarmed men backed away and let the other men take on Tharek.
He rushed toward them, weaving his body away from their swords and thumping them on their armored chests and helms. The force of his attack surprised them. One slipped on a loose stone and tumbled to his back. Tharek aimed at a stack of barrels near the side of the passageway with the back-swing of his staff and the barrels bounced and clattered down the alleyway, tripping the men who had caught up and were trying to close in.
On the left side of the passageway the wall was low and he suddenly vaulted, using the staff to swing himself above the heads of the two remaining attackers and dropping down beyond the fence. It was not a gentle landing. He scraped his leg and banged his knee, and grazed the palm of one hand when he fell, but he was quickly up and running through a narrow yard. He reached the gate to another street before the first of the legionnaires clambered over the wall.
Tharek ducked into a long passageway with towering walls and recognized the pattern of vines and flowers graven in the stone. With a quick gesture he worked the hidden lever that opened the door into Marinin's garden.
When the opening was little more than a dark slit in the wall, he slipped through and pulled it shut behind him. Before it was quite closed he heard the boots of legionnaires turn and come along the track. The door swung shut ponderously but precisely and moments before the legionnaires came even with the opening, it closed with only the faintest grate of stone on stone.
Tharek used the Stone of Truth again to find the patch of selan on the wall and took a small scraping from the grayish growth. He retreated to the fountain that sparkled in the unearthly light and washed his grazed hand and injured legs in the cool water before applying the dust of selan to help numb the pain and hasten healing. When the sting had receded and he caught his breath, he peeled a few spear leaves and lay down on a soft patch of grass to sleep.
Marinin came to the garden not long after dawn. She found Tharek there. "I am glad to see that you came early. I thought that once you knew the way and saw how the door is opened, I would no longer need to fetch you. However, I stopped by your room and your friend Fozli gave me this. It seems that some servant of the palace caused a disturbance in the city a few hours before dawn."
She opened the shawl she was carrying. His robe was rolled inside. He removed the blue sash he had wound around his head as a turban and set it near the robe. I would be unwise to wear it on his head again where the legionnaires could see him.
They worked at weeding for a few hours before a bell was rung and Marinin stood up and frowned. "That is the signal bell that Marnat rings when he wants my presence. It rang twice, I fear that he is angry and will want to question me about last night."
"I will come with you," Tharek said. "I caused the trouble, you should not have to bear his wrath alone."
Tharek pulled on his robe and secured it with the blue sash. Marinin took off the tunic that protected her dress before they left the garden and went to face Marnat.
Chapter 10 The Hunter
Koral had pulled all the legionnaires in the city into his search for the missing pilgrims. One man taken in the net wore dirtied white robes. With nothing more to show for all his zeal, Koral marched the prisoner to the palace and sent word ahead to the emperor.
Marnat lounged on a padded bench and watched his sister, gloating at the strained look on her face. The hard-soled boots of the legionnaires rang against the stone of the corridor and Marnat finally turned to watch them enter with their prisoner.
His face was startled for a moment when he saw the man who stalked into the room closely held on either side by a sturdy legionnaire. "Let him go!" the emperor screamed.
Koral ordered his men to release the prisoner, but they had already dropped his arms and stepped away. The prisoner looked from side to side with disdain.
When he saw Marinin, he smiled. "Good morning, my dear Marinin. I see you are still as lovely as one of your flowers."
"Garvok," she muttered with disdain.
Marnat stood, his finger stabbing at Koral. "I sent you to capture the man who is disturbing my city and the prisoners he freed. Instead, you bumbled into capturing the one person I trust."
"He was wearing a pilgrim robe," Koral protested.
"Leave us now and put guards on the door."
When the room was cleared of all but Marnat, Garvok, Marinin and Tharek, the emperor left the dais and approached his spy. "What did you find?"
Garvok looked toward the other two people in the room and firmed his lips. "My words are for you alone."
"Those two are ineffectual. It will amuse me to watch their faces while you speak," Marnat insisted.
"There is some danger that your right to indenture pilgrims will be questioned in Timora," Garvok said.
"What difference should it make to me what the High Priest says?" Marnat sneered. "I have my legions to insure my will."
"There are others with the power to stop you if they are willing to combine in an alliance. I have learned that the Headman of Tedaka and the Councilors of Taleeka have vowed to keep the provisions of the compact. They will defend Timora's decision if you are declared outcast. You may lose the right to rule Saadena."
"What is this nonsense?" Marnat demanded. "Why should I listen to the toothless threats of those with no armies to enforce their words? My generals Pildik and Farlang, have assured me that we are invincible."
"Other men lie to you and tell you what they think you want to hear, but I have never bothered with toadying. I have seen the forces that could come against you, and there is still a chance that you would lose if you act too abruptly. When you are summoned to Timora, you must go. If the scheme to indenture pilgrims continues unabated, you will eventually surpass your foes, but it could take several years."
"There has been a setback in our plan," Marnat said. "A man claiming to be a prophet has been stealing most of those I have indentured. It is a pity you were not here two days ago. I would have entrusted you with taking him instead of setting Koral to find him."
"One man freed most of your captives?"
"As far as can be known, it was one man. First he robbed a pilgrim train of more than two thirds of the men in one night. Two nights ago most of the men in the barracks were lost to the same cause. Then, again last night, he played his tricks within the city and continued his nonsense about the destruction of Saadena. There are claims that it is the ghost of Irilik or some such. Some say that he shines a light, but none of the men I count on have seen it."
"This is much worse that I expected," Garvok said. "Whether the man you describe is a prophet or a rogue, it has the same effect. If you had prevented his message from being carried from the city, the damage would not be great. Now you have no choice but to go to Timora and deal with the High Priest."
"I am greater than any priest!" Marnat growled. "Why should I crawl to Timora like a pilgrim seeking the aid of superstitious rites?"
Garvok's eyes returned to study Marinin and Tharek. "Are you certain that you want witnesses to what I will tell you?"
Marnat scowled, then turned and paced. Finally he stopped and confronted Marinin. "I can see it in your eyes that you have knowledge of the prophet."
"I have seen a great light shining in the city, more than any ordinary lamp could give," she acknowledged.
Marnat turned back toward Garvok. "Find the man they call The Prophet and destroy him. I will give you anything you ask.
"Give me Marinin now and I swear on my life that I will find this charlatan and kill him," Garvok said.
Marnat looked toward his sister. Her face was calm, but the paling of her features belied her serenity. He smiled. "I cannot allow you to marry her until I return from the trip to Timora. Then I will accept your proposition. There can be no living sons of your union, of course."
"There will be no living sons," Garvok assented. "Only our daughters will be left alive."
Marnat rang the bell and his steward, Cozaul entered. "Take these two away and do not disturb me until I summon you again."
For a moment the steward seemed confused by the dingy white robe worn by Garvok and he moved toward the man as if to take his arm. Garvok turned his face and glared at the man, and Cozaul stopped and hurried toward Tharek and Marinin. They had already begun to walk toward the door and he was too late to take either of them in hand. He was left to shut the double door while they returned to the garden.
Marinin's face was grave, but she did not betray her thoughts as they worked together among the seedlings. The sun rose to the zenith and Marinin put down her spade. "I brought matlas and nuka juice for our midday meal. We could cut some spear leaves and some water herb as well."
Tharek nodded and went about harvesting a few spear leaves and gathering a bunch of the tangy water herb that grew near the edges of the fountain. They settled on a long stone bench to share the meal. Tharek raised his hands and prepared to bless the food, but he could not proceed with the ordinary words. He felt the swelling of warmth in his chest that augured prophecy and let the words come as they would.
"My daughter, Marinin, shall flee to Taleeka after the rivers fail and Saadena falls. Her son will lead the council in his father's stead. My servant Tharek will preach in the four quarters of Saadena and the tool of the Liar will not find him. He will go to Timora to witness the evil of the emperor. I, Yasa Dom, have spoken by the mouth of my prophet and I bless him to live to see his sons."
When Tharek lowered his hands and opened his eyes he saw Marinin staring at him with an expression that was almost fearful. Then she jumped up from the bench and whirled with her hands raised in the air in a gesture of such grace and joy that tears rose in Tharek's eyes.
"Under the rules of Saadena, it is my brother's right to give me to Garvok, but it seared my soul when I was promised to The Hound," she said. "Your message has set me free."
"You mentioned that you were once betrothed to a Taleekan councilor. Has he married?"
"My brother will not permit me any knowledge of Feranal. When I thought there was no hope for the two of us, I prayed that he might find love and happiness with someone else. Even so, my heart still belongs to him."
"I have met Feranal. He was not married when I last saw him in Taleeka," Tharek said. "Perhaps his regard for you has blinded him to the charms of other women."
Marinin blushed and turned her head away. "He should have tried to forget me."
There was a tumult near the gates of the palace and Marinin asked Tharek to discover what had caused the roar of voices. He left her tending the spearleaf and climbed a stairway that wound up the side of one of Marnat's new palace towers. Hundreds of people had gathered near the wall that ran around the palace. They were waving their arms and pleading for Marnat to appear.
It was difficult to distinguish what they wanted, but when the steward appeared with a troop of legionnaires to clear them from the gate, one man stood forth as spokesman and shouted their message. "Marnat must repent or Saadena will fall!"
He paid for his courage with a blow to his head from the butt of a spear. He fell and was left bleeding while the other people ran. The steward with his legionnaires shut the gate and disappeared and only the fallen man was left as witness that anything had happened.
Tharek hurried forward and lifted the man in his arms. The wall of the garden was close and tall enough to conceal the two of them from any watchers in the palace. He carried the wounded men to the hidden entrance and took him in to Marinin.
"This man dared to call for Marnat's repentance when the others with him fell silent. Will he be safe from discovery in your garden?"
Marinin nodded. "Marnat considers my gardening a harmless hobby and he never bothered to learn the secret of the door. I doubt he even knows there is a secret. I will tend this man's wound until he is well enough to leave."
"How long will it take for Marnat to prepare for his journey to Timora?"
"He could leave within a day or so if he sets his mind to it. On the other hand, he might delay while Garvok hunts the Prophet. Only you can guess how much success he will have at that game. The Radiance is with you, but Garvok has the aid of the Liar. I am more afraid of him than of Marnat."
Tharek nodded. "I believe that is why we were given reassurance to calm our fears in the days ahead. I had seriously considered curtailing my preaching now that Garvok has been set to catch me. Now I know that my life will be preserved to complete the work of warning."
That evening Tharek looked for Darm and Fozli as he prepared himself to enter the dining hall. Neither of them appeared by the time the assembly bell was rung. Marnat came early, surprising those who were assembling to dine. Garvok walked next to him and slightly behind, like a shadow in a dark tunic and black boots. He took a place at the foot of the table facing the emperor and the meal began. A few of the places at the table were empty where some of Marnat's courtiers had assumed that they would be safe in lingering before attending the mandatory meal. Marnat marked the absences and when the laggard courtiers appeared, he made a gesture that turned them away, a sign that they were now outcast from the court, deprived of place and fortune.
Some of them were foolish enough to protest or make excuses for their late appearance. Marnat turned his face from them, and guards stationed near the wall stepped forward to drag them away to the dungeons. Instead of casting looks of sympathy toward their former comrades, the other courtiers gloated, laughing openly at some of the more fervent protests.
"I will set out for Timora in seven days," Marnat announced when the last of the delinquents was carried away with shouts of grievance. "My train will include my favored friends, but any who offend me in the smallest way will be left behind. Any of you who wish to accompany me must be prepared to take care of all of your own needs on the journey."
Tharek watched the interplay of shuttered emotions that flickered on the faces of the courtiers. Marnat's first announcement that he would be leaving the city had brought looks of stifled pleasure. His decision to take others with him as a sign of favor quickly extinguished any joy. The trip could be costly, involving not only litter bearers and servants and the expenses of providing for them all, but the risk of leaving concerns in the city unattended. On the other hand, remaining in Saadena when Marnat was gone would clearly cause a fall from favor.
This time there was almost nothing left of the food that had been served. Tharek thought of the people who had been led away during the night and said a silent blessing on their journey to freedom.
"You seem distracted, Mareklan," Marnat said. "I hope you have no plans for escaping the duties of a servant when I leave. I have decided you are wasted as a gardener. You will serve me as a scribe, along with the Kumnoran. I want to have a record of my every saying as I travel to Timora. This will be an historic meeting and will change the balance of power in Okishdu."
Tharek could not help but remember that centuries before the wizard Balchad had offered the same post to Irilik and his servant Tedak. From Irilik's history it appeared that Balchad had been just such a man as Marnat, blind to his own deficiencies and lusting for glory. He bowed his head and nodded slowly to the emperor. "As you wish, I will serve you as your scribe. Do you want me to take apartments near your own?"
"I will have your eyes on me night and day once we leave Saadena. Until then I would prefer that you keep your rooms in the old palace where I can keep track of you without your watching me."
"Are you certain this Mareklan keeps to his rooms at night?" Garvok asked. "It seems he is the likely suspect for this 'prophet' who has been eroding your power with the people."
Marnat shook his head. "I exercised myself to make certain he was in his room when the indentured pilgrims escaped, and last night again I assigned men who watched the windows until dawn. He and his two friends look big, but they are toothless wirras, willing to bow to my will and go un-protesting even to the most insulting service. Your task will be more difficult than you thought. Clearly this 'prophet' has been planning his assault on my program of expansion for some time. He seems to know just when and where to strike. Only this morning, not long before dawn, he appeared again and passed right through a group of legionnaires posted on the bridge. He is no callow youth, but a man of cunning."
Garvok nodded. "I will look for a man of middle years, one who has been heard to complain of your policies before."
Tharek returned to the rooms and found his friends waiting for him with excited faces. Darm was first to speak. "I have been invited to return to Tedaka with the smith and his family. Even though I have worked with him for only a few days, he says I show promise. They plan to leave Saadena in little more than a week. I only fear that Marnat will not let me leave his service."
"By then Marnat will be well on his way to Timora and his confrontation with the High Priest," Tharek said. "He has taken it into his mind to have me and Fozli act as his scribes, but I doubt he will notice you are gone when he returns."
"I must warn both of you about Garvok, the man Marnat calls his hound. He has asked Marnat for his sister, Marinin, in return for capturing the prophet. I have received sacred assurance that Marinin will not be sacrificed to his desires and I will be able to carry out my preaching before we leave for Timora. Even so, we must all take care that Garvok does not discover what our role has been."
"If Marnat wants me to act as his scribe, he will be will be gratified to see that I am still somewhat awkward with letters," Fozli said. "The librarian is growing more impatient every day."
"I will miss my sessions working in the garden with Marinin," Tharek said. "She has a skill for cultivating plants. A crowd assembled at the palace calling for Marnat to reform. One of them was injured and I carried him to Marinin. She will be left here in Saadena when Marnat goes to Timora. Could you help her Darm?"
"I will do whatever I can as long as I am in Saadena," Darm promised. "What are your plans for tonight?"
"I think we will divide our efforts," Tharek said. "Each of us will go to different quarters of the city and begin to preach. I will carry the Stone of Truth to the top porch of the Shrine, but all of us will carry the same message. The people of Saadena must leave the city before it falls or they will face a future of slavery."
With their instructions in mind, the two men followed Tharek down the light well and through the ventilation shafts. Believing that his best defense against discovery by Garvok would be the light from the Stone of Truth, Tharek kept it fixed in his staff, lighting their way until they reached the Shrine and they separated.
The people of Saadena seemed to have learned that many among them could not see the light. They gathered quietly and waited for Tharek to begin speaking. Some of them had familiar faces and it was to them he spoke. "Do not delay leaving Saadena. You may say that you want to remain long enough to bring in a harvest or complete a task. Those who linger risk destruction. I have seen that many will die when the earth shakes and the walls begin to tumble. I have been sent because the Radiance yearns to save you, but if you will not listen, he cannot withhold his hand. In ages past he promised that when Saaden's people grew proud and his successor challenged Timora as Marnat has, a chastening must follow."
"How long will we have?" a man cried out.
"It may be days, it may be months. Within a week Marnat will depart for Timora and his confrontation with the High Priest. I have warned you. I can say no more."
The sound of hard soled boots along the street was warning enough for everyone to scatter. Tharek removed the Stone of Truth from his staff and ducked behind a pillar on porch. He heard the officer give the order to halt.
"We have reports from every quarter of the city that the prophet has been preaching there. I will post a man on every crossroad. If anyone passes, question them. If they are tall, and wearing a white robe, detain them. If they resist, do not hesitate to strike them."
While the officer was still giving his instructions, Tharek backed from the porch of the Shrine gained the narrow alley in back of the building. Before the legionnaires could take up their posts, he was well away. He returned to the palace and huddled just inside the ventilation opening with the Stone of Truth cupped in his hand so that a beam lit the bushes near at hand. Soon both Fozli and Darm appeared, both of them gasping for breath.
"People asked me why they could not see the light," Darm said.
"They asked me the same question," Fozli said. "I told them that they should understand the truth without devices to illuminate my face. I remembered the song of Falga, the brother of Tagnet. He was a mighty priest and prophet and never used such wonders as the one that Tharek has."
Darm nodded. "I told them I was a messenger of the messenger and that those of them with courage could help us spread the truth. Two men volunteered to join their voices with ours tomorrow night."
"Well done," Tharek said. "If others are willing to join their testimony to what we give, more people will hear the warning."
They climbed back up the ventilation shaft and through the light well. It was not very late, but all of them were tired and they soon separated to their several rooms to sleep. Tharek felt prompted to block the light well with a wall chest, pushing it into place and concealing the opening. He slept in one of the three remaining rooms.
When it was still dark outside their windows, someone knocked on the door of their apartment and the three men rose and stumbled sleepily into the central room. Darm opened the door and peered outside. Five legionnaires burst into the room, knocking him backward with their charge. Koral followed them, his hand lamp held high while he examined each of the young men. The rooms of the apartment were searched, then with no word of apology or explanation, the legionnaires left and the door was slammed and locked from the outside.
They stayed in the room until late the next morning when Marnat came with yet another squad of legionnaires. They heard hammering at the door and then the clanking of the lock when it hit the ground. The door swung open and the emperor marched in. "I have been waiting for you to come to me for hours," he angrily addressed Tharek and Fozli. "It was not until a short time ago that I found that all of you had been locked in this room. Koral is no longer in charge of the hunt for the prophet. He claimed he was told that you were all suspect, even though I myself told him that he should look elsewhere for the villains who are disturbing my city. He has proved himself to be a fool. Get ready to come with me and begin the tasks I have assigned you."
Tharek noticed Garvok lingering at the back of the squad of legionnaires, his small eyes making a survey of the rooms and their layout. It was not difficult to imagine that he had been the source of the message that sent Koral to lock them in. There were already signs that their door had been guarded in one way or another on each of the three nights they had spent in Saadena.
Fozli and Tharek nodded their farewell to Darm, knowing that any lengthy leave taking would further anger Marnat. They followed the emperor throughout the day, each of them carrying a slate and a scribing tool. Fozli made notes on the circumstances of the emperor's various meetings and the people who attended, while Tharek wrote down whatever Marnat said.
It was soon apparent that they should reverse their roles. Marnat gave a few pronouncements early in the day, seeming self-conscious of the weight of every word, but after a short time, he reverted to making short, trite comments that varied little. At noon he dismissed both of them while he retired to his inner apartments. There was little secret that he was still enamored of Bechanel and he had no wish for history to note what went on between the two of them.
Tharek and Fozli retired to the library to organize their notes. The old librarian was happy to see Fozli and the two men talked while Tharek took a nap. Playing scribe to Marnat was far more wearying than working with Marinin in her garden.
In the late afternoon Marnat emerged from Bechanel's apartment and decided it was time to pay his duty to his wife. He summoned Tharek to accompany him on the visit. The young woman, wide with child, seemed discouraged and morose. "You will give me a son. I know it must be so," Marnat insisted.
She seemed well aware of the fates of Marnat's previous wives who had failed to give Marnat a son. She subsided into a malaise when Marnat left her.
For the second successive evening, Marnat was prompt to appear at the evening meal, but this time the courtiers were well prepared to greet him.
When Fozli and Tharek returned to their rooms they found four men encamped in the corridor outside. Darm was inside the room and he explained the overt presence of the guards.
"Apparently we are still high on the list of suspects. Men are set to watch beneath each of our windows and we will be locked in tonight. I was told that it is the order of Garvok, the emperor's 'hound.' Apparently he is not willing to dismiss any of us from suspicion, whatever Marnat seems to think."
"We have a latch on our side of the door as well," Tharek said. "We can lock them out as easily as they have locked us in."
After a few hours of sleep, the three men once again ventured into Saadena throught the ventilation passage. They found that other men had taken up the task. The night was full of shouts and warnings as the audiences for these messengers evaded the pursuing legionnaires. With so many preaching, the ranks of the legionnaires were spread too thin to effectively govern the gathering crowds who listened solemnly to the warning.
Tharek, Darm and Fozli added their voices to the chorus that seemed to issue from every section of the city. They returned to their rooms early enough to have a restful sleep before they woke and waited for their guards to let them go about their assignments. Not long after Tharek removed his lock he heard the lock drop from the hasp on the outside of the door and moments later, the legionnaires marched away with a clatter of boots on stone.
Chapter 11 Journey
In the nights that followed the door to their room was still guarded, but there were no other signs of interest. Each night the three men ventured forth into the city for a to preach. Many parties of Saadenans braved the trails with provisions for escape. Some launched boats on the river and others hired teams of dalas. These last were more likely to attract attention from the Legionnaires, but but for every man arrested, five more seemed to take fire with the need to warn his friends and neighbors of the impending tragedy.
Preparations for Marnat's journey were quickly accomplished, The royal barge and the smaller barges of the courtiers were furnished and ready to depart on the morning of the seventh day.
When Tharek carried the Stone of Truth into different quarters of the city that night, he was greeted by crowds who pleaded for his aid. "Lead us away from Saadena as Irilik led the people of the Gathering," one man cried out. Others added their voices to the plea.
"You do not need me," Tharek said. "Many of your neighbors have heeded my warning and are well away. Other men have followed my example and are preaching to the people of Saadena under influence of the Radiance. If you want a leader, follow one of those who risks his freedom to share the truth with you."
When Tharek returned to his room near midnight he was troubled and turned to his friends as they entered the room after him. "Many of those who preach have been imprisoned. We must find a way to free them before we leave Saadena in the morning."
"It could hardly be less dangerous to go into the dungeons than to venture into the streets at night," Fozli said. "I had a few close calls tonight. The legionnaires were out in force."
"People are beginning to leave Saadena, but many of them are waiting until Marnat goes to Timora," Darm added. "With legionnaires posted to prevent citizens from leaving the city, and others trying to prevent the preachers from speaking, the dungeons might be lightly staffed, but the palace is huge. How would we find the prisoners before morning?"
Tharek raised his hands and bowed his head and the other two men kept silent while he prayed. He did not pray aloud this time, but the answer came in the words he uttered. "The light will lead you to the hidden places."
"What does that mean?" Fozli asked when Tharek had lowered his hands and raised his head.
"We know that guards are set to watch our windows every night. It would be dangerous to try to go closer to the windows."
With that, Tharek took the Stone of Truth in his hand and began to walk toward the window. The light of the stone began to dim. When Tharek turned and walked back toward the room where the light-well gave access to the rest of the palace, the stone glowed brighter.
"That is the answer," Tharek said. "Come, bring your staffs and follow me."
With the aid of the light they soon found the corridor that led to the dungeons. As Darm had predicted, there were only a few guards in the anteroom, and they were older men well past their first vigor. Two were asleep on cots against the wall and three were seated around a table gaming and drinking. A small lamp gave the only light that they could see. When Tharek entered the room and held the Stone of Truth high to light the scene, none of them looked up.
Tharek lifted some ropes from a pile near the door and motioned his friends to take the gamers while he tied up the sleepers. Only one of the guards at the table staggered up while his mates were being subdued. He raised his sword, but Tharek noticed him trying to lunge at Darm and grabbed him by his legs. The man tumbled to the floor and Darm stepped on his sword arm while he finished tying the first man he had approached. The fallen guard counted the odds against him and he subsided.
A gasp of hope and wonder came from the cells and torture rooms when Tharek opened the door and stepped inside. It was a new dungeon, dug for the purpose of containing Marnat's dissidents.
The walls were close and the ceiling so low that Tharek and the others had to crouch to enter. Each of the low, narrow cells held several men, so crowded together that only a few of them could rest while the others stood and waited.
There were two torture rooms and they had been dug deeper to accommodate the hanging chains and other means of racking the bodies of prisoners. There were three men in one of the rooms and two in the other. All of them were hung from the walls, waiting further sessions from the torturer. Each of those who had been singled out for attention was tall and had some faint resemblance to Tharek, Fozli, or Darm.
Tharek recognized one of the men from the compound of the indentured pilgrims. He stood on a stool to unlock the chains and questioned what had happened to the man to bring him back into the city.
"I was well away with the others, but something told me that I must return. I hid out in the city and waited for you to appear each night. A few nights ago I stumbled into an ambush that had been laid for you. They brought me here for questioning, but I have remained silent."
His voice was weak and thready and there were marks on his face and body that told much of what he had endured. "How long has it been since you had anything to eat or drink?" Tharek asked him.
The man could only shake his head. Shelves in the guardroom held supplies of water and bread and Tharek succored those who had been denied the longest before setting out to leave the dungeon. The bunks of the guards provided litters for the men who could not walk.
More than a hundred men had been confined in the dungeons along with several women kept in the same cells. "Where can we put them all?" Fozli asked.
"Surely we cannot risk taking them out through our usual exit."
"We will have to depend on the Stone of Truth again," Tharek said. "I have tried to think of where to go, but I am not even certain where we are. Did either of you make note of the turns we took?"
The others shook their heads. Tharek placed the Stone of Truth into the niche on his staff and started out. Once again it dimmed or brightened at every turning to guide the way. Hours passed, but when they opened a small door at the end of a long corridor, the sky outside was still dark. The slope beneath the door fell away sharply.
"We are at the south door," one of the released prisoners said. "There are several narrow paths that lead back to the city and one that leads down to the valley to the south."
"For those men who were tortured, escape from Saadena is the only recourse. Which of you will carry them to safety?" Tharek asked.
There were more volunteers than they needed, but soon the teams of bearers were selected and the injured men were carried away. Tharek turned back to address the men and women who waited for his counsel.
"In a few hours Marnat will leave for Timora. You must go back into the city and warn your friends and neighbors. I have seen a dreadful fate for all who remain in Saadena. Marnat has bent his heart to commit some great crime against the Radiance and make himself the ruler of Okishdu."
"How much time do we have?" one of the women asked. "I was arrested when I tried to leave before."
"You must leave Saadena before another seven days have passed," Tharek answered. "With Marnat gone, the guards will slacken their vigilance. If many of you leave at the same time, they will not be able to challenge you."
"Come with us and lead us!" another woman cried.
Tharek was tempted by the plea. Even as he considered doing as she asked, the light from the Stone of Truth began to dim. "You can see what would happen if I turn from my appointed path," he said. "I would lose the light and falter. Go now, before dawn reveals you to your enemies."
The people hurried away and the three friends returned to the palace through the small door. They restored the lock and made their way downwards to the baths. Once they were in familiar territory, they found a light-well and soon returned to their rooms.
"We won't be using this anymore," Tharek said when the three of them pushed the heavy cupboard back to hide the opening.
They were wakened by the pounding of fists on the door to their chambers. Darm was the first to dress and go to answer, but Tharek and Fozli were not far behind him when he opened the latch. Two legionnaires stood outside the door. "The Emperor commands that everyone who will be going to Timora must be aboard the barges by dawn."
It was typical of Marnat's perverse temper to make such a demand. Whether he would keep the entire company waiting on his pleasure until after noon, or show up at dawn himself ready to set out could not be known.
Fozli and Tharek had few preparations to make. As soon as the legionnaires departed and the door was closed again, they gathered fresh tunics and loin clothes and prepared to go down to the bathes.
It might be a long time before they had the luxury of bathing again. Marnat was careful of his own comforts, but he expected his servants to perform with little time to care for themselves.
"Do you want to try and get another hour of sleep, or do you want to come with us to the baths?" Tharek asked Darm.
The Janakan gave a longing look toward his room, then he shook his head. "I will have plenty of time to rest once you are gone."
Darm took extra care with shaving his chin and brushing the inch of thick hair that now covered his head. Fozli nudged him and laughed. "Does the Tedakan you are working with have a daughter?"
Darm grinned. "Farla is her name, and yes, she seems to like me."
"You must invite us to your wedding," Fozli said.
"I can only promise to do so if you let me know where you are. I doubt you will be in the employ of Marnat much longer."
It was a reminder of their need to hurry. Tharek and Fozli quickly took up their staffs and made their farewells. They arrived at the dock where the royal barge was waiting while the sun still hovered just below the eastern peaks. The scarlet zylka cloth canopy that covered the upper deck glowed an eerie crimson in the pallid pre-dawn light. Even the gold fringe and gilded poles seemed dull with no sparkle of light.
There was a welter of confusion among the courtiers who all seemed determined to outdo each other in the number of servants and accouterments they wanted to fit on their own barges. By contrast, Marnat's barge was calm. Cozaul, the steward stood at the head of the gangway to check the credentials of any who came on board.
Fozli and Tharek found their assigned bunks in a narrow cabin close to Marnat's lavish apartments amidships. Scroll cloth, slates and scribing tools were stocked on shelves that took up most of the space. The lower bunk was a bench chest and the upper bunk was so near the deck beams that once in it, Tharek could raise his hand and touch the boards above his head.
"If we cast off before the legionnaires change shift, it might be better for everyone," Fozli murmured. He made no reference to the prisoners they had released, but Tharek guessed his meaning and nodded.
As both of them had hoped, Marnat appeared with the rising sun, panicking those courtiers who had not quite finished their preparations. The emperor seemed to be in a relatively good mood with Bechanel hanging on his arm and his wife carried close behind in a litter.
The wan little empress was large with child and there was hardly a glimpse of her before she was hustled down the gangway into a cabin separate from the royal apartment where Bechanel was soon ensconced.
The ship was guided and controlled on its outward run downriver by gangs of pole men. Marnat gave the order to cast off before following Bechanel into his quarters. Tharek looked back toward the dock when they were well away and saw a contingent of legionnaires pushing through the confusion of courtiers who were still involved in taking ship on barges of their own.
The captain of the guard stopped at the end of the dock and tried to signal the emperor's steward, but Cozaul's eyes were turned toward the river in front of the barge and the shouts of the Legionnaires were merely more noise added to the yells of others on the dock.
Tharek and Fozli retired to their tiny cabin to take advantage of whatever rest they could catch before Marnat ordered their presence. The mats on their bunks were firm and freshly filled with fragrant grasses and the slight rocking of the boat lulled them to sleep.
Hunger woke Tharek and he woke Fozli. They went in search of something to eat and found the steward looking for them. "The Emperor commands your presence in the fore cabin."
"Have you been looking for us long?" Tharek asked.
"No, but I should not have to search for you at all. You must stand ready at all times to serve your master."
"We were waiting in our cabin to be summoned," Tharek said. "Is there some other place that we should wait until Marnat is finished with his mistress?"
The steward glared at Tharek, then turned to Fozli. "Go to the galley and fetch the tray for the emperor. You," he pointed at Tharek, "Fetch your scribing tools and come to the emperor's cabin."
It took about the same time for both of the men to perform the tasks the steward assigned. They met at the door of the cabin and Tharek edged it open with his elbow because his hands were full.
Marnat was pacing the deck of the cabin when they entered. He did not acknowledge them except to begin eating as soon as Fozli put down the tray. Tharek now knew enough about the emperor's habits that he quickly sat on a bench chest near the wall and prepared a couple of slates and scribing tools. Fozli sat beside him and both of them waited for Marnat to begin.
It was some time before his mouth was empty enough for him to speak. When the words began, they flowed steadily for more than an hour. "Witness these fertile fields through which my river flows. Once they were named for a woman, Virda, but now they are mine. I am the first of all the rulers of Saadena to claim his due. When I have finished my work of unifying Okishdu, my name will be held in reverence by all men."
The words continued, each phrase more self-glorifying than the one before. Now and then Marnat stopped and demanded that they read back what they had recorded. He smiled as his words were repeated. As soon as they finished the reprise, he started speaking again.
Even Marnat could not continue in such a cause all day and finally he tired of the sound of his own voice. "Leave me now and I will call you when I feel inspired to speak again."
Tharek and Fozli gathered up their slates and left the cabin. The glance they shared as soon as the door was shut was full of mirth, but laughter could be deadly if Marnat overheard them. They hurried to the crew galley to find something to eat.
The Comor river wound its way across a fertile plain. They passed small villages and larger towns along the way, but Virdana's people had never built a city worthy of the name. Perhaps Saadena's quick ascendancy had discouraged the growth of larger settlements.
Marnat's barge did not make landfall until it reached the nearest port to Timora after four days on the river. From here it would take another three days by litter.
By Marnat's order Tharek and Fozli kept pace with his elaborate palanquin, but they were seldom asked to record his observations. He was kept busy with Bechanel who lounged beside him. Her coy laughter could be heard through much of the day as the caravan proceeded southward. Each night the entire company occupied lush tents of zylka cloth that stretched along the trail like a great city.
They began to climb the pass that led to the high valley of Timora late in the third day after leaving the barges and Marnat called a halt. "We will enter the vale at noon tomorrow when all can see our glory."
Tents were erected and campfires started. A troupe of royal musicians began to play. Varied zole horns and stringed fylks filled the air with music.
Servants produced food and wine and the company relaxed. Bechanel began to dance in the grassy ring in front of Marnat's tent. The courtier's applauded and called for more, some of the other women joined in. Tharek heard a sound different from the shouts and cries of glee. Somewhere near the edge of the encampment, a woman gave a stifled cry. No one took notice of him when he summoned Fozli and turned away from the glow of the fires and the noise of revelry.
He found the little empress writhing in pain. Her servants had left her to join an assembly of their own kind who were making merry in a copse not far from their masters' roistering.
"We must find someone who can help her," Fozli urged.
"Her cot can be carried as a litter. Timora is only a few hours away," Tharek said. "I know a healer who lives not far from the pass. We will take her there."
Tharek wished Darm was with them. He had been a husband and the father of several children before the tragedy that robbed him of his family. He must know something of how to go on with a woman in such a state.
She seemed to calm with the knowledge that someone was helping her. Her gasps still came at intervals, but she closed her eyes and slept between the spasms. It was late when Tharek saw a glowing lamp in a window uphill from the track. This should be the healer's house, there should be a woman here who can help her."
The empress lurched up on the stretcher and screamed as they neared the door. It was flung open nearly in their faces and a woman peered out at them. "Who is it?"
"This woman is close to bearing her child," Tharek said as they carried the cot into the room and set it down. With a quick glance he took in the drying herbs hung near the hearth and knew that chance had led them right.
"She is having her child right now," the woman said. "One of you go to my back room and fetch the pile of clean cloths from the bench chest just inside the door. The other must fetch water from the well behind my house."
Her words to Fozli and Tharek were brisk, but when she turned to the empress, her voice was mild. "Come now, sit over here on the birthing stool."
Tharek went for water and Fozli looked for cloth. They were shy of looking into the corner where the two women were working together to bring about the birth. "Is there anything we can do?" Fozli asked the healer. She waved him away.
"We should return to the caravan before we are missed," Fozli said. "What of the empress?"
"She is better off here. If the child is a daughter, it means her death if she is discovered. If it is a son, she can bring it to Marnat when she has recovered from the birth. I think it will be better off to be a girl. I wouldn't wish a father like Marnat on any son."
They were back in the camp before midnight. The revels were still going on. The odor of burning dass hung on the air. Fozli and Tharek slipped into their tent and went to sleep.
They woke long before the others. Even the stolid steward had overindulged and without his prompting, the other servants took their ease. Tharek and Fozli packed up their tiny tent then found some food to break their fast. The campfires were cold, but it took only moments to start a new fire to warm some cala and toast a few matlas.
They bathed in a nearby stream and washed their clothing. Finally the servants began to rouse and by noon most of the courtiers had staggered away to their tents to change their clothing.
Marnat stepped from his tent looking fairly fresh. He looked around with an expression of disgust. More than three hundred people on a binge of food and wine, dass and docil, had left a shambles of the camp. Here and there servants were struggling to restore order to tents and equipment.
"Where are my litter bearers?" Marnat demanded. "I must go on to Timora immediately."
When there was no response to his demand, the Emperor looked toward the two tall men he used as scribes and nodded. "The two of you will do. Fetch my litter and carry me into Timora."
Tharek and Fozli quickly complied. It seemed a far less onerous task to carry Marnat in a litter than to walk beside him and record his fatuous words. Bechanel was still sleeping and not willing to wake and face the sunlight even for her royal lover so it was easier still for those who bore the litter.
"We could go faster if we carried you in a single litter," Tharek ventured when they passed the litter of one of Marnat's favorites.
"Set me down and we will take Pilruk's litter," Marnat said.
"Please sire, take my litter," Pilruk quickly insisted, preferring to get a little credit for the sacrifice he was forced to make.
Fozli and Tharek lodged their staffs beside the carrying poles of the litter, but if Marnat insisted on using them as litter bearers regularly, they would have to find some other way of keeping track of them.
The summit of the pass into the vale of Timora was not far, and from there the road led downward. Soon the startling blue water of Timora's holy lake came into view. The sacred city of Timora glistened in the midday sun with the golden spire of the main shrine surmounting a graceful tower.
Tharek knew he would never tire of this view, but Marnat gave a disdainful snort. "It is not as large as I was led to believe," he scoffed.
They passed the home of the healer and Tharek glimpsed a small yellow flag flying from one of the dormers. If a son had been born to the empress, the flag would have been green.
The incline became more gradual and they entered a lane of trees. Tharek thought he saw someone hiding just off the path watching them. The shape of the head was familiar and teased his memory. They were well past the spot when he realized who it had been. Garvok was here in Timora. He had not been near Marnat for more than a week and Tharek had begun to wonder what he was about. Now the mystery was compounded.
What business did Marnat's Hound have here in Timora? Tharek tried to recall what he knew of Marnat's plan and the High Priest's demand. Marnat had not come in penitence. Yet he had come.
Tharek had known the previous High Priest, but the current occupant of the office was unfamiliar. It was almost unknown for any other than the tribes of Tedak and Irilik to hold the post, but surely his own great grandfather would not have chosen someone unworthy to be his successor.
He suddenly wished that he had spent more time thinking about the implications of Garvok's words when he had met with Marnat the previous week. Fozli might have the answers he needed. While Tharek had read the Scroll of History and Prophecy several times, he had forgotten more than he retained. He had excerpts in his notes, but they were things that had taken his attention. Fozli had the whole thing in his head.
While he pondered the problem, his steps continued on toward Timora and by mid-afternoon they had arrived on the street of embassies. Saadena's embassy was large and elegantly proportioned. Tharek recognized the hand of Barun in the design. The same hand had carved the garden walls in Saadena's old palace.
The gatekeeper must have recognized Marnat's imperial profile because the gate was open and they were let inside the courtyard of the embassy without delay.
"Set me down," Marnat demanded.
Fozli and Tharek complied, making a better job of it than either expected. The litter settled gently onto a stone bench made for the purpose and Marnat stepped out. "I made a mistake in assigning the two of you as my scribes. From henceforth, you are the royal litter bearers."
With that, Marnat entered the embassy, leaving Tharek and Fozli behind. After taking long drinks from a fountain in the courtyard, they walked toward the wall. Tharek ran his fingers over the carving and quirked his brow. "I think I have found a place we can talk without being overheard."
Chapter 12 The Empress
Tharek and Fozli followed the wall and found a similar pattern to the one that opened Marinin's garden in Saadena. The section of wall was screened from the rest of the courtyard by overgrown bushes. The embassy had been neglected for years. After checking that they were unobserved, Tharek pressed the blossom that looked most like the one that opened Marinin's garden. There was a click of release, but the wall remained closed.
Fozli examined the foot of the wall and found that several large stones had become wedged under the section. When he pried them loose, the section of wall moved outward a few inches. Tharek peered inside. The space within was filled with rank vegetation. The remains of pattern could still be seen, but it had been years since the hand of a gardener had attempted to tame the growth of vines and bushes.
They both gave their strength to pulling the hidden door wider. Fozli used his staff as a wedge and gradually the door widened enough to admit them. They found that the door was blocked from opening any further by wrist-sized vines. After they shut the door, they spent several minutes removing obstructions that might block the door if they wanted the seclusion of the garden later.
The temptation to explore the abandoned garden led them from wall to wall. It was less than half the size of Marinin's garden. A fountain trickled with water, forming a scummy, stagnant pond. They pulled matted leaves from the opening and a strong current began to flow, topping the bowl of the fountain and falling in a shining sheet to a conduit at the base.
There were nuka trees and bread-berry bushes and beds of herbs that had overgrown their bounds. In one corner a pavilion of filigree stone gave shade to benches and barrel seats set around tables.
"I am tempted to camp here," Tharek said.
"I think we should bring the Empress here with her child," Fozli said. "You know what her fate will be when Marnat discovers she has given birth to a daughter. She could be safe here and hidden from his eyes."
"But not from his ears," Tharek reminded his friend. "Babies cry. She would soon be discovered. We must find someplace safe for her, but nowhere near Marnat."
"Speaking of Marnat, I thought we came in here to find some privacy to speak," Fozli said. "Instead, we have spent the last hour cutting weeds and clearing the fountain. Marnat may want us at any time, what was it you wanted to talk about?"
"I have excepts of the Scroll of History and Prophecy written by Irilik, but I do not remember the specific references to Saadena. I thought you might be able to enlighten me."
"Why don't we simply go to the library where the scrolls are kept?" Fozli asked.
"Then you don't remember anything?"
"There is a verse that comes to mind. 'In the day that Elianin's son grows proud and sets himself above all, the ground will heave and rivers will stop and the citadels will fall."
"That bears out the prophecies I have received, but I wonder if there are any other clues that would help us know why I feel a sense of urgency about Garvok."
"There is another verse that might apply," Fozli said. "The sons of Marek will no longer roam when the scroll is removed from its rightful home."
Tharek shook his head. "I believe that verse applies to a day far distant, but what can it mean for us?"
"I am not the prophet. Perhaps you should bring your concerns to the attention of the High Priest."
The sound of a bell warned them that it was time for them to leave their refuge. Fozli went first, checking to see that no one observed them leaving the garden. They found tumult in the courtyard. Men and women were arriving in litters and trying to locate their baggage. Courtiers scurried to find favored rooms within the embassy. For those who did not make a claim, there would be only pilgrim inns and clan hostels. Few of them wanted to acknowledge other ties beyond Saadena and the competition for a place in the embassy was fierce.
"Where is my wife?" a voice from the balcony demanded. Everyone present knew that voice and it brought an immediate cessation of noise. Marnat was red in the face with anger. He surveyed the courtyard.
"Did none of you stop to see that she was brought to Timora?" he shouted.
None of the courtiers were willing to remind him that he had hurried off without a second thought for either his wife or Bechanel. The courtesan herself was first to break the silence.
"You will not solve the problem by screaming at everyone. I thought you must have taken her with you. By the time I woke, most of the others were gone. The tent you allotted for her had bee removed."
Tharek and Fozli looked around at the fearful, puzzled faces of everyone in the courtyard. "Where is the servant of the Empress? Perhaps she knows what happened," Fozli ventured.
A woman was edging away toward the embassy gate, pulling her shawl over her face and cringing to keep her head below the crowd. Before she was able to make her escape, Marnat pointed at her. "Stop that woman and bring her to me."
The woman shrieked and tried to run, but too many hands grabbed at her. Some of them caught at her clothing and she ripped away in her frantic fear, but others caught hold of her hands and arms. Finally she subsided and let herself be led back to stand beneath Marnat's stare.
"Explain yourself!" he commanded.
"Your wife was sleeping when I left her to go to the revel. When I returned this morning, she was gone. I thought she had been taken to a midwife."
"Why would you think such a thing?"
"She has been showing the signs that a child would come. I tried to take a message to you, but that woman kept me away." The servant pointed to Bechanel.
Marnat looked from the servant to Bechanel. "You presumed too much," he snarled. With a gesture of his hand his men fell upon both the servant and the courtesan and took them into the embassy. Their cries and protests were soon silenced and Marnat summoned his steward.
"Where are the midwives in this forsaken place?" Marnat demanded.
"We have never had need of midwives before," the Cozaul said. "I will send someone to find them."
"Go yourself," Marnat said. "If a son has been born, return the child and his mother to me. If there is a girl, you know what to do."
There was a moment of hesitation by the steward, then he bowed his head and turned away to carry out the errand. The incident sobered the courtiers and their servants and they quietly turned to their own affairs.
"Where are my litter bearers?" Marnat demanded.
The two men who normally served him stepped forward but he ignored them and looked further. Tharek stepped forward with Fozli by his side.
"Be ready to take me to the Shrine when morning comes," Marnat directed them. He looked around at the courtiers and raised his voice. "Any of the rest of you who want to witness my ascendancy over those who seek to rule me should accompany me in the morning."
With that, he turned and left the balcony. The courtiers would have to depend on their own resources if they expected to eat. It was no real hardship for most of them. They had become accustomed to the need to provide for themselves under Marnat's fickle reign.
Tharek and Fozli slipped away from the embassy. They both still wore the white robes of pilgrims, and here in Timora there could be no better disguise. More than half of the men in the streets were dressed much the same, in white robes with blue sashes or vests.
"How long do you think it will take before the steward learns of the healer who helped the Empress?" Fozli asked.
"I would be surprised if he fails to remember the signal flag we saw this morning," Tharek replied. "If I were him, it is the first place I would look."
They spoke no further but used all their energy in a loping stride that swiftly took them back toward the pass. There were others on the road, but none so urgent in their errand.
When they reached the place on the road where they had noticed the flag, they saw the healer's house, but no flag waved from the dormer as before. "I wonder if she is gone." Tharek said. "In any event, we must warn the healer."
They had left the embassy compound only shortly after the steward took his leave. Surely they must have outdistanced him. Tharek knocked at the door of the healer's house but for a long time there was no response. Finally a child poked his upper body out of an upper window and waved them away. "My mother is gone and I must not let strangers in. Go away."
"We will wait for her to return," Tharek insisted.
"Are you the men who were here last night?" the little boy asked.
"Yes, we were here with someone. We left them here," Fozli answered.
The child disappeared and after a little while the door opened. The healer stood just inside. "My patient says I must trust you, but none other. Hurry inside or you will be seen."
"Are the mother and child well?" Tharek asked.
"From what the woman says, she will survive only as long as her husband does not discover that she has given birth to a daughter. What kind of barbarian does such a thing?" the healer demanded.
"Her husband is a monster, but he is an emperor," Tharek explained. "I can see that you are willing to keep her presence here a secret. Others will come in search. We must settle on a story that you can tell them. Where are you hiding them?"
"Come, I will show you," the healer invited. She turned to her child. "You were wrong to stick out your head and show yourself to these men. All of us could be in danger. Fortunately, they will not harm you, but others might. Stay still and do not answer to any knock."
She led Tharek and Fozli to a narrow set of stairs that led upward. A cupboard door occupied the space beneath the stairs, but instead of taking the stairs, the healer opened the lower door of the cupboard and ducked down to go through the low opening. They followed her down stairs that led them to a cellar. It was not a low and earthy place, but a spacious room with a nop wood floor to resist rot.
A bed was set up in the corner with a tiny cot near its head. The woman sleeping on the bed moaned, then turned over and opened her eyes. As soon as she recognized Tharek and Fozli, she smiled.
"I can never repay you for bringing me here to safety," she said.
"Your husband's steward is searching for you," Tharek warned her. "I only hope he did not see the flag that signaled your daughter's birth."
The little Empress shut her eyes and sighed. "I have prayed and prayed that I would find a way to be free of Marnat. If I had borne him a son, I would never have escaped. Now he will repudiate me if he cannot find me. I will be free either way."
"I must not lie, and he might question me," Tharek said. "What can I say if he asks a direct question?"
The healer chuckled. "I can see you have little practice with such things. You must tell the simple truth. The child and its mother lie beneath the ground."
Fozli nodded. "If we went directly to Marnat now and told him exactly those words, the implication is clear, but we will have told the truth."
Tharek shook his head. "If you choose to approach him, you can, but I must steer clear of lying, even by implication. It has been a strain even when it helped others to find freedom."
"May I see the light you carry?" the Empress said.
"How do you know that I carry the light?" Tharek asked her.
She smiled. "I may have been kept confined, but my servants were gossips. I heard how a tall man in pilgrim robes appeared each night to preach. Marnat could hardly talk to me without falling into a rant against the loss of his indentured pilgrims. Last night when you brought me to the healer I thought it must be one of you, but now I am almost certain."
Tharek took the Stone of Truth from the pouch at his throat and the lovely light filled the room. The healer and her son gazed at Tharek amazed, but the little Empress smiled as if she caught a sight of heaven.
Tharek turned to the Healer. "We must go. Keep her safe, we will try to return within a day or so."
The Empress slipped a golden bangle from her arm and held it out to the healer. When the woman shook her head, the Empress insisted. "You have given me shelter and food as well as helped me bear my child. Let me have my dignity as well."
The healer nodded. "Stay here and do not fear, no matter what you may hear. I vow to protect your secret and keep you safe."
Fozli and Tharek left the healer's house by a different path, going high along the side of the valley until they were near the city. For most of the way they were silent, but finally Fozli spoke.
"How did such a treasure come to be married to Marnat, and where did he find her? I don't even know her name."
"Her name is Travil, she was born Kumnoran but adopted by a Mareklan family," Tharek said.
Fozli shook his head. "How did she come to marry Marnat?"
"Her adoptive father was tempted with power and gold. He was repudiated when his bargain was revealed. Like me, he was made outcast. Her mother died long ago and her father died shortly after his bargain with Marnat was concluded. The cause of death was suspicious."
"No wonder she knew who you were," Fozli said.
"We had never met before I went to Saadena," Tharek said. "I heard her story from her foster brother."
They came to the embassy and found it bright with lamps. Marnat was just inside the gate quarreling with his steward. "You must take the legionnaires and search every home until you find her!"
"I have no authority here," the steward protested. "No one will even tell me where the midwives can be found. As soon as they see me they walk away or close their doors. You must set Garvok to find her. I saw him just a moment ago. Surely he would serve you better with his stealth than I could with a hundred legionnaires." The steward's quaking hands betrayed his knowledge of what he risked by arguing with Marnat.
"Garvok is no longer here, he has more important business to do for me. You will search without rest until you find my wife!"
Fozli stepped forward and put his hand on the steward's shaking shoulder. "I went in search of your wife and I learned what happened to her."
His words brought everyone's eyes to him. "The Empress gave birth last night. She and her daughter are resting beneath the ground."
"Another girl!" Marnat howled. "It is just as well that both of them are gone."
Fozli only nodded.
"You have served me better than any other servant," Marnat said. "I will make certain you are well rewarded. Come with me now and attend me. I want to write a poem to the memory of Travil."
Tharek and Fozli followed him into the rooms that he occupied alone. With Bechanel in disgrace and his wife gone, Marnat still had rooms that took up most of the second floor of the embassy. He told Fozli and Tharek to stand and wait until he returned from his bath. When he finally entered the room it was only to yawn and wave them away.
"It is growing late and the excitement of the day has made me weary. Go find a place among the servants until I summon you in the morning."
Chapter 13 Theft
Tharek and Fozli made their way to the low common room assigned to the servants but there were no bunks left in the crowded quarters and the only alternative was to sleep in a wide bed that already held five men. "I think your idea of camping in the garden has some merit," Tharek whispered to Fozli.
They took a share of the supper kept warm in an oven built next to the fireplace. The cook acknowledged their right to do so. They had become accustomed to keeping odd hours while in the service of Marnat. Others, knowing their high standing with the emperor, did not question their actions when they left the room again.
It was much easier to open the door to the garden this time with the counterbalanced stone door moving unobstructed by vines and bushes. The food was adequate and the fountain provided clean water to drink. There were plenty of overgrown tussocks of grass to cushion their rest and after Tharek performed the evening ritual, the two men lay down and closed their eyes.
Tharek could not rest with the feeling of oppression so strong on him. Finally he got up and took his sword staff in hand. Fozli was sleeping peacefully and it seemed better not to bother him for something that was little more than a pressing hunch.
Tharek walked through the quiet streets toward the Shrine. The pale stone seemed to catch each ray of light given off by the moon and stars. Other buildings in Timora had been built of the same stone, but none of them had quite the same reflective luster.
Tharek walked up the steps of the Shrine and studied the faces of heroes and saints whose statues guarded the entrance on either side. When he was nearly at the level of the porch a man stepped out of the shadows of one of the columns.
Tharek immediately recognized him as a Guardian, one of the men dedicated to keeping peace in the holy city. "Who do you seek?" the guardian asked.
Tharek had not planned to speak to anyone, but suddenly he knew he had been driven to come to the Shrine on an errand. "I need to speak to the High Priest. I have a message for him."
"Charash is meditating and should not be disturbed."
Tharek took the Stone of Truth from his pouch and the guardian nodded his head. "For the bearer of the Stone, Charash can be disturbed. Come with me."
The guardian closed the gate and locked it behind him. While he was not there to guard, there would be no admittance. There had been a time when such cautions were unnecessary, but thieves had come in the guise of pilgrims and taken some of the precious ritual vessels.
Tharek followed the guardian past the hall of prayer where the white globe of the lamp of the Radiance glowed softly. A few worshipers knelt in the vast room, making it seem emptier by their small presence.
The guardian climbed a low flight of stairs and paused before a double door with benches on either side. "Wait here after I ring the bell. Charash will appear when he is ready."
Tharek sat down and looked around him. He had visited here as a child and the halls and rooms of the Shrine, except for those rooms reserved for the holiest purposes, had become familiar to him. Now it seemed somehow strange. Charash was reputed to be a good and wise High Priest, but there were whispers that he was a weakling. Surely a strong leader would have stopped Marnat long since.
The door creaked as it opened and Tharek stood. Charash peered at him from under heavy grey brows. "You must have urgent business. Come inside and tell me why you saw fit to disturb my meditation."
"I am Tharek, and this is my badge." Tharek held the Stone of Truth which he had kept closed in his hand since showing it to the guardian. He opened his palm and the light sprung forth.
Charash stepped back in surprise. "How are you called Tharek and yet bear this stone?"
"I was outcast for a contravention of tradition, not for a crime. My father chose to leave the Stone of Truth in my care."
"You must be the prophet who has stirred up so much trouble in Saadena," Charash growled. "Now I have Marnat on my doorstep before I am ready to meet his challenge."
"Surely his actions in impounding pilgrims is against the Laws and Compacts?"
"It is not quite so clear cut as you seem to think. The Laws and Compacts were created and signed before Irilik foresaw the danger of Saadena's power. Irilik made predictions of what might happen if Saadena's rulers failed to honor the trust that was given them along with the privilege of taxing the roads they created and maintained. There are passages in the Scroll of History and Prophecy that relate to the problem. If I had more time, I would have no problem building a case against the emperor."
"You summoned him!"
"I have summoned him many times since he inherited the throne from his father. Do you think I could overlook his succession of wives, especially when there were whispers of murder? I am not a king. I can only ask for kings and councilors to follow the decisions I make, and lives are at stake. How many men will die if I call for a war? Why did you choose this time to act as a prophet? We have enough books of prophecy to last several lifetimes."
"I did not ask to be a prophet, it was a task that fell upon me," Tharek protested. "Lives are at stake in Saadena. The Radiance must act when his agents refuse the task. The power of Marnat will be destroyed, but you must remember what happened when Algunagada challenged the heavens."
"It brought the Broken Star that Irilik warned would fall. Do not say that we will be scourged with fire," Charash said.
"If Marnat is successful, the very earth will shudder and destroy Saadena. I gave warning to all who would heed me, but many more will lose their lives if what I have seen comes to pass."
"Come with me to the prayer hall and we will plead for this disaster to pass us by."
"I thought you might provide me with some guidance," Tharek said wearily. "I have a friend from Kumnora who has given me some idea of the prophecies that could be used to judge Marnat, but I thought that you would know for certain."
"I said I was not quite prepared, but I have enough knowledge to condemn Marnat for his arrogance. I hope he will beg for my pardon and repent of his evil. I dread the thought of leaving a legacy of war. For six hundred years Okishdu has been peaceful."
"Have you ever been to Janaka?" Tharek asked, astounded at Charash's complacency.
"The feuds of Janakan's do not concern me as long as they keep them within their own boundaries."
Tharek opened his hand again and the stone lit the room. "What do you see when you look in my hand?" he asked Charash.
"I see what any man of honest heart must see, a glow as of a lamp well fueled with the finest oil. It is nearly bright enough to light up the room of its own accord."
Tharek was deeply saddened by the response of the High Priest. He was sure the man was complacent in his righteousness, but his failure to take a strong stand, his timidity in the face of evil, had diminished his ability to see the Light in its fullness. With such a leader, what would become of Timora. There was a promise that the vale would never fall to evil, but what would stay the hand of the Radiance from choosing others for the trust?
"I am sincerely sorry that I disturbed your meditations," Tharek said. "I only hope you will find the words to use against Marnat."
"I will have the words," Charash assured him. "They are in the Scroll, waiting for me to read them, indisputably unadulterated. This is why the High Priests decided that the scrolls should never be copied entire. Irilik warned that there might come a day when the meanings were twisted and debated. We have prevented that from happening by keeping the original scrolls where all could read them."
"And what if something happened to those originals?" Tharek asked.
"They are well guarded. Why would the Radiance allow his prophet's words to be destroyed?"
"Perhaps they will be taken for a time because we have not heeded them," Tharek said. "I had to come to you to ask what passages might be used to condemn Marnat, and you admit that you have no clear idea."
"I have ideas, I simply have not settled on the specific passage," Charash protested.
"We should go to the library now and study together," Tharek said with a sense of urgency.
"You are young and impetuous," Charash replied. "I will meet you in the morning when there will be sufficient light to study the scroll. Lamplight tires my eyes."
"We can use the light of the Stone of Truth."
Charash shook his head and smiled wearily. "It is little better than a lamp itself. Even now it seems to dim. We will wait until the sunlight enters the windows above the room where the scrolls are kept. Surely you have seen how they are displayed under crystalline covers. Tomorrow morning meet me there."
Tharek shook his head. "Tomorrow may be too late to read what is written. Tell me, who has the keeping of the Eye of Adanan?"
"It is in the charge of my shrine keepers, as the Stone of Truth should be. Unfortunately, it seems to be damaged. It has not responded to anyone for years."
Tharek walked to the door and turned back to watch Charash for a moment. How had this man come to fill the chair of High Priest? Were all of Timora's priests in such decline? The sense of impending disaster loomed.
He stopped near the guardian before leaving the Shrine. "Who has the keeping of the Eye of Adanan?"
"Charash appointed Karon, the brother of the empress to the task. It was a gesture of amelioration to the Saadenans."
"Travil's adoptive brother?" Tharek asked.
"Yes, but he is of different stuff from Charash and the others. If you want to meet him, I will take you to his quarters."
Tharek was sensitive to the lateness of the hour and at first he was tempted to turn down the offer, but the sense of urgency that drove him to visit Charash returned in force.
"I will visit him."
"I will be relieved in an hour or so, perhaps I could take you then."
"I am familiar with the Shrine. Just give me directions."
"Karon sleeps on the first landing of the tower of the Shrine. Even though Charash has chided him for his excessive care, he has vowed to protect the Eye of Adanan against all threat."
"Do you think his care excessive?" Tharek asked.
Their conversation was interrupted by a cry. It came from inside the Shrine behind them. Tharek turned and raced inward, passing the prayer room and glimpsing startled faces that looked up as he ran past.
He took the first stairs to the tower two at a time and found the landing empty. Suddenly a man blocked his way and shoved him aside. The guardian, coming slightly behind Tharek, gave a shout of pain and fell. Tharek was torn between continuing upward and stopping to help the fallen guardian. He knelt down and checked for a wound.
"Go up!" the guardian muttered. "I will survive."
Tharek rushed up the stairs unimpeded. The gates at the landings were open, betraying the path of the intruder. He burst into the small room at the top. The plinth where the Eye of Adanan should have rested stood ominously empty. By the light of the Stone of Truth held in his hand, Tharek studied the room. He heard a groan and went to the other side of the plinth.
A man in a white robe and blue cowl was stretched out on the floor. Tharek knelt and the man's eyes opened. He gazed up at the light that Tharek held above him while he looked to find the wound that had felled the priest.
"Loaf," the young priest muttered. Tharek shook his head.
"Speak later. You need a healer."
"Loaf!" A shaking hand was raised as if all the effort the priest could spare was used to make the gesture. Tharek followed the direction of the pointing finger.
On the far side of the room, under the edge of one of the benches that lined the walls, a battered loaf of bread was lodged. Tharek could not ignore the pleas of the priest and he bent over to retrieve it. As soon as he held it in his hand and tested its weight he knew what it was.
"The Eye of Adanan?" he asked.
"Protect, preser-"Karon's voice faded away and Tharek hurried back to him. He tried to staunch the blood that flowed from the stab wounds but the slashes in Karon's chest were deep and the weakening pulse betrayed that they were mortal. Finally Tharek raised his hands and prayed for the soul of the valiant young priest who had given his life to preserve the holy implement from theft.
He had some knowledge of locks and latches and the one on the loaf shaped box was relatively simple. He opened it and saw the crystal box with its suspended gems glistening in the light of the Stone of truth. He saw no sign of damage after a brief inspection. Should he leave it here, or take it with him? Finally he put the wooden loaf into one of his belt pouches and reached out to close the staring eyes of the dead priest.
After restoring the Stone of Truth to its place in the pouch tied round his neck, he lifted Karon in his arms and carried him down the stairs. Grief swelled in his heart for the death of this true man. When he reached the bottom landing he found several people waiting.
The praying pilgrims had rushed to aid the guardian, but none of them dared to climb the stairs to the upper room. There were strict prohibitions against any but those invited by the High Priest to enter the room where the Eye of Adanan rested.
"We have summoned the High Priest," one of the pilgrims said.
Tharek laid Karon down on a long low chest and waited with the others. It was some time before Charash appeared. He held his lamp high and surveyed the scene with much clucking of his tongue as if he were viewing something far milder than a murder. "What happened here?" he finally asked.
"The thief who was after the Eye of Adanan killed the priest and wounded the guardian," Tharek stated.
Charash held his lamp higher and surveyed Tharek. "There is blood on your robe, you must change it."
"He carried the priest down from the tower," one of the pilgrims from the prayer room volunteered. "We heard a cry from the tower, then this man and the guardian ran past."
"This is dreadful. We must clean it up and keep it quiet. Tomorrow I have important negotiations to conduct. I order all of you to keep silence on the subject."
Tharek found it surprising that Charash did not inquire after the fate of the oracle device. Surely the possible loss of the Eye of Adanan was a serious thing. He stepped forward and put his hand on the pouch where he had put the loaf. Whatever Charash might be as a man, he was the High Priest of Timora.
Something restrained him and he could not open his mouth to tell Charash that he had the Eye of Adanan. Even his hand seemed unable to work the strings of the pouch.
"Why are you all standing here gaping?" Charash protested. "We have only a few hours before the emperor will arrive. What will he think of my management if such a scene as this can happen here in the Shrine."
Tharek picked up the body of Karon and carried it down to a room under the prayer hall. He laid it tenderly down on a stone table and covered it with a white cloth. It was not his place to argue with Charash, but he was glad he had not given him the box. Perhaps his urgency in coming to the Shrine had not been about the questions he had asked Charash. It was as likely that he had been led to come when he could rescue the Eye of Adanan before someone mistook its humble case for nothing more than trash and discarded it.
There was a closet filled with white robes near at hand, and for the sake of avoiding undue notice, he changed as Charash had urged. He put the bloodied robe into a chest meant for laundering. What would the washing women make of it, he wondered. Charash might think he could conceal what had taken place, but sooner or later all would be found out.
Tharek returned to the embassy garden near dawn and woke Fozli. The story he had to tell had his friend staring and shaking his head. "We must tell Travil that her brother is dead." Fozli said when Tharek finished his account.
"She would be better off if both of us stayed clear of her. I do not understand why an attempt was made to steal the Eye of Adanan. I have a sense that it was only a secondary target. Charash assured me that the sacred library is well guarded, but the thief at the Shrine got past a guardian and through a series of locked doors. I am to meet Charash at daylight to read the scroll that contains Irilik's history and prophecies. I hope it is still there for us to read."
"Why didn't you go last night?" Fozli asked. "Surely you could have seen it clearly with the Stone of Truth."
"Charash sees the Stone of Truth as little more than an ordinary lamp," Irilik said.
"Then he should not be the High Priest of Timora."
"He is not an evil man, only weak and given to compromise. Garvok seems to have overestimated Charash's resolution when he warned Marnat. I do not doubt that the kings and councilors of Okishdu would be willing to stand behind him, but he will not lead them as a high priest should."
They ate breakfast, cleaned their hands, then took up their staffs and left the garden. The hour was early, but they found Marnat pacing and cursing in the courtyard of the embassy. "Where have you been! I sent servants to summon you, but they said you had not been seen all night."
"We could not find a place in the servants' quarters so we found a few tussocks of grass where we were comfortable," Fozli explained.
"Don't let it happen again," Marnat snarled. "I must meet with the High Priest now. He hoped to delay me, but I will have this concluded."
No one cared to remind the emperor that he had been in Timora for little more than a day. The train of courtiers with their litters and servants stretched out behind Marnat's own palanquin. When they arrived at the steps of the Shrine, Marnat sent a servant to summon the High Priest.
Charash arrived in a dither. "It is too early for our conference!" he complained to Marnat.
"You have sent me many summons, and now when I appear you keep me waiting?" Marnat said. "I have been told that I am to be judged by some passage you found in an old scroll. Show me your proof."
Charash led the way with a line of Shrine servants hurrying to keep pace with him. No representatives of any of the other cities were present to witness the questioning. He had not expected it to take place so quickly.
At the sacred library the guardians still barred the gate. For a moment Tharek was reassured, then he saw something that chilled him. Off to the side of the library, a man stood watching from the shadows. It was Garvok.
Tharek and Fozli laid down the post of Marnat's palanquin and lifted the staffs they had lodged on the framework. Marnat sat and watched as Charash dismissed the night guards. The gate was flung open and everyone proceeded inside.
The wide hall where the scrolls were displayed was lit by a series of high windows and mirrors. They were placed so that beams of light illuminated the long crystalline cases where the three sacred scrolls were displayed, rolled out so all could read them.
This morning the beams of light from windows and mirrors shown on two intact cases, and a third that was broken and empty, its crystal shards catching the morning light. "The scroll of Prophecy is gone!" Charash shrieked.
"So it is," Marnat tittered. "I cannot be judged by the words of a scroll that cannot be found."
"I know the words of the prophecies," Fozli volunteered.
Marnat whirled on him. "Quiet fool! I was amused by you for a while, but you cannot pretend that the mumbles of a Kumnoran would stand in stead of the written word."
"It would not suffice," Charash admitted. "Without the scroll, I cannot offer a reprimand."
"What of his murders?" Fozli cried. "All men know that he has taken a string of wives and murdered them one by one."
"It is an internal matter," Marnat said. "How could I break a law. I am the Emperor of Saadena. I am the law."
Charash provided no answer. A guardian hurried up to the High Priest. "We have found the point of entry to the library. The thief came through the tunnel that leads to your own offices in the Shrine. He must have come in sometime last night when you were absent."
Marnat gloated. "Our business here is finished. I will return to the embassy. You, litter bearers, take up your poles."
"I am no longer your servant," Fozli declared. "Your word may be law in Saadena, but this is Timora where the bonds of servants are dissolved."
Tharek did not speak, but his posture proclaimed his intent. Marnat glared at the two young men. Then he turned to a courtier. "Give me your litter bearers." The man quickly yielded and Marnat ordered the men to carry him to the embassy. The Saadenan courtiers trailed behind.
Tharek turned to Charash. "You are no longer fit for your stewardship. You must call a meeting of the priesthood council."
Charash straightened himself to stare into the upstart's face, he recognized who it was that spoke to him and he quickly wilted. "I will do as you say. Are you to be my successor?"
The ground beneath their feet seemed to shudder. It could almost be Tharek's imagination, but he knew the cause. He shook his head. "I must return to Saadena and do what I can for those who are suffering. Marnat will find his capital fallen as I promised. What you failed to do by the powers of your office has been taken into the hands of a higher judge."
Chapter 14 Rescue
Marnat had gained what he wanted and there was no reason for him to linger in Timora. There were mutters of complaint from the courtiers who had expected at least a few days to visit shrines and libraries and trade for trinkets in the great market place that rivaled any in Okishdu.
Fozli and Tharek were already on the trail before the Saadenans organized their servants and left the embassy compound. When they reached the road to the eastern pass, Fozli stopped. "We must visit Travil and make certain she has everything she needs."
"I will leave you here to see to Travil and tell her about her brother. You are right to be concerned about her welfare. I will travel on alone."
Fozli hesitated, but finally he made a gesture of farewell. "I cannot find words to tell you what I mean to say to you. You have given me a far different life than what I expected only a few months ago. You will find me here in Timora if you ever care to return. I have decided to become a scribe."
Tharek nodded. "You have made a good beginning, and you know what is needed. The remaining scrolls must be copied and distributed to every city. When Marnat's thief took Irilik's scroll it was a terrible loss, but The Laws and Compacts are basic to what Okishdu should be. Perhaps you can transcribe your knowledge of the contents of the stolen scroll for others who will seek its guidance in the years to come."
"I will see that it is done," Fozli assured him. "Doubtless I will meet opposition to my plans, but even Charash cannot protest the need. Go with the Radiance." He turned and took the path that led to the healer's home.
Tharek looked back toward Timora. There was a group of pilgrims on the road several leagues closer to the city, but there was no one close enough for him to distinguish a face. Even so, he did not feel confident that he was not being followed. Now that Garvok had dispatched his errand in Timora and taken the scroll that could have troubled his royal master, he would return to tracking the prophet. It was likely that by now he realized that Tharek was his quarry.
The Saadenans would doubtless retrace their path, going northward to the river Comor and taking barges back to Saadena. Tharek had seen enough in his warning dreams to know that the rivers that had been the basis of Saadenan power would no longer flow into the city. Marnat might well find his barge trapped in a mud flat. Tharek would make the journey faster by traveling overland to Tedaka and thence north to Saadena.
When he reached the top of the pass he met a pilgrim caravan. He nodded and began to pass them but one man stood out from the others. Tharek had met him before while on a trading journeys. It was Feranal, Marinin's beloved.
Tharek hailed the Taleekan councilor. When he stopped Tharek drew him to the edge of the trail. "Are you traveling to support Charash against Marnat?"
Feranal nodded. "We received a message to be in the city by this afternoon. I would like to stop and visit with you, but duty calls."
"You are too late. This morning, shortly after dawn, Charash had his confrontation with the emperor. Marnat forced the meeting. Last night a thief broke into the sacred library and took the scroll by which the emperor would have been judged."
Feranal's face was filled first with astonishment, then anger. "You speak as if the matter is decided. Surely Marnat's crimes are sufficient to bring action against him. I have come with a pledge of alliance from the council of Taleeka."
"Charash did not challenge Marnat once the theft was discovered. He let the emperor claim sovereign privilege for his other crimes. I am certain it was Marnat's Hound, Garvok, who took the scroll."
"You must give evidence against him to the Guardians."
Tharek shook his head. "I have nothing certain against him, but the Guardians already want the thief for murder. The Empress's brother, Karon, was killed last night. He had the keeping of the Eye of Adanan. It seems the thief meant to divert attention from his theft of the scroll. He gained access to the Library through the offices of the High Priest while we were dealing with the murder of Karon."
"I am astonished that a servant of Marnat would kill his wife's brother," Feranal protested.
"Travil would have been killed as soon as Marnat learned that she bore a daughter, but he thinks both she and the child died. She safe for now. Marnat cared little for any of the women he married. At present he is enamored of a courtesan named Bechanel.
Feranal saw the members of the caravan slow and stop to wait for him and turned to address them. "Go ahead. I will not be going on with you to Timora. I have other urgent business to discharge."
He turned back to Tharek. "Will you come with me to Saadena? I must rescue Marinin from her brother. As far as I can see, Marnat is outlaw and I no longer fear offending him by pressing my suit with his sister."
Tharek started over the pass with Feranal by his side. "I was going to Saadena by way of Tedaka, your companionship is welcome. I only hope Marinin is safe."
"What has Marnat done to her?" Feranal demanded.
"It is not Marnat, but what he is that may have caused her harm. I will tell you something that few others know. I was sent to Saadena as a prophet. It was not a calling that I chose. It was thrust upon me by events. My friends and I intended to make a pilgrimage to Timora. We found that Marnat was impounding pilgrims for the crime of accepting food and shelter from the pilgrim hostels his ancestors established."
"I have heard some rumors of his tactics. Charash should not have let him go without punishment. Marnat is an offense against all decency. I can guess the content of your prophecies."
"Marnat may have thought to divert the anger of his fellow rulers from him by removing the document that named his crimes, but the Radiance promised to impose a penalty that no army could imagine. Even now the city of Saadena is destroyed, her rivers stopped or diverted. I was sent to warn the people to flee. Some of them heard my voice, but others scoffed."
"How is it that you came to Timora with Marnat?"
"It is a long story, but we have days of travel ahead of us. I will tell you what I can."
"Can you tell me that Marinin is safe?" Feranal begged him.
"I have reason to believe that we will find her safe. The Shrine and the Old Palace will not fall, but that is all I can assure you. It is especially urgent for us to find her as soon as we can. Marnat has promised Garvok he can have his sister if he finds the prophet."
"They do not know who you are?"
"Garvok has suspected me from the beginning, but Marnat assured him I was not involved. By now the emperor has probably changed his mind."
"We are dressed as pilgrims. Is it right for us to turn away from the pilgrim path while wearing these robes?"
Tharek gave a grim chuckle of wry amusement. "We are going to save lives and rescue an embattled maiden. Is there anything unrighteous in our quest?"
"Where are the people of your clan? Will we meet up with them and gain their aid?"
"You knew me as Tharen. Now I am Tharek, a man without a clan. I picked up a sword when I was caught in a battle. It is forbidden for Mareklans to carry killing blades and my father declared that until I returned the sword, I would be outcast."
"Surely you did not choose a sword over staying with your people?" Feranal protested.
"The sword I picked up was named Algire oc Baroka. Does that name mean anything to you?"
"The Sword of the Wizard Smith! How are you still alive. As I understand it, the Janakan who bore it would not give up the sword unless it was taken from his dead hand."
"Hear my story and you will learn how the Radiance has made a my path run to his purposes. Now that I am well into the role he chose for me I can see his hand in the turnings of my trail."
Tharek and Feranal moved at a jogging trot, but Tharek slowed his own pace to accommodate the other man. It was easy enough for him to continue with his story as the leagues rolled by.
When it was a little past midday he reached the end of his account with an edited version of the death of Karon and the theft of the scroll. He did not want anyone to know about the sacred oracle device he carried in his belt pouch.
When he finished with his tale, he called a halt. "There is a spring just ahead not far from the trail. I believe we have put enough distance between ourselves and Garvok or any other spy. If you could gather something for us to eat, I will rest."
"After all that happened to you last night, I am surprised you kept up your pace so long," Feranal panted. "I did not want to complain of your haste, but I am nearly winded."
"Do you have provisions for another meal?" Tharek asked.
"I have enough for one meal if we share, but I noticed a number of fruiting trees and bushes. This is a prime time for harvest in this region. I will rest for a while, then gather something for us to eat."
"At the best pace we can maintain, it is three days more to Tedaka. I have a friend there if Darm followed his intentions and left Saadena days ago. I would welcome his aid in this enterprise."
"Tell me Tharek, why did you trust me with the knowledge you have shared?" Feranal asked while they gathered dry grass and prepared their resting places.
"Marinin loves you, and she has a sense of what is good. I had the impression that we were meant to meet before I left Timora. Who better to help me in my rescue errand?"
Feranal nodded. "I can see how you might come to feel that much of what you do is fated."
"It is not fate, so much as a subtle design with alternative patterns to the weave. Perhaps if I had listened more closely to my intuition I could have prevented both Karon's murder and the theft of the scroll."
"But both were intimated in the writings of Irilik," Feranal said. "I have studied the passages several times when I was in Timora. Is there just one time that such things would have come to pass?"
Tharek shook his head. "I cannot say. I can only try to meet my destiny for the time in which I live."
Tharek looked around and stifled a yawn. "This is a peaceful place. I may not wake again until morning once we eat." He raised his hands and bowed his head to speak the evening ritual. Feranal did not argue with the plan. The worst of their journey to Tedaka lay ahead of them. It would be better if they were both well rested.
When Tharek woke to pre-dawn light, he noticed that Feranal had gathered several piles of various fruits and roots. The Taleekan councilor surprised him. Most people regarded those who ruled in Taleeka as lazy autocrats, but even though Tharek knew the image was not accurate, he had hardly expected his companion to have the knowledge of such things as foss root or splar, a tiny fruit that grew near the ground beneath large leaves.
Tharek rose and left Feranal to sleep while he found a place down stream of the spring to wash himself and prepare for the day. When he returned to the camp he woke the Taleekan. "I have already washed. I will make breakfast for the both of us while you get ready for the day."
Tharek avoided building a fire. The wind was from the east and the smell of smoke could carry several miles. There was still some chance that Garvok was on their trail even though the paths Tharek had taken were supposedly known only to Mareklan merchants.
When they finished eating, Tharek scattered all signs of their camp. They were on their way by the time the sun rose over the eastern peaks. The hills were steep enough to discourage talking even though Tharek still tried to moderate his pace for Feranal. He was urgent to reach Saadena and do what he could to rescue those who had been caught in the earthquake, but it would be folly to think he could do more by himself than with the aid of willing helpers.
The hills of Tedaka were visible a few days later. "Would you rather camp now and go on to Tedaka in the morning, or travel through the night?" Tharek asked Feranal when he paused to take a long drink from his water skin.
Feranal surveyed the dimming landscape ahead of them. "The trail ahead until we reach the borders of Tedaka could be dangerous to travel in the dark. Perhaps it would be better if we camp."
Tharek took the Stone of Truth from the pouch at his neck and Feranal gasped in surprise. "No wonder people accepted you as a prophet. How could Charash doubt that he could see the scroll by night if you showed him this token?"
"Charash saw it only as a dim glow, much like a lamp. He doubted that it would be bright enough to reveal the symbols on the scroll."
Feranal shook his head. "Then I can only pity him. What must it be to find that you have failed such a test? The Stone seems to light up all the land around us. With this light, we can travel on until we tire."
They stopped only long enough to take their evening meal. Tharek performed the Evening Ritual before they took up their staffs again and headed north toward Tedaka.
It was near dawn again when they were hailed by someone ahead of them. "Tharek! I saw your light last night and told my friends about you." It was Darm along with a number of Tedakans. "We felt the shock from the disaster you predicted. It happened in the early morning five days ago."
Tharek nodded. "I felt it too, but only as a shiver of the earth in Timora. It happened when we discovered the theft of Irilik's scroll of prophecy."
"A sacred scroll?" Darm cried. "I wondered what would cause the disaster in Saadena, surely this sacrilege is reason enough."
"The scroll is venerated and important, but far worse, a young priest was murdered in the Shrine, in the very chamber where the Eye of Adanan was kept."
His revelation caused an outraged uproar from the men with Darm. "Where were the Guardians when this happened?" Darm asked.
"There were good men keeping watch, but they had not been alerted to take extra care," Tharek explained. "I realize now that I should have warned their chief when I first arrived in Timora. I cannot but feel that I must bear some blame. I saw Garvok lurking near the library just before the theft was discovered. Marnat seemed to know about the crime before he confronted and confounded Charash."
"Who found the murdered priest?" another man asked.
Tharek briefly described the events, once again editing the story to conceal his possession of the Eye of Adanan."It seems the murder was merely a diversion. When Charash was summoned to the scene, the murderer used the secret passage that connects his office with the library."
"You bear no blame that I can see," Darm told Tharek. "You must not waste your energy in regret. Why have you come to Tedaka and where is Fozli?"
"Fozli has an errand to protect Travil, Marnat's wife. She gave birth to a daughter and you know what that means. The emperor thinks that she is dead and will doubtless find another wife when he returns to Saadena. I came to Tedaka to ask your help. You can guess what must have happened in Saadena. This man with me is Feranal, the man Marinin would have married if Marnat had not taken the throne. He hopes to find her before Marnat returns to the city. I must do what I can to rescue those who might still need my help. There are innocents who could not leave the city through no fault of their own."
"I can only speak for myself, but I will come with you," Darm said. He turned to the men who had followed him. "If any of you want to stay here in Tedaka, please take word to Farla that I will return."
"The city of Tedaka is not far from the way we must take to reach Saadena and I am certain many there will want to help," Tharek said. "As you must know, we have traveled through the night. Supplies will be needed, it will take a few hours at least to organize a relief caravan. Feranal and I will rest while you prepare."
They were only an hour from the city, but by the time they reached the tall stone houses of Tedaka, both Tharek and Feranal were looking forward to the well filled feather beds a Tedakan host would offer. They were welcomed by the Headman of the city with a minimum of ceremony. The Stone of Truth was Tharek's badge of acceptance.
A refreshing bath, a meal, and then the privacy and comfort of an upper bedroom in the Headman's home was sufficient to make Tharek groan with pleasure when he finally lay down. He woke near noon to the sound of a little bell that was mounted near the door inside of his room. He belted his robe and pulled on his boots before he opened the door to find Darm standing outside.
"We are ready to set out as soon as you have acceded to the priest's request for a brief sermon at our shrine."
"A sermon in the middle of the day?"
Darm nodded. "These Tedakans take religion seriously. When I first arrived, I told them of your work in Saadena. They were sorry they had not heard you preach. They are not impressed with flowery speeches, but they want the kernel of the matter. Just tell them what you think they need to know."
Tharek could not reject such a simple return on the generous hospitality he had been shown. Feranal was up and waiting for him and the three men walked to the shrine. It was the only building in Tedaka that was not built of grey stone from quarries in the nearby hills. Like most other shrines of the Radiance, it shone white in the midday sun.
The assembly room was overflowing with people patiently waiting for Tharek to appear. He stepped up to the podium and sought for words. Finally he raised his hands and bowed his head to pray.
There had been other times when he was given words to say. The swelling warmth in his chest let him know that he was a voice to state the words of the Radiance. He looked at the congregation and braced his hands on the pulpit, leaning forward earnestly. "I speak not of myself, but for the Radiance. You have served well, but now I ask you to serve others. The city of Saadena lies in ruins. There are injured children, and others who are hungry. Seven days from now you must leave Saadena before the evil ones return. Go forth if it is in your hearts. Rescue and succor those who suffer. I ask this week of you, no more."
To some it might have seemed a curious contradiction that the very power who had destroyed Saadena should ask Tedakans to help those who had suffered, but the Tedakans who heard Irilik recognized the source of his words.
They had already made plans to do what had been asked of them. The only difference was that now they knew the period of their service. They had been prepared to spend months if necessary, but a week was all that was granted. Children too small to be of help were left in the care of those too old to make the trek in the time necessary. Only those women who were nursing or heavily pregnant stayed behind to aid in the care of the children.
It was an amazing caravan that set forth within the hour. It was virtually the population of Tedaka, well supplied and ready to help those who had often been a threat to them. Everyone carried a pack containing supplies, and most of the men carried one of the double bladed bronze axes that they used in the forests near their homes.
Tharek was nominally the leader of the rescue mission, but in truth, Dilaka, the Headman of Tedaka had things well in hand. He presented his decisions to Tharek as a courtesy, but with only one exception, they were all approved.
The exception was his plan for Tharek, Darm and Feranal to lead the way into the city and afterwards on the return to Tedaka.
"We will do what we can to help before Marnat returns," Tharek said. "But there are specific errands we must perform. If you do not see any of us when the time you were given has expired, return to Tedaka and do not waste time searching."
"It will be as you say," Dilaka granted.
Tharek had seen something of what must happen to Saadena in his dreams, but the sight that met them two days later was worse that he dreamed. The white shrine seemed the only building still standing upright in the entire city. The river beds were rocky gullies with a few muddy pools of water in the deeper sections. Most of Marnat's proud extension of the old palace lay in ruins but the older sections, planned and built by Barun in the early years of the city, still stood on the castle hill. One tower of Marnat's bridge still stood, the other had tumbled into the deep chasm that had been a river only days before.
Saadena had been tens times as large as Tedaka, and even after many had fled under the urging of Tharek, more than twice as many more had stayed. Looting was rife. The first thing Dilaka did was to establish martial law, sending men with axes to the intersections of the city while other men and women began the work of rescue.
Many had perished when the city fell, but for some reason, there were more orphans than parents without children. Among the few who had been helping before the Tedakans arrived was Marinin. Feranal discovered her within an hour of arriving in the city. She was gathering orphans and bringing them to shelter in the palace.
Tharek saw them walking together while each of them carried a child and held the hand of others. He could not help smiling at the way they stole fond glances at each other as they carried out their errand.
For four days the Tedakans worked to help the stricken people. Resentment was rife. It did not sit well with those who felt themselves to be the inhabitants of Okishdu's leading city to be rescued by a people they despised. Rioting occurred in one section of the city when the Tedakans gave preference to women and children in the distribution of food. Dilaka had declared that able-bodied men should be working to bring food into the city instead of adding to the already strained resources of the rescue effort.
Tharek met with Dilaka on the final evening. "I have seen that Marnat will return tomorrow. It would be best if you and your people were well away when he returns. You will get no thanks from him for what you have done. He will only be offended that you posted armed men in the city, even though it was to defend both property and lives."
"I have already sent the word among my people. We will march out before midnight. There are several thousand orphans in our charge. We may well be accused of abduction when our only purpose is to rescue them."
Tharek nodded. "I will provide a diversion that will keep Marnat from sending men to harry you. I was surprised at how few legionnaires we found within the city when we came. Then I learned that most of them abandoned their posts and fled as soon as the morning gave them light enough to leave after the city fell."
"Marnat's power is destroyed with his city," Dilaka mused.
"For centuries the empire of Saadena grew and thrived and built wealth that will last for centuries to come. Marnat will continue to assume that he is the greatest ruler in Okishdu. These people who have given you such grief when you only thought to help them will become Marnat's slaves. For a few years yet to come, his pride will drive him to ignore the truth, but Tedaka will be safe as long as you remain vigilant."
Feranal and Marinin went with the Tedakans when they left the city. The rescuers withdrew in silence while all the others in the city slept. When the people of Saadena woke to find the ax-wielding Tedakans gone from their streets looting resumed and every shattered tavern in the city lost whatever was left of the stores remaining in the cellars.
Tharek and Darm waited and kept watch on a tower of the old palace. The screams and cries of drunken revelry from the city seemed to grow more urgent as noon approached. It was then that Tharek first sighted the caravan coming from the west along the dried up river bed of what had once been the Comor.
"I think it might be best if we left now," Darm suggested hopefully.
"I will stay, but you should leave," Tharek said. "You know your way to the small south door we used when we set the prisoners free. I must confront Marnat, and if possible, regain the scroll."
"I hope you see yourself surviving this."
Tharek shook his head and smiled ruefully. "I sincerely share your hope, but I cannot see so clearly for myself as I do for others. I received some hope from a message I gave Marinin. I was promised that I would see my sons, but that destiny is far ahead of me. Wait for me in the hostel where we were first challenged for our use of bread and sleeping space. I will come within a week or not at all."
Chapter 15 Hunted
While Tharek waited for Marnat's procession of weary courtiers and staggering servants to cover the final leagues to the city, he heard the sound of shouting in the streets below him. He looked down to find the reason for the excitement and saw a line of men coming from the passes eastward of the city. They were many of the legionnaires that he had been told had abandoned Saadena within days of the earthquake.
There were several hundred men and each of them carried several full water-skins. They quelled the crowd that clamored around them and set up an orderly distribution of the precious liquid in the plaza in front of the palace, making sure that children were served first of all.
Tharek gave a silent prayer of blessing for the men who had followed the path of duty in such a beneficial way. They must have discovered the place where one of the rivers was dammed by falling rock and soil. It would mean that Marnat's power would not be entirely destroyed immediately, but lives would be saved. After burying so many to prevent disease, Tharek welcomed a cessation to the deaths from simple thirst.
While the people were still gathered to receive water, Marnat's train of litters entered the plaza. From Tharek's vantage point he saw the emperor order the legionnaires to cease their activities and carry all the remaining water into the palace. The captain of the contingent tried to argue with his emperor and with a gesture of his hand Marnat ordered him to be imprisoned.
Most of the legionnaires obeyed the order, but several of them supported the resistance of their chief by standing their ground and distributing water. As soon as their activities were noticed, they were also led away toward the dungeon.
"Henceforth, all who want water will pay for the privilege," Marnat announced in a loud voice meant to carry to the furthest reaches of the plaza. "We will set guards on the passes and none but my loyal legionnaires will be permitted access to the source. Tomorrow I will execute those men who defied me here in the plaza where all can see the price of disobedience."
The crowd stood sullen under the threat of pikes and swords, but there were no voices raised in protest. At least the youngest had already had a portion, but tomorrow they would not be so fortunate. Tharek had seen enough of the remaining people of Saadena to know that they would take what they wanted in exchange for Marnat's price and their children would be likely have little.
His heart was heavy with this reminder of the wickedness that had brought about the fall of the city. He sat and waited for a prompting of what he should do. The heavens seemed silent as the sun began to set. One by one stars appeared in the darkening sky. Withna, pure and clear stood high and steady, drawing Tharek's gaze. For some reason he was reminded of the men Marnat had ordered to be executed in the morning for their defiant acts of charity.
He rose and made his way down the narrow stairway that wound around the tower. To his surprise he met no one when he stepped into the guardroom at the bottom of the stairs. He knew that Marnat had been forced to take up apartments in the old palace he had despised, but he was not quite certain which rooms the emperor would choose.
He heard voices raised from the old assembly room and sidled through the shadows to observe what was happening. A group of courtiers was meeting with Marnat.
"You must send men to dig a channel through the rocks that are damming up the river," one man told Marnat. "Most of us here depend on river traffic for our incomes."
"The lake belongs to me, along with all the water it contains," Marnat said. "You have grown rich, but now you will pay me for every drop of water that you use. I must rebuild my palace so that it will never fall again. When that is accomplished, I will send men to dig a channel through the dam."
"What of our homes?" a woman cried. "We have only the tents we took for shelter when we went to Timora."
"Most of the people of Saadena are sleeping with nothing but the sky above their heads," Marnat reminded her. "When I have restored my palace, you may have the hire of the masons to rebuild your mansions. Saadena will rise glorious and new. For a few seasons I will recall my legionnaires from the pilgrim roads and set them to work as guards for water carriers. None other may have access to my lake."
Tharek had heard enough to sicken him. Where others would be chastened and humbled by a disaster of such scale, Marnat saw an opportunity for profit. It was Tharek's duty to confront the emperor with his crimes, but first he would try to save the charitable legionnaires from execution in the morning.
Tharek set the Stone of Truth into the notch on his staff and stepped forward into a corridor. As he had expected, with the beacon shining before him, none of Marnat's minions seemed to see him. He moved past servants and guards with no interference until he reached the level of the dungeon.
Here again he walked past the men who had been set to guard the cells where the prisoners were kept. One man stood an arm's length from Tharek and chatted with one of his companions while Tharek opened the lock that closed one of the cells.
The men within gazed at the light and dropped to their knees. Tharek gestured for them to rise. By now the guards had realized that something was amiss and they were reaching for their pikes when the legionnaires in the cell rushed out and overcame them.
"Shut them in the cells while we let the others out," Tharek said.
"You are the Prophet!" the captain said when his cell was opened. "I came to Saadena after Marnat left for Timora. I searched for you until your words came to pass and there was a need to find water for the city."
"Marnat dissolved your oath of office with his sentence of death. Do any of you still feel bound to honor what he tells you?"
Not a man among them nodded. "We will follow you," the captain said.
Tharek shook his head. "You must leave and lead your men away from Saadena. There is still a need to guard the pilgrim trails. I ask you to go abroad and find good men among your fellows. Henceforth, you will call yourself the Elite Guards of the Prophet. You have been chosen to seek out those who prey on pilgrims. Go to Dilaka in Tedaka and tell him of the charge I have given you."
The captain looked around at his men. "Which of you will swear to honor this new commission?"
There were fifty men crowded into the guardroom of the dungeon and every one of them raised their hands in pledge. Tharek felt a swell of hope. He had only thought to rescue these men from death when he came to release them. His call to make them guardians of the trails was something given from the Radiance. Perhaps this was the purpose for lingering in Saadena after Darm and the others had departed.
"In ancient times when Irilik was led to the vale of Timora, he used a badge of blue on white to mark those who accepted the truth. Remove Marnat's gold and red badges from your breastplates and I will provide another badge for you."
The legionnaires removed the red and gold badges from their white breastplates and Tharek removed the belt around his waist and unfolded it to reveal the strips of wirra hide. With the blade of Tharek oc Baroka, he divided the precious blue leather into squares. There were a hundred pieces when he finished. He handed them to the captain. "I appoint you as my captain and entrust you with this sacred duty."
Tharek led the men to the small door that gave onto the steep and barren southern slope. The captain stood by his side and one by one, as the men departed, he handed them a square of blue. They fastened them to their breastplates with the silver brooches that had secured their discarded badges. Tharek smiled when he noticed the device. It was the ancient symbol of Saaden, the general who had been a friend to Irilik.
When the last man had taken the new insignia and started down the trail, Tharek turned to the captain. "You must tell me your name. If I survive my coming confrontation with Marnat, I will send to Dilaka to know of you."
"I am Fernanga of Virdana. What name should I use for you?"
"I am Tharek."
Fernanga nodded. "I will keep the trust that you have given me."
When the captain followed his men Tharek swung the door shut and secured it. Surely Fernanga would know of other legionnaires who deserved the name. Marnat had swelled the ranks with bullies and thugs, but such an ancient and honored tradition must have some remnants more than just these fifty men. He recalled the man who had aided in the first escape of prisoners.
Tharek knew that it was time to face Marnat. This was his last errand in Saadena. The hour was late and most of the people in the palace were tired from the journey they had made from Timora. He looked for guards outside a door, the sign that Marnat was within. When he located the apartment Marnat had chosen for his own, Tharek smiled. It was the same set of rooms he had occupied with Darm and Fozli.
Tharek slipped past the guards at the door and entered the outer room where Marnat's personal possessions were piled. The sleeping room he had used was empty and intuition warned him to place his sword staff just behind the door. He did not intend to kill Marnat, only tell him what his destiny would be.
The doors of the three other sleeping rooms were closed. He opened one door and knew from the musky scent that Beshanel occupied the room. He moved to the next room and looked inside.
A hooded lamp was glowing on the wall, lighting Marnat's sleeping face. Tharek entered the room and closed the door before he spoke. "Wake up Marnat!"
The emperor lurched upward staring. "Tharek? So you have come slinking back to serve me. You are too late to ask my pardon and I will have the heads of the guards who let you pass."
"I have come to warn you what will come," Tharek said. "Your loins will wither and you will never father another child. You will live just long enough to see your dreams of glory fail. You sought to rule all, but your descendants will labor in the dust. I speak not of myself, but by the Radiance."
Marnat seemed to struggle for breath as long as Tharek was speaking. When the message was finished, Marnat gave a scream. The door burst open and Garvok lunged inside, pushing Tharek to the side and hidden from him by the door. "Why is your door fastened against me? What happened?"
"You have failed me Garvok, but I have caught the Prophet. Tomorrow, after the mutinous legionnaires are executed, I will torture him slowly until he recants everything he said to me."
Garvok turned and saw the intruder as he stepped from behind the door. With a vicious gesture the Hound grabbed Tharek's arms and pulled them up hard behind his back with such pressure that it seemed the bones would crack.
"Should I take him to the dungeon and confine him with the others?" Garvok asked.
"No! I want him near at hand. Confine him in the room without a window and guard the door yourself."
"He should be bound in chains to make certain he does not escape again," Garvok warned.
"Chain him up tomorrow if you will, but disturb me no further tonight. Just lock him up and guard the door."
Tharek winced when Garvok tugged him out of Marnat's room and shoved him roughly into the room where Tharek had left his staff. "You cheated me of Marinin! Where is she?" Garvok demanded.
When Tharek did not speak, Garvok drew his knife and threatened to cut his throat. "I will have it out of you eventually. You might as well spare yourself some pain."
"What will Marnat do to you if he finds that you have deprived him of the pleasure of torturing me himself?" Tharek gasped.
Garvok gave one more brutal wrench to Tharek's trapped arms and flung him into the room. "You will wish I had killed you when Marnat begins his games," he gloated before he slammed the door.
As soon as Tharek was certain that the door was locked, he fastened the latch on his side of the door. It would not take long for a determined effort to break down the door, but the minutes spent might make a difference to his survival. He moved to the cupboard that hid the light well. His arms were nearly too weak from Garvok's abuse to shove the chest aside, but finally it yielded and he rested for a moment before retrieving his staff from the corner near the door.
He made his way down the shaft and started toward the opening that he had always used before. His steps slowed and he stopped. There was a sense of threat coming from the darkness beyond him. As noiselessly as possible, he backed away and retraced his path. From here he had several alternate choices, but the feeling of confusion persisted. Finally he resorted to the Stone of Truth.
He held it cupped in his hand and lifted it. The light shown clear and strong down the way he had intended to go and he saw men and women creeping toward him with water containers in their hands. He edged to the side of the corridor and waited while they brushed past him. When the last of them had passed him by, he hurried to the opening where most of the bronze bars were pried away.
There were other gangs roaming the hillside and when they met they fought in a desperate, silent struggle to take anything they could from each other. None of them seemed to notice Tharek when he passed them until he passed a man who was fleeing from a gang. There was something clasped in his arms. The man hailed Tharek. "Save my child!"
"Follow me," Tharek urged him. "Stay close within the light and they will lose you."
The gang rushed past without pausing as the man came close to Tharek. The gangs prowled the streets and even though they seemed to ignore Tharek and the man with him, they would snarl and turn if they were bumped. Tharek tried to gain one of the streets that would lead him from the city but the twisting and turning to avoid the mobs sent him on a winding path. Soon a small caravan had gathered to him. They were children, drawn to the light from the tunnels and holes where they had hidden. Several adults also crept forward. Hours passed and Tharek wondered if he would ever find his way out of the city before dawn came and he was discovered with his growing band of desperate refugees.
Finally he climbed a narrow street littered with the stones of fallen houses and found himself at last beyond the area of destruction. Beyond him, the light from the stone in his staff fell on the rugged brush land north of Saadena. He held his staff high and signaled for the people who were following to gather around him. "I will stay here and hold the staff so that you can see the way. There is danger in the city, and I will be hunted by the emperor for what I have done. You must choose now whether you would rather risk the unknown to the north, or linger here."
Some stopped and looked back with longing at what once had been. A few of them cringed at the thought of leaving and turned their backs on freedom. Most of those who had followed the light had the courage to take the risk of the northern regions. Men and women gathered up the smaller children and the host of refugees set out up the long slope.
Dawn was coming and soon they would no longer need the light of his staff to see the way. Tharek stood with his staff until the last of the refugees disappeared over the top of a ridge. He would not compromise their escape by following. Garvok would soon find that he was gone and the Hound would be on his trail.
Tharek tucked the Stone of Truth into the pouch hung round his neck and turned back toward the city as the sun began to rise. Marnat's legionnaires were sweeping through the city, putting down the mobs and ruthlessly restoring order. Lines of men and women were roped together and loaded with water skins. By now the escape of the rebellious legionnaires would have been discovered.
Tharek tried to think of what he should do next. He felt weary and uncertain. A stone rolled beneath his feet and he fell. The weight of his body against the leaning wall behind him seemed to be the last insult to the straining structure and it fell, tumbling him staff and all into a rubble pit. Another wall leaned precariously over him and Tharek waited for it to fall and cover him with stones.
His mouth and eyes were full of grit and his body weighted down with small stones. He felt too tired to lift his arms and push the stones away. Overtaken by fatigue, he closed his eyes and lay still.
"There is nothing here but dust and rocks," a voice said from above him. "If you start every time a wall falls down, you will be unfit to serve the emperor before a day has passed."
Tharek could have laughed with the irony of his escape. His best tactic for now was clearly to take the rest he so needed to regain his strength. He relaxed and slid into the welcoming arms of sleep.
He woke thirsty, hungry and aching. The stones he lay on hurt his back and he tried to move. It was difficult at first, but one by one the small stones covering him shifted and finally rolled away. First he struggled to his elbows and finally sat upright. Now he could move the larger stones from his legs. They were bruised but not broken.
At last he struggled to his feet and looked around to find his staff. The end of it was sticking up from the rubble not far from him. It took some time to work it free.
It was just past sunset when he finally struggled from the pit. He heard the orders of the legionnaires as they herded the Saadenans off the main streets. Low huts had been erected from the rubble and fires fed with broken beams and wrecked furniture flared here and there in the twilight.
Tharek limped toward the broken tower that marked the ruined bridge over the river. It seemed unlikely that the patrolling legionnaires would bother with the dried up water course. They would be more anxious to control looting and riot than apprehend everyone who roamed at night.
The bottom of the river was filled with great stones that had been washed down from the mountains. Tharek put the Stone of Truth on his staff once more to make his way. He pushed on through the night, trusting he would find some shelter with the dawn.
With first light he put the Stone of Truth into the pouch and climbed out of the rocky channel to look around. A small village stood across a field. There were already signs of activity around the barns. Would he find welcome there? Or would they chase him away with sticks and stones. This was Virdana where those in white robes who wandered from the pilgrim paths were seen as outlaws, but here on the bank he stood exposed to anyone who looked up.
He decided to risk seeking aid in the village. On his person he carried three of the greatest treasures in Okishdu, the Stone of Truth, the Eye of Adanan, and Tharek oc Baroka. He could not part with any one of them, but he also had a few small coins tucked away.
A farmer looked up at his approach and shook his head. "Travel on. We've had enough of refugees begging at our doors."
"If I pay you for some cheese and water and a few matlas, could I rest in the shadow of your barn?"
The farmer nodded. He disappeared into his cottage and returned with a plate and cup. "I will let you stay until tonight if you will help me stack my hay."
Tharek nodded. He ate and drank, and then he helped the farmer for an hour. Finally he lay down behind a bush and fell asleep. At sunset the farmer woke him. "No stranger stays within our walls at night."
Tharek struggled to his feet and picked up his staff, ready to travel on, but the farmer stopped him. "Take these supplies. Our well still runs and we have food. I cannot deny you a share."
Tharek raised his hands in blessing and turned toward the road. He sensed that somewhere close at hand Garvok was seeking him, but he would travel better without the stones and crevices of the river bed to trap his feet.
Through the night he let the light show him the way. He rested for a few hours after dawn then set out again. He was just beyond the limits of another village and passing a line of bushes tinted gold by twilight when he heard a stone rattle behind him. It was all the warning he had before someone rushed toward him, but it was enough for him to duck and raise his staff.
A blade hit his staff and rang with the clear sound of well made bronze. Was this just a wandering thief, or something worse? Tharek faced his attacker and the last lurid light of day gave him his answer. Garvok crouched with a dagger in his left hand and a short sword in his right.
"You will not escape me again," he vowed.
"How did you know where I was?" Tharek asked him as they feinted and parried blows.
"I used a child to tell me where he saw a light. I tracked you from the city easily enough."
"Where is the child?" Tharek asked.
Garvok grinned. "Orqu received my ritual thanks at dawn. The boy served me well, both alive and when he died. He made a tasty breakfast."
Tharek was enraged by the taunt, but he steeled himself against a quick response. Garvok might be lying as easily as revealing a terrible truth about himself. Worship of the demon with such rituals was forbidden, but such as Garvok flourished in evil times.
Garvok continued in a detailed description of his terrible feast, but Tharek refused to listen. He gave all his attention to keeping his own body from the same desecration. Conscious of the precious treasures he carried, he summoned all his skill at staff fighting to hold Garvok at bay. Time and time again he parried thrusts and slashes. Time passed and sweat stung Tharek's eyes and made his hands slippery on the staff.
He fought as he never had before, and it was not quite enough against the seasoned skill of Garvok. First his right breast received a grazing wound, and then his left thigh a puncture. Neither blow was quite enough to disable him, but he felt himself grow weaker from loss of blood.
He stumbled and fell to his knees. Garvok stood back and laughed as he raised his sword to make the final blow.
Chapter 16 Westward
Given a moment to release his own sword from its hiding place, Tharek twisted the staff and plunged the blade of Tharek oc Baroka upward with no other thought than stopping Garvok's sword.
Garvok shrieked an oath and fell. A great welt on his neck spilled blood and he dropped his sword and knife to free both hands to clasp the wound.
Tharek staggered to his feet and limped away. When he had put some distance between himself and the assassin, he stopped and bound his wounds.
He could go no further this night. A copse of trees stood near the road and he burrowed into the deepest recess of the woods between two trunks. He drank the last of the water and ate the bread the farmer had given him. Perhaps they would help restore some of the blood he had lost to Garvok's blade. He piled leaves around himself for warmth and disguise and fell asleep.
Tharek woke in late afternoon. His robe was stiff with blood and damp from the sweat of a fever. The leaves he had pulled over himself were cast around him as if a whirlwind had scoured them away. His head felt dull and heavy.
From the parched feeling of his throat, he knew that more than one day must have passed while he was lying senseless. Still, he was alive and the fever had abated. When he checked his wounds they seemed to be healing. In spite of how it burned his wounds to make the gesture, he raised his hands and asked a blessing on the day.
The oppressive feeling of being stalked was still heavy on his spirit and he knew that Garvok had survived. Was he holed up trying to heal, or had he been less badly wounded than it seemed? Either way, Tharek felt the need to put distance between himself and Marnat's Hound.
There were herbs in his pouch that would give him a surge of energy. But used unwisely, they could leave him wasted. He found a small breadberry bush near a stale pond and risked a drink of the slimy water. Then he placed a tiny catta leaf between his cheek and gums. His head cleared and he staggered to his feet.
If he kept to the road he would reach the hostel where he had agreed to meet Darm, but Garvok might be looking for him on the road. On the other hand, Garvok would consider the likelihood that Tharek knew the Mareklan trails that avoided well traveled tracks whenever a short-cut could be found.
Trying to anticipate Garvok's actions made his head hurt and he knew he could not use the Stone of Truth to lead him lest another innocent child be used as Garvok's tool. Finally he held his staff as nearly upright as he could and then removed his hand. For a long moment the staff balanced on its end, then it slowly toppled with the top pointing toward the road.
Tharek reached down and picked up his staff. In its fall it had dislodged a few leaves that covered the bright green stalks of a foss root plant. Tharek dug up the roots and knocked the dirt away. He would keep them to eat later after the effects of the catta leaf diminished.
He limped along at first, but his pace increased until the catta leave began to lose its strength. The hostel where he and his friends had offered themselves as substitutes for the Verdanan brothers was in sight by then. His first thought was to avoid the hostel, but a strong impulse drove him on.
When he reached the building he saw that it had been abandoned. There was a sturdy lock on the door, but Tharek found a woodpile at the back of the hostel. With the last of his energy, he carried several logs to a spot beneath one of the high windows. Balancing precariously, he finally reached the sill and pulled himself inside.
He was in the barracks section where the legionnaires had stayed. Their cots were stripped and the room was bare. Tharek took the narrow flight of stairs downwards to the basement and found a bath. There was a thick ring of grime around the edge, but it was water and the running stream that fed it kept the water fresh.
A broken urn lay in the corner, doubtless the victim of a hasty recall to Saadena. There was enough of the bowl left to make a dipper and Tharek drank his fill before he filled his water skin.
He left the bowl full for another drink before removing his clothing and bandages and immersing himself in the cool water. After bathing, he dressed his wounds with poultices and bandaged them. Then he put on his extra loincloth and washed his clothing. Better to be chilly for a while than wear the stiffened fabric that abraded his skin.
The cook room held a tripod griddle and there were a few handfuls of meal scattered in the bottom of a storage bin. Tharek broke a damaged stool into sticks and built a fire. When the griddle was hot, he spread a paste of meal and water on the surface and made a stack of the most basic form of matla. They were nothing like the spiced and leavened rounds he was so fond of eating, but they filled his belly well enough.
He was tempted to linger in the illusive security of the hostel, but when his clothing was still damp to touch, he dressed and tried to erase every sign that he had sheltered there.
He left by the same window he had entered and restored the stack of wood to where he had found it. It was too dark to make certain he had left no sign on the ground, but he felt an increasing urgency to leave the area.
Once again he used his staff to determine his direction. This time it pointed to the foothills when it fell. After walking for a time, Tharek left the fertile land near to the river and entered a belt of scrub. The rocky ground and low bushes slowed his progress, but he pressed on until the eastern sky began to show behind the mountains.
A large complex of bushes promised concealment and shelter from the wind. After crawling through the tangle of low branches until he found a wider space where he could stretch out and sleep, he drank part of his water and half of the matlas. The foss root would keep longer and he decided to keep it for a meal when he woke up.
Would Garvok return to Saadena and fetch a troop of legionnaires to help him in his search, or would he stay in the area and rely on his own skills of tracking? The Hound was a tool of the Liar and sometimes such were given an advantage from their master. Where most evil men would turn away and ignore the presence of someone carrying the Stone of Truth, Garvok might use that very sense of void to follow Tharek.
There was no room for Tharek to raise his hands in the posture of prayer, but he shut his eyes and reached out with his soul. "Hide me from my enemies and preserve my life to serve those who trusted in the words I spoke," he murmured. A sense of peace filled him and he felt it safe to sleep.
When he woke it was late in the day again. The long rest with his belly full and his mind at peace had gone a long way to restore his strength. His chest and leg still ached but there was no sign of red around the wounds. He changed the poultices and bandaged them again.
He could continue into the hills, but the hostel where Darm would expect to meet him was near the road and Tharek could not be sure how long he had slept after he fought Garvok. It was at least a day, and probably more. The promised week might well be up before he reached his friend.
When he crawled from the covert he found that he was near the top of a low hill. From here he had a view of the countryside for leagues around. He could see the meandering river course and the pilgrim road. The hostel where Darm might be waiting for him was visible near the road and not more than two hours away if he could travel at a fair pace on the pavement instead of creeping along to avoid rocks and bushes in the dark.
Rather than dropping his staff to point the way, he examined his own sense of which would serve. The sense of pursuit was still there, but now it came from the south where small Virdanan villages clustered along the river.
His robe was not the same bright white wool that Fozli's parents had given him. It was the robe he had taken from Timora and the cloth was dull with blood stains and dust. Even so, it would stand out pale against the hillside until the sun had set, especially if he continued on the upper track.
Tharek started down the hill toward the road. If Garvok was watching for him, they would fight again. This time Tharek intended to strike a fatal blow at Marnat's Hound and make sure the thing was ended.
A sort of grim glee entered Tharek at the thought of stalking Garvok and killing him. He found himself grinning in anticipation. The feeling shocked him to the soul. This joy of killing was from the Liar. It was the evil light that had shown in Garvok's eyes when he boasted about murdering the child and eating his heart.
Tharek had begun to run downhill when his thoughts turned to forcing a confrontation, now he saw that he was only feet from plunging over a small cliff in his clouded state of mind. "You will not take my life so easily, Lost One. By Yasa Dom, the Holy Name, I banish you," he whispered. In an instant the thirst for revenge eased.
It was nearly dark when he reached the road. From there on he assumed a loping pace, clearing his thoughts of all desire for revenge against Garvok. If he met the Hound again his anger must be cool and justice driven.
The hostel seemed abandoned when he finally approached it. He thought for a moment of a signal he could give. Then he drew a breath and gave a stifled scream. It was as close as he could get to the cry of a wirra.
The sound of an injured dala came moments later from somewhere behind the hostel and Tharek grinned in relief. Only Darm and Fozli would have guessed the sequence. Before he could go around the building, Darm came to him, a darker shadow against the night.
"You have taken off the pilgrim robe," Tharek said.
"There are few pilgrims on these trails since word spread about Marnat's policies. Come, I have a place where we can stay."
"I cannot linger here. I am being followed by Garvok."
Darm nodded. "At least change to darker robes and sup with me before we go on." He started away toward the riverbed and Tharek followed. When Darm swung down from the bank and showed Tharek the cozy dug-out shelter he had created while he waited, Tharek was tempted to accept his offer to stay at least until the sun rose. In different robes, and traveling with a companion, he might confuse the Hound.
On the other hand, Garvok could easily anticipate that there was some reason he had made his way westward. It would put Darm in danger as well as himself if they lingered.
After Tharek changed his robes and slaked his thirst and hunger he helped Darm pack the food that he had been gathering in the days that he had waited. There were strips of smoked meat and packets of bread berries wrapped in wide leaves.
"Do you think that you could travel through the night?" he asked Darm.
"I welcome some activity after crouching here in hiding for the past few days," Darm said. "I expected you to follow me almost immediately. What kept you? The week you gave me will be finished in the morning. If you had not come tonight, I was planning to go after you."
"Saadena is no fit place for any decent man," Tharek said. "Marnat sees the river stoppage as a boon. He regards the water that was impounded in a new lake east of the city as his personal pond. He conscripted many people as his water carriers. If you returned, you would find yourself in chains."
"Where are we bound?" Darm asked after they shouldered their packs and walked to the road.
"I have no particular goal in mind except to lead Garvok away from other possible victims. It seems to me that we should go west into the waste."
Darm nodded and they started along the road that glowed pale in the darkness.
"I sent another two lots of people off before I left the city," Tharek said. "I have a troop of about fifty decent legionnaires devoted to my cause. I gave them badges of wirra hide from the belts concealed in my sash and they put them on their clay whitened breast-plates in place of the gold and red of Marnat's house. I gave them a charge to guard the pilgrim trails."
"Somehow I am not much surprised," Darm said. "The tradition of the legions has been badly abused under Marnat. Who knows, someday the small force you commissioned may become a true legion. Did you give them a name?"
"I called them the Elite Guards of the Prophet and told them to find others who will wear the badge with honor."
"Did you ever confront Marnat as you planned?"
Tharek gave an account of his adventures after he had parted with Darm. He put a light of self-deprecating humor on the way he had wandered and gathered a train of worthy refugees and then finished his task by falling into a pit. He could not treat the subject of Garvok with the same light touch. His voice grew harsh with anger as he told how the Hound had used an innocent to track him, and the terrible consequences to the child.
"I have heard whispers about the persistence of the cult of Orqu, but I thought they were merely filthy rumors, meant to shock like tales of were-men and other superstitions," Darm said. "I heard that even the city of Orenon banned the cult."
"As long as one man knows the secret practices and convinces someone else to join him, the cult of Orqu will persist. Banning it from the cities only drives it into the hedges and caves. Instead of killing animals, they prey on other humans. Rather than banning beliefs, which seldom works for very long except among people like the Tedakans, there must be zeal in prosecuting crimes. Murder and cannibalism are evil, no matter what name is invoked to justify the practice."
Tharek walked in silence for a while then he looked at Darm. "If I were a king, I would make certain that the laws were strictly applied to all, no matter what their birth or family. I would let every cult and sect practice openly, but if murder or other abominations could be proved, the individuals who committed the crimes would feel the full weight of the law. Men and women like Garvok would be publicly executed and the reason for the punishment widely published."
Darm considered the idea that Tharek had presented. "In Timora the ideal seems to be that all but worship of the Radiance is forbidden."
"Timora is not a kingdom for men like the other cities. From the beginning it was dedicated as a sacred place for the worship of the Radiance. It is right that no other sects should practice there."
"What other things would you do if you were a king?" Darm asked.
Tharek continued walking as his thoughts coalesced. "I would act in every way the opposite of Marnat," Tharek finally said. "His cupidity and his carelessness of his people and his deliberate dismissal of valuable tradition brought ruin. Marnat never listened to counsel. It worked to our advantage once or twice, but his willful ignorance was evil. Charash, on the other hand, wasted the power of his position with timidity. He let Marnat have his way."
"So if you were king you would listen to your counselors, but how could you be certain they would not mislead you?" Darm asked.
"If I were king, I would use the Stone of Truth to choose my heir and my most critical advisors. The best form of government will fail in the hands of evil men. Like the Tedakans, I would make certain that the citizens were fit to be soldiers and no man could buy another's service to fulfill his duty in a war."
"What of the women? Would you have them trained as warriors as well?"
Tharek was silent for some time. "Both of us know stories of valiant women. I would make sure that there were grandmothers on my war councils. No one is sterner than a matriarch, as you well know."
"Why not create a company of spinsters?" Darm suggested with a chuckle. "Not the tender merry ones, but those who have grown hard from wanting what life denied. Let them have charge of enemy prisoners. Most men would run from such a frightening foe."
From there the questions descended into jests. Tharek enjoyed the humor, but his thoughts had been engaged. It was absurd for him to make such plans, even in jest. He was a man without a clan and all the people of Okishdu were organized into cities and clan lands. There were certainly no openings for a king of any kind.
They were surprised by dawn. Their conversation had made the night melt away and eased the fatigue of their loping pace.
"We should find a place to wait out the day," Tharek said.
Darm looked around. They had passed the town of Jama hours ago. It was not far from the borders of Kumnora and the land was harsh and barren. The track was overgrown with creeping grass. "Do you still feel that Garvok is close behind us?"
"My sense of pursuit remains," Tharek said. "but it is not as urgent as yesterday. Why don't we stop and break our fast, and then go on again until we find a better place to camp."
It was midday when they finally found a sheltered area in an outcropping of rocks northwest of the track.
"Unless we encounter some of your Janakan cousins, it should be safe enough for us to light a fire and make a decent meal," Tharek said. "I am tired of eating cold food from fear that someone will smell our smoke."
"Why don't we eat and rest a while then travel on until sundown to make camp," Darm suggested. "I think it would be would be best to sleep at night and travel during the day."
Tharek nodded. The state of the road was enough reason to travel during the day. With their distance from the better traveled pilgrim track the way had grown rocky. "We could find the Mareklan trail from here, but I am afraid my use of their trails would cause resentment."
"Both of us would be better off to leave these lands. Janaka is not far from here and by now the knowledge of your possession of the sword could be well known. You know what might happen if we meet Janakans and I am armed only with a staff."
"Garvok doubtless knows we have joined forces and he may think we will turn south. He knows we are outcasts of our clans. It is likely he will continue to look for us in Virdana."
"But we can't keep going west. The sea will stop us."
Tharek nodded. "Have you never wondered what it would be like to go to sea? If we go west to the sea and buy a boat, then go down the coast to Otaliafa, we can take the pilgrim road inland from there to Timora."
"I can truthfully say I have never wondered what it would be like to go to sea," Darm confessed. "It was the least likely thing I could have thought of as a warrior, except for all the others things you have brought me to do since you knocked my sword out of my hand."
The tone of his voice betrayed more of amusement than offense and Tharek grinned. "I never thought to choose my closest friends from Kumnor and Janaka. I never aspired to be a prophet. But I did see a ship on the eastern sea near Orenon and I wondered what it would be like to be a sailor."
They camped that night, then traveled on for two days more until they crossed the Janaka pilgrim road that led south toward Timora. Few pilgrims traveled so late in the year and Tharek and Darm stopped at a pilgrim spring to rest and refill their water skins. After another day of travel, the setting sun turned the horizon into a thin line of glistening gold.
"It is the western sea," Tharek said when Darm remarked on the sight. "Look there to the south, what do you see?"
Darm squinted against the flare of color and saw something squat and dark rising from the sand. "It looks like a large stone."
"It is the ancient pyramid of Zedekla. There is a fishing village near there on the coast that was founded by Zedek, the Kishduan boat-builder. If we camp now, we should reach the pyramid by late tomorrow."
"Surely it is not so far away."
"You will see, and you will wonder," Tharek assured his friend.
Darm was impressed when they reached the pyramid after several hours of tracking over scrub land, then dunes. It seemed half buried in the dunes, and it was not as large as the palace in Saadena, but it was massive and pitted with great age. "I am surprised that I have not heard of this before," he said as he gazed up toward the horned corners of the terraces.
"Few people come here other than fishing folk and Mareklans. The fisherman are not interested in other visitors and it is such a long way from any city that few care to come here merely to see it."
"What can you tell me about it?" Darm asked.
"There are pyramids like this one hidden in the jungles south of Timora. The mystery of this pyramid is in its presence so far from any source of this dark stone. I think the builders must have brought the stones by raft."
Darm eyed the massive stones and gave a nearly soundless whistle. "Even one of these would strain a river barge. You were right when you said that I would wonder. But why build it here so far from any good source of fresh water."
"Once there was a river here. If you stand on the pyramid and look east you can make out the winding course. I sense that this was once a place of power."
Tharek closed his eyes and reached out to touch the stone. An expression of surprise filled his face and he opened his eyes and stared around him. "I seemed to see a city, not one from distant times, but one that could only be here in the future. There were Janakans and Tedakans and people from many clans all mingled."
Darm shuddered. "Come, we should be on our way."
Tharek nodded and they left the pyramid behind them and walked to the village near the sea. As Tharek had predicted, they were viewed with some suspicion. When Darm offered the fisher folk a strip of wirra hide in exchange for a boat, they grew more friendly. Soon the two men were seated in the common room of a well built cottage dickering for a boat and cargo with a boat-builder named Parga.
Their host insisted that they stay with him and his family while he had built the boat for them and provided the provisions they needed. Since the only alternative seemed to be a bed on the sandy beach. They both accepted.
The boat-builder had three daughters and five sons. The oldest daughter was a young woman and her three suitors seemed eager to help her father as proof of their intent.
Tharek was bemused by Shira's ability to keep the competition from degenerating into jealousy and spite. Her merry laughter and flashing eyes touched even him. He watched her romping barefoot in the surf with her younger brothers and sisters and dealing skillfully with her father's mangled thumb when his hammer slipped.
She sought him out one evening and asked him how they came to be in Zedekla, so far from others cities. He gave her an account of their adventures. When he spoke of Marinin, she nodded. "You must have loved her."
Tharek began to protest that she was mistaken, but then he paused. "I knew that nothing could come of my affection for her. Her heart was already given to another man, but yes, I loved her."
"Then you must be happy for her that she is with her Feranal. A great love values the happiness of the beloved above all."
He found himself wanting to compete with her suitors for her favor, but he steeled himself against the temptation. He would be leaving as soon as the boat was ready and he could see something in her eyes that let him know that if he spoke, it would mean pain for both of them when he was forced to leave her.
Darm made himself useful to Parga as he worked on the boat, learning to use the various chisels and mallets under the guidance of a master. Shira and one of her brothers gave Tharek some simple instructions in how to sail and manage a craft. They used an old skiff for their lessons and he found that it took real skill to catch the wind and drive the small boat through the surf. Several times he ended up with the boat on its side and the mast underwater.
When their boat was finished, it had one mast and a simple square sail. Tharek told Darm they would likely only use the oars at first. "I have only a slight idea of sailing," he confessed.
They had intended to leaved Zedekla at midday, but a storm blew up and the sea was wild with rolling waves and crashing breakers. Tharek and Darm stood on the dunes and watched the racing tide.
"I have faced armed men undaunted, and I thought that after we walked through the storm on the mountain, nothing else could frighten me," Darm said. "But I am tempted to withdraw from this adventure. I believe the only thing that will make me go with you tomorrow is the looks on the faces of these fishermen if I decline."
They set out as soon as the sea had calmed. Tharek had been warned that he might get sick from the motion of the boat and he fully expected that his stomach would revolt. Instead, he found the voyage exhilarating. When they rowed ashore and camped after their first day of traveling, he felt unsteady on his feet and lurched up the beach. When he dropped to the sand, he laughed aloud.
"I was warned I might not handle the motion of the sea, but I am having more difficulty dealing with the solid earth. We are fortunate that Parga provided us with a list of landmarks to look out for and an indication of where to find good water."
Darm nodded as he sank down on the sand next to Tharek. "I am famished. I was warned that anything I ate this morning would come up when we put out to sea and I have eaten nothing. I will not make the same mistake tomorrow. You must pray for good weather."
Tharek staggered to his feet and raised his arms for the Evening Ritual. He added a fervent appeal for a good wind and a smooth sea to his other petitions.
Darm took the edge from his hunger by eating several matlas while Tharek dug up shellfish as Shira had taught him. Within a few minutes he was had enough to sate both of them. Seated on sand with the glow of a fire in front of them and the hiss of the surf at their backs, they discussed the future.
"I will return to Tedaka and marry Farla," Darm said. "I thought I would never find a woman to match Belria, and I was right. Farla is entirely different from my first wife, but we love each other."
"Have you spoken to her about your plans?"
"She knows how I feel about her. Before she left Saadena with the refugees, she promised to wait for me."
"You should not make her wait too long," Tharek warned him.
"She understands the scope of what I undertook when I stayed behind with you in Saadena."
"Then she was wiser than I," Tharek admitted.
Tharek experimented with the sail on the second day of their voyage and he was gratified when it filled and sent the boat skimming over the water. Darm racked his oars and laughed with joy.
Encouraged, Tharek played with the wind, turning the sail and observing what happened. Soon he gained enough confidence to show Darm how it was done. When the Janakan learned the knack of catching the wind and steering the boat they racked the oars and ran before the breeze.
"We can sail through the night if both of us take turns," Tharek said. "I feel a sense of urgency. If we make landfall, it could be a deadly mistake. We have enough water and food for a week."
Darm nodded. "Pray for a good wind and a calm sea and I will do as you ask."
They sailed into Otaliafa a few days later near midday. Darm rowed while Tharek looked for dock space along the busy pier. When they dropped anchor, Darm got out of the boat and reached for Tharek's hand to help him debark. Tharek shook his head.
"I must leave you here and go on alone. I cannot say when we will meet again. Garvok will never stop trying to find me until he dies, and those who help me will suffer. Go to Timora and find Fozli. Warn him about Garvok and tell him what has happened, then go back to Tedaka and make your life with Farla."
Before Darm could protest, Tharek shoved away from the dock and raised the sail. Soon the only sign of him was a remote square of white against the vast expanse of the sea.
Chapter 17 Shadow
Darm squinted into the sunset until Tharek's sail vanished beyond the curving cliff that bound Otaliafa on the south, then he turned away from the harbor and walked up the street into the town. Otaliafa could have been one of Okishdu's leading cities if not for the isolation imposed by the coastal cliffs that cupped the town and barricaded it from easy access to Taleeka, the nearest city.
Many of the people lived in caves cut into the cliffs that rose abruptly from the sea at either end of the harbor. There was a winding, narrow trail that led to the top of the cliffs behind the town, but Darm was not quite ready for the arduous climb. He was hungry and the tantalizing scent of Janakan barbeque came from an inn just ahead of him.
He entered the inn and peered around the dim interior. In the back of the room the glow of charcoal was brightened by tiny flares of fire sent up by dripping fat A Janakan woman stood behind the grill and turned the strips of meat.
"Welcome friend," a voice came from the shadows by his side. The accent of the speaker was Kumnoran.
"It has been too long since I have tasted barbeque," Darm admitted. "I would like to purchase a meal."
"Please sit down at the table and I will serve you as soon as Javira finishes cooking this first batch."
Another man entered the inn behind Darm. He felt the point of a dagger pressed to his side and the assailant grabbed his hand above the staff. "Come with me quietly," the stranger muttered.
Darm stared with surprise at the shadowed face of the man who had accosted him. "Do thieves walk abroad in the daylight here? I have nothing but the few coins it will take to ease my hunger."
The man seemed surprised when he saw Darm's face. "I was mistaken. You are not the man I seek." He whirled and left the inn.
"Your friend was not hungry?" the innkeeper asked.
"He was not my friend," Darm answered. "I thought he was a thief and told him so. Have you ever seen him before?"
"No, but you are a stranger as well. That was why I assumed you were together. I know the face of every resident of Otaliafa."
"I am curious about how a Kumnoran came to live so far from the steppes," Darm said.
"You see my wife there? We met each other when I delivered a load of tin to her mother. I knew it would be dangerous to my family if I tried to return with her to my camp, so when we ran away together, I brought her here. You are the first Janakan that I have seen in many years, and you are no warrior bent on revenge."
"How do you know what I am?"
"From the tattoos on your forearms, you would be of clan Algire, but your hair is short and unadorned and you have no beard. You are dressed like a fisherman and you walk as if you have spent the past few days at sea. No warrior of clan Algire would cut his hair or waste time riding in a boat."
Darm smiled and nodded. "There was a time that I would have been insulted by your words. What could you tell about the man who accosted me?"
"From his accent, he is Saadenan. I am relieved that he is not your friend. Otherwise I would report you to the guards. He wore the sign of Orqu on his pendant."
Darm had never met Garvok, but he was certain that he had just seen Tharek's nemesis. It answered his puzzlement about Tharek's sudden decision to set him ashore and sail with no delay. It had been a narrow miss.
The Hound must have seen him from behind and mistaken him for Tharek. They were both tall and lanky and the short dark hair that had grown after they were shaved for pilgrimage was the same for both of them. No one seeing them face to face could mistake the difference in their noses. Darm had the hawk nose of his clan, where Tharek's nose was straight and narrow.
"The barbeque is ready Aragan," Javira said.
The innkeeper hurried to fetch plates and cups and tongs. Both he and his wife joined Darm at the table and soon all of them had heaped their plates with fragrant meat and servings of herbs and matlas. Darm nodded with his mouth full, circling his fingers in a sign of appreciation.
When he had swallowed, he complimented Javira. "Perhaps my memory is faulty, but that is some of the best barbeque I ever tasted."
Javira blushed and thanked him. "I haven't served barbeque to a Janakan in years. I was afraid I might have lost the touch."
Aragan shook his head and chuckled. "How could you question when I tell you everyday how wonderful your cooking is."
"But you are Kumnoran," Javira reminded him. "Only another Janakan would know how barbeque should taste."
Aragan gave a mock growl and threatened Darm with his tongs. All of them laughed and Darm accepted another serving.
When he tried to pay them, Aragan refused the coins. "Stay with us tonight and tell us how you came to wander from Janaka and cut off your warrior beard and braids. There must be quite a story behind it. You are still young and fit and you were brave enough to face the Orquian and accuse him as a thief, so it could not have been from cowardice."
Darm looked from Javira to Aragan. "I will accept your invitation. Has word reached you about the Prophet?"
Aragan stood to close the door of the inn and drop the latch. When he returned to the table he nodded to Darm. "Pilgrims returning from Timora brought word of him. Their stories seem confused. Some say he defied Marnat and liberated prisoners. Others claimed that he challenged Charash and brought about the changes in Timora that have given us a new High Priest. Yet others say he caused the earth to quake and the rivers to stop running in Saadena."
"If you have heard of him in Otaliafa, then surely his fame has spread throughout Okishdu," Darm replied. "I can only tell you what happened while I was with him. The Radiance destroyed Saadena, not Tharek, but Tharek warned the people of what would come. He set impounded pilgrims free and shamed Charash after the High Priest failed to reprimand Marnat."
"Then most of what we heard was true!" Javira said. "You speak as if you are his friend. Where is he now?"
"It is because I am his friend that I cannot tell you where he is."
Javira's face reflected her puzzlement, but Aragan nodded soberly. "He does well to hide. Marnat is still powerful and if I am not mistaken, the Orquian you rebuffed was seeking the Prophet."
"Tharek told me to warn our other friends about a man named Garvok, called Marnat's Hound by those who know his work. He has been promised marriage to the emperor's sister if he kills or captures the Prophet. I cannot impose on you for lodging. Garvok could realize who I am and he would see you as his enemies if you shelter Tharek's friend."
Javira displayed her Janakan heritage by thrusting out her chin. "I would be proud to be your hostess, no matter what the threat."
Aragan clasped her hand and faced Darm. "Such as Garvok operate by fear. I will send word throughout Otaliafa to warn about him. Better yet, you must preach of Tharek in the Shrine."
"I am not a priest," Darm protested.
"You were the chosen companion of the Prophet. Is it true that he carries the Stone of Truth?"
Darm nodded. "He is a descendant of Irilik's seventh son." He turned to Javira who would surely know the import of his next words. "He also carries Tharek oc Baroka."
"Fairly won?" she asked.
"I am the son of Malinkra, matriarch of Algire clan. Tharek took it from me after I attacked him in a sortie and he knocked me senseless. You know what that means. He wanted to return the sword to me, but I could not take it from the hand of a live foe. He forced me to compromise. He is outcast because he has the sword, and I am outcast because I lost the sword and kept my life."
"Next you will tell us that he has the missing oracle device, the Eye of Adanan," Aragan exclaimed.
Darm considered the idea and remembered the small battered loaf that Tharek kept in his pouch. Even when they were without food, his friend had never suggested sharing it. Until now it had not occurred to Darm that Tharek had the Eye of Adanan.
His long silence seemed to confirm the idea in the others' minds. Aragan nodded, and Javira shook her head.
"If any other Janakan knew that Tharek carried the star sword, they would hunt him," Javira said.
"If the High Priest suspected that he carries the Eye of Adanan, he would hunt him," Aragan added.
"They will not find him unless they are meant to do so," Darm assured them. "I meant to go to Timora for another purpose, but I will see the new High Priest and judge whether I should tell him what I have seen. If Tharek took the Eye of Adanan, it was because the young priest who guarded it was murdered and Tharek did not trust Charash."
"You have given us some tantalizing hints about the Prophet. Come, tell us the entire story," Aragan urged Darm.
"I will do as you suggested and tell it to anyone who cares to listen at the Shrine this evening."
"Your best defense against such as Garvok is to tell your story widely," Javira said. "He will be driven into hiding by those who honor truth. I will fetch our son and daughter and all of us will walk with you to the shrine."
Darm welcomed their support. His lack of offense at the thought of a Janakan woman married to a Kumnoran was surely an indication of the changes in his outlook. Before he met Tharek, he would have been the first to condemn the match. Now he hoped to marry a Tedakan, another example of the clan crossing that most of the clans abhorred.
He wondered how this fierce insularity had emerged even in the face of the prescribed pilgrimages to Timora where all people met and worshiped together. Otaliafa, this most remote of cities, seemed to have escaped the idea that only those of the same lands and cities could marry. Perhaps many had followed the example of Aragan and Javira and took refuge here when they loved in spite of prejudice and fear. As they walked through the streets toward the Shrine, Darm saw many other families who displayed mixed origins.
"Why is it that Otaliafa is so mixed up?" he asked.
Javira giggled at the wording of his question, and she laughed outright at his flustered blush of embarrassment. It was Aragan who answered. "Most cities will honor demands for expulsion of those who dare to marry outside their patriarchal line. Many years ago the King of Otaliafa saw that his city was dwindling. He decided to post a notice of refuge at the entrance of the Library in Timora. As you can see, it was a successful tactic. Most of the people of Otaliafa descend from such unions as we have formed."
"At least the two of you have handsome children," Darm assured Javira. For some reason this set her off giggling again.
The priest of Otaliafa's Shrine was a boot-maker, but when Aragan told him about Darm, he got up from his cobbler's bench and welcomed him. "I have heard of the Prophet. Do you think he might be willing to speak to us someday?"
"I cannot speak for Tharek. I can only pray that he survives his enemies."
The priest nodded. "I have wondered when the Radiance would raise someone to speak against Marnat. It is dangerous to challenge those in power, but I trust that Tharek will return. It appears that he is truly the heir of Irilik in every way."
Darm had preached in Saadena as Tharek had requested, but he had never faced a crowd like that which crowded the Shrine in Otaliafa that evening. He had tried to plan what to say. There was a real possibility that Garvok would be hidden in the audience and he did not want to betray anything that Marnat's Hound did not already know.
Garvok knew about the sword that had wounded him enough for Tharek to make his escape. He knew about the Stone of Truth that had drawn the righteous so that Tharek could warn them. It was unlikely he had discovered the whereabouts of the empress in Timora or that Marinin was in the care of the man she loved.
The priest pronounced the evening ritual and introduced Darm. He stood and looked around him. "I am Darm, the friend of one the Radiance has chosen," he began. He proceeded with the story of how three friends had met and learned of Marnat's villainy. Only the smallest children murmured as Darm proceeded with the tale of how Tharek had responded. There was laughter at the story of how they lived in the palace and spread their warnings late at night. Grim outrage met his confirmation of the rumors that a sacred scroll had disappeared. A sigh of sympathy rose at his account of the wreckage of Saadena.
Darm finished by saying that Tharek had left him with no word of where he would go. "He will certainly return, and I will welcome him."
He knew he was taking a risk to himself by indicating that Tharek intended to return and see him. If Garvok was listening he would likely follow and wait. From what Tharek had said, it might be years before they met again.
When Darm stepped down from the podium, many people pressed forward to meet him. He knew they were not so much honoring him as his association with Tharek and the divinity that had chosen him. Even so, he was gratified by their welcome. If he had not already found a home in Tedaka and the promise of marriage to Farla, they would have tempted him to settle in Otaliafa. He was invited to set out for Timora with a pilgrim caravan in two more days.
He returned to the inn and retired to his room. Reviewing his words, he was satisfied that he had not given any clues to Garvok if he were listening. It was unlikely that the assassin would openly confront him again, but he wished he had a better memory of what the man looked like. When he had confronted him at the inn, Garvok's face had been in shadow. He was not unusually tall or broad. He had an anonymous appearance that must serve him well as a spy.
He had nearly killed Tharek which meant he would be no mean opponent. Darm wished as never before that he still had his sword, not the star stone blade, but the Janakan blade made by his mother that he had left with Fozli's family in Ba Ronig camp.
When he woke the next morning and went down to the common room to eat, Aragan approached him. "Javira has a gift for you."
The innkeepers wife stepped forward. "When you spoke last night I realized that you are still a warrior, but you have no sword. I have the bridal sword that my mother made for my future husband. Of course, Aragan was not the man she would have wanted to carry it, and he refuses the honor."
"You should save it for your son," Darm protested, forestalling the offer he knew she planned to make.
"He will not become a warrior unless Otaliafa is in danger," Aragan said. "If you feel that it should be returned to him, then do so when you have reclaimed your own sword."
Darm was loth to argue any further. Javira left and soon returned with the sword and the decorated harness. Darm took it in his hands and gave a low whistle. "This was made by Lineral, my mother's greatest rival."
Javira nodded. "It might well have been carried by a warrior of your tribe if he had been the man I chose for my bridal abduction."
Darm adjusted the harness to his shoulders and slipped the sword into place along his spine. He wondered what his mother would have thought to see him wearing her rival's sword without excuse of marriage.
He drew the sword and tapped the blade against the stone pavement. It rang as clear as any bell, pure and with no hint of buzz or dullness. "It is well-made," he said and Javira's cheeks flushed with pleasure. Even though she no longer was considered her mother's daughter by the customs of Janaka, she accepted the tribute to her mother's skill.
For the first time since he had given up his tokens and feathers and cut his beard, Darm felt the sense of being a warrior again. "Will I be the only one to guard the pilgrims?" he asked Aragan.
"There will be two others. My friend Ralik was once a legionnaire, but he decided to leave the emperor's service when Marnat took the throne. Now he escorts the pilgrims to Timora. I will take you to him."
Ralik welcomed them to his shop where he sold cloth from many different cities. He was just past his prime with gray at his temples and a weathered face, but he moved erectly like a soldier of the emperor's legion, even while fetching a bolt of zylka cloth for a young matron.
Aragan and Darm waited until the shop was empty of other people before Aragan introduced Darm to Ralik. Ralik closed the door and turned to them.
"If I were younger, I would gladly join the men Tharek recruited to his Elite Guard. I have two sets of breastplates, but one was made for me when I was young and broader in the shoulders with not much of a belly. It should fit you well."
"I did not come to find a breastplate," Darm protested.
"You could wear it with a badge of blue as you told us Tharek's Elite Guards have done. It would please me if you would accept my gift."
Put that way, Darm could hardly refuse the offer. Outright refusal to wear the armor could be considered a real insult in certain clans.
When Ralik brought out the breast plate, it was gleaming as freshly as if the clay had been applied only hours earlier. When Darm remarked on the appearance of the breastplates, Ralik smiled. "I was inspired by your speech last night and polished the armor when I returned home. I will give you a bag of dry clay and show you how to apply it and keep it polished so it shines. I will even give you the insignia of Saaden that I wore with such pride until its meaning was sullied by Marnat."
Darm tried to protest, but Ralik would not relent until Darm took the last length of wirra hide from his belt and cut two squares. They were fastened to the shoulders of the breastplates with clasps of silver. When Darm put his breastplate on over a white tunic, Ralik put his hand to his chin and studied him.
"You would look better with a kilted loincloth and thigh guards to complete the uniform."
"Soon you will ask me to put my sword aside and belt on one of those long knives that the legionnaires try to dignify with the name of short sword," Darm protested with a smile.
"I've always wondered why legionnaires insisted on carrying such weapons," Ralik said. "I would never ask you to abandon a good Janakan sword. But please reconsider the idea of wearing the rest of the armor. If Garvok decides to trail us, you should be prepared to confront him."
As it happened, Ralik had all of the items he had mentioned. The thigh guards were not quite long enough to extend to Darm's knees, but their studded, hardened leather would offer some protection. Finally Darm relented. "I cannot deny that Janakan warriors seem to deliberately court injury and glory in their scars. This is no time for me to take a risk. I will wear your extra armor and be glad of it."
The next morning Darm said farewell to the friends he had made in Otaliafa and embarked with the company of pilgrims. They sailed up the coast to a tiny harbor that was barely large enough to land the ship. From there they started out along a track that led to Taleeka and thence to Timora.
For the first few leagues the countryside was barren with only a few brushy rows of scrub dotting the plain. They stopped to eat and rest at midday at a pilgrim spring at the base of a rise that led to Taleeka's hills.
Otaliafa's pilgrim trail had never had enough traffic to be part of the pilgrim roads protected by the legionnaires of Saadena. Darm and Ralik were not the only men to act as guards, but they were both conspicuous in their uniforms. The other guard, Talka, was Orenese. He had wiry muscles and a way of walking that betrayed an athlete's grace.
While they ate, Ralik stood guard and Darm made the acquaintance of the other man. "What brought you to Otaliafa?" he asked.
"The girl I loved in Orenon was selected as the third wife of a Watcher. We eloped the night before the wedding."
"I have never been to Orenon but from what little I have heard, it is situated at the bottom of cliffs near the sea, much like Otaliafa."
"It is their only similarity," Talka said. "The king in Otaliafa works as a shipbuilder. The priest makes boots. We are free to worship what and where we will, but most freely choose to worship at the Shrine."
"It sounds like the kingdom Tharek proposed," Darm admitted.
"I wonder if Otaliafa would be as good if it were not forced by nature to be small. Everyone knows everyone else and strangers are quickly judged and tracked. Garvok, for instance, tried to win me over when he heard my way of speaking. He showed me the sign of the cult and asked my aid. When I refused him, he left Otaliafa."
"Did he go by sea?" Darm asked, fearful that Garvok had followed Tharek.
Talka shook his head. "He climbed the cliff path last night. I saw him start out after sundown."
"Then we might expect an ambush," Darm mused.
Ralik gave the signal to continue and Darm and Talka took positions at either end of the train of twenty pilgrims. They were three days from Taleeka and another four from there to the Vale of Timora. With Garvok to deal with, it would be a wary march.
The first day in the hills passed with no trouble. On the second day they began to climb a high and rocky pass. Darm was wearying rapidly and he slumped to the earth with a groan at the end of the day. Ralik touched his shoulder and indicated that he wanted him to go aside with him where others would not overhear.
"You are accustomed to working yourself into a high pitch for a fight. It is a foolish waste of energy and you will kill yourself before we reach Timora if you insist on continuing in full battle alert."
Darm nodded. "I realize now that I flinch at every moving shadow. You seem to be familiar with the problem. What do you suggest."
"It was a common problem with our recruits from Janaka," Ralik said. "You must learn to calm your mind, but stay alert. How did you deal with the tension of traveling with Tharek?"
"He had a way of knowing what was coming," Darm admitted. "I depended on him to give me enough warning to be ready when I was needed. Perhaps I am more nervous now because I wear a sword. It reminds me of my earlier days as a warrior. We seldom wore our swords unless we were practicing or getting ready for a battle."
"Depend on Talka and me to give you warning. We have been along this way ten times or more and we know which shadows are shallow and which deep enough to hide an enemy. Think of yourself as a reserve for when the battle is engaged."
Darm laughed and felt as if a load lifted from his shoulders. "I will do as you suggest."
When midday came they crossed the pass and saw the mountains of Taleeka spread before them. A grey haze hovered in the air and the grass and bushes by the track were more yellowish than green. Worst of all was the water at the first spring where they stopped. The water tasted like the air smelled and Darm resolved to drink only nuka juice and the stale water left in his water skin until they left the region.
He was loping along at an easy pace, thinking wistfully of the clear, fresh water of his homeland when Ralik gave a shout. The pilgrims gathered in a knot with their staffs held outward like a bristled paka. Men with sticks and swords spilled from both sides of the path. There were eight men, but they had met their match in Ralik, Talka and Darm.
Darm thought he caught sight of a ninth men lingering behind a bush, but he was too intent on vanquishing the three men he faced. Several blows landed on his breastplate and his thighs, but he swung his sword in swathes that cut like a scythe through autumn grain. The confrontation was brief. When the gang fled, they left three of their fellows dead or injured on the track. When Darm looked at them to see if their wounds could be treated, he saw the telltale tattoo of Orquians. Talka assured him that Garvok was not among them.
"What will we do with them?" Darm asked Ralik.
"There is a village just beyond the hill. We will tell them what has happened here and they can decide what must be done. Doubtless as soon as we leave, the brigands will be back to carry them away."
"I believe Garvok brought them here. He would know where to find members of his cult."
"That may be so, but we have little proof of it. The safety of the pilgrims is our first responsibility. We must go on if we expect to reach the city of Taleeka tonight."
Darm had to remind himself of the foul crimes of Oquian cultists before he could leave them wounded or unburied on the mountain. He was bruised but uninjured thanks to the thigh guards and the breastplate, but he felt as if a shadow lay around him.
The caravan reached the city of Taleeka near dusk. The castle of the councilors sat on the mountainside above the city. It was a stronghold the equal of anything Darm had seen. There was a pilgrim hostel in the city and when the evening meal was finished, Darm asked Ralik to accompany him on a visit to the castle.
"I would prefer we cover our uniforms with dark robes," Ralik said. "We will be less visible in the night. There is a side door of the hostel that lets out into a narrow alley. I suggest we use it."
When they had made their preparations, Ralik lead the way. He took such a devious route through the city that Darm was soon confused.
When they finally approached the castle from uphill. Ralik gave a patterned knock at a narrow back door. The door was only opened after they were examined from a small window above the door. While they waited in a spare anteroom, Darm asked Ralik why he had exercised such caution.
"I resigned my post as captain of the palace guards in Saadena when Marnat took the throne, but one of my objections was his treatment of his sister, Marinin. When you asked to be brought to the palace, I deduced that you did not tell everything when you spoke at the Shrine in Otaliafa. Your failure to mention Marinin was interesting, especially since you said Tharek had been assigned to be a gardener."
"Then you know Feranal?"
"I introduced him to Marinin when they visited Timora years ago," Ralik acknowledged.
Marinin and Feranal appeared shortly afterward and greeted Darm and Ralik with warmth far more than courtesy required. They were led to the apartment that the newly-married couple shared.
When they had been seated and served with nuka juice and savory dishes of spiced meat, Darm gave an account of his adventures with Tharek following the return of Marnat to the city. "Garvok is still hunting Tharek, but for now it seems that he is shadowing me. I assume that you have kept the presence of Marinin a secret, Feranal. This is an impressive fortress, but Garvok might still try to abduct her if he knew where she is."
"We were married in Tedaka by the Headman, Dilaka," Feranal said. "As far as anyone in Taleeka knows, my bride is a Tedakan named Caline. We have been private with the usual excuse for those who are newly married."
"I believe your ruse succeeded," Ralik said. "I have inquired around the city and received no hint that it is other than you said. People are quite sympathetic to your decision to stop waiting for the hopeless possibility of marrying Marinin."
"I am afraid I might have compromised you by coming here to warn you," Darm said.
"Not with Ralik as your guide," Feranal assured him. "Are you certain Tharek is out of danger now?"
"With Garvok trailing me, I believe I can assure you that Tharek is well away. They seem to be able to sense when they are near each other."
Ralik nodded. "Tharek must be far away by now if Garvok has turned to shadowing his friends."
"Eventually the truth will come out about our marriage," Marinin said. "From the destruction that we witnessed in Saadena, Marnat's power will soon decrease."
"Tharek said your brother sees a profit in selling water from a lake that was formed by the fall of a cliff during the earthquake," Darm said. "He ignored those who counseled that he should dig a channel."
"Then he is more of a fool than I ever guessed," Feranal replied. "The greatest wealth of Saadena came from the tolls and taxes on shipping on the river Comor. The farms along the river were another source of wealth. With the river gone, there will be nothing but desert around the city."
Ralik stood. "It is growing late. We must return to the hostel before our absence is noticed."
"Go in the light," Feranal said. Marlinin gave quick hugs to both of them when they left them at the door.
Darm was uncertain that they had not been shadowed on their way to the hostel, but when they were back inside the room they shared with Talka, he found reason for encouragement.
"I found Garvok drinking in a tavern and followed him until he left Taleeka headed for Timora," Talka said. "He might summon other cultists to attack us but I doubt that he knows where you went tonight."
They encountered no further trouble on the road to Timora. Darm took note of the absence of harassment from bandits with the presence of just a few armed men among the group of pilgrims. If he ever had the opportunity to communicate with the men Tharek had commissioned as his Elite Guards, he would suggest just this tactic. There was no real need for garrisons such as Saadena had maintained.
He looked for Fozli and found him in the library of the sacred scrolls where he was supervising a team of scribes. As soon as Fozli saw his friend his face lit with a grin.
"You look very fine. I never pictured how you would look in the guise of a legionnaire."
"Laugh if you will, but I am whole and there are dents in this armor that would have been killing wounds," Darm said. "We had a run in with Garvok and a band of his Orquian bullies outside Taleeka."
"Orquians!" Fozli whistled. "I thought they were just a tale made to scare children."
"They have been hidden but I fear they are more powerful and widespread than any of us could have guessed," Darm said.
"I have heard various stories about the ruin of Saadena, but I'm certain you could tell me the full of what happened there. I would ask you more about our friend, but I can see from your demeanor that I have no cause to mourn."
Darm looked around and saw a few curious stares from the other scribes who were copying the scrolls. "Both of us have questions. Is there somewhere we could meet and continue this conversation?"
"I have been invited to share dinner with a lady I would like to have you meet," Fozli replied. "Come with me, I think you might recognize her when you see her."
They left the library and walked toward the Shrine. When they were out of hearing range of others Darm confided what he knew. "Tharek told me how you rescued Travil, Marnat's wife and stayed behind to guard her."
Fozli nodded. "She has been living in the garden of the Saadenan embassy with her child. Regnon, the new High Priest, has declared an annulment to her marriage to Marnat. It was performed against her will, and Marnat has already remarried."
"So the field is clear for you," Darm teased.
Fozli blushed. "I would not presume, but perhaps in time the friendship we share will turn to something more. Regnon does not seem to find any problem with the possibility."
"I wish you well," Darm said.
When he met Travil and saw how she looked at Fozli he was satisfied that she returned his friend's regard. Her tiny child was barely old enough to smile, but what smiles she had were most often aimed at Fozli who dandled her on his knee as fond as any father. It didn't seem to matter that her hair was that peculiar shade of gold that betrayed her link to Saadena's royal house. Darm felt a chill of concern for the young couple and their future.
"Beware of Garvok. He is a middle-sized, ordinary looking man, but he may study you hoping to find Tharek or Marinin. As for Marnat's sister. I will tell you she is happy."
"She was always kind to me," Travil said. "I have named my baby Marlia to honor her. We know we must be careful to avoid much notice while Marnat is still in power, but with Regnon in the office of High Priest, Timora is safe refuge."
Assured that Fozli and Travil were well warned, Darm felt that he had concluded his business in Timora. He visited the Tedakan clan hostel and found that a caravan of pilgrims was leaving in the morning. After arranging to meet them before they took the trail, he returned to the Otaliafan hostel.
He found a messenger from the Shrine waiting for him. "Regnon, the High Priest, desires an audience with you," the young priest said.
"I will be leaving Timora in the morning, but I am free to go to the Shrine with you now," Darm said.
Regnon was a man of middle years. A Mareklan by the evidence of his name, he more resembled Fozli than Tharek. He invited Darm to join him in his study. When they were alone and the door was closed, he stared at Darm intently.
"I have spoken to Fozli at length, but it seems you are the man I need to speak to. You were not present in Timora when Karon was murdered in the chamber of the Eye of Adanan, but you spent more time with Tharek afterward than any other man. Did he ever mention the oracle device to you?"
Darm sized up the man in front of him. He had dared the anger of Marnat by annulling his marriage to Travil. Finally he nodded. "Tharek never spoke to me about the Eye of Adanan, but even when we were short of food, he never offered to share the battered loaf he carried in one of his belt pouches. When I last saw him, he was sailing a small boat into the southern sea."
Regnon gave a long, low whistle. "I have vowed to find the Eye of Adanan. From what I have heard, Tharek is a true prophet, but I am the guardian of the oracle device. As soon as I am certain that my responsibilities here in Timora are in good hands, I will go in search of Tharek."
"Do you know of Garvok, Marnat's hound?" Darm asked.
Regnon nodded. "I know of him, and I am aware of the need to keep him from learning my errand. Thank you for confiding in me. I will not betray your trust."
Chapter 18 Slave
For five days the sea remained calm and a gentle wind filled Tharek's sail. He saw a few small fishing villages south of Otaliafa but on the second day the landscape changed from cliffs and scanty vegetation to a line of verdant forest along the sea.
He hoped for a shower to replenish his waterskin but each day dawned fine and clear. At last he could go no further without making landfall and finding fresh water. The sense of Garvok's threat had nearly vanished.
He sailed closer to the coast and located a small, crescent beach surrounded by trees. It seemed a likely place to land and Tharek lowered his sail and began to ply his oars to move closer to the narrow beach.
Sand grated against the bottom of his boat and he gave one more hearty pull of his oars to drive the boat securely against the strand before putting down the oars and scrambling out of the boat. He landed in a few inches of water. The feel of solid ground under his feet after so many days on the water was disconcerting and he wobbled a little as he pulled the boat further up onto the beach.
The nearby trees stood high on great racks of exposed roots and he wondered briefly why they grew in such a way. He had hoped to see a brook but the sand was smooth between the exposed roots and he decided to explore further. After getting his staff from the boat he went some distance into the forest before he came to a rise where underbrush and vines were growing under fruit trees.
The southern nuka trees were much taller and the fruit more red than golden. He had tasted a piece of the southern nuka several years before in Timora and the thought of its honey sweetness was more appealing at the moment than continuing his search for water. He left his staff and his pack on the ground and climbed one of the trees.
The scent of the fruit tempted him to eat several scarlet globes in quick succession. They held only a hint of the astringent taste of nuka. At last he remembered how his stomach would feel if he indulged himself any further and he filled a net with nukas before climbing down from his perch.
The day was warm and even after eating several pieces of the juicy fruit, he was thirsty. The sound of running water from further in the forest promised a stream where he could drink his fill.
He located a small spring where the water ran clear and sparkling and he quenched his thirst before filling his water skin. The smell of his clothing reminded him that it had been more than a week since he had bathed or washed his clothing. He gathered some leaves from a soapsap bush and rubbed them between his palms to create a foam. Soon he had scrubbed himself and his clothing clean. He draped the clothing over rocks near the stream to dry while he looked around for other plants that might supplement his rations.
He gathered several kinds of roots and a variety of bread berry that was larger and a little sweet with much more taste than the bland berries that he and Darm had lived on in the beginning of their journey from Janaka.
At last his clothing had dried enough to wear and he had a good supply of food to supplement the supplies in his boat. He started back toward the beach but before he had gone very far he realized that he was walking in shallow water that had seeped through the leaves and vines beneath his feet.
He rucked up his robes and took off his boots and waded into increasingly deeper water. He had a sudden insight into the reason for the curious exposed root systems of the trees near the beach and the lack of ground vegetation until well into the forest. As soon as he reached a clearing where he had a view of the sea his fear was confirmed. The tide was in and the beach was swamped. His little boat was spinning slowly as the current carried it away. It was too late to go after it and he turned around and slogged back to higher ground.
The loss of the boat meant an end to his easy progress down the coast, but at least he was in an area with plenty of food and water. It was time to turn his path eastward. As long as he was forced away from the settled lands that he had traveled since his youth, he might as well explore and look for goods. He caught the direction of his thoughts and frowned. He was no longer a Mareklan merchant, tied to his clan and interested in profit.
Even so, he noted the possible uses of the hanging vines that draped from tree to tree over his head. They seemed supple and strong. Perhaps they could be woven.
His thoughts were interrupted by a dart that missed his nose by only inches, planting its finger length bole in the tree near his shoulder. He knew a few words of the language spoken by the natives of the jungle near Timora and he yelped the phrase: "I come as friend."
The sound of shouting erupted around him and he was soon surrounded by a band of nearly naked people with dart pipes held ready near their lips. He knew the poison of the darts could easily kill him. It was not a time to resort to his sword. Hoping to establish communication he tried another phrase: "Will you trade?"
The response was disappointing. Instead of dropping their blow pipes, they raised them higher and some of them began to prod him with short spears. It was apparent that they wanted him to go in a certain direction and he quickly complied, grateful that none of them seemed to realize that his staff was a weapon. He was not disarmed.
He was taken to a village made of vines and reed. As he had speculated, the vines made an excellent binding material.
The tallest men of the tribe came up to his shoulders. The first thing they demanded of him when they reached the village was that he sit down on the ground. Once Tharek was seated, the members of the tribe loomed over him. They prodded at his clothing and his beard which had grown to cover his lower face with a thick mat of hair.
A man came from the largest hut and took a seat on a stone not far from Tharek. He wore a head dress of glistening shells and bright feathers. From listening to the others as they greeted him, Tharek decided that his name was Alacota. He raised his voice and addressed the chief with an honorific. "Alacota, inta osweg."
As he had hoped, Alacota responded with a wide smile. He directed that Tharek should sit closer and began to talk. Tharek struggled to recall the few words he had learned on a trek into the forest years before, but after a short time Alacota wearied of the effort and consigned Tharek to the men who had first captured him.
Although he was wary of the blow pipes the natives carried, Tharek knew it would be possible to make his escape as soon as darkness fell. On the other hand, the sense of Garvok's threat had faded until he had to concentrate to know that the Hound of Marnat still pursued him. He knew little about the various resources and threats of plants and animals in this part of Okishdu. Eventually he would seek his freedom, but for now there was real benefit in submitting to his captors and learning how to survive in the jungle.
Tharek was tethered that night, and every night thereafter, but otherwise he had the run of the camp. His size and strength were seen as a resource to be used to haul whatever heavy object the smaller men could not handle.
Although the chief talked to him often until they had established a fairly wide common vocabulary, it seemed that he was seen as community property.
One evening Alacota was carried back into the village with a deep wound in his thigh. The shaman of the tribe treated it with various herbs and poultices and a great deal of posturing incantation, but when the flesh surrounding the wound turned red and then began to putrefy, the shaman announced that Alacota had somehow offended the spirit of the jungle and would die.
If Alacota died, Tharek would lose a friend, and he might never be seen as anything but an ignorant beast of burden. He would either have to heal the chief or risk the dangers of premature escape. He entered the hut at the edge of the village where the chief had been left to die.
Tharek had herbs in his belt pouch to reduce the fever and he used the blade of his sword to cut away the putrefying flesh. A needle threaded with zylka fiber closed the wound. He placed hot poultices on the wound and changed them every hour. When he had done all he could, he prayed earnestly that the fever that afflicted the chief would be relieved and his wound begin to heal.
The village had been preparing for the funeral pyre and offerings that would be burned were piled in the clearing in the center of the village. A mourning chant went up. Alacota's breathing changed and he opened his eyes and looked around. When he saw Tharek he summoned him closer to murmur. "Call a council."
Tharek took a moment to feed the chief and give him an infusion of catta leaves to drink before he left the tent. When the elders of the tribe were assembled, Alacota addressed them. "I dreamed that the Prishtanga were invading and came upon our tribe in the night when the moon is three days new," he said. "This man, the slave who healed me, stood on the great rock in the center of our village and gave light so that we could defeat our enemies."
One of the sub chiefs stood and shook his wand of office. "We cannot trust your fever dreams. The Prishtanga are my mother's people. They would not attack in such a manner."
The shaman stood and gestured to Tharek. "This slave has saved our chief, but his mind has wandered. How can we know that the dream he had was true?"
Tharek stood. "I will stand in the middle of the village through the night that Alacota dreamed the attack will come. You must arm yourselves and hide the women and children of your tribe in the forest. Let the son of the Prishtangan woman stand by me during the night."
The sub-chief who had objected stood and tried to run away. He was tackled by the shaman. When the old man had yielded up his captive to a warrior, he drew Tharek aside into his hut. "You gave Alacota new life. You are more powerful than I. You must be the new shaman. What is the secret of your power?"
Tharek took the Stone of Truth from its pouch at his neck and held it out. As he had expected from the Shaman's willingness to accept his healing of the chief without resentment, the man gave a gasp of wonder and reached out with a tentative finger to touch the glowing stone. "We have heard of the one who bore the stone of light into the sacred valley of Timora. Surely he was a mortal man and died long ago?"
"I am the son of his son's sons," Tharek replied.
"You served us in humility for many moons. We will be cursed for ignoring your worth," the shaman muttered.
"You saw the Stone of Truth. You are a good man," Tharek said. "When I stand in the center of the village tonight, I will hold the Stone of Truth up on my staff. If your enemies come down on you with no cause, they will probably be blind to the light. Bring your warriors to me one by one. Those who see the stone will stay in the village and engage the enemy. Those who cannot see it should be sent into the jungle to guard the women and children under the head of one who sees the light."
The shaman brought each of the warriors to the hut in turn. Tharek was not surprised that most of them gasped with wonder at the clear bright light that came from the stone. There were some who saw it only as a glowing flame much like Charash. There were fewer still who looked around in annoyance and asked why they had been brought into the dark hut with the slave who had saved the chief.
It seemed that the same men who saw only darkness were all to willing to go into the forest with the weaker members of the tribe. Only one of them resisted the assignment. "I am no coward to be shut away with weaklings," he protested. "I have the right to prove myself in battle."
The shaman nodded. "You will prove that you are a vain fool. Some of our warriors must be willing to guard our families. They may be attacked and captured if the Prishtanga are as devious as they seem."
The resolve of the warrior seemed to waver. Finally he nodded. "I will go with the few who have the honor of defending the weaker members of the tribe."
All the preparations had been made by sundown. Tharek rested along with the defending warriors from noon until it was time to take their places in the forest around the village. Ten men stayed in the village surrounding Tharek. The traitor had been tethered in one of the huts with a gag in his mouth. When darkness fell he tried to cry out a warning, but there was only the sound that might be made by a restless child. It added to the illusion that the villagers were sleeping.
Tharek took his place on the large rock with warriors surrounded him while the others hid. Alacota rested in one of the huts where he could watch and see the realization of his warning dream.
The moon ascended slowly as the night wore on. It seemed that all their preparations were in vain, but a movement at the edge of the clearing caught Tharek's attention. Prishtangan warriors crept from the verges of the forest. The first indication that they had of danger was Alacota's cry of summons to his warriors. They came from every side, falling on their enemies and disarming them where possible. Some would not yield and their example seemed to give courage to the others. Men were wounded and some were killed in the melee that followed, but it was an uneven contest with no real glory to the victors who could see their enemies clearly while the Prishtangans were fighting in the dark.
Finally the leader of the invasion seemed to realize that the battle was all but finished. He threw down his stone battle ax and cried for mercy. His men soon followed his example, casting away their weapons and yielding themselves up to be captured.
Tharek's status went from slave to teacher of the shaman. For two months he continued with the tribe and there were times that he wondered if this was his destiny, to stay with the tribe and work among the people of the forest, teaching them about a deity that many of them worshiped in essence if not precisely in the form that Irilik had taught.
One day Alacota asked him to attend him in the shaman's hut. When the three men were seated, the chief raised his hand in the sign of friendship, then turned it sideways to the sign of pledge. "I have dreamed again. I saw you riding on the waters of the sea in a canoe like those our ancestors once made. It was a true dream, to my sorrow."
"There are a few of the canoes that have been hidden and preserved against decay," the shaman said. "Come, light bearer, I will show you where they are hidden."
Tharek could only bow to their decision. His farewells to the members of the tribe were filled with tears and an exchange of gifts. He had made small carvings from the fine dense wood of a tree that had fallen near the village. He had just enough to give each child a token of his stay among them. When Tharek was finally escorted to the beach and presented with the venerable canoe, all of the villagers were crying.
He launched the canoe and turned the prow toward the north and began to row. With no particular plan in mind, he intended to make landfall at one of the fishing villages along the coast south of Otaliafa. He rowed with steady strength but after taking his bearings on several landmarks on the coast he realized that a strong coastal current was moving him relentlessly toward the south faster than he could row. Resigned that he would only waste his strength if he continued to fight the current, he shipped his oars and raised his hands in prayer. His life was in the hands of Yasa Dom.
Days and then weeks passed without the sight of other people as he drifted at the mercy of the current, using his oars only to stay in sight of land. He made landfall now and then to replenish his provisions, watchful of the tell-tale signs of a tide that might carry away his boat while he searched for food and water. Storms prevailed for several weeks and he took shelter on the coast, building a lean-to for protection from the weather.
He took his bearing from the stars and realized that the coast had turned and he was going east. After another week of travel when he used his oars to stay close to the coast, his course changed yet again and he was going north. The climate was cooler than it had been in the jungle and when he visited the coast the vegetation was scant and tough. He began eating more fish and catching rain whenever he could, but although he became gaunt with hunger and dark from the sun, he spent the empty hours in prayer and meditation and felt a sense of peace. Somewhere in the wide arc of land to the north of him, he sensed that Garvok was still hunting, but it was far away and so faint that he was undisturbed.
One morning when he tried to return to the coast to replenish his store of fresh water he found that he was far from land. It was not merely a wide bay such as he had encountered several times before, but something greater.
Rough seas marked a divergence of the currents. Tharek struggled for many hours, plying his oars to keep in sight of the land. At last he caught a current that flowed northward and relaxed again. Perhaps he was meant to travel up the eastern coast of Okishdu until he reached Orenon. It would put him closer to the lands where his enemy could be looking for him, but it began to seem that his only alternative to riding the current that continued up the coast was to land and re-enter the forest. Although he had ended his time with the village of Alacota in harmony, he had the feeling that he might not be as fortunate with another tribe. The next people to capture him might well be as unrelenting and cruel as the Prishtanga.
The choice of continuing northward was taken from him when he encountered a great marsh that was interlaced with many little streams. Without warning, a storm blew up and he was driven deeper into the marsh until finally his canoe capsized and Tharek struggled through the surf to a small island in the midst of many others in the marsh.
He rescued his staff and his belt pouches which contained his scrolls and tools and the precious bundle with the Eye of Adanan, but all of his provisions and the gifts he had received from Alacota's people were washed away with his canoe.
When morning came, he surveyed his situation. The island at high tide had barely room enough to build a shelter of reeds. As far as he could tell, he was far from any chance of rescue. While fishing, he discovered that the water ran fresh at low tide. At least he would not die of hunger or thirst. Perhaps he was meant to live as a holy hermit.
After making a simple meal he erected a reed hut for shelter against the rain. When night came, he was not quite finished with the task and he set the Stone of Truth on the top of a sturdy length of reed while he used his sword to cut more reeds. He wondered what the wizard smith and all the warriors who had used the sword in battle would have said to see it used for such a task.
In some far time would a wanderer discover these precious artifacts of faith and war and wonder how they came to be so far from any human habitation? The thought amused him and he chuckled with grim irony.
"Are you the ghost of Irilik?" a voice asked tremulously in an accent so strange that Tharek was not quite certain he had the sense of what was said. He turned and saw a sight so gratifying that he fell to his knees and began a prayer of thanks and praise to Yasa Dom. A young man in a reed hat stood in a long narrow boat close enough to reach out and touch him.
Chapter 19 Lamatha
Tharek stood by the window of his spacious room and looked out over the city of water and reeds that his hosts called Ovishang. One of his servants entered with a tray of pearls and shells and deposited them on the table Tharek had designated as his work space. He turned and thanked the young man. The servant bowed and backed from the room without speaking. It seemed that the only people who dared to speak to him were the three elders who ruled Ovishang and the maiden they wanted him to marry.
He had told them his history; how he had become a prophet and then spent nearly a year living with a tribe in the jungle lands south of Timora and they had told him something of the history of their land. He had heard of Lamath and his people who were lost during the exodus from Renon six hundred years before.
Tharek walked to the table and examined the contents of the tray. The glowing luster of the shells suggested a design to him and he turned to the stack of wood that had been provided by his hosts at his request. It had been harvested from the jungle near the marsh.
He worked for several hours, shaping the wood and joining it. He enjoyed employing the mixture of crafts that produced small works of decorative utility.
The soft chiming of the gong beside his door alerted him that he had a visitor. His servants came and went without a signal, but his hosts observed the pretense that he had privacy.
He pulled off his working tunic and donned a zylka cloth robe before he turned toward the door. "Please enter," he called.
The door swung open and the elders of Lamatha entered. In their midst, like a pearl in the center of a brooch, walked Falinin, the girl who was his designated bride and presumed mother of the avatar of Yasa Dom. She was a lovely girl, her golden hair fired red by the sunlight through the window and her grave golden eyes wide with something akin to fear.
Marinin must have looked much like this ten years ago, but the contrast did not favor the younger girl. Marinin had a grace about her that had come from hardship and perseverance in the face of her brother's evil. Falinin seemed little more than a pretty puppet for the ambitions of the elders.
Tharek invited his guests to be seated on cushioned benches near the door and took a seat himself beside the window where he knew his face would be shadowed and his expression somewhat concealed. After several minutes of polite exchange of thoughts about the weather and the view, Paraval, the High Priest gave a little cough that disclosed that he was ready to proceed to something more serious. "We are patient, honored one, but we feel that you must resign yourself to doing as we ask."
"You must be aware that before you were discovered on the island, Falinin was betrothed to her hereditary opposite. They would have been married for several months by now if you had not come and fulfilled the prophecy."
Falinin flinched. The movement was so tiny that none of the others could have noticed, but Tharek felt a surge of pity for the maiden. "Perhaps I could make up my mind if I were permitted to speak to her in confidence," he said.
The Seeress, Forvera, stood and gestured to the High Priest and the Governor. "Come, we will stand by the door where we can see them and preserve propriety. His desire to speak to her is not unreasonable."
When the elders had withdrawn to the other side of the spacious room, Falanin's eyes grew wider still. Tharek took a few steps forward and she leaned away from him as far as her stiff brocaded robes allowed.
Tharek had learned how to address a thousand men or to pass a confidence that very few could hear. He addressed Falinin in a voice so low and well modulated that it would be nothing but a rumble to the others in the room. "Falanin, why are you frightened of me?"
She shut her eyes and bit her lip. Finally she murmured in a voice so low that he could barely hear it. "I am not as frightened of you as I am of being rejected by you. The man Torwit chose for me to marry is cruel and cold to me. He purchased the privilege of being married into the pure line of Lamath and Belnian."
"What will happen if I delay my decision," Tharek asked.
"He is putting pressure on the elders, but he has already contracted to marry someone else. If you could just delay for another week or so-."
Tharek could not restrain his smile. He had thought that Falanin was helpless and innocent of the intrigues that riddled Lamatha, but she was fully aware of her fate. More than ever she reminded him of her distant cousin, Marinin.
He summoned the elders to join him with a gesture. "I must endure a period of fasting and purification before I can give you my sure answer. Such serious covenants as marriage cannot be entered lightly."
The governor, Torwit, shook his head. "You must tell us now! We tire of your indecision."
Paraval reproved his colleague. "We do not give orders to the light bearer. You must remember that he is our honored guest."
Torwit scowled. "Is this some deep design of yours Paraval? You speak of him as the light bearer, but where is this light you prattle about? You made some pretense to see something glowing in the marsh on the night he first was found, but I have yet to see this light of which you boast. If you would show it to me, I might honor your pretense that he is a guest. As far as I can see, he is our prisoner. If he does not yield to our will, he should meet the fate of other intruders who have breached our isolation. Let him be taken to the pearl beds and be taught to dive."
Paraval and Forvera exchanged startled looks. Tharek felt grim amusement at the incredulity of the two sacred elders at the words of their secular counterpart. He stepped into the breach. "I do not display the light for the curious. I will let you know as soon as I make my decision."
"He must tell us his decision now!" Torwit demanded, ignoring Tharek as if he had not spoken. "I have talked to other men of good sense and they agree with me that this idea of melding the ancient lineages is nothing more than a hoax. If this supposed prophet does not do as you have asked, then I will assume that you are playing me for a fool."
"Our decisions are based on a majority of the three of us," Paraval reminded Torwit. I believe that Forvera joins me in approving Tharek's plea for more time."
Torwit whirled and stalked away, leaving Paraval and Forvera alone with the objects of their plan. Tharek extended his hand and helped the maiden to her feet, then he led her toward the two remaining elders. "Do you think it is wise to retain a governor who cannot see the Stone of Truth?" He asked them.
"If we depose Torwit, we might well end up with a revolt against our government," Paraval replied. "There are those who think the triad council would better be replaced by a king."
"Perhaps you could use the wish for a different form of government to your advantage. How is the governor chosen?"
"At one time he was chosen by the voice of the people, but for the past five generations, the governor has named his son to follow in his stead. Torwit is a king in all but name and usually he finds a way to bypass whatever constraints the Seeress and the High Priest put on him."
Tharek considered their problem. "Torwit threatens you with the weight of what other men think. Perhaps it is past time for you to bow to the popular voice. Send out word throughout the city that an election will be held for new members of the council."
"Torwit would never permit such a thing," Falanin said, surprising all of them by speaking. "He has spies and bullies throughout the city. The people go in fear of him."
"How do you know such things?" Forvera asked.
"I have servants," Falanin responded succinctly.
"No one has spoken to me of such things," Forvera said.
"You are ancient and holy. Your servants would not dare to chatter of such things in your presence," the girl replied.
"I told you of what happened in Saadena," Tharek said. "It is past time that Ovishang was cleansed of those who follow the Liar. If you do not act, the Radiance will."
"But we are powerless before Torwit!" Paraval protested. "He will bring war to our people."
"Charash, the High Priest of Timora failed to discipline Marnat because he was afraid of war," Tharek said. "Thousands died and the sacred record of Irilik was lost because of his cowardice."
"Why not use the Stone of Truth here as you did in Saadena," Falanin suggested.
"Torwit has posted guards among the servants," Forvera reminded the girl.
Tharek smiled. "I have gone along with the pretense that I was your guest thus far, but it was no secret to me that I am guarded. There is one thing Torwit overlooked. I have the Stone of Truth to light my way in the darkness. I have found that not only do the righteous see it clearly, but those who are truly evil are confused by the light. I could leave this room at any time I please once the sun has set."
"If you could stand on the porch of the shrine with the Stone of Truth set in your staff, all who see it could gather and listen to you," Falanin said. "We should begin tonight before Torwit finds out what we are planning."
Paraval and Forvera seemed unsure, but Tharek supported Falanin's suggestion. "It is best to act before Torwit takes things into his own hands. I will make my way to the Shrine. Falanin, tell your servants to spread word that something unusual will happen this evening."
He opened the door and bowed the trio out of the room before either of the elders could urge him to caution. Falanin grinned at him as she passed. "I will try to make sure that you have an audience."
"Do not be too specific about where and what is expected," he warned her. "We want people alert without giving details that might draw those who oppose our plan."
It was several hours to sunset and Tharek wondered what he could say to the people of Ovishang that would inspire them to dare the retribution of Torwit's cronies. Finally he bowed his head and raised his hands in appeal. "I come before the presence of the Radiance in humble pleading. If I have been led to Ovishang to do the will of Yasa Dom, let me be given the words to say that will preserve this people."
Sunset faded into twilight and the first stars shone as Tharek's servants entered the room with trays of food and drink. Tharek thanked them for their service. He wondered if he would see them again after tonight. Doubtless they would be blamed for failing to guard him well if his effort failed. If Falanin's plan prevailed, they would not be punished. Otherwise, the lot of them might end as pearl divers.
He was familiar with the building where he was lodged. It was built mostly of bundled reeds with great beams brought from the forest supporting the roof and floors. In the corner of the room, under a carpet of plush zylka, he had cut out a section of the reed matting with his sword in order to explore the city at night and in expectation that the day would come when he would leave the city.
The floor below this was used as a meeting hall and it was normally empty. Even so, he moved cautiously, keeping to the shadows away from the lamps that burned in the hallways. This building was next to the Shrine where a wide veranda ran from one end of the building to the other under a great peaked roof of woven reed.
Tharek moved along the veranda with his staff held at the ready in case Torwit or his cronies had heard what he planned and tried to prevent him. Finally he stopped and faced the plaza and the lagoon beyond. It was low tide and people were walking about, peering here and there expectantly. It was time for him to reveal the Stone of Truth.
He took it from the pouch strung around his neck and fixed it in the niche in the staff. As soon as he removed his hand, the glow filled the plaza. The people began to gather with expressions of awe and wonder. Only a few had seen the light before he had been secluded in the upper room, but now it seemed that hundreds were gathering. Out in the lagoon, boats gathered, the water from their oars flashing in the brilliant light.
Tharek raised his voice as soon as he felt the warmth swelling in his chest that assured him that he would be given words to say. "I am a son of Irilik and a prophet of the Radiance. Ovishang hovers on the brink of becoming a kingdom. There are some who say it would be best to let one man rule and depose the High Priest and the Seeress. There are others who say that three elders are not enough to determine the fate of your country. Let all who favor a kingdom wear red bands on their brows tomorrow. All who favor a larger council of five, the priest and the seeress, along with three others chosen from among you, should wear badges of blue and white. Tomorrow night I will return with the elders and the will of the people will be honored."
"What will you have us do?" a woman called.
"It is not my will, but the will of the Radiance you should seek. You have the books Irilik preserved and bestowed on Lamath. What is their counsel?"
He covered the Stone of Truth with his hand and slipped away into the shadows of the veranda. He knew it would be dangerous to return to his room before the matter was settled. Torwit might well send his bullies to assassinate him. In the mild climate of Ovishang it was no hardship to find a sheltered corner and wait out the night.
Morning revealed the will of the people. At first there were virtually no red bands and almost everyone wore bands of blue and white. Eventually word spread to those who had not been drawn to the square by the light and they put on their colors. Even so, by late afternoon when everyone had an opportunity to show what they wanted, the vast majority wore badges of blue and white.
The people who favored a larger council crowded the plaza as night drew on. They were given courage by their numbers and soon it was a merry celebration that spilled out onto the water of the lagoon where boats began to gather.
Tharek had watched the gathering through a latticed wall in the small room where he was hidden. When it was dark, he stepped forth again and lifted the stone on the staff. Suddenly two men ran at him from the shadows. He moved aside and they stopped and stared around unseeing. A roar of amusement came from the crowd in the plaza as they watched the men fumble around for Tharek who was in plain sight of all who could see by the light of the Stone of Truth.
Several men rushed up to the veranda and grabbed the would-be assailants. A few minutes later Paraval and Forvera joined Tharek and turned to face the crowd. "Torwit has refused to appear here with us," Paraval shouted so that he could be heard by all. "He calls this procedure illegal. He threatens to send the prophet to dive for pearls."
His words were incendiary. The crowd became angry, some calling for Torwit's death. Tharek held up his hands and there was quiet. "Do not lose the light for the sake of punishing those who have offended you."
Forvera stepped to the edge of the veranda and addressed the crowd. "Torwit has proved what he is. You have shown that you favor a larger council. You must put forth names for the extra seats. Bring your ballots to the council hall and in three days we will announce which of you has earned the burden and privilege of sharing our duties. Go to your homes and choose good men and women to represent your interests."
There was debate among those who lingered, but soon most of the people had followed Forvera's advice and dispersed. Tharek turned to the two elders. "Send for the guards to come to me. Tonight could bring great danger of all of us. I will choose good men to watch for attempts at arson."
When he had chosen men he could trust, Tharek gave them their instructions. "You must stand ready to put out any fires that are started. Drench the lower levels of the council hall and the Shrine and keep watch for any skulkers carrying lamps or torches."
After bidding good night to the two elders, Tharek felt safe in returning to his room now that the voice of the people had been heard. Torwit could no longer legally order his murder. He welcomed the thought of a comfortable bed behind a locked door with his sword close at hand.
In the morning he received the reports from the guards he had assigned. As he had predicted, the red band had tried to use fire to attain their frustrated aims. Ten men now waited for judgment. The ballots for council members began to arrive. Many came in the form of petitions with many signing for one man or woman. Paraval, Forvera, and Falanin kept track of the results as the days went by. Torwit still resisted the change, threatening dire consequences if the a larger council replaced the tradition of three generations.
Red bands were not denied the right to vote, and as a result, Torwit maintained a seat on the council by a narrow margin when all of the ballots were counted. As evening approached the members of the council appeared on the steps of the council hall. This time Torwit joined them.
The totals of the winning votes were announced by Tharek to the sound of cheering, two people stepped forth from the crowd. One was Larenth, the young fisherman who had rescued Tharek when he was stranded on a marshy island. The other was a woman who made carpets. Torwit's face twisted with disdain when he saw who had been chosen as his new colleagues.
Tharek returned to his room and took up his tools. Engaging his hands in creative work helped him think and he considered the question of what he would do now. Falanin would no longer be under pressure to marry Torwit's crony, but the question of her marriage was still unsettled. As if his thoughts had summoned her, she was announced by his servants, her own servants serving as escorts.
He invited her to sit nearby while he worked. When she expressed an interest in what he was doing, he gave her a shell on which he had etched a design. "See if you can cut away the shell and leave the pattern," he directed, giving her an obsidian blade to make the cut.
They worked in comfortable silence for nearly an hour. Now and then she asked him a question or asked for another piece to cut out. In the background their servants gossiped together. It was a pleasant interlude. Tharek wondered if it would be such a bad thing to be married to Falanin. Then he shook his head and chuckled. She was much like one of his younger sisters. It seemed absurd to consider marrying someone so young.
"What do you find so amusing?" she asked.
"Tell me the truth Falanin. How did you feel about the threat that you would have to marry either me or the man who had purchased your hand from Torwit?"
"I am young Tharek. I want to marry no man until I have grown a little and learned a great deal more. I mean no disrespect to you, but I view you the same as an uncle."
"Then there is no rush for either of us," he assured her. "Perhaps in time I will come to regard you with more than brotherly fondness. Meanwhile, we can be friends."
She impulsively threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek. "Oh thank you! Paraval warned me that you would become impatient of delay. For now, there is no other I favor."
In the weeks that followed the election, Tharek fell into a comfortable routine. He often spoke at the shrine by invitation of Paraval. He wandered through Ovishang and observed the ways that Lamath's people had adapted their lives to living in the marshes. He even went fishing with Larenth when the council was not in session. Sometimes Falanin joined them.
His idyll was brought to a close by a message sent from Paraval. "We have captured a man who claims to be a Mareklan. We need you to question him."
Tharek knew that most intruders on the isolation of the land of Lamatha were sent to work in the pearl beds and never permitted to escape back to their homes. It was the only solution other than death that seemed to satisfy the demands that Lamatha would be unknown to others in Okishdu. The rule had been made by the council at the beginning of the settlement of Lamatha and such laws were always honored. They particularly feared being discovered by the inhabitants of Orenon which lay to the north several leagues from the marsh.
Tharek was surprised that it was just one Mareklan who had been apprehended. The merchants always traveled in bands. He wondered if he would recognize the man who had intruded on Lamatha's borders. Mareklans generally knew of one another, and knowledge of his outcast state would be well known by now. It was another reason to stay in Ovishang where he was welcome and honored.
When he entered the High Priest's study in the Shrine he was struck with surprise. "Regnon! Why are you wearing those robes?"
The robes that he questioned were dull and ragged with age, but they were belted in blue, however faded and the cowl of high priesthood dangled down his cousin's back. The explanation occurred to him almost as soon as he spoke. "You were appointed High Priest in stead of Charash."
Regnon nodded. "Can you tell me why I am here, threatened with becoming a pearl diver at my age and why I have wandered for more than a year in the wildest lands of Okishdu?"
Tharek nodded. "You are seeking the Eye of Adanan."
Regnon closed his eyes in silent prayer then opened them to smile. "Then you do not deny that you have it."
Tharek turned to Paraval who was watching the two men with interest. They were speaking in an accent he hardly recognized. Tharek had finally learned the correct pronunciation based on his knowledge of their common written language, but Paraval had never tried to learn the accents of Tharek's world.
"Come with me to my room," Tharek said. "It has a westward facing window and it is only an hour or so from sunset."
"Who is this man?" Paraval asked.
"He is my cousin, the High Priest of Timora. He has come in search of me, or rather, something I have kept for him."
Paraval bowed deeply as he acknowledged Regnon's rank. It was against convention to do honor to an intruder, but since Tharek's arrival and the election of the council, many conventions had changed. Paraval went to his own closet and took out a new robe of glistening zylka cloth and a blue sash that matched his own. "Come, you must bath and change into something befitting your station. There is time enough before sunset."
Tharek accompanied Regnon to the bathing room. When they were alone he explained the circumstances of his possession of the Eye of Adanan. "I would have returned it to Charash, but something restrained me."
Regnon nodded. "Charash expressed little curiosity about the loss of the oracle device. He tried to calm me by saying that it was broken and no longer functioned as it had in former years."
After that the topic turned to the travels each had made. Regnon had traveled south from Timora and searched through many different tribes. At last he had heard of the battle in Alacota's village and had traveled west, arriving a few months after Tharek had departed. Although his quest had not been intended as a search for products that could be useful to his clan, Regnon had been raised a merchant and he shared his enthusiasm with Tharek.
"I have seen wonders in my travels," Regnon said. "There is much that we can share with the people of the jungle. If I ever return from this quest, I will let the elders of Marekla know what they could accomplish by enlarging their trade in the jungles."
"It would be well if they could have some minimal trade with Lamatha as well," Tharek replied. "I will discuss the possibility with the council. Even if there is no real contact, there must be a way of maintaining communication. They have scriptures that say that the avatar of Yasa Dom will be born to a couple who combines the lineages of the three priesthoods. I seem to recall that there is corroboration in the Scroll of Irilik. Unfortunately, we may never know now that the scroll is gone."
Finally Regnon was clean and dressed in the robes Paraval had provided and they returned to the High Priest's study. Forvera was there with Paraval waiting for them.
They went up to Tharek's room and they seemed unsurprised when he pulled a set of screens into position several feet from a small table that he set in front of the window. Paraval even stood and helped him draw a map of Okishdu on the face of the screens with charcoal. They all knew enough of how Irilik had used the device anciently to make slips of paper with their names and others marked on them.
"This is something I never hoped to witness," Forvera murmured when the preparations were complete and Tharek removed the Eye of Adanan from the plain little box in the form of a battered loaf of bread.
He set it on the table and lifted the side that faced the window. Then he turned to Regnon. "Charash thought it was broken because it had not responded in so many years. You are of the proper lineage. Now you must see if you are worthy to use the Eye of Adanan."
Regnon watched the crystal case intently as the light from the window became parallel to the sides. He reached forward tentatively to touch the top and gave a sigh of wonder when the light began to dance and flash colors on the set of screens. Paraval and Tharek took charge of moving the figures. They had included Torwit's sign and although it was dull and pale, it brought no sign of the purple and scarlet that would give them concern. Tharek maneuvered his own token.
When he left it near the part of the map marked with the name of Lamatha, it was dull and dark with purple tinge, a bad sign. He moved it toward the north and the south, to Orenon and the jungles, but still it gave a hint of danger. Finally he moved toward Timora and it became a bright blue, sparked at the edges with scarlet and purple, he was tempted to let it rest, but somehow Paraval jostled his arm as he moved other tokens and Tharek saw his sign grow brighter still as it moved toward the west in the direction of Taleeka.
Regnon's sign betokened war and death while he kept it near Lamatha, but it changed to a cheering yellow green when it was moved up to Timora. Before they could continue with the exhilarating experiment, the sun began to set and the colors faded.
Regnon expelled a long breath of satisfaction. "Thank you Tharek. I wonder if I would have dared to test myself if you had not made me ashamed to doubt. I can understand the reluctance of many to test the belief that it was broken. It was a way to explain the failure of Charash and others to bring it to life."
Tharek was sobered by what he had seen as his destiny. He had enjoyed the respite he found in Lamatha, but he could no longer deceive himself that he would find his future here. He turned to Paraval and Forvera. "You have seen what will happen if either of us stays in Lamatha. I fled from an enemy who hunts me still and I was growing fond of Falanin. Now I can see that we must leave as soon as possible."
Paraval and Forvera had studied records made by Lamath and they recognized the signs. They exchanged a glance. Neither could deny what they had witnessed. "You have blessed us Tharek. Go with the Radiance and remember us when you pray. From henceforth we will find a way to deal with Mareklans, but perhaps it would be best if the isolation is maintained."
Tharek gazed out his eastern window toward the horizon where the other cities of Okishdu were hidden. He was familiar by now with the intimations of prophecy and he let the words and images flow into his mind. Finally he nodded. "In time one will come who combines the lineage that will augur the Avatar, but not for many generations. Remember, he will be born unanticipated. You may guard the lineages of Postemi and Agdil, but you cannot force the hand of the Radiance."
He saw Regnon nod, but there was a hint of resistance in the set of Paraval's mouth and Forvera smiled blandly. It had been the dream of Ovishang's elders that they would harbor the Avatar of the Radiance, that they seemed deaf to any prophesy that seemed to contradict their plans.
When Falanin found that Tharek was leaving she came to his room with a gift. It was a little pendant she had made of shell as he had taught her. There were tears in her eyes when she gave it to him. Then she flung her slender arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek. "You will always be my favorite uncle," she assured him.
Tharek patted her head. "And you will always be like my little sister." It was well he was leaving. He had come painfully close to loving without return once again. First Marinin, then Shira had caught his heart. Regnon assured him that Fozli had found his true mate in Travil and Darm had found happiness with Farla, the Tedakan girl he had met in Saadena. Tharek was the last of the three to remain alone. Perhaps it was just as well. With the threat of Garvok darkening his future, he could hardly ask a woman to share his risk.
Next book: Tyrant of Zedekla