Chapter 1 Marnat's Hound
"Tharek is alive," Fozli murmured as he sat down by his friend at the table of an inn.
Darm glanced around to make sure that no one took notice of their conversation before replying. "Have you seen him?"
Fozli shook his head. "I learned of him from Regnon, the High Priest. He told me about his recovery of the Eye of Adanan a few years ago. He mentioned the man who helped him find it. He avoided saying his name, but I knew it was our friend, unless some other man has a stone that he uses as a lantern and a staff that hides a straight blue sword."
"Where did they meet?" Darm asked.
"Regnon would not say. He was absent for more than a year on his quest to recover the Eye of Adanan. I had no idea he knew Tharek until he told me the story."
Fozli's wife Travil entered the inn and came toward them. "Darm! It has been too long since you last visited Timora. Are Farla and the children with you?"
"Farla would not let me leave her at home in Tedaka while I came to the Founding Festival," Darm told her with a smile. "If you go to the fair field, you will probably find her with our children."
"What did you bring to the fair?" Travil asked. "I always look forward to seeing your clever creations."
"I have a competitor this year," Darm said. "There is a craftsman who exceeds my skill. I must admire his cunning. I purchased something from a Taleekan trader at the fair field."
Darm reached into one of his belt pouches and removed a small casket of nop wood inset with enamel disks with a design of waves and fishes. "At first I thought it came from Orenon, but then I noticed a significant difference in the pattern. See how the lid is fastened? I wish I had thought of this."
Fozli studied the little box. His eyes rose to meet Darm's gaze and he lifted his brow. "This seems to prove that Regnon was speaking of our friend. Do you plan to visit Taleeka?"
"It might compromise him if I try to find him."
Travil glanced from one man to the other and smiled. "You are talking in conundrums and that means Tharek is somehow involved. Surely he is out of danger now."
Fozli returned to studying the box when the innkeeper came up to the table with a tray of food. "That box looks as if it were made in Orenon, but there is something unique about the pattern. Perhaps you would tell me where you got it," the innkeeper said.
The man turned his head to look at the box and the hair arranged to cover his neck shifted to the side. Darm glanced up to thank the man for his service and saw the puckered scar that ran from ear to throat on the left side. A wound exactly where Tharek had stabbed Garvok and nearly killed him years before.
Darm tried to gesture for Fozli to conceal the box, but his friend failed to see the urgent signal. "I doubt that this is Orenese," Fozli said. "It belongs to my friend. You should ask him if you want something like it."
"Did he purchase it at the fair?" the innkeeper persisted.
Fozli glanced up and saw Darm's glare. "I, I-am not certain," he stuttered. As a man sworn to truth even a mild evasion made him cringe.
The innkeeper tried another question, but Fozli clamped his lips. He could not answer with a lie, but he would not betray his friends by saying more.
The innkeeper had no further excuse to linger by their table. While they watched they saw him leave the inn and head toward the fair field.
Darm stood up and headed for the door of the inn. Fozli hurried after him and tried to reassure him. "Surely no one will betray our friend to him. I'm sorry I told him you found the box at the fair field. I could not lie, but I should have simply refused to answer."
"I should not have shown you the box where someone could see it and guess the significance of the pattern," Darm said. "I will have to leave my family here in Timora and go to Taleeka. Tharek must be warned that Garvok is still on his trail."
Fozli slid to a halt. "Garvok? The Hound of Marnat?"
Darm nodded but did not stop to discuss his reasons for suspecting the identity of the inn keeper. Fozli launched into a run to keep up with Darm's urgent pace. "I will find Farla and your children and shelter them in my home until you return."
Darm turned his head briefly and flashed a smile. "Do that. I can reach Taleeka in three days if I leave now, I must find Tharek and warn him before Garvok picks up his trail."
"What if Garvok tracks you?" Fozli gasped.
"I will have to out pace him or fight him," Darm said with a gesture at the neat bronze sword he wore. "I feel my battle blood rising. It has been years since I felt so eager to meet a foe."
"Go in the Light," Fozli gasped as Darm loped toward the pilgrim trail, leaving him behind.
Darm did not stop to make further preparations for his journey. It was best to travel light if he hoped to outdistance Garvok. The contents of his belt pouches would have to suffice for supplies. He had an urgent sense that Garvok would soon be on the trail.
He had never let lethargy dull his edge and even now, years after bidding farewell to his life as a warrior, he believed he had the stamina to travel through the night. It usually took more than three days to travel to Taleeka from Timora but he knew that sometimes Mareklans made it in less time, encumbered as they always were with packs and staffs. Darm could do no less. He owed his life to Tharek as well as his loyalty.
The upward track out of the vale began to take its toll and he slowed from a full out run to a jog. Sweat ran down his brow and stung his eyes and for a brief moment he stopped to tie a band around his head and take a swallow from his water skin. It was old and growing tattered. Farla had offered to purchase a new one for him, but Tharek had given it to him on the day he had lost the star sword to the young Mareklan. He had set forth to kill Tharek or die trying, but Tharek refused to either die or kill him. The adventures that followed seemed almost like a tale from ancient times.
For the past four years Darm had lived a quiet life as a smith in Tedaka with his wife Farla and their children. The battle tattoos on his arms and chest now lay beneath a pale gray tunic in the sober pattern of his adopted homeland. Tedakans were practical people who judged him for what he could do and not for what he had been.
The pale orange sky of sunset darkened first to deep blue, then to black, but Darm's pace did not slacken. The quartz stones edging the path reflected the moonlight and kept him from wandering as the pilgrim road twisted and turned through the foothills. The stars wheeled slowly overhead and the moon sailed along its track toward dawn. Darm sometimes felt his sight grow dim and the sound of his pounding footsteps seemed to fade. Now and then he stopped and drank from his water-skin to restore his awareness. The hardest hours were those when the sky grew faintly luminous with the promise of approaching dawn and his water skin was empty. He resorted to prayer, pleading for strength to go on.
Not long after dawn, he stopped to refresh himself at a pilgrim spring. Withered fruit from a row of bread berry bushes near the spring eased his hunger. Darm rested briefly and stretched his muscles before getting up and jogging on. The track was well maintained and he could almost nap as he ran without a hazard to trip him up.
A little after noon he encountered a band of pilgrims headed for Timora. They studied him covertly when he passed and he grinned back at them. With his sweat soaked tunic clinging to his body and his face darkened with a two-day growth of beard, he knew he must be a frightful sight. He enjoyed the sensation as only a Janakan could. For years he had practiced the art of decorating his hair and body to terrify the foe. That was now long in the past, but for a moment, the worried expressions on the faces of the pilgrims brought back memories of his youth.
The afternoon grew hot. Darm's mouth dried and his muscles began to cramp. Late that evening after sunset he came to the camp where the pilgrims had spent the previous night. A small lean-to offered shelter and a pile of fresh straw grass in the corner provided for bedding. After gulping water from the well until he was replete, he ate his last journey meat. The lure of the sweet-smelling pile of grass overcame his urge to press on. What good would it do to arrive in Taleeka too exhausted to look for Tharek?
He woke to the sound of birds hailing the coming dawn. His legs ached when he stretched and he wondered if he had overestimated his stamina. He stood and flexed his limbs before slaking his thirst from the well and filling his water-skin. It might be a long time before he would find another place to drink that did not reek of Taleeka's acid soil.
He felt his thirty years in every joint when he first took the trail. Once he started down the road again, his legs lost their stiffness and he moved more easily. In mid-afternoon when the heat of the day peaked, the land began to rise and the landscape seemed to sour. The grass on the hills grew sickly yellow green and the sky took on a slight cast of gray, signs that he neared Taleeka.
In most ways Taleeka had much in common with Tedaka, and to most of the people of Okishdu there seemed little difference. The taste of the water betrayed the gulf that separated the two lands.
The water of his adopted home, Tedaka, was like a breath of air after snow has fallen, clean and cool. Taleeka's pale yellow water tasted of subtle poison. It soured the mouth and lay heavy on the stomach. It was the reason that Darm seldom visited these hills, and he would never consent to live here.
In late afternoon he came to the first mining camp. The small cinder cottages that surrounded the smelter and the scaffolding near the mine were typical of Taleeka. He was tempted to stop and find a house where he could buy a bed for a few hours, but an hour or so of light remained and if he kept up his pace he might reach the city.
His urgency to reach Tharek and warn him had forced him to the choice to make the journey, but he could feel his chest constricting under the burden of air that smelled of smoke and metal. The sooner he found Tharek, the sooner he could leave Taleeka.
The murky sky did not quite steal all the light from the stars and the brightest of them still glowed when darkness came. Another set of lights glowed low on the horizon when Darm reached the top of a pass. After a moment he identified the darker bulk of the mountain that lay behind them. He had reached the final pass into the city of Taleeka in two and a half days of nearly steady travel. He had never heard of anyone who had made the trip in less than three days except for Mareklans with their hidden trails.
Where in all these clustered houses and small workshops would he find Tharek? He could make out the walls of the fortress of the councilors on the hill above the smaller buildings. It might be wise to begin his inquiry there.
The chafing of his sandals reminded him that he hardly looked like the respectable Tedakan burgher he had become. With a scruff of beard darkening his cheeks and chin and his clothing dark with sweat from his urgent journey, the gatekeepers at the palace would doubtless take him for the wild Janakan warrior he had been for the first twenty-three years of his life.
Marinin, the chief counselor's wife would surely welcome him, but with the possibility that Garvok was close upon his trail, it would be unwise to try to contact her.
Darm could go no further without a plan and weariness had begun to cloud his mind. He sat on a large round stone near the track and tried to think. By now Garvok could have discovered Tharek's exact address and would have been on the trail for several days.
Darm could not be certain that the Hound would be limited to the pilgrim paths that meandered by a more gentle grade on the way to the sacred city. He could have knowledge of shorter ways like those of the Mareklans.
Perhaps instead of merely bringing a warning, it might serve Tharek better if Darm waylaid Garvok and killed him before he found his quarry. He had a fine short sword of his mother's own make that he wore in the sheath at his side. He had not taken the life of any man since he had quit being a warrior, but Garvok was no innocent.
Even if he changed his strategy from warning Tharek to taking a stand with Garvok, he had to find a place to rest and someone who would sell him food and nuka juice. No matter how thirst clawed at his throat, he could not bear the thought of drinking Taleekan water. Darm raised his hands and sent up a fervent prayer for help.
He looked out over the town. The lamps gleamed flickering and golden except for one window high on the hill opposite the councilors' castle. The light in the window shone as white and pure as a star, undimmed by the murky night sky.
Darm knew of only one light that could shine like that and only one man who would use such a light for domestic convenience. His prayers to find Tharek were answered. With the light to guide him he reached the sturdy cinder cottage only moments before the shutters were closed and the light disappeared.
Inside the cottage, Tharek was struck by a feeling of impending danger. The face of Garvok, the Hound of Marnat came to him along with the feeling of threat that the years had dimmed. He could not forget the bloody duel they had fought, one that had left them both faint and falling. He had staggered away from the contest, leaving Garvok to live or die as fate decided.
Years before he had traveled almost beyond the range of feeling Garvok's evil. For a few months in Ovishang his shell against becoming involved with others had melted and he thought he had found a home where Garvok could not reach him. Then Regnon came and read his fate in the Eye of Adanan. He could not question the oracle device. Since returning to Okishdu he sensed Garvok's dour presence in the background of every waking thought.
The patterned knock on his door brought him to his feet with a jerk that spilled his cup and overturned his plate. Only three men would use that knock, and only in the most desperate circumstances. He took two paces and flung the door wide open.
It was Darm, but not as he had last seen him. The gaunt bearded man on his threshold looked like the warrior he had fought to a standstill years before in Janaka.
"Garvok knows where you are. I came to warn you." Darm rasped in a failing voice as he lurched through the door and fell to his knees.
Tharek leaned over to steady him. "Are you wounded?"
"Just tired and thirsty," Darm answered with a gasp that changed into a rueful chuckle when he realized that his right hand was planted in a puddle of nuka juice and the left on the remnants of a meat-filled matla.
"Did you run all the way from Tedaka?" Tharek steadied his friend while he stood.
"I came from Timora. I saw a box of your making at the fair and Fozli told me that Regnon had met you. Garvok has been playing the part of innkeeper in Timora and he saw the box and recognized your work."
"How soon will he come?"
Darm shook his head wearily. "Bring me something to eat and drink first, then I will answer your questions."
Tharek quickly filled another cup with nuka juice and handed it to his friend. While Darm slaked his thirst Tharek rolled another matla around all that remained of the meat and vegetables he had heated up earlier.
Tharek began to pack while Darm finished eating. He made a quick decision to take the small box he had been making and tucked it into a belt pouch. His tools were simple and few, but nearly irreplaceable. He fit them into another pouch. Most of his work was small, a mixture of various crafts from carpentry to gold-smithing.
Darm glanced up and saw what Tharek was doing. "If you leave, he will only follow. Why not confront him and end it?"
"Garvok will not stop until he dies, and I have not yet killed a man. I don't want to bloody my hands, even to save my life. How long do you think we have?"
"Unless he knows a path other than the pilgrim road, I doubt that he will come until tomorrow. I am almost certain that I had the advantage of a day and a night on him. I left Timora day before yesterday in the late afternoon and traveled straight through with only a few hours of rest."
Tharek shook his head wearily. "I have avoided you and my other friends for years because I feared that Garvok might track you down by following his sense of where I am. It shakes me to find that he has been established in Timora watching for my appearance. What of Farla and your children or Fozli and his family?"
"The rules of Timora prevent Garvok from going heavily armed as he did when Marnat was his master. Fozli is no peasant in a cottage who can be assaulted without consequence. He promised to keep Farla and the children safe."
"We should have several hours before Garvok reaches Taleeka. You must rest, then we will return to Timora. I have to know that your families are safe before I try to find another refuge. As you suspected, there are trails that will return us to Timora more rapidly than the pilgrim road, I will show you the way in the morning. First you must clean yourself and get some sleep."
Darm welcomed the thought of bathing. A small lean to at the rear of the cottage contained a narrow tub and water in a cauldron that kept it heated. Lather weed and a shaving blade soon banished the beard from his face and throat. When had he become so averse to hair on his face? It was likely the influence of Farla who made faces when he forgot to shave. After the bath he put on clean clothing from the stack of linen on a shelf next to the tub. Years as a smith had made his shoulders broad enough to wear Tharek's tunic as if it were his own. As soon as his head touched the pillow he lost consciousness, plunging into dreams. The months when he and Tharek and Fozli had braved the winter steppes of Kumnora returned in visions of blizzards and angry wirras. Their adventures in Saadena when they led hundreds to refuge from the coming destruction of a deadly earthquake seemed as real as when they had happened years before.
It seemed he had hardly gone to sleep before he woke at dawn and found Tharek ready to leave as soon as they shared a simple breakfast of matlas and cala. As they prepared to leave the simple cottage Tharek carried his sword staff in his hand and lent a plain staff to Darm. "It will make it easier to cross the passes."
They soon reached the edge of the city and set off up the mountain. From a distance they might have been twins, two tall men with staffs, dressed in identical tunics with their dark hair braided at the backs of their necks.
Tharek had topped the pass and disappeared, leaving only Darm's silhouette against the sky for Garvok to see. The Hound had hoped to take his quarry unaware, but the sight of the lanky figure gave him a fresh burst of energy. It might take hours or days before he caught up to the man who named himself a prophet, but after the years Garvok had spent with the one aim of killing the man ahead of him, it seemed a trifle.
Tharek set a deliberate pace to spare his friend exertion as they climbed a steep pass. Darm was still not quite recovered from his heroic run and the hazy air of Taleeka made his eyes sting with irritation.
In the early afternoon, Tharek called a halt. The high trail had brought them up out of the murk, but Darm staggered with the effort of climbing through the thick, sour air. A hummock of grass in a sunny space rose not far from the narrow track. "Wait here and rest while I fetch some water and scout for something to eat," Tharek told Darm. "There is a spring not far from here and I could do with some pure water after living in Taleeka."
Darm echoed his sentiments. Cala and nuka juice were well enough, but he yearned for the taste of good water. The hummock of grass was lumpy, but warm from the sun. By lying on his side he was able to rest and he soon fell asleep with the sun warm on his back, easing his muscles.
Garvok could hardly believe his good fortune when he came down the track not long after Tharek had made his way up to the spring. He was certain that it was Tharek who lay on the grassy hummock unaware of any danger. In a second Garvok had his sword at the ready and crept forward. He knew a hundred ways to kill a man who lay with his back to him, but the back presented an interesting variety of targets. The cage of ribs and the arch of the spine would have to be circumvented if he went for the heart. If he moved forward far enough, he could strike off his enemy's head, but he did not like the risk of waking Tharek. The tunic was pulled tight against the torso of his victim and Garvok could almost count the ribs on his back.
He decided to strike through the rib cage on the left and into the heart. Even if he missed the target by an inch or so, the wound would be disabling and he could easily take Tharek's head off at his leisure.
While he paused to consider his strike, Tharek came down the hill just behind him. The sight of Garvok poised over Darm with his sword high and ready to strike, swept away all of Tharek's reservations about spilling human blood. He did not pause to consider his target. With one move he parted his sword staff while he rushed forward to strike down his enemy. Driven by Tharek's powerful shoulders, Tharek oc Baroka, the Wizardsmith sword sliced through the rack of Garvok's ribs and spine, the blade cutting clean through the assassin.
Darm sprang awake at the sound of Garvok's last desperate gulp of air. The flat side of the assassin's sword thumped onto his shoulder and slid to the ground.
"He must have thought I was you!" Darm lurched up and grabbed tufts of grass to wipe the gore from his tunic. "How long did you watch him before you struck?"
"I saw him and I killed him. I doubt that I breathed between the time I saw him standing over you and the moment his life ended."
Tharek stared down at Garvok empty eyes. "I have wondered for years if I would be able to overcome my doubts when a choice had to be made. When the moment came, I had no time for doubt."
"When I was a warrior I never took joy in killing," Darm said. "Garvok delighted in bloodshed and the power of the sword. There may still be those who will try to stalk and kill you to earn Marnat's reward, but none of them will be like the Hound."
Each of them took part of the severed body and pulled it to a depression several yards from the track where they heaped stones over Garvok and his weapons. "This track is seldom used," Tharek said. "It might be years before the grave is discovered."
In late afternoon they completed the burial, but neither cared to linger any longer near the blood stained ground where Garvok had died. They continued onward for another hour before they stopped near a spring where water weed and ota shoots provided a simple and refreshing meal.
Chapter 2 The Warrior
The next day the clouds overhead began to turn pink with the light of evening when Tharek and Darm entered a high valley with the hills of Taleeka behind them in the north and the mountains that cupped Timora to the south. Tharek suggested that they stop and make camp.
"We can be in Timora by tomorrow afternoon if we wake early and travel swiftly," he said. "I would like to visit with your families before I leave you."
"You could stay with us in Tedaka now that Garvok is dead. Your skills would be welcome."
"I thought the oracle Regnon read for me in the Eye of Adanan three years ago meant that I should go to Taleeka, but the same bearing could take me anywhere from here to the coast of Zedekla. I have tried to avoid the company of others, but it is difficult to do so where any form of settlement exists. Perhaps I should find a place of solitude somewhere in the wilderness of Zedekla."
Darm shook his head. "You are meant to be in the society of others. You might be surprised with what you would find on the coast. The Com river cut a new course through the plains after the quake at Saadena. There are rumors that it empties into the sea not far from the pyramid we saw half buried in dunes when we first ran from Garvok."
"People are settling there?"
Darm nodded. "You made a prophecy as I remember. You said it had been a place of power where people gathered in ages past and soon it would blossom again. The river Com was still impounded behind a wall of fallen rocks and soil caused by the earthquake you predicted. When the lake finally burst through a weakened part of the dam, the rushing water dug a course through Virdana. It was as if the earth was restored to a shape that it held once before."
Tharek surveyed the horizon. To the west the sun had dropped deep into a notch in the mountains, lighting up the purple clouds with lurid banners of red. A shiver of premonition chilled him. He recalled a fragment of one of Irilik's lost prophecies. It had puzzled the people of Marekla for six hundred years.
"A son of Irilik shall take up the sword and become a warrior. The mountains and valleys of Okishdu will run with blood after the face of Okishdu changes."
Darm looked up and frowned and Tharek realized that he had muttered the prophecy aloud. "I must go to Fozli and find if he can give me any further background to the prophecy I remember. After Marnat's theft of the Scroll of History and Prophecy, only the memories of Kumnoran oral tradition remain to those of us who want to understand Irilik's prophecies."
"It seems that he is not the only one with a recollection of the prophecy," Darm said.
"The warning was engraved into the thoughts of every growing Mareklan boy and it became the reason given for the ban on handling blades that could kill a man. It seemed to us that it was a warning against becoming the warrior Irilik foresaw. I never thought I would be the one who would fulfill the prophecy when I grabbed up the star sword that you dropped on the battle ground in Janaka, but now it seems that I am bound to the destiny it named. I should feel worse than I do about the blood I shed today. Taking life from another man is a terrible thing, but I feel no real shame for being the instrument of Garvok's death. Now that I know that I can kill in a just cause, it will be too easy to find a cause that will justify killing."
The sun set and the sky faded until only stars and the silvery moon remained. Tharek assumed the blue cowl of his priesthood and raised his hands in prayer. Darm bowed his head while Tharek performed the evening ritual. His words came slowly even though he made no significant variations from the phrases Darm had heard him say a hundred times before.
When Tharek lowered his hands, he reached for the pouch around his neck and slowly opened it. A beam of pure white light flooded out. "I can see it," Tharek murmured.
"Did you doubt you would?"
"I have always feared that if I took the life of a man, I might lose the light. Garvok was darkness embodied. He may have claimed to kill to satisfy some twisted notion of Orquian ritual, but I saw open glee on his face when he told me about the child he had sacrificed after using him to find me. Could there be any greater evil than dealing death for the mere pleasure of killing?" He tucked the Stone of Truth back into the little pouch that kept it secret.
"You tend to attract disaster," Darm said. "If you do not go to meet your fate, I fear it will come to find you. But enough of future dangers. Is it safe if we camp here?"
Tharek nodded. He had always had a sense of such things, but the sense of safety had long been denied him, as long as Garvok had hunted him. The sweet sense of freedom from threat was like the sight of the Light. After sharing the simple meal, he wrapped his cloak around him, laid his body down on a reasonably resilient patch of grass and slept with an ease that had escaped him for years.
The clear air of the mountains had washed the last foul wisp of Taleeka's tainted valleys from Darm's lungs when he woke the next morning. Tharek was still sleeping with a slight smile on his face and Darm decided to let him rest while he gathered bread berries and prepared breakfast for both of them.
When Tharek woke to the smell of fresh hot cala, he stood and stretched. "I think you have saved my life, Darm. I had nearly forgotten what pleasure it is to breathe fresh air. No wonder so many Taleekan women are barren and many of the children seem too small and sicken easily."
They started off down the trail. As Tharek had promised, it took many hours off the time needed to travel between the two cities. Twice they were forced to climb down cliffs using linked bolikas. Other places in the trail were so steep and narrow that it was evident they would be impassable to weak or elderly pilgrims.
They reached the northern pass into the vale of Timora at midday. The obscure trail merged with the pilgrim trail from Taleeka and they joined a band of men and women from Otaliafa who took quick glances at first one and then the other of the two tall men. An old woman finally held out her hand and touched Tharek's arm with tentative reverence.
"At first when I saw you, I thought that I was seeing a vision. You saved my life along with my family when you told us to flee from destruction."
"Were you in Saadena?" Darm asked her.
She nodded. "We were mocked by our neighbors when we abandoned our home in the city and fled. Many of those who laughed at us perished when their homes were destroyed in the earthquake you predicted. Last year I returned to Saadena and tried to find my sister. It was as you said it would be. Only the shrine and the palace remain. Marnat spent his last days refurbishing his new palace but all else was left in ruins. The people make do with building lean-tos against the ruined walls."
Tharek had seen the destruction for himself only days after the quake that had leveled most of Saadena. His heart ached for those who had lost their homes and families, but at least some had been saved. He took the old woman's hands between his own and thanked her.
"I have sometimes wondered if my warnings came too late. You have given me a blessing today with your assurances."
"I am surprised to see you in a plain tunic," she replied. "You are a prophet. It seems to me that you should be so acknowledged. Or perhaps that is why you are bound for Timora. Can we expect to see you at the Shrine?"
"In time I might serve in Timora, but the High Priest, Regnon, is a man I honor and respect. He and the men and women who serve the Radiance at the Shrine deserve your full homage. I have another destiny." As he spoke, he sensed that in answering her, he had answered his own question of what he should do. The woman nodded, willing to obey his counsel.
When they approached the pass that led into the city of Timora Tharek saw two men waiting by the trail ahead. They seemed to have been expecting him. One of them wore the green shawl of a scribe and the other the blue cowl of the High Priest. The old woman nodded with satisfaction and made her farewells.
Fozli and Regnon led Darm and Tharek to the Shrine. "We had watches posted on all of the passes to wait for your return," Regnon said. "If I had known where you were, I would have appointed Guardians to watch over you."
Darm raised his eyebrow in an ironic smile. "Would you set foxes to guard a wolf? Tharek has destroyed Garvok. We buried him somewhere between here and Taleeka, away from the pilgrim trail."
"I took him unawares. It was no feat of bravery or skill," Tharek said.
"He was on the point of murdering me," Darm told Regnon.
"You have traveled long and fast without a chance to bathe or eat a decent meal," Regnon said. "I invite the two of you to stop by my home to wash and change your clothes before we eat a meal together."
"I am eager to get back to my wife and children," Darm said.
"Our wives are busy in Travil's kitchen making all the things that we love best to welcome both of you back to Timora this evening," Fozli said. "Accept Regnon's offer. Farla knows that both of you are safe and Travil will box my ears if I bring you back before she has the feast fully prepared. She says that I am worse than any of the children when she is trying to cook."
The High Priest's residence was fitted with excellent bathing facilities and an ample supply of fresh clothing. Tharek was tempted to linger in the mingled hot and cold water of the baths, but Darm seemed intent on taking as little time as necessary to remove the soil of his urgent journey and the last dried vestiges of Garvok's blood from his skin and hair. Tharek found a white robe in one of the chests and belted it around him with a blue sash in the manner of a pilgrim. When they were ready they made their way back to the Shrine where Fozli and Regnon waited for them.
"I would be honored if you would make your home among us here in Timora, Tharek," Regnon said when they reached the relative privacy of the High Priest's study.
"I must not linger here in Timora," Tharek said. "Even though Garvok is dead, my presence will only bring trouble to those who harbor me."
"But you lived in Taleeka where Marinin lives with her husband and child," Fozli objected. "She was to have been Garvok's prize for killing you."
"Marinin is well protected in the fortress of the Councilors of Taleeka. She did not know I was living nearby. I took great care to conceal my true identity. The other evening I knocked over the lamp I was using. When I opened my neck pouch and took out the Stone of Truth to show me where the pieces lay, it was the first time I had used its light in years. Without its glow, I doubt Darm would have found me."
"You must stay with Travil and me as our guests while you are here," Fozli insisted. "We have a spacious home and even with Darm's family staying there, we have room for you."
Tharek nodded but Regnon frowned. "If you see concern enough to drive you away from Timora, I would advise you to take shelter with the head of the Guardians while you are here. He could mount a guard that would discourage anyone from trying for the prize that Marnat offered. If you suspect your friends would suffer, is it wise to stay with Fozli in a house full of women and children? "
"I sense that I am safe for yet a little while," Tharek assured the High Priest.
Regnon shook his head. "I would feel better about this if I had a chance to take a reading for you from the Eye of Adanan. I think that all of you should come with me to the spire of the Shrine. I have learned a great deal more about how to conduct a reading of the oracle device since Tharek restored it to me in Ovishang."
Fozli looked from Darm to Tharek and all of them nodded.
Tharek had been in the spire of the Shrine years before on the night when he had taken custody of the Eye of Adanan from the young priest who had given his life to protect it. It was a far different scene on this day. Regnon's beneficent administration in the office of High Priest was reflected in a hundred subtle ways. Ancient bronze fixtures glowed with polish and an air of cheerful reverence glowed on the faces of the shrine servants.
The Eye of Adanan could only be used in a few brief minutes at the time of sunset. Regnon led them to the stairway that curled up the spire of the Shrine. They climbed upwards through several gates and finally reached the small room where the crystal box of the Oracle Device rested on an alabaster pedestal. The sun shone a hand's breadth above the western horizon. The cloudless sky promised there would be no impediment to the reading and the air seemed to vibrate with a sense of expectancy.
Tharek and Darm stood aside while Fozli helped Regnon set up the screens on which the future could be read if all the preparations had been made in proper spirit. Fozli wrote the symbols for each of their names on small strips of scroll cloth while Regnon selected which maps he would display. He decided on a map that gave the greatest coverage of the area that was known as Okishdu. Tharek noticed the region indicated on the map south of Orenon where a great delta filled with marshes met the eastern sea. No name marked the region, but he recognized Ovishang where the people of Lamath's ships had created a separate country of their own.
For a moment he wondered what had become of Falanin. More than a year had passed since he had last seen her. By now she could be married, beginning a family. Did she ever speak of him to those she loved?
If it had not been for the warnings of the Eye of Adanan in the hands of Regnon he might have found a way to turn her fondness into love. As it was, he had left her with assurances that he was little more to her than a fond uncle. Three times he had felt his heart turn to a woman, but both Marinin and Falanin had been meant for others. Doubtless Shira was also married with children of her own by now.
"It is time to begin the reading," Regnon said, calling Tharek's attention back from painful thoughts. The High Priest lifted the side of the crystal case that held Eye of Adanan facing the setting sun. This would be the first time that either Darm or Fozli had seen the wonder of the sacred artifact and Tharek watched their faces to see how they reacted when the first bright colored rays shot from the gems within the crystal box and began to illuminate the map.
Regnon had gained expertise in using the brief time available before the flashing colors subsided. Tharek knew enough of what to expect that when the various tokens were placed on top of the crystal box and then the map, he could follow much of what was indicated. He was not surprised to see his own token always created colors tainted with the sparks of red and purple that were the dark portents of war and death. Regnon finally rested it on the very edge of Okishdu's western coast and the point of a bay where the dark pyramid of Zedekla rose from the sand.
The virulent colors subsided to a hint, but didn't disappear. It seemed that for a time at least he would find a modicum of peace on that far shore before the dire oracle of war returned. He was so concentrated on his own portents that he hardly noticed what became of the tokens made for the other men. At last the sun dipped below the horizon and the vivid colors faded from the map. Regnon lowered the side of the Eye of Adanan and slipped it into the humble wooden box carved into the likeness of a loaf of bread. Then he placed it into a cavity carved on the side of the pedestal.
Regnon glanced out of the window and slipped his cowl up over his head. People were gathering in the square in front of the Shrine, waiting in the twilight for the High Priest to perform the Evening Ritual.
"We will see you after the Ritual," Fozli reminded Regnon as they made their way down the spiral of stairs to the robing room below.
"I will come as soon as I complete my duties here," Regnon promised. The High Priest hurried away, leaving Tharek, Darm and Fozli to walk to a garden terrace where they could stand and look over the crowded square below.
When Regnon completed the Evening Ritual, the people began to disperse. Fozli turned to his two companions. "Regnon's wife, Bernil, is Travil's foster sister. They have been happy to renew the relationship since Regnon brought his family to Timora to take up the High Priesthood."
"Surely Regnon and his wife must realize that your oldest child is Marnat's daughter," Darm said.
"They know, but they have never betrayed the confidence as far as I can discover. I acknowledge the child as mine. Travil's marriage to Marnat was annulled and I married her shortly after, but if Garvok lived here in Timora and kept watch on us for several years, he doubtless guessed the truth."
"Not necessarily," Tharek answered. "As far as I can recall, Garvok had nothing to do with Travil when she was Marnat's wife. I doubt he really noticed the women Marnat successively married and killed when they failed to provide a son. It was Marinin, the emperor's sister, Garvok coveted."
"His devotion to Marinin was not as great as his hatred for you," Darm said. "It seems he never made an attempt to penetrate the walls of the councilor's palace in Taleeka."
"I believe that if Garvok had suspected the truth about the parentage of Travil's child he would have used the knowledge to harm us," Fozli said.
"Thank the Radiance that Garvok is no longer around to threaten us," Darm said. "You should have confronted him years ago, Tharek. Who knows what damage he might have done. It seems that several of the princesses have disappeared and there are rumors of abduction and murder."
"I fought Garvok years ago," Tharek reminded them. "We nearly killed each other. When I staggered away from him, I thought I had given him a mortal wound. It was only while I was recovering from my own wounds, that I sensed the evil threat that meant he had survived."
"It is useless to recriminate," Fozli reminded them. "The signs given by the Eye of Adanan seem to indicate that neither you nor Darm can expect lives of peace."
Tharek was surprised at Fozli's words. "I was so eager to see my portents that I ignored the oracles that were given for the two of you. I take it that Fozli will live to a ripe old age with no further cause of anxiety to disturb his peace, but what was seen for you, Darm?"
"For a while I will live in peace, but there will come a day when I must again become a warrior. I must value what I have while I have it. It seem our destinies are linked. I am more confused than enlightened by the forecast of my future."
They arrived at the street of the scribes and heard the sound of children's voices raised in welcome. Several little faces had peeked through the stone lattice of the garden wall and saw their fathers coming home.
Tharek stood aside and watched his two friends kneel down to take their children in their arms. Each of them had two, the youngest unsteady on chubby legs as they reached their arms out pleading to be taken up on their fathers' shoulders. It was easy to determine which was Travil's child by Marnat. Her dark red hair and golden eyes were the marks of the line of Elianin, the royal house of Saadena, but she clearly regarded Fozli as her father, greeting him with unrestrained fondness.
One of Regnon's older daughters had been set to watch over the younger children. As soon as the little ones were safely in the care of their fathers, she hurried into the house.
A moment later several laughing women appeared at the entrance. Tharek hardly recognized Travil. The self-assured young matron seemed quite different from the subdued and child-like empress they had rescued on the eve of giving birth to her daughter. If they had failed, she would have been killed so that Marnat could try again to produce a son with yet another woman.
Tharek tried not to envy his friends' felicity. He had not lacked for opportunities himself. The time had never seemed quite right to bind a woman to him. Even as a young man years before when he was still considered part of the Mareklan clan, he had dodged the prospect of marriage. It was hard for him to remember the face of the girl to whom he had snearly become betrothed before his father declared him an outcast from the clan for taking up a sword. Shira, the daughter of a Zedeklan fisherman remained far more vivid in his memory. But too much time had passed since their meeting years before to expect any chance of making a life with her.
"Come in and eat before the food grows cold," Farla urged him, breaking into his reverie as she took his elbow. "We have slaved over the ovens and griddles since we first had word that you were seen coming through the northern pass. You must tell us of your adventures in these years while you were hiding."
"The shadow that lingered over all of us is gone," Darm said as he drew his finger quickly across his throat.
The women widened their eyes in understanding of the gesture. The indication that Garvok had died was welcome, but they could not speak of such things in front of the children. The merry atmosphere of the feast soon banished gravity. Their hearts were lightened by a sense that something evil had departed from the earth.
Tharek turned the story of his adventures into a tale that only the youngest failed to understand. Regnon, who had come in just a little later than the other men, exchanged a glance with Tharek that reminded him that they had sworn that they would keep the information confidential, but he soon realize that his friend did not reveal the location or the exact circumstances of Ovishang. He turned aside any questions that might lead to a further revelation and the women and older children were soon engrossed by the story of captivity, then elevation to the state of royal suitor to a princess.
"Was she very lovely?" Travil asked.
"She was hardly more than a child," Tharek said. "As for her appearance, she looked a great deal like your daughter. I believe they share an ancestor."
He skirted the edges of the secrecy he had sworn to uphold, but he would go no further. Without the Scroll of History and Prophecy to remind them of the stories of the pirate/priest Lamath and his wife Belnian, cousin to princess Elianin, it seemed unlikely that most of them would recognize the significance of his words.
The discussion turned to other matters with an artful interjection from Regnon. In a few days the fair would close and there would be no further opportunity for Darm and his family to see the wonders that had been brought from all over Okishdu. Before the women dispersed to put their children to sleep, plans were made for visiting the fair field early the next morning.
"I am usually the one who tells them their night stories and helps them with their prayers," Fozli explained. "But Travil and Farla understand that we have things to discuss."
"There is a question that has puzzled me for several years, but more so now that I have killed Garvok and found that I still see the light of the Stone of Truth. I would like to ask Fozli and Regnon to help me find the answer," Tharek said. "Fozli, you know Kumora's tradition of oral scriptures. What have you done to recall the words of the lost scroll so they are not utterly lost through Marnat's crime?"
"I have been doing what I could," Fozli said. "Unfortunately, the other scribes are wary of my motives. Many of the older men are contemporaries with the old High Priest, Charash, and share the timidity he displayed. I have been working at the transcription with Regnon's concurrence, but we have chosen not to confront the older men with that work I am doing."
"I have ordered that the two remaining scrolls, the Laws and the Compacts, be copied and displayed in every shrine," Regnon said. "Alcoves have been created to accept the carving. It seems from what Fozli says that such a thing was expected by Irilik. Unfortunately, some of the words he wrote were misconstrued to mean that there should only be one complete copy of any of the scrolls. The High Priests had a vested interest in keeping the only complete copies here in Timora."
"Is there something specific that you want to know?" Fozli asked Tharek.
"What can you tell me about the prophecies of the warrior who would slay many and bring war to Okishdu?" Tharek asked.
Regnon nodded "Go ahead, Fozli. I also grew up on tales of the dangers of bladed weapons for Mareklans.."
"I remember better if I use a chanting form," Fozli explained. He closed his eyes to concentrate his attention on the memory and began to tap out a rhythm on his knee. "The city of the evil one will fall. The prophet will go forth to bind the land. Mighty will be the sword he carries in his hand. Bloody will be the battles he will fight, yet all is done for Me and in the Light. No son of Irilik will bear a blade to shed the blood of any man until my warrior shall arise and take a blue sword in his hand."
Regnon's brows rose nearly to his hairline in surprise. "I had not heard it put that way before. Is this one of the things that you have already transcribed? If so, I am surprised that I missed it."
Fozli shook his head. "Most of what I have written thus far is a transcription of the History as we have transmitted it. I had only just begun to try to recall the prophecies. You seem disturbed even though it seems to fit Tharek almost perfectly."
Tharek looked at Regnon and they both nodded. It was Regnon who spoke for both of them. "From the time we are able to talk, Mareklan boys are warned against the evils of shedding blood. It is the later section of the warrior prophecy that was dinned into our minds and hearts. The proscription against bearing swords is so strong that any who do so are cast out of the clan. A man banished for such a reason is given the old form of his name, instead of the form adopted by those who followed the inclination of Marek, later called Maren, to become as much a merchant as a priest. Thus Tharen became Tharek when his father banished him for taking up the Sword of the Wizard Smith when he defeated Darm."
"You were a scholar of the Scrolls for several years before you became High Priest," Tharek said to Regnon. "Surely you must recall more than just the end of the Warrior Prophecy."
Regnon raised his head and shut his eyes. The others were quiet as they waited for him. "A warrior will arise from among the sons of Irilik in the days that evil overcomes the city of Saadena. With the light of truth and the blue sword of justice he will do a mighty work and the blood of the wicked will be spilled as water. Let no son of Marek lift the sword against another to shed blood. The staff will be their only defense and they shall prosper as their father has chosen."
"Are you certain that is what you remember?" Fozli asked. "It seems somewhat contradictory to say that a great warrior will arise from among the sons of Irilik, and then ban the Mareklans from carrying any other weapon than the staff."
"I am not a son of Marek," Tharek said. "I trace my lineage through Irilik's youngest son."
"But you were Mareklan," Darm said.
"Mareklan is the name of the clan, but in the clan there are several septs," Regnon explained. "I found a curious story among the writings of the earliest books that were kept after Irilik died. When Irilik's oldest son, Marek, was old enough to set forth and fulfill the duty of preaching to the other clans, he returned carrying many articles of trade. Irilik was not surprised at such a choice. From his youth, Marek had displayed a fascination for the fair field and all it offered. As the years passed, Marek expanded his role of merchant with great success. He did not neglect to teach the people in the cities that he visited, and he was well known for encouraging pilgrimages to the holy city, but he always turned a profit on the goods he carried."
"So the trading started right at the beginning," Tharek asked.
Regnon nodded. "When Irilik's seventh son was old enough to venture forth and teach, he had a different inclination. He succored those who were ill or unfortunate with whatever profits he made. He was not famous for great sermons encouraging pilgrimages to Timora, but many followed him when he returned from his journeys. He seemed a failure to his older brothers. When Irilik grew old and knew that death came near he called his oldest and his youngest sons into his study and offered them a choice. On the table near his chair lay two objects, one an orb of curious workmanship with delicate traceries and gems on its surface. Can you guess what the other object was?"
"It was the pebble that I carry in my pouch, the Stone of Truth," Tharek replied.
Regnon nodded. "Irilik gave his oldest son first choice of which of them he would inherit. I wonder if Marek understood the choice he was offered. I can only tell you that he chose the orb and left the pebble for his younger brother. Either he was wonderfully altruistic, or he could not see the Light."
"I am descended from the prophet's seventh son in a direct line," Tharek explained to Darm and Fozli. "My only knowledge of the stone is that we keep it secret until a need arises for its use. I have been somewhat less careful about revealing the Stone of Truth than some of my predecessors, but if I gave offense by using it sometimes merely as a light for my convenience, still it glows for me."
He took the stone from its pouch and the other men sighed with wonder at the glorious glow that emanated from the pebble in Tharek's palm. Drawn by the inviting glow, their wives entered the room and all of them stopped and stared. Of them, only Regnon's wife had never seen the sacred light before. Farla had witnessed its glow in Saadena when Tharek had gone forth with his companions, Fozli and Darm, to warn the city of the coming destruction. Travil had asked Tharek to show it to her when she had recognized him as the Prophet shortly after she had borne her first child in a cellar where she hid from Marnat's wrath.
"What will you do now?" Regnon asked Tharek.
"I will go to the coast of Zedekla and enjoy what peace I can before I am caught up in the prophecies I cannot avoid. It seems that Garvok was only the first of many who will end their lives on the edge of Tharek oc Baroka." Tharek's sober face betrayed his dismay at such a fate, but the other men nodded.
"I believe there is no question that you are the warrior named in the prophecy," Fozli said.
Chapter 3 The Tyrant
Tharek spent hours with his friends, Regnon, Fozli and Darm and felt gratified by his welcome in the home of Fozli. Even so, after a few days he grew restless and began to assemble what he would need to travel.
"I see no reason for you to rush your departure from Timora," Regnon tried to reassure him. "I had feared there would be others eager to claim the reward for your death or capture, but the head of the guardians assures me that your identity has remained a secret from those who might threaten you."
"You should know by now that reason is often less instructive than the sense we have from our heritage and duty as priests of the Radiance," Tharek reminded his friend. "I felt much the same as this when you found me in Ovishang. It would have been reasonable to stay where I had welcome and the promise of a lovely bride, but something kept me from being comfortable and when you arrived, the Eye of Adanan confirmed my unease."
Regnon nodded. "I cannot argue with your sense of destiny. I will pray that you will be spared to do the work that Irilik foresaw."
Tharek smiled wryly. "I will survive, but I am sure to live an interesting life according to the auguries you read in the Eye of Adanan."
When Darm and Farla joined the other Tedakans who were returning to their homes at the end of the Founding Fair, Tharek walked along with them for the first day of their journey. After they stopped for the night at a pilgrim hostel, he bid his friends farewell and continued on along the narrow track that diverged from the Tedaka road and led toward the north west, making a wide arc to avoid the hills of Taleeka. The track had seldom been used by any but Mareklans in the years before the fall of Saadena, but the packed earth of the track gave evidence of recent heavy use.
Tharek was not surprised to meet a company of Janakan pilgrims coming toward him near nightfall on his third day on the pilgrim trail. The young male pilgrims were unarmed, as custom required, a small contingent of armed men wearing blue badges on the front of their white breastplates served as deterrent to thieves and servant stealers. One of the guards gave a shout of welcome as soon as he sawTharek. He ran forward and wrapped his arms around the startled traveler.
"You have returned." The guard muttered before he turned to the other men and shouted, "The prophet lives!"
Then Tharek recognized Farnanga, the captain of the legionnaires he had liberated from Marnat's prison. At the time he had commissioned them to go forth and guard the pilgrim trails, his mind had been too occupied with his own plight to seriously consider what might become of them. He had promised Farnanga that he would let him know if he survived his confrontation with Garvok. Until now he had not been at liberty to send such a message.
The entire company clustered around Tharek, the young pilgrims apparently as eager as the others to touch him and reassure themselves that he was alive and not a ghost. Farnanga asked him to camp with them that night and share the Light with them.
Tharek had plenty of journey food but while the others made camp he set snares in coverts that gave evidence of nesting conies. By the time camp fires were lit his catch was gutted and ready to be roasted on spits over the flames.
In preparation for the meal Tharek put his blue shawl over his head in preparation to pronounce an invocation. Every man in the company looked expectantly toward him when he took the Stone of Truth from the pouch at his neck. Every one of them gave a sigh of relief when they found that it was bright and clear to their gaze.
"We come before the Radiance with gratitude for all that has been given, for companionship and the blessing of washing in the sacred waters of Timora. We ask that our hearts may always remain pure enough to see the Light."
The scent of savory Janakan barbeque rose from pots over the campfires and Tharek anticipated a meal that reminded him almost painfully of his youth among the warring tribes as a member of a peaceful merchants. The pilgrims and their guardians took out their knives and meat prongs and one of the young pilgrims noticed that Tharek only had a knife to eat with.
He reached into his pack and extended an extra meat prong to Tharek. "My mother insisted I bring a spare along with me. She will be honored to know that I gave it to one who bears the Stone of Truth."
Tharek examined the prong and noticed the mark of the widow smith who made it. "You are of Margan clan?" he asked.
"How did you recognize my mother's mark?" the pilgrim asked him.
"I lived among Janakan clans for most of my early life," Tharek replied.
The boy seemed surprised at first. Then he nodded. "I should have recognized the significance of your name. You were Mareklan, but you are now outcast. How can an outcast bear the Stone of Truth?"
"I committed no crime. I only contravened a custom," Tharek said, forgoing a longer explanation. Surely if he mentioned picking up a sword there might be those who speculated he had taken the sword from Darm. Fozli's family had been told the truth, and surely Garvok had suspected that the sword that nearly killed him years ago had been special, but as far as Tharek knew, the Janakan clans were still in ignorance of his possession of the Sword of the Wizard Smith. Even these young pilgrims might be tempted to a challenge if they learned the truth.
It seemed to reassure them that Tharek displayed an appetite fully as hearty as any of the others, final proof that he was not a ghost.
"We heard that you had been tracked and killed by Garvok, Marnat's hound." Farnanga said. "The rumors of your death were widely circulated. Let us protect you from your enemy."
"Garvok is dead," Tharek said.
"Are you certain?"
Tharek knew that they must be disappointed when he told them what had happened. Even so, he would not try to make it seem like an heroic confrontation. "I was fetching water for a friend of mine who was resting after traveling nonstop to warn me about Garvok. We were high in the hills between Timora and Tedaka when Garvok came upon my friend. He must have thought that it was I who napped on a hummock with my back turned to the trail. When I saw Garvok, he had his sword raised and was ready to strike. I drew my sword and struck him from behind."
The young Janakans seemed disappointed by his story, but Farnanga nodded gravely. "I would have done the same. Garvok was a murderer. Everyone has heard of the foul crimes he committed and he nearly killed a sleeping man. There was no dishonor in what you chose to do. You are justified."
"He was the first man whose blood I ever spilled, when we first fought, and the first I killed," Tharek said.
One of the Janakans, a youth with the beginning of what would someday be a warrior's topknot shook his head. "I could never attack a man without a warning."
"You are a man of clan Farlal," Farnanga said. "When you return from Timora, you will marry and beget a child before you fight the ancient quarrel with clan Margan. There is a youth from Margan here. What will happen on the battlefield if you see him bending over a man of Farlal ready to strike a death blow?"
"I would attack him!" the youth instantly replied.
"But his back might be turned to you. Would you yell before you struck the blow if you could see that any hesitation could mean the death of your fellow clansman?"
The young man scowled at first, then looked uncertain. His expression reminded Tharek of Darm's reaction when he first began to question the certainties of his existence as a Janakan warrior. Tharek stood and took up his staff, driven by a burning in his chest that reminded him of the times that his mouth had spoken prophecy.
"This is the weapon that I used to kill Garvok." Tharek drew the glistening blue sword from the staff and turned it. It gleamed with flickers of silver and gold as the light from both the fire and the stone that rested in his other hand played along the edge of the silvery blue metal.
"Algire oc Baroka, the sword of the Wizard Smith!" the young Janakan gasped. "It was lost from clan Algire with the death of Darm."
"Darm is not dead. He is a smith," Tharek said. "He is the friend whose life I saved when I slew Garvok."
The Janakan pilgrims gaped at his revelation that Darm, the legendary warrior of Algire clan now practiced as a smith, a role reserved to women in their culture. None of them could doubt Tharek's words, not with the Stone of Truth shining in his hand. Doubtless some of them would have challenged him immediately if they had not forsworn arms on pilgrimage. He saw the way they looked at the sword and a premonition stabbed his soul. When they returned from Timora they would tell the story of the loss of the sword. It would not be long before a challenger decided to find Tharek and win it back. Could this be the reason that his future promised war and death?
Farnanga stood up and signaled to the other guards. "It is time to set the watch. I will ask Tharek to stand first watch with me. We have a long march in the morning if we hope to reach Timora in good time. The rest of you must go to sleep."
There were a few protesting mutters, but Farnanga had established tight discipline over his fellow guards and the young Janakans in their charge. They damped the fires with sand, banking the coals to provide fires when morning came. Tharek slipped the Stone of Truth back into the pouch he wore on the thong around his neck. A conical hillock near the campsite provided a view over the surrounding countryside. Tharek knew that Farnanga had a purpose in asking him to stand watch with him and he followed the captain when he climbed the hillock.
Farnanga squatted and Tharek found a low stone to sit on. For a while they simply surveyed the land around them, scanning for any movement that might betray the presence of marauders. Finally Farnanga asked the question Tharek had been expecting.
"Why did you show the sword?"
"I was as surprised as any of them when I drew my blade and talked about Darm. I have tried to keep my possession of Tharek oc Baroka secret ever since I picked it up and found that I could only yield it up in death or to my heir. I knew that if Janakans guessed that I possessed it, the news would soon spread to every warrior in Janaka. I have made myself a target. Would you believe that I yearn for nothing so much as an obscure and simple life as a craftsman and father of a family?"
"You will never be obscure for very long," Farnanga said. "I am amazed that you were able to avoid the Hound as long as you did. There are others who will try to challenge you. It is no longer merely for the reward that Marnat offered any who would fetch the Prophet's head. I was going to ask you to join us and become our leader, but I see now that you have a destiny beyond mere guardianship of the pilgrim roads."
"I commissioned you to guard the roads," Tharek said. "Are there others besides this band of guards you lead?"
"There are several bands of pilgrim guards. I found other legionnaires to join us as you predicted when you set us free from Marnat's dungeon. As you see, we wear the badge you gave us. We contract with the leaders of various communities. They provide us with a modest stipend in return for shepherding their pilgrims to the last hostel or camp before they enter the holy city. We wait for them outside the vale, foraging for food and mending our clothing while they are in Timora. We never trespass on the territory of the Guardians of Timora."
"Then it is not surprising that Regnon did not mention you. You must operate primarily in the areas left without orderly rule when Saadena fell."
Farnanga nodded. "The people of Tedaka and Taleeka have never been dependent on the legionnaires of Saadena to maintain their roads and guard the pilgrims. Most of the pilgrims we guard come from Virdana, Janaka, and other lands where the loss of river traffic when the Comor river failed brought great changes. At first we fought a few skirmishes with bandits and rogue legionnaires, but now we have a solid reputation and few try to stop pilgrim caravans that are accompanied by the Elite Guards of the Prophet, as we call ourselves."
"Do you ever offer your services to merchants?" Tharek asked.
"There are not enough of us to guard the pilgrims as it is. There are rumors that Orquians and slave takers have been preying on unprotected pilgrims. I fear that if we let ourselves be diverted into guarding commercial traffic, we will lose our focus. Is it your wish that we should change our methods?"
Tharek shook his head. "I applaud your devotion. I foresee a time when most of Okishdu will be caught in the turmoil of disorder. Saadena fell because Marnat challenged the bounds that his forefathers swore to uphold, but with the loss of the Saadenan legions to guard the roads, peace will become rare. Even Taleeka and Tedaka will be challenged by bandit lords."
"If you ever need my aid you may send a message for me by way of the innkeeper of Dilaka,"Farnanga offered. "I will watch to see what part you play in the chaos you predict. There was a reason that you came into possession of the Wizard smith sword. I do not claim to be a prophet, but I can see that you will not live in peace. Where will you go?"
"To the western coast. Have you heard of the pyramid of Zedekla?"
Farnanga gave a startled grunt. "Are you certain you want to go there? I doubt you will find peace in such a place. The new course of the Com river empties into the sea not far from the base of the old pyramid. Rogues of every kind have gathered there. They are wreaking havoc on the countryside around, using the river Com as a highway to raid the villages upstream."
"What about the fishermen who had a village on the coast?"
"I have heard nothing of their fate, but some of them must be getting rich on the demand for food and transport they can provide. Men in Zedekla seem to favor only a few trades, and piracy is high on the list. Anyone who can provide a sturdy boat will make a fortune. There are rumors that the priests of Orqu have claimed the old pyramid for their bloody rites."
Tharek frowned. "Have conditions in Zedekla descended so far? It is well that I encountered you. I was going to linger in Timora, but something seemed to warn me to leave the city. Our meeting here was destined."
Farnanga made a grunting sound that was not quite a chuckle. "I would like to see what happens when you arrive in Zedekla. Almost alone you challenged Marnat's might and saved hundreds of people from the chaos that followed the earthquake that destroyed the city. I imagine you could entertain me for a week with tales of your adventures in the years since then. To anyone who has not seen you in action, you seem a rather ordinary man. It might prove to be as valuable as your magic sword that no one in Zedekla will suspect just how deadly you can be."
Farnanga's assessment surprised Tharek. "I have only fought two battles. Mostly I have waited in seclusion and made schemes for others to enact, or I have run away before I could be caught. The one man I killed was taken by surprise. What makes you think that I am someone to be feared?"
"You are the only man I've ever heard of who survived a battle with Garvok," Farnanga said. "That alone is reason to respect your skill. I have heard rumors that you practiced sword play with the warriors of clan Terifil and those who knew you as a Mareklan merchant said that none of your peers equaled your skill with the staff."
"You seem to know a great deal about my past, but I am hardly a great warrior."
Farnanga smiled so widely that Tharek could see the pale gleam of his teeth. "You amaze me with your humility Tharek. You surely know the old legend of the holy warrior who will come to save Okishdu? I always begged my mother to tell it when she spoke her bed time tales. For much of my youth I pretended that I might be the one, even though I am not a son of Irilik. When I grew older, I began to think that it was only a story for a child. Now I have seen that the night tale my mother told was not just a fable, but a prophecy."
On the fingers of his right hand Farnanga enumerated the signs in simple language that must be much like the phrases that his mother used. "He will be like Irilik, coming with a staff and the Stone of Truth to warn the people of the evil of an unrighteous king. He will be like Saaden, founding a great city and bringing peace by relying on strategy more often than force. He will carry a magic sword that will cut through any other metal. He will be the father of a great dynasty and in his old age he will be a seer."
"I have not even found a wife," Tharek protested.
Farnanga nodded. "Most of the things mentioned in the story have already been fulfilled in you. The others are promises of things to come."
Tharek shivered with a sense of inadequacy. Farnanga, a seasoned soldier, seemed to view him as a hero. He wanted to protest that it had all been something of an accident. He carried the Stone of Truth only because he had happened to be born in the proper lineage. He carried the sword of the wizard smith only because he had not hurried home in time after practicing sword play with his friends and had been forced to defend himself with his staff. He had liberated the pilgrims Marnat had indentured only because he had stumbled across a terrible injustice that he could not ignore. Certainly he had received prophecies and had used his special knowledge of the will of the Radiance to save some of the doomed inhabitants of Saadena before it was destroyed, but anyone in his position would have done the same.
"You will grow into what you must become," Farnanga promised him. "I told you that I am not a prophet, but for once, I have been granted sight of what will come. Never let yourself grow proud or careless. You have not chosen this destiny, but it will be yours. If you keep sight of the Stone of Truth, testing yourself to keep your heart from straying into paths that will destroy you and all of those you love, you will become all of the things the legend promises."
Silence fell between the two men. The shrill chitter of insects and the call of night birds filled the night with soft, unthreatening sound. Tharek considered Farnanga's words. If he were to become the founder of a dynasty, it seemed to promise that he would marry and have at least one child. Surely there must be a period of peace in his life for such a thing to happen.
The small sound of insects stilled, alerting Tharek. A shadow moving against the background of brush and pale earth caught his gaze. He reached out and touched Farnanga's hand and pointed toward the area beyond the camp. The captain nodded. They might be too late if they tried to hurry down the hill and intercept the intruders. Tharek reached up to his throat and opened the pouch that held the Stone of Truth. He stood and held it up. None of the men running toward the sleeping figures of the pilgrims and the other guards paused at the glare that filled the small valley. None looked toward the light.
Tharek gave an ululating cry that was the battle call for clan Farlal, closely followed by the barking call of clan Margan. As he had hoped, the boys belonging to each clan leaped up, clutching at whatever weapon came to hand, be it stone or stick. The intruders were startled and glanced around to find the source of the noise that had disturbed their sleeping quarry.
A short and bloody contest followed. The intruders were quickly vanquished, with only a few minor injuries among the pilgrims. Those who tried to get away by running from the camp were stopped by Farnanga's men. When all of them were gathered, Tharek and Farnanga examined them. All but one of them wore the telltale tattoo of a demon worshiper. The scalps and other human body parts that hung from their belts were evidence enough of why they had attacked pilgrims where there was no hope of gain.
"What shall we do with them?" Farnanga asked Tharek.
"You do not have enough men to guard them into Timora and you cannot trust them to keep a parole until you find another judge. I will try them here and now," Tharek said.
He turned to the captives. "You have attacked a pilgrim train, an action calling for your punishment by death according to the code of law that rules Okishdu. Have you any argument against the verdict of immediate execution."
"Who are you to judge us?" one of the leaders snarled. "I demand a trial with a proper chance to defend myself."
Tharek ignored his challenge and looked over the other men who stood in sullen silence. Finally he slammed the butt of his sword-staff into the ground and raised his right hand to give judgment. "One of you is an initiate who has been brought here tonight to obtain his first trophies, taste human blood and be branded with the tattoo of your cult. I give him a choice. He can die with the others as earnest of his intent to share everything with them, including the payment for their crimes, or he can stay alive and warn others of what will happen to those who disobey the law."
"By what right do you claim to execute the law," the spokesman demanded.
"He is the Tyrant of Zedekla, the ultimate authority from here to the western sea," Farnanga improvised. "He is the hero who killed Garvok."
The initiate scurried forward and separated himself from the others. He watched with squinting eyes, trying in vain to distinguish the features of Tharek who grimly set about the task of executing all of the other cultists who died with curses on their lips.
Tharek held the Stone of Truth high in one hand to illuminate the evidence of foul crimes that called for such a remedy, but he was tempted to hand it to Farnanga. He was even more inclined to let the captain carry out the sentence he had imposed. Something kept him from forfeiting either task. His soul recoiled every time he struck a mortal blow. At least the blade was sharp and there were no blunders. Each man died clean and quick, unlike the victims they had torn apart to take their grisly trophies.
A shudder of revulsion for his work shook Tharek when the last cultist fell. He tried to avoid staggering as he walked to a large stone and sat down. "Have your men bury them as well as you can," he directed Farnanga. "Say a few words over the grave. I will not dignify their deaths with a funeral."
He turned to the frightened initiate who quivered in fear near the edge of the camp. "Go. Carry a warning to your kind. You might still be able to save yourself if you renounce Orqu completely. Otherwise, you will meet the same fate as your fellows."
The youth jumped up and ran like a frightened bacal. The guards and Janakan pilgrims set to work on the hasty grave. To a man they were shocked by Tharek's arbitrary actions. Even Farnanga seemed subdued. Tharek could hardly bear to watch, but he knew he must. He was weary to the core of his body and his soul. What had he become? He did not question the justice of his actions so much as the apparent arrogance that had overtaken him. Once again he had taken human life without any sense of doing so with honor. Yet the pitiless light of the Stone of Truth seemed, if anything, more brilliant. This was as shocking as anything else he had witnessed. Somehow it seemed that it should have dimmed in the presence of blood on his hands.
I am nothing but a monster with a lust for blood, something in him mocked. It would be better for everyone if I turned the sword on myself and rid the world of my presence. As he listened to the inner mutters of despair, the light of the Stone of Truth began to dim until he could hardly see the work of burial that the other men carried out.
He caught himself and murmured the sacred name that would confound the voice of destruction that tempted him. "By Yasa Dom I bid you to be silent!" he uttered. It was not his first encounter with the voice of the Liar, but it had never come so powerfully, almost overwhelming him before he realized he had nearly been overtaken.
He wanted to ask Farnanga if he had acted properly, but he knew it was beyond any man to judge him now. The captain had named him Tyrant, and although it might have merely been for effect, in an attempt to instill fear in the cowering initiate, it was the truth.
When the last of the cultists had been covered with rocks and earth Farnanga turned to Tharek, compassion in his eyes. They did not speak. Tharek leaned down and plucked a wad of grass to clean the blood stains from his blade. He would have to give it a more thorough cleaning tomorrow when he stopped to rest. After replacing the blade into its hiding place in his staff, and putting the Stone of Truth back into the pouch at his neck, he turned his back on the camp and walked toward the west with no further words.
Thereafter he avoided the pilgrim trail and made his way up to a sparsely wooded ridge where he came across an old Mareklan trail. Grass and vines had sprung up, nearly obscuring the track, but he knew the secret signs of piled rocks and twisted tree limbs that kept him on course.
After several days of traveling, he came at last to a broad river running through a fertile land that he had known as barren scrub only a few years before. He had reached the new course of the Com. New settlements marked the banks where the river brought fertility to the thirsty soil. They wore the raw look of pioneering with no trees except for fledgling orchards and spindly saplings only a few years old. Some of the villages had been burned and he recalled Farnanga's reference to piracy. Saadena's evil had been weakened, yet the sponsors of Marnat's surviving daughters still used their young charges as pawns to grab what little power and wealth remained. There was nothing to spare on guarding the former hegemony over Virdana and the other clan lands of the plains.
Tharek avoided any landmark that might provide a hiding place for thieves. He decided that he would be safer walking along the river. When he passed through settlements he tried to look innocuous but guarded. Where the villages were inhabited, the people kept behind their walls and watched him pass. Now and then he caught glimpses of their frightened eyes studying him through shutters and holes in the rough new walls.
He only encountered one other human face to face. An old woman had been digging bulbs near the river track with her back turned to the morning sun. When he approached and tried to speak to her, she whirled around and screamed a curse. "Begone, you fiend of the demon. Leave us be. We have nothing more for you to steal!"
It was quite mad for her to challenge him if he had been a pirate, but he probably appeared to be a thief to those who watched him walking along the river toward Zedekla. His destination alone must advertise that he had no good intentions.
At last he came in sight of the dark pyramid. It had been half buried in dunes when he had last seen it years before. The flood that had scoured a new course for the river had washed most of the sand away. A town made up of shanties had grown up on the banks of the river near the base of the pyramid. There were jetties jutting into the river and a pall of smoke issued from the fires of various craftsmen who served the population of the growing town. Several buildings rose above the level of the houses and shops. One of them, larger than the others, seemed to be a fledgling fortress, complete with watchtowers at the corners.
With his beard untended and his hair flying wild around his sun-darkened face, Tharek looked as villainous as any of the people he began to pass. It seemed that for the most part the town consisted of the dregs of Okishdu. Here and there a potter or a weaver worked at wheel or loom, but there were more idlers than workers on the streets. A pungent, smoky odor that reminded him of Jama filled the air. It reeked with the added overtone of rotting fish.
Shouted curses came from the street ahead of him as a brawl broke out, quickly drawing a crowd. Bets on the outcome were shouted as two sodden men wearing the tattered remnants of legionnaire uniforms staggered around slamming each other with scarred fists.
It was a dreary diversion. The opponents were fairly equally matched, but in spite of the urging of the crowd, the drunken pugilists were soon exhausted and collapsed into an embrace that was almost gentle as they patted listlessly at one another's backs.
There was no clear winner and another series of arguments ensued as wagers were decided. Tharek made his way past the two combatants who seemed to be engaging in a graceless dance as they clung and staggered together. He kept his staff at the angle that would warn any with an inclination to stop him that he was no novice in its use.
The settlement stretched to the coast and engulfed the fishermen's huts that had once been the village of Zedekla. When he approached Parga's hut where he had stayed with Darm while waiting for the owner to build a boat to carry them down the coast, he felt a rise of expectation. It was unrealistic to hope that he would find Shira still living as a maiden in her father's home. By now she would have chosen one of her suitors and begun to raise a family. The smell of pitch and the sound of a hammer seemed to promise that the boatbuilder was still in business.
Tharek lifted the knocker on the door but before he could let it fall, the door swung open. Parga peered up at him through one eye. The other eye was bruised and swollen nearly shut. It did not bode well for the welfare of the family that the boat chandler wore ragged, dirty clothing.
Chapter 4 Apprentice
The afternoon light shone behind Tharek. He had not stopped to consider that he might frighten Parga as he loomed like a faceless shadow in the doorway. The boat-builder backed away and snarled.
"Tell Fero that I am doing everything I can to finish his boat by tomorrow. Your threats and interruptions will not make me work any faster. He holds my family hostage. What more can he do to speed my hands?"
"I am not your enemy Parga," Tharek said. He reached up with his free hand to pull his hair back from his face and turned his head so that the outline of his profile would be easier to see.
"Tharek!" Parga gasped. "We were certain you had died. Come in before someone sees you." He grasped Tharek's arm and urged him to enter. Then he quickly closed the door behind him and fastened the latch. It was the only new thing in the house. Everything else was worn and shabby. No latches had been needed three years earlier.
"What are you doing here? Zedekla has become a sewer and just lately it appears that a new threat has arisen. It was not bad enough that there are feuds between the villains who have set up their own gangs, now reports have come that a man calling himself the Tyrant of Zedekla has coldly murdered ten men on the pilgrim trail. Doubtless he will be the next who comes to order me to build a ship for him."
Tharek was surprised that the initiate had already reached Zedekla with his mangled tale of what had happened. Could he trust Parga with the truth? He needed someone he could confide in if he expected to live in Zedekla. He removed the Stone of Truth from the pouch and watched for a reaction. Parga gasped and shielded his injured eye as if noon light suddenly flared within the darkened room.
"The men who died were all Orquians of the worst kind," Tharek told Parga. "They attacked a party of young Janakan pilgrims with intent to murder and take trophies for a new initiate. He was the only one who bore no token of guilt. I let him live. Doubtless it is he who brought word of the episode to Zedekla."
"You speak as if you were a witness," Parga said.
"I was the judge and executioner." After his admission, Tharek waited for the other man to speak. Parga squinted up his one good eye and studied Tharek in the bright light of the stone he held up in his hand. Finally he nodded.
"I should have realized it would be you who would come. As Irilik told Zedek, my first father in Okishdu, a descendant of his seventh son would come among us as a warrior king when evil engulfed the land. When you came to us three years ago, you told my daughter Shira about your adventures before you came to Zedekla in search of a boat. I thought at first that you must have been telling her a fable meant merely to impress a credulous girl."
"I only told her the truth."
Parga nodded. "After you sailed away, the river carved its way back to its ancient harbor in Zedekla and men soon followed. They spoke of the prophet who had predicted the end of Saadenan dominance and challenged Marnat in his very palace. I began to wonder if the prophecy of Irilik to Zedek would be fulfilled as the mobs of bandits and rogues began to gather. When one of the bandit leaders took my family hostage, I began to pray that the prophecy would come to pass. By heritage I am the leader of Zedekla, but now I yield the right to you. I will do for you what my uncle did for me when he named me chief in his stead."
Parga asked Tharek to kneel. Then he lifted up his hands and performed the ceremony of bestowal that his uncle had used to pass leadership to him years before. The words and phrases formed an ancient pattern and Tharek realized that he had just been named both chief and high priest of Zedekla.
When Parga finished with the ritual, he gave Tharek his hand and helped him stand. He reached into the bosom of his tunic and removed a pouch much like the one in which Tharek kept the Stone of Truth. He tipped a lenticular crystal into his hand and held it up for Tharek to examine. It was beautifully crafted and caught the light, concentrating it into a point upon the floor.
"This is the token of your authority. I was told that it came down from Zedek who had it from the hand of Irilik himself." Tharek took the crystal and slipped it back into the pouch that Parga handed to him.
Parga led the way toward the back of the house where his boatyard abutted on the river. "I must finish Fero's boat by noon tomorrow or he will kill another member of my family. I might finish with your help."
"We should rescue your family rather than to provide a rogue with the means to be a pirate." Tharek said.
"What could the two of us do against fifty men hand-picked for their brutality?" Parga muttered. When Tharek reached to stay him, he seemed to cringe.
"I thought that you believed the stories you had heard about me," Tharek reminded him.
"The boat is almost finished. With your help, I can deliver it to Fero tomorrow and ask for my wife and children to be released. He killed my son-in-law at noon today, and my oldest son is slated next to die. I dare not defy Fero or attempt a rescue."
When Parga lifted his arm to open the door into his workshop, Tharek saw the reason for his unwillingness to confront his enemy. His worn tunic stretched across his back and tears gaped open revealing deep welts that still oozed blood from a recent whipping. It was a wonder that he could bear the pain without moaning. Tharek reached into his belt pouch and removed his packet of remedies. If Parga insisted on working, at least he should not be in agony.
"Wait a moment while I treat your wounds," Tharek urged the boatbuilder.
Parga did not turn or nod his head, but he stopped and waited patiently and uncomplaining while Tharek moistened the ragged ribbons of Parga's tunic until he could ease the cloth away from the lacerated flesh and applied a poultice of selan and healer's moss.
"This happened recently," Tharek remarked as he bandaged the wounds.
"They come every morning with their threats and beatings. The fools ignore the fact that every injury they give me delays my work. I had nearly given up hope of completing Fero's boat in time to save my son. Then you appeared. I remember that you helped me make some of the fittings for the boat I made for you. You have the skills a boat maker needs and I can teach you anything you need to know. When I have my family back again, I will make you my apprentice in place of Shira's husband."
Tharek did not argue with Parga. Perhaps he should try to seek a peaceful solution first, but in Tharek's experience, bullies seldom yielded to caution and subservience.
As Parga had indicated, the boat was nearly ready, but if the boat-builder had been forced to do the job alone, it might have taken more than another day to complete the final coating of pitch and the fitting of the sail.
It was a long, shallow galley meant for use on the river with plenty of cargo space between the rowing benches to hold whatever booty the pirates could steal. A pole roughly the size of Tharek's sword-staff formed a brace across the stern and marked off a section meant to hold ropes and an extra sail.
With the light of the Stone of Truth to work by, they finished the boat to Parga's satisfaction well before dawn. Parga led Tharek back into his house for a hasty meal before the two of them collapsed for a few hours of sleep.
An hour or so later, Tharek woke abruptly from a vivid dream. Without waking Parga, he took his sword staff and hurried into the boat yard. As he had hoped, it only required a few minutes' work to secure his staff along the underside of the brace across the stern. It was slightly slimmer and a little shorter than the brace, but a few coils of twine made it appear part of the structure of the hull.
Tharek lifted the pouches containing the Stone of Truth and the lens Parga had given and wrapped them into a coil of rope that he concealed in the bottom of a stack of similar coils in the stern. He shoved his belt pouches up behind the shelf formed by the final triangular stern brace along with the best of Parga's chisels from the workshop. When he finished, he had concealed everything he valued aboard the boat.
He returned to the house and fell asleep, the urgent warnings of his dream satisfied. He woke to the sound of shouts and pounding on the latched door. Parga lurched up from his bed and hurried to open the door.
A mob of surly men surged inside the house as soon as Parga lifted the latch. They were barely restrained by their apparent leader, a tall man whose features might have been handsome except for the expression in the one eye that was not covered by a patch. From the evidence of the scalps and body parts slung at their belts, along with necklaces of human teeth, most of them were devotees of Orqu.
"I have come to give you my last ultimatum, Parga," the leader snarled. "If my boat is not ready today, your oldest son will die at noon."
"The boat is ready as I promised," Parga said. "I have taken on a new apprentice. He helped me finish it last night. Come and see."
Fero looked around and squinted, finally catching sight of Tharek. "Your apprentice? Doubtless he is bound to you by all the usual oaths and legalities. I will take him as a final payment of what you owe me."
"I owe you nothing!" Parga protested. "You have bullied and beaten me and taken my family hostage or you would not even have this boat."
"The other bosses agreed that I could claim the water front. You and everything you own belongs to me. You will build boats and I will keep them or sell them as I please. Otherwise, your family will perish."
Parga gave a stifled groan of despair and looked toward Tharek with abject apology. Tharek gave only a token resistance to the men who took and bound him. If he went too quietly, they would only treat him worse, but he had no intention of giving them an excuse to injure him.
When Fero saw the boat, he laughed and clapped his hand on Parga's back, knowing as he must, the pain he gave. "It will do very well. I now have the best boat on the Com. Soon my rivals will be clamoring for others like it. Open the water gate and we will float it. I will take your apprentice and your sons on the maiden voyage. If you have done anything to make the boat unsafe, they will drown."
Parga moved toward the large gate at the rear of his work yard and pushed it open. The boat was wider than any he had ever made before and there was very little margin for its passage out the gate and into the river on rollers made of stripped logs. The last few feet were down a steep incline. When the boat slid into the water prow first, it dipped deeply and seemed to sink. Fero's men growled and grabbed for Parga but the boat rebounded and rocked on the surface of the river. Only Tharek thought to grab the ropes that would keep it from being swept away by the current.
Fero saw him straining to hold the lines and barked orders at his men to help him. Soon the boat was secured by several lines to the small dock next to the boat yard. Fero turned to Tharek and examined him thoughtfully. "Someone who knows what they are doing will have to man the tiller in the stern. Do you know how to steer?" Tharek nodded.
"Strip to your loincloth and prove to me that you carry no weapons and I will not tie you as I will the others. Do well by me, and I will make you master of the boat yard instead of merely the apprentice."
Tharek deliberately formed his lips into small grin and Fero smiled. If Fero mistook him for a rebel against his master, that was his mistake. Parga, standing just beyond the bandit, was the intended recipient of Tharek's smile and he nodded to show that he understood that hope lived.
Tharek had learned from steering his small boat on the ocean years before and he was familiar with the working of the tiller. His performance seemed to convince Fero that he had made the right decision. He sent several of his men to fetch the hostages.
When they were brought to the boatyard, Tharek saw that Shira carried a tiny child. Her two sisters were too young to attract the interest of the pirates, but Fero grabbed Shira's waist and wrested the child from her arms. "If your father has not sabotaged this boat he built for me, you will be my consort. If you make me a biddable mate, I will let your baby live. If not, you know your fate. Leave her here with your mother. If we return safely, I will let her take care of the child while you come to live with me."
The tone of his voice was light and flirtatious, but Shira watched the careless way he handled her child with tortured eyes. When her mother had the baby safely in her arms, Shira gave a sigh of resignation and took her place with her five brothers near the stern where Tharek manned the tiller. With his beard and bushy hair concealing his face, he was easily taken for one of Fero's men.
"Rope them together and tie them to the boat so that they will go down if it sinks," Fero instructed Tharek. It took a full coil of rope to tie the captives to their seats just in front of the brace that spanned the stern. Tharek took a chance that neither Fero nor his men were sailors and used a slip knot that Shira herself had taught him. To an inexperienced eye, it would look as firm as any fastening, but each time he pulled another knot tight, he took the hand of the young man he was binding and put it on the knot, hoping they would recognize the telltale shape and have the patience to wait for Tharek's signal before attempting to break free.
Shira was the last one to be tied, but she had watched him while he tied her brothers and seemed to understand what he had done. There was no sign of recognition in her face, but she submitted so quickly to being fastened in her place that he felt reassured that she knew he was a friend.
He watched while Fero chose which members of his gang would go with him and which would stay behind. Among them Tharek recognized the young initiate he had spared from execution. The boy now wore a grisly collection of bloody proofs that he had ignored Tharek's warnings to steer clear of Orqu's priests.
"The rest of you stay here and guard the prisoners," Fero shouted after he had chosen the twenty men who would row the boat.
He jumped aboard and walked down the low cargo area toward the stern to check the knots that Tharek had tied. After making sure that they were firm, he nodded. "You will find a fortune sooner as a member of my gang than you would ever have as an apprentice to old Parga. Watch these six while you steer and make sure that they keep quiet while we go upriver. Gag them if they try to warn the people on the shore."
Each of Fero's men carried a bludgeon or a sword, some one of each. They were reluctant to relinquish their weapons, but for now they could not hold them and row. A few cuffs from Fero on the laggards brought order. They stashed their weapons under the benches and took up their oars. It was nearly an hour before they were able to make a coherent effort of moving the boat away from shore. One man had sense enough to begin a count and at last the boat was underway.
It would take several hours of rowing before they reached a settlement that was not already ravaged by their kind. It would be well past noon before Tharek put his plan into effect. The day promised to be hot and the rowers would be tired long before they reached a settlement with enough loot to draw their interest.
Tharek kept his eyes on the river, watching for signs of turbulence that would warn of a buried hazard. The water was filled with silt and swirled dark around the prow. "Watch for the mud flat near the inside bank ahead," Shira murmured.
Tharek was grateful for her warning, both because he had not seen the ripples that marked the hidden mud bank, and because her words were proof that she knew him for an ally. It would be much easier if she were in on his plan from the beginning. He whispered his intent and she passed the message to her brothers. They had been working at the knots that tied their hands and feet and even though all of them had worked their way free, they kept their poses.
Fero was the only man aboard with nothing more to do than search the shore for an intact farm or village. He visibly lost patience as the hours passed and when one of the rowers pleaded for a break near noon, he turned and snarled at the lot of them. "You'll have no rest until we find a village worth our effort."
They entered a long stretch of river that was relatively straight with banks close enough to promise depth. Tharek dared not leave the tiller for too long, but he suspected he would not have another chance to make his initial move. Fero's eyes were straining to see the land toward the east and his men were too weary with rowing to notice anything amiss.
Tharek tied the tiller and reached under the stern brace where he had stowed the chisels. One by one he slid them into Shira's hands. She passed all but one of them on to her brothers. It would be a close contest if a fight was joined. Tharek knew all of Parga's sons for hardy youths. Three years before when he had first made their acquaintance, they had been quick and agile and up to any challenge. Their father's chisels were excellent tools, long handled with blades of finest widow smith bronze. It would be five men and a woman against twenty hardened killers if a fight resulted, but Fero's men were tired and disgruntled.
Once the chisels were concealed beneath her brothers' tunics of Shira folded the last one under her skirts and laid the ropes over her wrists. Tharek had moments of clear channel ahead to work his purpose.
"Fero!" Tharek shouted.
The bandit leader turned and scowled. "What do you want?"
"Have you heard of the Tyrant of Zedekla?"
Fero spat. "It is just a rumor spread by fools. Get on with your steering and leave me to my search."
Tharek grasped his sword staff and pulled it up from where it lay concealed along the brace. With a few steps he was in the midst of the rowers. Some of them dropped their oars and began to reach for the weapons they had stowed beneath their benches.
In an instant, Shira's brothers were among them, wielding the chisels with deadly force. The odds were suddenly reduced to equal numbers. The remaining members of the crew chose to hold their places without engaging in a fight.
"You should have listened to the man who brought the warning," Tharek said as he stripped his sword from the staff that had hidden the blade. "Did he tell you that I killed Garvok?"
Fero's mouth split open in a lopsided smile of anticipation as he reached for his own sword. "I have always thought that I could best the Hound in a fight. Leave him to me, men."
It was an unnecessary warning. Fero's men were more interested in seeing what became of the bully who bossed them than they were in coming to his aid. Shira and her brothers were busy removing all their weapons, dumping the bludgeons over the side and relaying the swords to the stern.
One of Parga's sons quickly moved to the tiller and grounded the boat against the nearest shore. Tharek was prepared for the shock that followed the impact between the side of the boat and the rocky bank, but Fero lurched and nearly fell. He leaped awkwardly from the prow to the nearest patch of solid ground and turned to watch as Tharek came ashore near the stern.
To any who did not know the nature of the silvery blue blade in Tharek's hands, it seemed an uneven match. The men were roughly the same height with a similar expanse of shoulder, but Fero was heavy set and the long Janakan sword he carried in a halter strapped across his back extended his reach. Tharek was naked except for his loincloth, but Fero wore a helmet and leather armor studded with bronze on his chest and upper arms.
Fero gave a yell and raised his sword, ready to slash down on his rival's unprotected head and chest. He lumbered forward over the uneven grass that grew in clumps along the river bank.
Tharek could see the edge of a conyo den that lay between him and Fero. At first he was startled when the other man did not slow his run or change his course to bypass the cavity. Then he realized that a clump of long grass grew just on the edge, screening the gap from Fero.
Tharek knew that if he could reach the breach just soon enough to strike when Fero lost his balance, he could overcome the disadvantage of his lack of armor. It was unlikely that those who watched from the boat would realize what was happening. He increased his pace to meet Fero at just the right moment.
He was almost too late to get the best effect of his strategy. Fero's leading foot shot into empty space and he began to fall forward. Tharek leaped forward and swung his blade toward the location where his opponent's throat would be as his momentum continued down and forward.
The people in the boat shouted with shock or triumph as Fero's head and body parted company. Tharek turned his back on the gory remains of the bandit leader and used a clump of grass to wipe his blade.
"Leave him there as an example to others who would challenge the Tyrant of Zedekla," Tharek shouted as some of Fero's men swung their legs over the edges of the boat and started forward. "We must sail back to Zedekla now if we hope to reach shelter before the coming storm."
He gestured with his blade toward the east where thunderclouds had begun to cluster. The warning was enough to end any further curiosity about Fero's sudden death. The rainstorms near the river could be fierce in this season of the year and boats had been swamped by the sudden drenching. Lightning was a threat for those caught in open water.
When Shira's brothers had pushed the boat away from the shore and maneuvered it around for a return to Zedekla. Tharek raised his voice and brought immediate silence to the murmuring rowers. "You must choose now who you will serve. If you will swear your fealty to me, I will let you stay aboard the boat. Otherwise, you will go overboard. If you join me, from henceforth your former crimes will be expunged. Only one thing I demand. Those of you who choose to worship the demon must never again take human lives to satisfy Orqu's lust for blood. If the demon was satisfied with your sacrifice of men and women, would he have abandoned Fero as you witnessed? I will provide a corum as a sacrificial offering for those who cannot see a better way."
Two of the eleven men remaining of Fero's band stood and raised their hands in signs of oath. Seven others staggered to their feet a moment later and made the same gesture. Finally only two men were left who sat in silence. One of them was the young initiate who had carried the tale of Tharek's dealings with the Orquians to Zedekla. Their fellows grasped them and heaved them overboard. The boat was in the middle of the river where the current ran strong, and from the evidence of their cries and struggles, neither one had ever learned to swim.
"When we arrive in Zedekla, you will precede me off the boat and take custody of Parga and his family from your cronies and bring them to the boat house. Tell the men to meet you at the warehouse at midnight. I plan to offer them the same arrangement I offered you, but you will always have a greater cut of profits than those who join me later."
"What are you doing?" Shira hissed at Tharek. Her voice was hardly louder than the gurgle of the water past the stern. "I thought better of you than this. Three years ago you bore a holy light. Now you are content to deal with villains."
"How many honest men live in Zedekla?" he asked her quietly. "I intend to find them and protect them from the rogues who now divide the town between them, but I must do so from a base of strength."
"I will be watching to see if you keep your promise," Shira warned him. "I may be the only one who noticed how you tricked Fero. The others only saw his head fly from his body when you struck. There was no glory for you in what you did today."
"I do not kill for glory," Tharek muttered. "If I never take another life I will count myself fortunate. So far, my enemies have fallen into my hand and fools credit me with bravery."
Shira contradicted him. "You faced Garvok three years ago and nearly defeated him. That was an act of bravery."
He shook his head. "Soon half the warriors in Janaka will want to test themselves against me. Until a few days ago, few knew that I carry Tharek oc Baroka, the sword made by the Wizard Smith. For some reason I was led to display the blade to an entire party of Janakan pilgrims. I can assure you that the news will spread. Before the warriors bent on winning the sword begin to arrive in Zedekla, I must have a wall of other men to stand between us. These rogues who have pledged to me will serve for now. In time I hope to build a better army."
"An army? What use will you have for an army?"
"Warlords will rise in the vacuum left by the fall of Saadena. What you have seen in Zedekla is a foretaste of what will happen throughout the lands once protected by Saadena's legions. Janakans will breach the borders of their clan-lands and spread into the plains. Someone must stand for law and order in this quarter of the land."
Shira glared at him and shook her head. "My father is the leader of Zedekla. It should be he who heads the government you plan. If my husband had not died at Fero's hands, he would have inherited the right to rule."
"Your father laid his hands on my head and gave me this," Tharek said, removing the token from its hiding place in the stern.
Shira recognized the significance of the lens. "You may have gained his privilege, but you will not gain his daughter. I trust that you will not use threats against my child as Fero did when he thought to force me to become his consort."
"You seemed to join him willingly enough."
"I planned to kill him as soon as I had a chance to strike," she hissed. "You denied me my chance to repay him for the death of my husband."
Their conversation continued in a similar vein while the current drove them west toward the setting sun. The first spatters of the storm made pockmarks in the water around the boat when they reached the dock near Parga's boat yard.
Chapter 5 Nest of Vipers
Frustrated with his argument with Shira, Tharek summoned the two men who had been the first to swear their loyalty. "Give me your names."
"I am Ponon. This is Barken. We are brothers from the village of Ragar."
"Neither of you wear Orquian tokens, yet you were members of Fero's band."
"We were the champions of our village, but the bandits who destroyed our home staked us to the ground and left us for the ants to finish. Fero found the two of us during his last raid inland several days ago. He saved our lives on condition that we join his band."
"Because you were the first of Fero's crew to accept my offer of alliance I will make you my lieutenants. If you honor your oath to me, you will have power among the men of Zedekla. Ponon, you take Parga's sons and relieve the men Fero sent to watch the warehouse. Barken, you lead the rest of the men to take custody of Parga's family. I will be watching to see how well you serve me." He gave each of them a sword from the weapons taken and indicated that they should lead the others off the boat.
The storm passed over the city, making a liquid curtain that drove everyone on the streets under shelter. Tharek retrieved the pouches he had concealed aboard the boat and leaped ashore. The robe that Fero had ordered him to remove was heaped near the mooring but it was soaked with water. He shook it out and belted it around his waist. He preferred the clammy feel of it against his skin to wearing only his loin cloth.
Closely followed by Shira, Tharek took shelter under the overhanging eaves of Parga's house. He moved to a side window and studied the situation within. The men left in charge of Parga were lounging around the common room while Parga and the women of his family served them.
Barken entered the house along with the gang members who had sworn their loyalty to Tharek. Shira muttered a prayer as she watched the scene from over Tharek's shoulder while the men who had sworn to him spoke to the others.
"How much booty did you take?"
"We were turned back to Zedekla by the threat of storm before we were able to find a village worth sacking," Barken answered.
When the others began to grumble, he held up his sword and signaled them to silence. "The boss said to meet at the warehouse at midnight. You will find out what he plans to do."
Parga's wife and daughters had just served up supper and the fire was warm. The lure of food and warmth against the prospect of the dreary rain outside made the men slow to obey Barken's orders. One of them laid his hand to his own sword as he began to argue. It seemed a fight would break out. Shira prodded Tharek and urged him to intervene. "Go in and stop it before someone in my family is injured."
Tharek's fist tightened on his staff, but he held his place. If he interrupted now, it was certain that there would be a fight. In the close confines of the common room, it was almost inevitable that members of the family would be hurt. As he had hoped, Barken held firm and soon the disgruntled gang members sidled out into the rain. None of them seemed to notice Shira and Tharek who had backed into the heavy shadows at the corner of the house.
"What do you think Fero is up to now?" one of the men asked his cohorts.
"He has served us well enough as boss so far. Only Dagnet has a stronger gang," the other man replied. "With a strong new boat to venture upriver and sack the towns, we will soon control Zedekla."
When the men were out of sight, Tharek followed Shira into the house. They were greeted with fearful surprise by Parga. "Where are your brothers. Did Fero kill them?"
"Fero is dead," Shira said. "Tharek took control of the gang. These men are now in his command."
"Is this true?" Parga asked Tharek.
"It is true," Barken assured him before Tharek could speak. "Your sons and daughter escaped their bonds and subdued the crew while Tharek challenged Fero. Tharek struck the bully's head off with one blow. We swore our loyalty to him as our new boss."
Parga turned to Tharek and grabbed the young man's shoulder with a hearty clasp. "The prophecy of Irilik has been fulfilled. You are the warrior we were promised. What will you do now?"
Tharek looked around the room at the men who had given him their oath. He was not disabused that for most of them loyalty was merely a commodity, bought as easily as a trinket for their amusement. There was something Barken's eyes that indicated he was made of better stuff. Tharek reached into one of his belt pouches and retrieved a handful of Taleekan coins. It was likely that barter was the usual means of exchange here in Zedekla and real money would have an inflated worth.
He tossed the coins in his hands and had the immediate attention of the men. "You have had a tiring day and I want you fresh when we meet at the warehouse near midnight. The other members of the gang may not be happy about the change of leadership. You deserve something in your purses for the trouble you will have."
He caught Barken's eye and while the other men hurried forward to take advantage of Tharek's offer, Barken stayed back. In moments the room had cleared of all but Barken, Tharek, and Parga's family. Shira took her baby and retired to a loft but Tharek saw the end of her braid hanging down and knew she listened to every word.
"Tinda, please take our daughters to the cook shed and warm this food for our guests to eat," Parga told his wife. As soon as she left the room with her two younger daughters, Tharek reached into one of the pouches hung around his neck and removed the Stone of Truth. Parga's eyes brightened at the glow, but Barken seemed to take no notice of the sudden light.
"You gave me your oath, Barken," Tharek said. "Did you mean it?"
Barken nodded, then his eyes widened and he reached toward Tharek's hand. "What is glowing there?"
"You told the truth, and this is your reward," Tharek said. "You had resigned yourself to piracy with Fero, but there is virtue in your soul. Otherwise, you could not have seen the Stone of Truth."
Barken's eyes fixed on the glowing stone. "Who are you?"
Parga shook his head. "I would never think to find a man who could see the Light among Fero's crew. This just proves that you are truly the one to lead us Tharek. But even if there are a few men not utterly lost to wickedness in Zedekla, how can they prevail against the mob of scoundrels."
"With nothing more than a piece of wood for a tiller, a mighty ship can be guided into harbor. It can be the same with men. I believe that Barken and his brother, Ponon, represent the case with many of those who have come to Zedekla. They are refugees who saw little choice but to ally themselves with the gangs. There are others like you Parga, honest craftsmen who have tried to support their families as best they can. We must identify them and enlist them as allies."
"The other bosses will combine to defeat any effort toward making this a decent town," Parga said.
Tharek shook his head. "We cannot turn back now. It is almost certain that the story of what I did to Fero is being spread among the taverns by the men who accepted my coins. Tonight I must begin to effect my plans. When I meet with the rest of the gang at midnight, I am certain that some of them will try to challenge me and I must be prepared to meet them. I have chosen you along with Ponon, Barken's brother, to be my councilors. Your sons are yet too young to gain the confidence of other men."
First Barken, and then Parga nodded assent. "What should we do?"
Tharek turned to Barken. "You must go to the taverns where men are drinking and gambling and test the tenor of members of the other gangs. I suspect that they will wait a little while before coming against me. By now my reputation will have swollen with each telling of the story of my fight with Fero. Do you know of any men who might fancy themselves fit to challenge me in solitary combat?"
Barken rubbed his forehead, then finally shook his head. "Your execution of the Orquian band has given you a reputation for arbitrary cruelty. The defeat of Fero proves your mettle with a sword. Most of the bosses of the gangs are bullies who count on their men to fight their battles. Fero was one of the few who dominated by his personality alone. Most of the others rose through stealth and treachery. Murder from ambush is their preferred practice."
"Then I must be wary of my back," Tharek replied. "Parga, go to those among the craftsmen who might have the courage to join me in making Zedekla a city worthy of the name of your forefather, Zedek. Tell them to meet me at the warehouse when they see the beacon of the light I carry. Wait there with them."
They were interrupted by Parga's wife, Tinda, and her younger daughters who entered the room with the supper they had warmed. As soon as they had eaten, Parga and Barken set out on the errands Tharek had set them.
When they were gone, Tharek asked a favor of his hostess. "I have grown far too hairy for my tastes. Could you fetch mea bowl of water and some soap?"
"I will help you trim your hair," Tinda volunteered. "I recall the way you looked when you visited us three years ago and surely you will do better with my help."
Tharek chuckled at the memory of his appearance when his hair grew back as a fuzzy mass after Fozli's family had shaved him along with his other two companions as they set out on their interrupted pilgrimage. He submitted willingly to Tinda's ministrations. She did not quite denude his face, but left a neat beard that framed his mouth and emphasized his brows. He gritted his teeth against the pain of the comb she insisted on running through his hair until the last tangle had been cleared. Finally she trimmed away a hand's breadth of the length and braided what remained, binding it with a strip of leather in a neat queue at his nape.
When she finished, she stood back then turned to her daughters to ask them what they thought. Shira still hid in the loft with her baby, but the other girls seemed shy of speaking. One blushed and the other stammered her approval.
"Your face has hardened somewhat since last we saw you," Tinda said. "But you are a fine-looking man and will soon win the hearts of many women. That could be a mixed blessing. It is no secret that Fero exploited his popularity with Zedekla's females. I think he wanted Shira just because he could not have her easily as with almost every woman he chose to smile upon."
Tharek frowned and Tinda crowed with delight. "You are even more appealing when you frown. I doubt we could make you ugly even if we shaved your head now that your face is no longer hidden behind that great brush of beard. I have no doubt that you will fight your first duel over a woman before tomorrow ends."
"There must be something I can do to seem more serious," Tharek protested.
Tinda's smile faded and she shook her head and frowned. "You have the reputation of cold cruelty. That is serious enough for any man who values his life. I will pray for you Tharek. What are your plans?"
"I have a few ideas of what I need to do, but all depends on the support I receive from the craftsmen and the report that Barken brings me. Meanwhile, I want all of you to leave the boatyard and take shelter with another family until the night is over. I cannot stay here to guard you. Take whatever you value and leave with me."
Shira finally showed her face. "Why should we abandon our home?"
"I had a dream last night, and until now, much of what I saw has come to pass. The storm outside is fierce with lightning. My enemies might try to kill me by setting a fire. I do not know the cause of what I saw, but I saw this house burning."
"There is little left of value," Tinda said. "When we were taken into custody by Fero he took most of our household goods as well. As you can see, anything left behind was old or broken. I only regret the loss of Parga's tools. His chisels were made of Janakan bronze."
"Tharek took father's chisels with him on the boat," Shira said. "I left them hidden when we reached the dock. I will fetch them."
"There is very little to keep us here," Tinda sighed. "I believe your dreams were prophecies, Tharek. I would be a fool to go against them. I have a cousin up the beach who will be glad to give us shelter."
With Tharek's help the women quickly gathered everything they cared to save and hurried away from their home through the water gate after securing all the doors. The sullen light of the setting sun from the distant rim of the sea helped them find their way.
When he had seen them safe to shelter, Tharek ventured further up the beach. He would come back to Zedekla from an unexpected direction. Meanwhile, he climbed a hill and looked over the town. The storm had abated to a light drizzle and the last flare of sunset lit the scene. He identified Fero's blocky warehouse by its position near the river. It was newer and bigger than most of the other bandit dens, identifiable by their stockaded walls and guard towers.
Near the river he saw the flare of several torches being carried toward the familiar outlines of Parga's house. He nodded with grim satisfaction. With the doors locked from within with the new latches, the arsonists were unlikely to discover that the house stood empty. For a moment one of the torches burned brighter and Tharek recognized the green striped head-cloth worn by the man who carried it. It was one of the men who had been guarding Parga and his family throughout the day.
Before the torches could be thrust into the reed thatch of the roof, Tharek stood and took the Stone of Truth from the pouch at his neck. He fastened it into the notch on his staff. The light that flooded forth from the small stone would be seen only by those who lived an honest life. Some would see it as little more than a glow, but others would see it bright as if a star had landed on the hilltop.
He waited while flames began to lick the edges of Parga's roof. The arsonists turned and ran away as soon as the fire was established. Parga joined Tharek only minutes afterward. He followed the direction of Tharek's gaze and saw his house in flames.
A gasp of grief broke from Parga's throat, but before he could bolt down the hill in a futile effort to stem the spreading blaze, Tharek caught him by the arm. "Your family is safe at the home of your wife's cousin. Our enemies will think they have trapped us and will be more easily surprised."
Parga covered his eyes against the sight of the rising fire and slumped against Tharek's supporting arm. "Why did you let them set the fire if you knew what was to come?"
"I knew your house would burn, but I did not know the cause. It could have been lightning from the storm. Be glad your family is safe. Tomorrow we will begin to build another home where your family will live, but it will be a fortress that will dominate the harbor."
Parga nodded wearily. "It is hard to see the house where I was born and raised my children reduced to a pile of ashes. At least I should have saved my tools," he muttered.
"I took your tools along with me this morning. Shira has them, and I can see from here that the boat did not catch fire. Perhaps those who burned your house intend to take the boat."
The sound of others coming up the hill ended their discussion. Tharek was surprised to see the size of the crowd that had gathered. One woman, bolder than the others, hurried forward and knelt at Tharek's feet. "It is you, the prophet who sent us from Saadena."
"Are there many other refugees from Saadena living here?" he asked her.
"There are only a few of us, but anything you ask us, we will give you," she assured him.
"Do not make promises before you know what I will ask," he told her gravely. He lifted her to her feet and raised his voice to reach all of them. "In Saadena I warned against destruction and decried the wickedness of those who ruled. In Zedekla, I will rule, but you may find me fully as arbitrary as Marnat until I strengthen my hold and overcome all opposition. I was named Tyrant of Zedekla by a man I respect. You have heard that I killed ten men on the road to Timora and more recently I beheaded Fero. Look behind you and you will see Parga's house in flames. It will not be the last fire that will come because of my presence among you. I need every man and woman who is willing to join me, but I urge those who lack the heart to fight to flee Zedekla. Go now. Tomorrow will be too late for those who only value peace without freedom."
A few people stirred indecisively, but no one turned away. Finally Tharek felt that he could confide his plans. "Go to your homes and workshops. Bring whatever tool might serve as a weapon, whether spindle, spade or hammer, to the warehouse I won with Fero's death. Do it as soon as possible, but make provision for your children to keep them out of harm's way."
There were no questions or protests. As the people who had gathered hurried away, the woman from Saadena explained their willingness to join him. "You came to Zedekla when most of the good people who had gathered to the city had reached the limit of their tolerance for the bosses and their gangs. Fero's murder of Parga's son-in-law was the final straw. Those who did not know who you are by the token of the stone you carry give their allegiance because you killed Fero."
"He was the worst of the gang bosses," Parga said.
Parga and Tharek walked toward the warehouse together. They had not gone far when Barken joined them. "There are rumors running through the taverns. Your defeat of Fero is no secret and some say that other bosses intend to take the warehouse."
Tharek nodded. "They are like a nest of ants disturbed by a stick. Soon our enemies will begin to gather. What happens here at midnight will determine the future of Zedekla. They will think to have an easy victory, and find a surprise waiting for them."
Ponon and Parga's sons saw the three men approaching from the vantage point of the watchtower on the warehouse and called out a welcome. Tharek raised his hand and signaled them to silence. When they had opened the gate for him, he instructed Parga's oldest son to take the staff with the Stone of Truth to the watchtower near the gate and light the way for those who would join them. Then he turned to the others. "Come with me. I want to investigate the contents of the warehouse and see what means we have to defend ourselves."
Two hours remained until the midnight watch. A steady flow of people armed with humble weapons joined Tharek and the others, drawn by the glow of the Stone of Truth. The stream of people dwindled to a trickle until finally an old woman hobbled into the warehouse with her distaff firmly in hand just before Tharek closed the door and secured it with a heavy plank.
"Conceal yourselves behind the bales and barrels," Tharek told the people who had gathered. When they were hidden, he walked up the stairs that led to one of the watchtowers and surveyed the streets nearby. The walls of the warehouse were made of pounded earth and there were no overhanging eaves to tempt an arsonist.
The sound of muttering men came from the alleyway to the east, a clank of weapons from the street on the north. Yet another contingent gathered along the banks of the river. Blind to the light that flooded from the Stone of Truth, they fumbled through the darkness, counting on the lack of torches to hide their movements. Silence fell, then the unsteady footsteps of the crewmen Tharek had supplied with coins clattered along the street that led from the taverns and the seven men who had sworn loyalty to him appeared.
None of them looked up to see the light that any honest man would see. One of them swaggered to the door and pounded on it, demanding entrance. When there was no answer, he summoned the others closer. "Why should we wait outside? Together we can break down the door."
"What about the Tyrant?" another cautioned.
"He perished in the fire Galak and the others set," the first man bragged. "Why should another claim to lead the gang? Everything inside belongs to those of us who won it with our swords."
His argument was accepted and his cronies threw themselves against the door. At Tharek's signal, the gate was unlatched and the traitorous men fell inward. As soon as they were in, they were taken captive and the gate slammed shut. The other gangs converged on the warehouse. A battle immediately ensued as each of them discovered the presence of the others. It was a general melee with bludgeons and swords falling on the heads of friends and foe. In the darkness, it was every man for himself with the booty of the warehouse as a prize.
Parga climbed the stairs and stood by Tharek's side. "We have taken custody of those who entered. They are condemned by their own mouths as oath-breakers. You were unwise to trust any of that crew."
"I retained two good men out of a gang of fifty villains," Tharek reminded Parga. "I consider myself fortunate to have them."
Parga turned to watch the senseless slaughter in the street below. "They are like beasts," he murmured.
Tharek turned away and waited while the sound of battle raged. "I wish the Radiance had let me be nothing more than your apprentice," he sighed. "I grow queasy at the sight of blood."
Chapter 6 The Citadel
The signals of the leaders of the gangs below sounded and the battle slowed, then stopped. Torches flared to light the scene and the leaders of two gangs approached the third contingent led by the man in the striped head-cloth who had set Parga's house on fire. It was time for Tharek to speak up.
"I claim this warehouse by right of combat and the oaths sworn to me by Fero's men," he shouted as he lifted his staff.
The sound of his voice from the watchtower brought a stop to the parley below. The gaping face of Galak, the man in the striped head-cloth, betrayed his astonishment at seeing Tharek alive.
"Who are you?" one of the gang leaders shouted.
"I am Tharek, Tyrant of Zedekla."
Galak gave a braying laugh. "Brave words, but I know that most of the men who swore to you have already absconded from their oaths. From what I see, Fero's remaining men are with me or have deserted to one of these other gangs. Your boast is hollow."
"I should have known that those sworn to Orqu would be oath-breakers. Did you think me such a fool that I would try to hold the warehouse by myself?"
At his signal, the people hidden in the warehouse made a clatter with their tools and shouted like the warriors they were willing to become in defense of freedom from the gangs. The sound startled the gang members and some of them backed away. The leaders were not so quick to retreat.
"If you lay claim to Fero's gang and property, you must meet in council with the other chiefs," one of them shouted.
"The rules in Zedekla are mine to make," Tharek said. "If any man here doubts what I have said, I will challenge him to combat. I am Tharek, bearer of Tharek oc Baroka, the sword of the Wizard Smith, destroyer of Garvok, Fero, and all others who have challenged me. I command the loyalty of men from the mountains of Janaka to hidden Ovishang. Who dares to come against me?"
His claims had a visible effect on the men gathered below. The leaders gathered close to argue while their men retreated discreetly away from the torches and peered up toward the watchtower warily. Some made superstitious signs of warding.
No one seemed willing to accept his challenge of personal combat and the fortified warehouse was impregnable without access to the battering rams that armies used. Tharek felt relieved when one of the leaders threw up his hands in a gesture that he would no longer make a claim. Not long after he departed with his men, the three remaining claimants backed away. Tharek was certain that there would be attempts to take him by stealth, but with the Stone of Truth to light the area near the door, stealth was impossible.
Tharek sent Parga to bring his oldest son to stand watch. Then he descended to the floor of the warehouse where the people of the town met him with a jittery mix of elation and fear. Their shouts had nearly exhausted the last of their defiance and now they questioned what would happen tomorrow when they once again were under the threat of arbitrary actions from the gangs.
The old woman with the distaff put their fears into words. "We fooled them tonight, but tomorrow they will discover that you have only a few men to guard your warehouse. The rest of us have other things to do and must leave the warehouse to gather food and water."
"Fero told Parga that he owned him and all he had," Tharek said. "How many of the rest of you have found that all your labor and property have been declared forfeit to whichever gang rules the quarter of Zedekla where you live and work?"
Some of the people nodded, but there were murmurs of dissent from a few. "Dagnet honors our ownership of what we have," one man protested, but the hands of most of the men and women began to rise.
"You are little more than slaves, subject to the caprices of your masters," Tharek told those whose hands were showing.
"Tell me, what do you pay Dagnet to be left in peace to pursue your trade?" he asked the man who had spoken up.
The man stammered for an answer, then he bowed his head and nodded. "I have been a fool. Dagnet has been clever. It started slowly when I found a tariff charged for everything I purchased from the teamsters. My neighbor's house was burned and I was offered insurance against damage by one of Dagnet's men. The threat was clear. Those who did not pay him suffered loss. He has robbed me in a hundred different ways and yet I deceived myself by denying what was happening."
There were mutters of agreement. "How will you protect us?" the old woman asked Tharek. Others began to express their fear. Tharek held up his hands to silence them.
"We have a few hours until daylight. We must make the best of them. I will provide the protection of this shelter. Go back to your homes and workshops and bring everything you value. It will be crowded until we can expand, but it will be safe."
Once again it was the doughty old woman who challenged him with a question. "What if we are trapped by the gangs when they discover that we have taken shelter here?"
"It seems Fero planned to withstand a siege." Tharek said. "He built this place with an eye to survival. Look around you. Instead of putting a great roof over the walls, making them vulnerable to fire, Fero had sheds built against the inner wall. The warehouse holds the booty of many successful raids. There is meal and dried fruit as well as smoked meat and other foodstuffs. The floor is sloped toward the center and the rain that falls is funneled into storage. He seems to have set himself up to become the ruler in Zedekla."
"How are you different from Fero?" someone asked.
Tharek only had to point upward toward the light from the Stone of Truth that flooded from the watchtower. "Make your choice now. I will change Zedekla with your help or without it. But with your help the process will go faster."
"I must fetch my wool and loom," the old woman said. As soon as she turned and hurried toward the door, most of the others followed.
"Be careful," Tharek cautioned. "When you go beyond the limits of the light, you may be ambushed by one of the gangs that tried to claim the warehouse."
The old woman snorted with impatience when the door was slow to open. "I have not lived this long without a strong sense of self preservation."
Tharek was grateful for the chuckles that followed her rebuke. She inspired others with her courage.
"Parga, you must go and tell the fishermen what has happened. Bring your wife and daughters here and advise your friends to take whatever measures are necessary to preserve their safety and freedom. Perhaps some of them should join us."
"Doubtless some will choose to sail south to other ports until matters here have settled down," Parga said. "As for myself, when Galak and his cronies burned my house, my way was set. I will stay here with my family and give you any help I can."
Tharek found a corner between two sacks of meal and a bundle of corum wool. He curled up and shut his eyes in search of sleep. It had been many hours since he had been able to rest and tomorrow would provide another test of his resolve to change Zedekla.
It was well into the next day when he was wakened by the warmth of sunshine on his back and realized that it was nearly noon. He staggered to his feet and looked around. The sunny center of the warehouse fortress was filled with activity. While he slept men and women had been busy building additions to the sheds. A familiar figure scurried across the opening toward him. She still bore the distaff in her hand.
"I never properly introduced myself to you. I am Jacla, a widow from Virdana. I have taken charge of appointing quarters. You are assigned the front watchtower and the room below the top is where you sleep. We all understand that last night you were exhausted, but from now on you must set an example to your people by sleeping in privacy. Here is some food for you. I baked some matlas and found a skin of nuka juice for you to drink. You are too late for the cala. It is gone."
Others might have resented her officiousness, but Tharek submitted quietly. She was old enough to be his grandmother and no one could fault him for following her directions in things meant only to increase his comfort. Jacla seemed relentless and he saw other men giving him sympathetic looks as she led him around the compound and explained what had been accomplished while he slept.
Two men were posted at each of the four watchtowers and two sturdy logs braced the centers of the bronze clad front gates. Bronze blades had been found among the stores and several men were busy setting them into hilts and staffs for swords and spears. Scaffolding was being erected along the wall to provide an elevated walkway between the watchtowers. Some women were balling rags and dipping them in pitch. His warning about a siege had been taken seriously.
Even the children were working. Only the smallest were spared from tasks. They had been put in the charge of several older children who were playing games with them. Shira and a few other mothers of infants were busy with an activity that puzzled Tharek. When he drew nearer, he saw that they were shredding peat and filling baskets.
"What are you doing?" he inquired.
One of the women looked up and smiled at the hero, but Shira avoided his eyes. "In Timora they grow flowers in peat baskets," the friendly woman said. "We will need a source of greens and fruits. Shira suggested that we could hang the baskets on the eaves of the lean-tos and grow bread berries and other things to eat."
Tharek nodded. "It is a good idea, keep up your work." He saw a blush steal over Shira's cheeks and wondered if she was pleased or angry. She seemed to resent him. It must be galling for her to see another made her father's heir when the husband who should have gained the post had so recently been murdered by Fero.
The man who supervised the erection of the scaffolding caught Tharek's eye. He carried a level and wore the square cap of a mason. There were no stone buildings in the town other than the ancient pyramid, but the structure of the warehouse argued for someone with experience in building.
Tharek waited until the man had finished instructing several of the workers before approaching him. "Could it be that you are responsible for building this warehouse for Fero?"
"He knew me from my work for Jama's Pontic and paid me well to come to Zedekla. I am Dornat, descendant of Barun, first builder of Okishdu."
"You were not in Saadena when Marnat was building his New Palace," Tharek stated. "I met the men responsible for the emperor's extravagant new additions, and none of Barun's descendants were among them."
Dornat's dour face betrayed a hint of humor and he nodded. "Marnat did not like our way of building. I hear that most of what he added fell away in the earthquake. We take an oath to build the best that can be built with the materials at hand."
"You earned whatever Fero paid you when you built this warehouse. I would like to expand to give more room to those who have sheltered here, but I am puzzled as to how it can be accomplished without exposing us to danger."
"Ever since I cast my lot with you, I knew you would do more than merely follow Fero's example and become a warlord. This building was intended to be as much a citadel as a warehouse. There is still much that can be done to increase its defenses. I have some ideas to discuss with you."
The sudden shout of someone needing Dornat's immediate advice cut short their conference, but Tharek walked away with the feeling that if they survived this day, they would soon have matters well in hand. It was interesting to realize that Fero's ambitions had been so bold that he had obtained the services of a skilled builder.
The other gangs of Zedekla seemed to be little more than raiding parties, living off the weaker inhabitants of the land. Every day they would have to travel further to find their prey among the small villages and independent farmers. It was no wonder Fero had ordered the building of a river boat. If he had lived, he would have dominated all of Zedekla before many days had passed.
Tharek climbed the stairway to the finished portion of the scaffold and walked along its length. He was well satisfied with the progress of work on the scaffolding. Virtually every worthy man and woman in Zedekla had accepted his offer to gather at the warehouse for protection and this would make a real difference if the gangs joined to set siege to the gates and walls.
He looked over the busy scene below him and noticed the open weave walls of the enclosure built against the opposite wall where the men who had broken their oaths to him were waiting for his judgment. Ponon and two of Parga's sons stood guard. One of the men stood at the wall near Ponon arguing. Two others were sitting toward the back of the narrow space, their heads bowed with their hair hiding their faces. Three others were standing close together just behind them.
Something would have to be done about them soon. All of them still wore the scalps and other tokens of their dire devotion to the Orquian cult, proof enough that they had consented to the murder of hapless victims. If he failed to punish them for breaking the oaths they had sworn to him the day before, he would set a precedent that could be dangerous.
He turned to look over the wall toward the river. The charred remains of Parga's house and boatyard lay close at hand. Sweveral men clustered near the dock where the new boat was tied. Their voices rose in argument and weapons were raised in threat. Galak's striped head-cloth waggled with the violence of his words. He was well within spear range of someone on the scaffold. The boldness of the men gave evidence of their contempt for Tharek's words the night before. The boat was too valuable to lose. There must be some way to take it before Galak removed it from the mooring.
Tharek began to descend from the scaffolding and heard shouts and sounds of conflict from the wall where the prisoners were kept. Jacla grabbed the sleeve of his robe as soon as his feet were on the ground. "The prisoners tried to escape."
Tharek found a ring of men with shovels and spades surrounding the surly traitors who had been removed from the enclosure. A gaping cavity dug halfway through the wall betrayed the means they had tried to use to make their escape. One of Parga's sons was bruised and bleeding and Ponon held a cloth to his wounded brow.
When Tharek approached, everyone began to tell his version of what had taken place. Tharek raised his hands and everyone but the traitors stopped talking.
"You have no right to punish us," one of them snarled. "Our loyalty to Orqu supersedes all other oaths."
"They were trying to dig their way through the outer wall," Barken said. "When my brother and the other guards saw what was happening, they tried to enter the enclosure and stop the digging. You can see what happened."
"Bind their hands and strip them to their loincloths," Tharek said. "I should have given judgment on them last night when they first betrayed the oath they gave me."
The prisoners were stripped. Their clothes and grisly ornaments were piled together and Tharek ordered Barken to bring a torch. While the fire burned, the people came from every corner of the compound to watch what Tharek would do with the prisoners. There were more than a hundred able-bodied adults sheltering in the warehouse. Most of them had cause against such bullies.
Parga and Shira were tense with expectation. These men had swaggered proudly as Fero's favored lieutenants. They had beaten Shira's husband until he died. Yet Tharek had pardoned them of former crimes when he took their oath.
"You have chosen to deny your oath to me, but I will not rescind the word I gave," Tharek said. "I will not tolerate your presence here. You will be cast out. If you come against me again, you will die."
Parga stepped forward. "When I led Zedekla, we had a way of punishing those who broke their oaths or wounded others. Those they had damaged lined the way and beat them when they were driven into exile."
Tharek looked around at the people surrounding him. It would be easy to let all of them vent their fear and hatred of the gangs on the back of these seven men, but it would be unjust.
"Let those who suffered under Fero's gang step forward," Tharek directed.
Jacla took first place in line. Parga's family followed along with thirty other men and women. "Parga will tell you what to do. I ask only that you do not kill them. They must live to carry word to others of what happens when a man breaks his oath to me. Henceforth, I will be more careful when I offer pardons."
There was a small door set into the wide gates that closed the entrance to the warehouse. It was only tall and wide enough to let one man pass stooped. While Parga supervised those who volunteered to line the way, Tharek sent three spear-men to each of the watchtowers and appointed other men to kneel on the scaffolding along the top of the wall above the gate with bundles of the pitch soaked rags.
When Parga signaled that he was ready, Tharek climbed the watch tower and looked out over the square in front of the warehouse. As he had expected, there were groups of people gathering at the mouths of the streets and alleyways that led into the square. The windows facing the warehouse were filled with curious faces. Some of the observers had come close enough to be taken by a spear.
Tharek signaled for a note to be blown on the zole horn hung from one of the beams of the roof of the watchtower. When the people looked upward, he cleared his throat and shouted. "Seven men gave oath to me, but their oath to Orqu proved more powerful." For a moment there was silence, then the laughter of the people in the square rose up to mock him.
"What will you do, Tyrant of Zedekla?" A woman cried from the window of a tavern. "We shake in fear at the thought of your revenge."
There was something familiar about her voice, but Tharek was intent on what was happening just behind the gate. A double line of men and women waited for the first prisoner to be released. At the other end, four men stood ready to open the small door and let him out. Tharek dropped his hand and Parga shouted an order.
One by one the prisoners darted down the line of people they had injured, trying to dodge the blows of ropes and sticks. The tiny door opened for just a moment to let the first prisoner pass. When the door opened, several men outside began to run forward. A spear from the watchtower on the left caught one of them in the chest and the others turned and scattered. One by one the prisoners staggered through the gate and fell at the feet of those who watched.
"Only those who swear true oaths to me will enter these gates," Tharek shouted when the last prisoner staggered through the door and it was firmly shut and barred. He gave the signal for the men along the scaffolding to stand and light the pitch.
Most of the hail of burning bundles fell just short of the edge of the square, but it sent the bolder watchers fleeing from the fire. Some of the bundles fell among the rickety taverns that overlooked the square and the fires fed on the dry wood, mounting quickly into a conflagration.
A flood of screaming women poured into the alleyways, pushing away the men who had encouraged them in their taunts.
There had been no provision made to put out fires other than the wide clearing that surrounded the warehouse. Some of the houses in Zedekla were made of pressed earth, but the brothels and taverns were chiefly built of wood. The wind from the sea blew the glowing cinders from one frail structure to the next. The fire could have been halted quickly with cooperation, but it was only when the blaze began to threaten other sections of the town that an effort was made to stop the spreading flames.
"You will be hated," Dornat said when he climbed the stairway to the watchtower and joined Tharek. "The men and women who owned those buildings that were burned were more powerful in some ways than the bosses of the gangs. Many of them have ties to Jama's magnates."
Tharek nodded. He had expected nothing less than enmity from any who gained profit from the weaknesses of men. "I was trying to remember where I saw one of the women. I believe it must be Bechanel. She was Marnat's mistress just before the earthquake that destroyed Saadena. I wonder how she came to settle here."
"She was with the Pontic of Jama. He found someone younger and less ambitious and gave Bechanel a tavern in Zedekla to console her. Be wary of her. She may try to beguile you."
"She took her chance at me and failed when she was younger and I had less to lose," Tharek told the mason. "She settled for Marnat instead."
"You tempt me to beg for your history," Dornat said with the hint of a wry smile. "Other than the problem of creating enemies, this fire has served you well. The burned out section will be abandoned. We can work at night with the aid of the light from your staff and create a wall around the fortress. It should run from the river to the first block of buildings that were left standing. I think I can predict that it will be some time before an organized effort is made to overcome your defenses."
"You speak more like a general than a builder," Tharek said.
"I come from a tradition that builds both shrines and castles," Dornat reminded him. "I can see that you intend more than this one building. Is there any way I could send word to some of my people in other cities to come and join me?"
Tharek looked toward the boat that he had helped finish. It was meant for river running, but with the aid of a skilled sailor such as Parga, it could make a run down the coast. The men who had been arguing about who would take possession had abandoned their argument over the boat when they ran to save their own possessions from the fire.
"We must act soon to gain allies from other cities or we might be too late. Write your message and I will see that it is sent. Meanwhile, we should complete the scaffolding so that we can guard our perimeter. The gangs may not attempt to come against us in force, but there may be some foolish enough to try and undermine the wall. I noticed that you built it in two layers, one of pounded earth, and the other of woven reeds coated with clay. I have no doubt that the foundation is as excellent as the wall."
"Fero was impatient with my insistence on deep foundations," Dornat said. "I discovered that the sand is not very deep. A layer of rock begins a few feet from the surface. It is not the dark stone of the pyramid, but it will make fine building stone when you are ready for a more permanent structure. I found a vein that is almost as white as the stone of Saadena's Shrine."
Tharek nodded. "A Shrine is needed. It will be our first construction when I vanquish all my rivals. We will build it there." He pointed to a space the fire had cleared. It was midway between the warehouse and the dark pyramid that loomed above the town.
Dornat's eyes lit as he smiled. "It has been my dream to build a shrine for the Radiance. I tried to convince my patron in Jama that he would gain greatly by sponsoring a Shrine, but I should have known beforehand that he only wanted to glorify his own image. He was never satisfied until his residence was huge and gaudy. I accepted Fero's commission in order to escape the Pontic before he imprisoned me for speaking out against his excess."
Tharek laughed ruefully. "I must keep you near me while I try my hand at this new role of tyrant. Promise me that you will be quick to puncture my pomposity if I fall into the errors you have seen other rulers make."
Dornat's face was serious when he raised his hand and gave his oath to Tharek. "I will always serve you as a friend and critic. I will do everything in my power to save you from poor judgment and bad taste."
"I accept your oath," Tharek said with the same air of seriousness. He saw a twitch at the corner of Dornat's eye and a narrow dimple at the side of his mouth that betrayed more humor than most men would with a laugh. "Do I amuse you?"
"We really must find you something else to wear instead of that rusty looking robe. I have heard that you are something of a craftsman as well as being a prophet, a hero, and more lately, a tyrant. Surely you cannot object to wearing a neat tunic with a well woven belt and a good pair of boots."
Tharek looked down at the robe he had worn since bathing in Timora. There were grass stains and muddy patches, but the worst stains were the dark brown speckles of blood from his execution of the Orquians who had stalked the Janakan pilgrims. "You doubtless know what would look best. I noticed stores of cloth among the bales that Fero hoarded and Jacla can exercise her skill by making whatever you deem appropriate."
Dornat nodded and looked around to locate Jacla. Tharek checked the watchtowers and was satisfied to see the guards standing alert. They may have been smiths or carpenters the day before, but now they were guardians for their families and friends. They would not fail him.
When he reached the bottom of the ladder he saw Parga arguing with Shira. When he drew closer, the young widow saw him and put her hand up to her father's mouth. He was certain they had been talking about him.
As soon as he was close enough to be discreet, Tharek addressed the boat maker. "Parga, could you take the boat you made for Fero and sail to Otaliafa? We must send messages and bring back supplies or our effort here will fail."
"I will go," Parga agreed. "I have been worried that the boat would be taken by the other members of Fero's gang. Fortunately, none of them know how to handle such a craft. It has a rather shallow draft, but if I had a few hours, I could make a few changes that would improve its handling at sea."
"Could you take the boat down the coast a little way before making the changes," Tharek asked him.
Shira interrupted. "I should go along with him. I am better at sailing than most men."
"Who will care for your child?" Tharek asked her.
"I can steer a boat and hold my child," she answered defiantly.
Tharek turned to Parga. "What do you think."
Parga nodded. "She could do it. I will take Shira as well as two of my sons. We will rig a sail if you can provide the cloth."
"I was just going to join Dornat to look at cloth. Come with me and choose what you need from the stores."
Shira went along with them and it was she who wielded the needle that joined four lengths of sturdy fiber cloth together. By the time twilight faded the sail was ready and Parga had prepared a mast tall enough to take it.
Tharek stood on the platform of the rear watchtower as the small party set forth from the warehouse. The light from the top of his staff lit the scene without shadow. When a group of men approached the dock from upriver, they were set fleeing by a fall of spears made from sticks and sharpened stones. It had been Ponon's suggestion that they reserve the metal blades for closer combat when they had a better chance of being recovered.
Soon the boat was underway, moving with the current down toward the harbor and the sea beyond. Tharek turned away when he realized that his gaze had been fixed on Shira's form where she huddled in the stern by the rudder of the boat. She had remained aloof from him to the last.
Chapter 7 Community
Tharek volunteered to stand first watch of the night and as the boat with Parga's family drifted outward on the tide, he knew it was time to begin a new tradition for his people. He raised the zole horn to his lips and blew a single note. It was not the sound of warning, high and harsh but a long sound, low and solemn. He watched while people in the enclosure below him raised their eyes to the watchtower, then he pulled his blue cowl of priestly office up to cover his head and lifted his hands to began the evening ritual. "We come before the Radiance with gratitude for life and health and freedom. We ask a blessing on our labors that we may be safe whatever our errands may be. Until the coming of the sacred avatar, let Zedekla stand as a citadel of strength and holiness."
A long moment of silence followed his final words, then the people below him added their voices in affirmation for his pleas. Tharek glanced toward the boat and saw Parga waving with a smile on his face. The boat-builder had heard the prayer.
Tharek waved back and then turned to survey the area immediately around the warehouse. A group of women issued from beyond the corner of a gutted stucco building carrying a torch. They were wearing the brass jewelry and bright zylka cloth gowns of Jaman women. Bechanel walked in the rear of the others where she would have been unnoticed if the torch was the only way of seeing them. She prodded one of the women ahead of her and hissed commands. The woman stopped and raised her voice.
"We seek shelter among you."
Tharek looked down at the woman. She might have been sold into bondage to a Jaman tavern keeper when she was hardly older than a child, an innocent in everything but the way of life that she was bound to live. His sympathy for those who were unwitting victims of men's vices would have led him to give the women shelter if Bechanel had not been with them. "Tell me what I am wearing. If you speak the truth, you will be allowed to enter."
"I-I think your tunic is blue," the woman stammered before Bechanel pinched her arm and whispered urgently in her ear.
After a moment's hesitation while Bechanel whispered, the woman replied. "You are dressed in a white robe."
When Tharek gave no response to her answer, she frowned and turned to confer with the others.
"The robe is dingy with mud and grass stains," the woman quickly added after being prompted by Bechanel.
None of the women waiting for entry tried to contradict their emissary's answer. It was evident that none of them could see the light except the girl who had spoken at first. Tharek was wearing a bright blue tunic that Dornat had chosen from the stores. He had changed into it just before he ascended the watchtower to watch Parga's party leave.
He looked beyond the group of women and saw men with spears who had moved into the alleyways surrounding the square. If he admitted any of the women it would give the lurking gangs a chance to rush the door. It was likely many more were hiding behind the ruins of the burnt buildings.
He picked up the zole horn and gave a signal that brought an immediate response from the spear-men stationed in the watch-towers. A hail of spears sailed over the women's heads and found targets in the men beyond them. The screams of wounded men suddenly filled the air and the women scattered, leaving Bechanel behind. She darted forward and pounded on the gates of the warehouse begging entrance.
"You will not fool me Bechanel," Tharek shouted. "I can see into the evil of your heart and I know the plans of those who lurk in darkness. Our spears will find their targets day or night. If those who sent you want to speak to me, tell them to come unarmed and without attendants when the moon is full again."
His words had the effect of emptying the square. Bechanel clattered away on her raised shoes, teetering and almost falling in her haste. As the night went on no further sign was seen of any member of the gangs.
Before Tharek's watch ended he saw Dornat lead a group of men with shovels out of the gate. They were accompanied by a troop of men with metal spears to guard them while they worked. Dornat marked the bounds of the wall that would be built and some among the crew of men began to dig while others cleared away the rubble of the gutted houses.
By the time Ponon came to relieve Tharek at watch, the wall rose several feet above the ditch. It was a testament to Dornat's skill as a builder that he was able to turn the disaster of the fire into material for a redoubt.
Tharek settled onto the cot that reached from one wall to the other of his narrow room beneath the platform of the watch-tower. A small table near the head of his cot held a flagon of water and a few fresh matlas that were still warm from the griddle. Jacla was nowhere in sight, but he recognized her touch in the herbs spread on his floor to sweeten the air and hold insects at bay. As he prepared to sleep, he thought of all the people who had come into his path to help his aim. He would have to work and plan to ensure the destiny that he planned for Zedekla, but the Radiance had provided him with good men and women, better far than he had hoped to find in such a place.
He woke to the sound of the zole horn blowing the signal for the morning watch. For a moment he lay listening to the sounds that rose from the compound below.
Laughter rose from a happy child over the regular thud of someone hammering. A woman's voice sang out a greeting to a friend. Tharek smiled and rose from his cot. It was time to set another tradition for Zedekla as soon as he checked on the progress of Dornat's wall.
He changed into a tunic of white with blue along the edges and tied a blue belt around his waist before leaving his room and climbing up to the platform of the watchtower. He left the door slightly ajar to help air out the room while he was gone. The woman holding his staff to light the area below gave him a grin of welcome. The sun had risen and her duty ended.
Below them the results of the night's labor was revealed. A neat wall boxed the front of the warehouse, just at the range of a well thrown spear. It was higher than a man and would effectively delay any attempt on the gate by members of the gangs.
Dornat had made a good beginning. By tomorrow there should be another wall that ran all the way to the river, encompassing the land where Parga's house had stood.
Tharek climbed down the narrow ladder that led to the compound. As soon as he stepped from the shadow of the doorway, Jacla approached him with a worried look on her face. "Some of us who joined the line to punish the oath breakers must speak to you in private," she said.
Tharek nodded and followed her while she led the way to one of the larger sheds. When they entered he saw many of the people who had joined the line to beat and flail the oath breakers before they were cast from the compound. A clerestory along the roof gave light enough to see their faces and none of them seemed happy.
After shutting the door Jacla turned to Tharek. "We have been talking to one another and Bardold the smith said we should seek your advice and a blessing to ease our souls. Last night when you held the Stone of Truth up on your staff to give light for the evening ritual, many of us could hardly see the light. It seems that the only ones affected are those who participated in the line or those who laughed and cheered when the oath-breakers were beaten. Why has the light grown dim for us?"
Tharek had not considered the result of his decision to have the oath-breakers punished in such a manner. It was both traditional and justified by the crimes the men had committed. Parga had not seemed handicapped by a lack of light when he had gone down to the dock to take the boat out to sea, but he remembered now that Parga's face had been grim and free of any indication of glee when he had wielded the rope with which he whipped the felons.
"You have heard of my reputation, that I killed Garvok and Fero as well as taking the lives of the Orquians who attacked the pilgrim band. You have even heard me boast of the deaths I dealt when I addressed those who would attack us. I must tell you that I never enjoyed killing, even when I did so to save the life of a friend. I regret each life I have been forced to end. Even so, when I first killed a man, I was surprised when I was able to see the light of the Stone of Truth. Justice must have a claim, or evil would overtake us, but mercy is just as important. You must not glory in the suffering of your enemy, even as you fight them and sometimes take their lives."
"Was it evil of us to form the line and whip the oath-breakers?" Jacla asked him.
Tharek raised his voice so that everyone would be certain to hear when he said. "Examine yourselves. When you struck, did something in you flinch with the thought of the pain you were giving? Or did you laugh when your enemies sprawled in the dust? I will bless you as you have asked, but henceforth, when you are forced to punish another human being, a child of the one who made us all, you must treat it as grim business to be finished as soon as possible. I will teach you the skills of war, but not the habits of some warriors who glory in giving pain and taking tokens of death as Orquians do."
"This is a message that all should hear," Bardold said.
"I intend to start a school to teach such things as well as many other skills," Tharek replied. "It was the tradition of my clan that each child should be taught in all the ways of the ancestors. In time each one would choose to follow a particular interest, but even women, before they began their families, would learn several lines of enterprise. This made them better mothers."
"When will you have time to lead us if you are always teaching?" Jacla asked him.
Tharek looked around and caught the eyes of all who were gathered. "I am not the only teacher. Those who joined us here in the warehouse encompass many trades. I will teach history and swordsmanship. Jacla will teach spinning and weaving. Bardold will teach smithing. We will teach one another as well as the children. I do not expect anyone to become expert in every trade, but if something happens to one of you, there will be others who can replace the loss ."
"I may be too old to learn new things," Jacla admitted, "but I will try. I can hardly wait to show some of the young ones how to spin. I had an apprentice, but she was taken by one of the gangs. She was a good girl, but now Bechanel is her master."
Tharek remembered the young woman who had seemed to see him briefly. "Is she slim with smooth dark hair and up-tilted eyes?" he asked.
Jacla nodded. "I was sorry that she could not join us here, but of course her way of life would make her unworthy."
"She did not choose to be a harlot," Tharek said. "If there is some way to bring her into the compound, we must try. I will speak to you about it later. Now I must give all of you the blessing you requested, then I will go out and announce my plans for a school."
Bardold nodded. "I suggest that lessons in wielding swords and spears be among the first things you teach. We have rations enough for two weeks. After that, we must fight to get what we need."
Tharek raised his hands to make an invocation and there was quiet for a few moments while he considered his words. "We come before the Radiance with a plea for strength. Help us resist anger and avoid desire for revenge. Lead us to victory over our oppressors and help us to have souls filled with mercy even when justice must be served. For every life we must take, let us find others to mend. Give these men and women the blessing that they seek and accept their sorrow as an offering."
He lowered his hands and turned to leave. The others stood and followed him. When Tharek appeared in the open, he was immediately approached by several people with various concerns. Ponon wanted to organize drills for spear throwing and swordsmanship. Parga's wife was concerned with distributing the rations. One of the smaller children could not be found and his mother was frantic.
All looked to Tharek for guidance. "First we must find the child," he directed. He turned to the mother and asked her if anyone had checked the water cistern. She nodded.
"That was the first place I looked for him, but yesterday Shira made sure it was covered to keep the water clean and prevent children from falling in."
"Does he favor high places, or would he rather huddle in some cubbyhole barely big enough to hold him?" Jacla asked.
"He has been trying to climb the ladder to the watchtower most of the morning," his mother said "I realized he was missing several minutes ago. It is almost as if he had vanished into the air."
Tharek had a sudden suspicion. He had only been out of his room for a few minutes and it was unlikely that one of the adults would think to intrude on his quarters. It would be different for a curious child. He sent others to check the scaffolding and the other watchtowers and he returned to his room. As soon as he saw the closed door he knew what he would find. There was resistance to his pressure on the door and an unhappy moan from near the floor.
When he opened the door enough to stick his head through, he saw the sleepy child huddled just inside with his thumb in his mouth and the tracks of tears on his cheeks. "Wake up, your mother is looking for you," he said.
The child staggered to his feet and reached up with chubby arms. Tharek lifted him and carried him down the ladder where his mother gave a cry of relief as soon as her child appeared.
The incident had served to gather everyone into a common purpose and Tharek took advantage of the moment. Once again he raised his hands and soon there was silence. "We have been here for two mornings and much has been accomplished. All of you have played your part. Today there will be lessons in swordsmanship for all the men. All the women will learn to handle quarter staffs. Both will learn to cast a spear with accuracy along with the older children. Those too old or frail to learn to fight will mind the smaller children during the lessons. When the first sessions are finished, I will teach you something of the history of Okishdu and we will organize other lessons to share our knowledge."
There were a few murmurs, but Tharek met no real opposition to his plan. No one could fail to realize that without the help of everyone, they might fall to the leaders of the gangs who had claimed them. There were only three men among them with experience in fighting. The brothers Ponon and Barken each had some experience with swords and spears, but Tharek was expert with the staff. Targets were set up along the gate area for those who would practice with spears and areas were marked off for the other combat lessons.
After little more than an hour of practice, the skill of most of the people had noticeably increased. Finally Tharek called a halt and signaled for everyone to gather around a podium he had built of barrels. Only the watchmen were excepted from the meeting.
"In ancient times when Irilik first led our first fathers to Okishdu and divided the land among them, Saaden was first in the arts of war. His knowledge helped him build an empire which only the wickedness of Marnat could cause to tumble. Janak also founded a land, but instead of growing strong, his people fractured into clans, fighting not to guard and build, but for the love of fighting. Someday Zedekla will be a mighty city, holding dominion over all Virdana and beyond to the borders of Tedaka and Taleeka. This will happen only if you make it so. I am your leader, but I can do nothing of myself without your support and cooperation. You must repeat the lessons you have learned until you make the moves of combat without effort. Every morning, unless there is a reason to fight others, we will have lessons. Meanwhile, choose a friend who will help you build your skill and when you are not busy with other lessons or duties, practice with your staffs and spears."
The people cheered him and he raised his hands again. "Rosters will be posted offering lessons in other skills and crafts. We have a wealth of talent and knowledge gathered here and it must be shared. Those of you who have mastered a craft must teach others. Our community can only succeed if everyone takes part in whatever task they are able to perform. Throughout this day I will interview each person above the age of seven. I hope to help you find the best way for us to prosper. I will begin with the youngest as soon as we have eaten."
Tharek stepped down from the barrels he had used as his platform and the people hurried off to make preparations for the noonday meal. Parga's wife made a grimace of impatience and he beckoned her closer and lowered his voice to a confidential level. "I understand your concern about the rations, but this next week is critical to our success. If we have not succeeded in gaining ascendancy over the gangs by then, we must leave Zedekla. Do not be sparing of the food we have. It is needed to bolster the strength and will of these people. Many of them have been nearly starved by the greed of those who claimed to own them."
Tinda nodded. "If we had access to the river, we could fish and gather shellfish and wild seeds and herbs on the tidal flats south of the river."
"You should train some of the older children to fish and gather. I will put your name high on the roster of teachers. If Dornat's plans go as he hopes, your skills will soon be needed."
After making a quick meal of matlas and salted fish, Tharek prepared the rosters of lessons and teachers. He posted them near the gate and took a seat in the shadow of a watchtower and waited. Soon a parent brought a shy young boy who cringed as his mother pushed him toward Tharek. The child seemed familiar. He was not quite big enough to handle the spear given to him during the practice that morning and time and time again he had failed to cast it anywhere near the target.
Tharek held out his hand and beckoned the boy nearer. "Tell me your name."
"I am Finerik, youngest son of Bardold, the smith," the boy answered hesitantly.
"Do you want to be a smith when you have grown?"
"My brother's say that I will never be large enough to be a smith," Finerik muttered. "They say that I am useless."
"There are times when being small and quick is good. Are you brave enough to do something that might be dangerous?"
The boy's eyes glowed and his freckled nose wrinkled with a gap toothed smile. "You must not tell my mother. She thinks I am a baby, but I will do whatever you ask of me."
"Find me when the sun has gone down and the Stone of Truth gives the only light," Tharek directed him. "Meanwhile, join the class that Tinda is teaching. She needs clever children who can help her fish and gather."
Finerik hurried away, his cringing shuffle gone. Tharek gestured to the next child who had been waiting just beyond the circle Tharek had drawn to give him privacy while he interviewed each person.
One by one he learned their names and faces, their ambitions and their skills, and sometimes he plumbed their fears. Few of them had ever handled weapons and the lessons he had started troubled some of them. More were exhilarated by finding they had some skill at fighting. It made them more confident that Tharek's plans were possible.
Even those who he felt he knew surprised him. When he interviewed Ponon he found that both he and his brother, Barken, were musicians and missed the instruments the warlord had destroyed along with their village. Tharek suggested that they should take time to reconstruct what they had lost with the help of Famet, the carpenter. "He could help you choose the proper wood and show you how to join it."
"It seems a poor use of our time when we are threatened," Ponon protested.
"We will always have some kind of threat to deal with," Tharek counseled the young warrior. "If we let our anxiety remove our desire for art and music, we will be little better than the louts who threaten us. This is only the beginning of a long era of war. I refuse to become nothing more than a military despot. People will come to Zedekla for more than protection from oppressors. You will make instruments and play them and teach others to play them. That is my order."
Ponon grinned and went to find his brother. Dornat was next to be interviewed.
"I overheard what you said to that young man," Dornat said." I admire what you are doing, and I hope that you succeed."
"I have been given every resource required, it is up to me to manage my assets. It is a daunting task, but less so since I began to learn the names and hearts of the people who have trusted me to lead them."
"I am concerned about our lack of information about what is going on among our enemies," Dornat said. "Is there any way we could send a spy out to discover their plans? It would give me a better idea of which walls should next be built. I would like to extend the wall out to the river, but that might be too great a risk if an attack is planned tonight."
"I have been thinking about your design of this place that Fero called a warehouse, but which you constructed as a fortress. In my experience, there is always an alternate exit. Even in the palace of Taleeka's guardians, there is a small door known to only a few."
Dornat's face betrayed the slightest hint of a smile. "In the rear wall of the cistern there is a large rock. It is not as solid as it seems, but thin as a flat paving stone. Even Fero did not know that I had made it as an exit. I wanted a way to leave if he turned against me. It leads to the dunes and joins a passageway inside the pyramid not far from one of the corner entrances."
"I will go tonight and learn what I can," Tharek said.
"You cannot be spared. Send another."
"I will be safe," Tharek assured him. "I will take one other with me, a child who can fit in places that no man could enter."
"What will we do if you do not return?"
"Parga's oldest son will be my heir. I will leave a declaration of my intent with both you and his mother. You will serve as guardian until he returns with his father. Of all who have been placed to aid me, you are among the most valuable."
Dornat scowled. "Take care. I have no ambition to be a Tyrant."
Tharek chuckled at his protest. "I have no doubt that you get enough of tyrannizing men just building a wall with unskilled labor."
"You saw my face, I take it?" Dornat said. "I could not yell or hit them when they fumbled. It was important to maintain my silence or the enemy would hear us."
Tharek enjoyed Dornat's humor, but there were others waiting and the sky grew pink with impending sunset. He stood and beckoned for the next person to join him.
Chapter 8 Spies
The gong rang for dinner and Tharek stood. He still had more than fifty people left to interview, but he felt that he had better understanding of their potential and it was worth the time it took. He gave a blessing on the meal and ate his fill. When he finished, he climbed up to his room in the watchtower and found Jacla lingering by the door. She held a white robe out to him.
"I found a bolt of white wool in the stores this morning. When you give the evening ritual, it would be fitting if you dressed as a priest."
Tharek thanked her and turned to enter his room. She stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Is there any way to rescue Tabla from the others and bring her here?"
"Is Tabla the apprentice you lost to Bechanel?"
Jacla nodded. Tharek could see the glint of tears in her eyes. "She was like a daughter to me."
"I will see what can be done."
When Tharek entered his room and unfolded the white robe, he found a length of blue cloth stitched along the side to make a cowl tucked inside. He dressed in the white robe and belted it with a blue sash. When he placed the blue cowl around his shoulders, he felt a sense of fitness. This was his heritage, whatever other paths his life might take.
Only the faintest glow remained along the rim of the western sea when he ascended to the platform of the watchtower. The man he came to relieve of watch bowed his head before giving his report. "There has been no activity near the wall or in the rubble beyond since I took over my post. There are signal flags flying from the other warehouses, but you will have to ask Ponon or Barken what they mean."
"Find Barken and tell him what you saw," Tharek said. "If he thinks it is important, I will welcome his counsel."
As soon as the man left the platform, Tharek lifted the sword staff with the Stone of Truth set at the tip and lifted his voice to address his people. "The night has come and our refuge is secure. With each day that passes, we grow stronger. Open your hearts and let the light fill you."
He set the staff against the frame of the platform and raised his hands to begin the evening ritual. Many of the people echoed his words as he prayed, giving thanks for what they had achieved and asking blessings on the night ahead. Others joined the supplication until their voices swelled to a great, fervent murmur of faith that buoyed his spirit.
Not long after he lowered his hands and ended the prayer, Barken climbed up to the platform. "Dalan told me about the signal flags he saw. The gangs have decided to ally against you. It is likely they will quarrel and delay, but it would be helpful if we had more information."
Tharek nodded. "Please find my back-up for this watch."
"I think I know what you are planning," Barken said. "We cannot spare you. Send me instead."
"Your face is better known than mine," Tharek reminded him. "Most of the gang members have only seen me from a distance. If I have not returned by dawn, Dornat will take command until Parga returns."
Tharek left Barken and hurried down the ladder to his narrow room where he changed into a dark blue tunic and long black boots that laced up to his knees. He lifted some dead cinders from the tripod grate and wrapped them in a cloth. After a moment of hesitation, he took off his belt pouches and the token of rule that Parga had given him and tucked them into a narrow bench chest beneath the window.
When he left the watchtower, he nearly stumbled over the smith's son, Finerik, who was huddled in the shadows near the foot of the ladder. "You said that I should come to you," the boy explained as Tharek grabbed a post and caught his balance.
"So I did. I have an errand for you, but first we must ask your parents for permission for you to come with me."
"You said you would not worry my mother."
"Your mother deserves to know where you are going," Tharek answered. "I think you will be surprised at her answer."
Finerik looked down at his ragged boots and seemed uncertain. Finally he nodded. "I guess we need to tell her."
The boy led the way to the back of one of the lean-to sheds that sheltered several families. They had marked out living quarters with partitions of wood and cloth but there was little real privacy. The other people in the shed stared at Tharek in surprise when he entered, then they turned their eyes away. When Finerik saw his mother he called out to her.
She hurried forward and took his small shoulders and pulled him to her ample bosom with a cry. "Where have you been? Your father is out looking for you."
"Tharek told me to wait for him. He has an errand for me."
His mother looked up in surprise. "What could you want with such a little one as Finerik?"
"I need your son's help, but I will let you make the decision."Tharek told her.
Finerik's mother looked around and noticed the curious glances of the others who shared the shed. She nodded shortly and grabbed her shawl. "Come. We will find my husband and you can tell both of us what you want of Finerik."
They found Bardold conferring with Dornat who was getting ready to erect another wall. When Finerik tugged at his father's tunic, the smith brushed his hand away and went on speaking to the builder. Dornat looked up and noticed Tharek.
"I think my business with you can wait, Bardold. It seems the Tyrant wants to speak to you."
Bardold turned and his broad face colored with chagrin. "My pardon, Master. I did not know that Finerik was with you."
"Finerik is the reason I came to speak to you. I am going into the territory held by the gangs tonight. I want him to come with me."
"I have other sons who are larger and stronger," Bardold protested.
"I need a boy who is small and quick," Tharek said. "If I wanted a warrior, I would take a man. I have chosen Finerik to go with me. If you refuse permission, I must go alone."
The parents looked at each other. They stared down at the head of their youngest child and Bardold's mouth set in a stubborn line. "He can't even cast a spear. What help can he be to you?"
To Tharek's surprise, it was the mother who intervened. "Perhaps we need to let him go. The other children mock him for his size. No one will dare to despise him if he returns successful."
The bullish expression on Bardold's face wavered and finally disappeared as a reluctant smile tilted his lips. He reached to his waist and brought forth a knife with a narrow blade and extended it haft first to his youngest child. "I made this to give you when you were old enough. It seems the time has come, my son."
Finerik stifled a crow of delight and shoved the knife into a sheath that was already fastened at his side. The gift gave Tharek pause. It meant that these people acknowledged the boy as worthy to begin instruction as a man.
Tharek made a silent vow to return Finerik to his parents when the night was over. He knew it was right to take the boy with him, but it was a heavy responsibility.
Dornat wedged up the cover of the cistern and Tharek slipped down into the opening and lifted Finerik down after him. They moved around the narrow ledge of the cistern to the broad stone that hid the opening to the secret passage. When he had pried the stone open, Dornat leaned close and gave instructions. "Turn to the right and follow the wall until you come out into a wider room. You will be in the pyramid."
The air from the passageway was stale and had a musty smell of damp stone. "I take it this passageway was here long before you built the warehouse," Tharek said.
"There are many such passageways that remain from a city long since buried by the sands. Perhaps we can explore them together some day."
The thought of a time with leisure to spare for such an enterprise brought a grunt of amusement from Tharek. Finerik went into the passageway first and Tharek followed after pulling the stone shut to conceal the entrance.
The rough stone walls of the passageway were damp and covered with something slick and dank. Tharek moved cautiously but found that only a skim of water covered the floor, otherwise, the way lay clear. Finerik's shallow breathing came fast. When he spoke, his voice shook. "H-how far do we h-have to go?"
"The passageway seems fairly straight and we only need to go as far as the pyramid," Tharek assured him.
"They say that terrible things happen to children in the pyramid," Finerik muttered.
"I am here to guard you. Tell me what you know about the gangs."
"I ran errands for father. I guess I was too small for anyone to worry about. They let me go into their warehouses and gathering places without challenging me. We lived in Dagnet's territory, but he let father sell his work to other gangs."
"Could you lead me to Dagnet's headquarters?" Tharek asked.
"Sure. I know a way in through the back that I used as a short-cut when I went to take his taxes to him.""Your father must have trusted you a great deal to let you carry money for him."
"He said no one would suspect a boy as small as me of carrying the fees. Mostly I took bills around. Sometimes Dagnet got the payments and passed on what was left to Father. That happened more and more before you came."
Their conversation had helped Finerik forget his fear and when the walls that Tharek was touching suddenly took an angled turn and they found themselves inside the pyramid, Finerik did not pause but grabbed Tharek's hand and drew him forward to a grilled opening where they could see the light of torches.
Tharek peered through the grate and saw a group of men. He knew the face of only one of them. It was Galak, the man who had torched Parga's home and boatyard. Finerik might recognize some of the others. He lifted the boy up with a whispered caution to be quiet and let him look into the room. "Is Dagnet here?" he murmured.
"No, but all the other bosses are."
Most of what was being said inside the chamber was difficult to hear, but suddenly Galak stood and raised his voice. "I have the right to rule in Fero's place when we take the warehouse tomorrow. I control more men than anyone but Dagnet, and he is not one of us.""He is giving us the girl to sacrifice," one of the other men spoke up.
"Bechanel is giving us the girl. I doubt that Dagnet even knows about the ritual. We should move against him first before we try to take the warehouse. We can kill him tonight, then we will hold the ritual to gain more power with his men."
"Keep your voice down, fool," a man in dark robes muttered just loud enough to be heard. "Even here we might be overheard. The wizard Tharek has powers that let him see in darkness. Something warns me that he might hear us if we raise our voices."
Tharek felt a cold finger of apprehension run down his spine. The dark-robed priests of Orqu served the Liar. His experience with Garvok had shown that it was possible that his presence could be felt by such a one. It would be dangerous to stay any longer.
He had learned a great deal in the few minutes he had listened. Apparently Dagnet was not a member of the cult. A sacrifice would be provided by Bechanel. Could it be Tabla, Jacla's lost apprentice?
Tharek traced the wall and found another passage. A draft of cool air promised that an exit from the pyramid was near. He saw a sprinkling of stars through a narrow opening. At first he feared that he could not fit through, but he flattened himself against one wall and edged past the corner with no room to spare. Finerik followed him easily. From the other side, the opening seemed no more than a niche in the design of the exterior of the pyramid.
Tharek took the charcoal he had removed from the tripod hearth in his room and quickly rubbed it over both his own face and the boy's. Finerik's dull brown clothing would complete the disguise. The moon was a thin crescent in the sky, but there was still enough light to reflect from lighter colors.
"Lead me to Dagnet's stronghold," Tharek murmured. "I must speak to him. I suspect we will find that Bechanel has established herself somewhere near his holdings. I want to try and rescue Jacla's apprentice, Tabla."
They set off through the clustered buildings. Finerik kept to the shadows and was careful at the corners. The boy displayed a quick intelligence that kept them from blundering into anyone. Several times he stopped and signaled Tharek to take cover just before a group of men came past their hiding place.
They reached the walls of a looming building. It was not as new or well constructed as the warehouse Dornat had built for Fero, but it was the largest they had encountered in the town. Finerik indicated a small window high on the wall.
"That leads to Dagnet's room. If he were there, we could see the light of his lamp this late at night. He keeps it locked. I think it is his treasury."
"I will lift you so that you can wriggle through," Tharek muttered. "Once you are in, you can lift the latch for me to enter."
"How will you get past the guards outside?"
"I doubt they will recognize me. I noticed a small barrel in the alleyway. I will lift it to my shoulder and say that I am bringing something for Dagnet."
Finerik seemed satisfied with Tharek's plan. He picked up a sturdy stick of wood. "I can use this as a brace. Please give me your sash."
Tharek untied his sash and handed it to Finerik who tied the end to his stick with a firm knot before he doubled it and looped it over his shoulders. When everything was set, Tharek lifted the boy to the small window. As soon as Finerik braced the stick across the bottom of the window, he climbed into the room using the sash as a line.
Once he knew the boy was safely in, Tharek fetched the barrel and approached the entrance. Two men leaned against the wall on either side. At the sound of his footsteps they straightened their posture, but as soon as they saw it was merely an unarmed servant stooped beneath the weight of a barrel, they cursorily examined him for weapons. Finding nothing, they relaxed again and waved him through, not even deigning to ask his business.
There were a few men clustered under a set of torches playing a game of chance with marked stones. Their indolence gave evidence that Dagnet was not in residence. Tharek moved toward the corridor that led off from the gather hall. The door to Dagnet's private quarters would likely be somewhere along the right.
He heard a tell-tale click and the slight sound of metal screeching on metal from a large door half-way along the corridor. The men gathered around the table to gamble were just out of sight when Tharek stood in front of the door and began to press it open.
"Finerik?" Tharek whispered.
"I am here," the boy said.
Tharek slipped inside the room and shut the door behind him. He reached for the latch to lock it again and was startled at its size. "I am surprised that you could open this?" he murmured.
"My father made it. There is a trick to opening this kind. Dagnet has the only key."
"Come, I will lift you to the window."
"Are you going to kill Dagnet?" Finerik asked. "He is not the worst of the gang bosses. He was often kind to me."
"I hope to make him my ally," Tharek said. "See if you can learn where they are holding Tabla. I will meet you here in the alleyway within the hour. If I do not come then, I will meet you at the pyramid when I am finished here and you can tell me what you have discovered. If I do not come by the time the moon sets, return to the warehouse and tell Barken what has happened."
"Take my knife," Finerik urged. "You cannot confront Dagnet unarmed."
Tharek hesitated for a moment, then he accepted the young boy's offer. Few would suspect the child of being a spy unless they found that he was armed.
Tharek lifted his small deputy back up to the narrow window and waited while he fixed his line in place. With the help of a chest to stand on, Tharek lifted the stick and tossed it through the window to drop outside. No evidence remained to show how Tharek had gained entrance to the room.
The door to the room was made of solid, heavy wood, but there were small cracks where the frame was attached to the wall. The dim light from the room beyond the corridor was hardly visible. After a short time the noise from the gather room suddenly decreased and someone spoke in a harsh voice. A short time later light from a torch flared bright through the cracks in the door near Tharek's face and the sound of a key in the latch warned him that he would soon confront the man he had come to meet.
The door opened, leaving a wider gap for Tharek to see through. He recognized none of the men who stood in the corridor, but Dagnet was clearly the man who held the key. He turned to the others and ordered them to leave him. "As soon as Galak arrives, bring him to me. Find everyone and warn them that we may be joining the other gangs before sunrise to attack the turncoats in Fero's warehouse."
Dagnet stepped inside and locked the door behind him. As soon as the latch clicked home, Tharek moved to Dagnet's side and held the knife against his ribs. With the other hand he removed the gang leader's weapon and held it next to his chest. He felt Dagnet flinch and tighten his muscles as if to wrestle free.
"You know better than to move," Tharek murmured. "It would be a pity for you to die before you answer me."
"I will not join your cult," Dagnet answered. "I have given you my answer before."
"I am not Orquian."
"Who are you, and what do you want of me?"
"Just now you risked death to repudiate the cultists. Why not go along with all the others who have sworn their lives to Orqu?"
"You must be Tharek, the so-called Tyrant of Zedekla. From what I have heard, you are no better than the cultists."
"If that were so, would the honest men and women of Zedekla have deserted the rest of the town to join me? You have not met my question. Your fate may rest upon your answer. Why do you avoid the cult?"
"When I was young, my sister was taken as a sacrifice to Orqu."
"Tonight I heard the Orquians planning your death," Tharek warned him. "Some of your men will join the ritual in the pyramid. Before the sacrifice, they will come for you."
"What do you want of me?"
"I have come to offer you my protection in return for your loyalty."
Dagnet gave a bark of dour amusement. "You have nothing but a few hundred untrained men and women and a couple of untried warriors. When the gangs ally with one another and attack the fortress, you will die."
"When the gangs ally with each other, it will be under the head of Galak. You will be dead. Otherwise, would you be content to take your orders from such as he?"
"I will join your people as ruler and let you live," Dagnet countered.
"That cannot be. It is my destiny to lead Zedekla. I did not want this role, but I will play it out. Gather the men who are loyal and come to join me and I will make you the commander of my army, second only to me."
"Your army?" Dagnet sneered.
"If you join me, someday you will have the command of thousands of men. You would not be chief of the greatest gang in Zedekla if you did not have some genius. I must say your men are sloppy and lack respect for discipline when you are absent, but that can be mended."
Dagnet could not argue against Tharek's criticism while the proof was standing with a knife at his vitals. "Who let you pass and allowed you into my room?"
"Sloth let me pass and the stupidity of those on watch let me into your room. I have no more time to argue. An innocent young woman is slated to die tonight on the altar of Orqu. I must rescue her, then return to my stronghold and lead the defense against the gangs. Are you with me or against me?"
"I am against the Orquians, and for tonight, that seems to mean that I am with you."
"Not just for tonight. I will have your oath to follow me, or I will leave you bound and gagged on the floor for your enemies to find you. Which will it be?"
Chapter 9 Assault
Dagnet hesitated before he gave his answer. Finally he nodded. "I will give you my oath, on pain of my death if I should fail you. I will serve you against the Orquians or any other enemy who threatens you, with one exception. I will not lift my hand against the people of Kumnora."
"I will accept your oath, and the restriction. I wondered if you were Kumnoran. Are you familiar with the sept of Lantic, Ba Ronig camp?"
"I married a woman of Ba Ronig five years ago. When she was killed by Janakans intruding on our lands, I became a rogue."
"I am the sworn brother of Fozli, son of Lantic. We took trophies of wirra together and survived winter unprotected on the steppes."
"I have heard you make many claims, but it would be easier to believe that you killed Garvok than that you survived a wirra hunt on the steppes. If I find that you have lied, my oath to you is null."
"There are proofs that I could give, but we are wasting time. When Galak comes for you, you must be ready. I advise you to check your men for any sign of devotion to the cult. If you find something that ties them to Orqu, they cannot be trusted. Bring the men that you know are loyal to the warehouse when you have settled matters here. Have them wear a token of wirra blue tied on their spears. If you are successful in holding the perimeter, your barracks will be beyond the gate inside the new wall."
"What of the girl? You need my help to set her free. I think I know which one they intend to kill. She was apprentice to the old weaver, Jacla. Bechanel paid Galak to abduct her. Some claim that she is still an innocent, but with Bechanel as her owner, it is unlikely."
"Whatever she may have been forced to do, she was able to see by the light of the Stone of Truth. It seems evident that she has a better conscience than you."
"You are brave to insult me just before you must depend on me to let you go from here unchallenged, but I have given you my oath and I will keep it. How were you able to enter?"
"I brought a barrel from the alleyway. Your guards assumed I was a servant. I had other help in defeating your latch, but it is probably wise for me to protect my secrets until I have seen proof of your intent to serve me."
"Hide your knife and give mine back to me. I will lead the way and give you a light cuff to send you on your way. It will improve your chances of passing as a servant."
Tharek suspected Dagnet of another motive for the blow he gave him when he shoved him past the entry guards. He was sent rolling into the street and recovered his feet to stagger away as if the blow had been much harder. At least Dagnet had not betrayed him to his men and that was key to his intent to keep his oath.
Tharek ducked into the alleyway where he had left Finerik and found it empty. Finerik might have hidden, but after a brief search, Tharek thought of another possibility. It was likely that the boy had gone to find Tabla once he learned where she was being kept.
This part of town was a warren of alleyways and walled courtyards. The windows were all too high to look through. Tharek could find his way back to the pyramid, but he knew that he risked discovery if he wandered through the maze of taverns and brothels looking for one small child. He should have been more stern with Finerik when he had asked him to wait, but it was too late to indulge in futile anger at the boy's initiative.
When he neared the pyramid he heard the sound of a woman's voice. "Let the boy go. You have no argument with him. He saved you the trouble of coming to Bechanel's house to fetch me."
Tharek looked around for something to use as a weapon. A pile of rubble at base of ruined wall of a burned building stood nearby. He wrenched a length of board from the rubble and charged forward into the street where two men in dark robes held a struggling woman between them. With one swipe of the board he sent one man stumbling backward to fall amidst a cascade of stones. A small shape jumped on the fallen man and began to pound him with a piece of fist-sized rubble.
Tabla had taken advantage of Tharek's surprise attack to wrench free of the Orquian and scramble up a set of stairs that led to a demolished attic. Tharek dropped the board and grabbed her pursuer by the arm to whip him around. While they struggled, Tabla climbed down and grabbed the board. Then she ran to help Finerik, slamming the board down on the Orquian's head just as he lurched up and dislodged the boy from his chest.
Tharek found himself in a nearly equal struggle. The man he was wrestling was heavier, but Tharek was more agile and had a longer reach. They staggered back and forth as each one fought to get the upper hand. Tharek hooked one foot around the other's ankle and pulled back sharply.
They tumbled to the ground and the struggle continued. Tharek had dropped Finerik's knife when he picked up the board and now he regretted the loss. There were sounds of other men coming along the street. At any minute he could be out numbered and overcome.
His hand was braced against the street to keep himself from being rolled over. Something prodded his fingers and he glanced up. It was Finerik, once again offering his knife. Tharek grasped the hilt and let himself be rolled over. Almost as soon as he lay on the bottom, his opponent hit him in the ribs with a powerful blow, meeting Tharek's gasp of pain with a sneering smile. Tharek struck upwards with the knife.
Simultaneously, the board came down upon the looming head of the Orquian. Tharek rolled out from under him as he settled, senseless, into a heap.
As soon as Tharek staggered to his feet, Tabla and Finerik were at his side, helping him pull the dark-robed priest into the rubble where his companion lay. Both men were at least unconscious, but whether either of them was still alive was not as important as avoiding the other men coming up the street.
"Keep low and say nothing," Tharek gasped.
Only moments later the group of men passed by them. One of the men tripped on the board as the group passed near enough to reach out and touch their tunics. He gave a loud curse and was urged to silence by their leader.
"You are a fool to worry," the man nearest Tharek scoffed. "Dagnet will not have time to mount resistance even if he hears us coming. By now Farbat and Porven will have fetched the girl. As soon as we finish this business with Dagnet, we will hold the sacrifice and with the strength of Orqu in our blood, we will triumph over the upstart Tyrant."
As soon as the men had turned a corner, Tharek stood and gestured for Tabla and Finerik to follow him. Several times they had to hide while groups of men hurried past them. There were shouts and screams from the direction of Dagnet's stronghold as they finally reached the corner of the pyramid and found the niche that concealed the secret entrance.
Finerik and Tabla slipped through easily enough, but Tharek discovered that he had been wounded enough to make the passage painful as the stone pressed on his ribs. He suppressed a groan of pain and joined the others.
While Finerik scouted ahead to see if the way was clear, Tabla told Tharek how she had been rescued. "He slid through my window like a little snake and surprised Bechanel while she was binding my hands. Between the two of us, we were able to subdue her and bind her up with the twine she intended for me. We left her in the room where she planned to hold me until the priests of Orqu came to collect me."
"Do you think they will take Bechanel instead?" Finerik asked.
"I think it is unlikely," Tabla told him. "She is somewhat larger than I and her hair is different."
"Even if they are forced to substitute Bechanel, they will hold the sacrifice," Tharek said. "They believe that a sacrifice to Orqu will give them power to defeat us. Be quiet now, we might alert our enemies."
Tharek began to worry that he had missed the exit into the cistern of the warehouse when they had gone on for longer than it seemed they should. Suddenly he saw the glimmer of light ahead and stopped. The quality of the glow reassured him. It was the shining of the Stone of Truth, however dimmed by its passage through the cover of the cistern and the cracks around the rock that covered the entrance.
"Come, we are safe," he told the others. Tabla's face reflected the glow and she squinted her eyes and stared toward the source uncertainly. Finerik surged ahead and his small hands worked at loosening the stone before Tharek caught up to him. In a few moments they were past the stone and Tharek replaced it to cover the opening to the tunnel.
Tabla cowered when Tharek lifted the cover. After he lifted Finerik up from the ledge and onto the pavement of the warehouse he turned to her. "Come, you cannot go back. Jacla will be waiting for you."
"She cannot want me after what has happened," Tabla protested.
"Today is the beginning of a new life for you. You can see the Light, I see it in your face. You fought for freedom, do not give it up so lightly. I could not have defeated those two men without you and Finerik to help me."
He reached out and took her hand and drew her forward. Her resistance was overcome by seeing the truth of what he said shining in his eyes. She reached out and lifted herself out of the cistern with only the slightest push to help her up.
Tharek followed her quickly and looked around. Someone had mounted the Stone of Truth high over the front gate in a more central position so that all the area within the warehouse wall was lighted.
Jacla hobbled toward them across the courtyard, but no one else was paid them much attention. There was an air of determined activity along the scaffolding that lined the walls. Women were bundling reeds and dipping the ends of the bundles in pitch. There were no more rags to spare for fire missiles. Men and boys were making stick and stone spears to be thrown at attackers.
Jacla threw out her arms and grabbed Tabla in a grip that sent the breath whistling from the young woman. "I knew that Tharek would find you!"
"It was Finerik who found her," Tharek said. "The two of them defeated Bechanel and then they saved me."
Jacla laughed and Tabla giggled before both of them turned and hurried away. Tharek looked around for Finerik, but the child had taken advantage of the moment and disappeared from view. At least all of them were safe within the walls of the warehouse, but Tharek wondered what he would say to the smith when he was asked about their spying venture.
"Tharek, come tell us what you learned," Barken called from the right front watchtower where he stood with Dornat and Ponon.
Tharek stopped at a barrel of water and used a rag to wipe soot from his face and arms. The water made a few scratches on his face sting and he took a sharp breath that brought a stitch of pain to his bruised chest. When he climbed the ladder to the watchtower he was reminded more keenly of the injury. Every time he lifted his right arm, a pain coursed down his length.
It was likely that one of his ribs had cracked. Such injuries were not uncommon among Mareklans who fought with staffs. Some bound them, others waited through the pain. Neither seemed to promote faster healing. In any event, there was no time to cater to his injuries. Soon he would know if Dagnet had kept his oath and brought his men to guard the perimeter of the warehouse. He needed to tell the men on the towers to watch for their possible allies.
Barken grabbed his arm and hoisted him onto the platform as soon as he set his hand on the top of the ladder. He tried to suppress the gasp of pain, but Ponon whirled and frowned at him. "You are injured!"
"I am not bleeding. I just got a bruising blow on my chest, but the other man is either dead or will be shortly. I doubt his confederates will be kind when they find out what he lost."
"We have extended the wall to the river, but it may not do much good with no one to defend it," Dornat said.
"I have Dagnet's oath that he will come and bring his men who are not already sworn to Orqu," Tharek said. "I suspect he has already fought many of those who had planned to attack us. I gave him possession of the perimeter between your new wall and the warehouse. If he manages to keep it, he will build barracks."
"Can you trust him?" Ponon asked. "Fero would promise anything to gain advantage, then turn his back on those who tried to keep him to his word as soon as it suited him."
"Dagnet is a rogue Kumnoran. He did not betray me to his men when I was briefly in his power. If he comes to us, we have the beginnings of an army. He will be the general."
"What of me and my brother?" Barken asked. "We were loyal to you from the first time we gave you our oath. Will Dagnet supplant us in your favor."
"You are the captain of my personal guard, and Ponon is your first officer. If he were older, you would be the lieutenant. Henceforth, Dagnet and his men will only come into my presence when one of you is with me. His oath to me was conditional, and although I freely accepted his one condition, I know that you are sworn entirely to my cause."
Barken's dark eyes glistened with gratitude. Ponon nodded. "You need an army. These people in the warehouse are not soldiers, even though they will fight to their last breath to keep their freedom. If he proves himself loyal, Dagnet will be a valuable ally."
"We will soon find out the truth of his oath to me," Tharek warned the others. A crowd of men moved through the rubble of burned buildings in front of the warehouse. They stopped at the wall, just beyond the range of spears and fire missiles that were being readied all along the scaffolding.
Dagnet climbed to the top of the wall with a spear held in his hand. It was twisted with a banner of wirra blue. "I have come as I promised, Tharek. Tell your guards to let us climb the wall."
Tharek turned and addressed his people. "I have Dagnet's oath to help us. If he proves himself tonight, he will be commander of my army. They are here to serve you, not to conquer."
"Can he see the Stone of Truth?" a woman's voice called out.
"Dagnet!" Tharek called. "Repeat your oath to me, then point toward the brightest light you see."
Dagnet peered around as if he could see little in the dim light of the new moon. Finally he cleared his throat. "I swear to serve Tharek and his people against the Orquians or any other enemy, with one exception. I will not lift my hand against the people of Kumnora." Suddenly his hand shot up and his finger pointed directly toward the Stone of Truth that was mounted, not where Tharek stood, as logic might have dictated, but above the gate in front of him.
"He has passed the test, his oath is good!" a woman cried. Tharek nodded and told Dagnet to bring his men inside the outer wall.
"Do you know when the attack will come?" Tharek called down to Dagnet after he had taken his position near the gate.
"It will come later than they had planned. I had just sorted out the men I felt I could trust and sent the others away when Galak attacked my stronghold. Without your warning, he would have taken me by stealth. That I am here is proof that we were able to delay and distract them. We can talk about my tactics later if you would care to listen."
Preparations continued on both sides of the warehouse wall. Dagnet scouted the perimeter area and directed some of his men to dig trenches, piling the dirt toward the outer wall. He set other men close against the inside of the wall where they could not be seen at first by the attackers.
The moon drifted lower toward the horizon and the eastern sky began to pale. The sound of raucous shouts and screams came from the direction of the pyramid and Tharek tensed. It seemed a victim had been found to satisfy the demon's hunger and charge the cultists with a frenzy they would mistake for courage.
They flooded down the front steps of the pyramid, their weapons raised and faces bloody. Heedless of the warning they were giving, they howled like wirras as they ran. To Tharek, who had heard the paralyzing screams of angry wirras on the steppes, these were pale imitations of reality.
He looked at Dagnet and saw the curl of a mocking smile. He too had heard chilling roars of the great blue-gray felines who could disembowel a corum with a single swipe. Dagnet gave a low whistle and his men came alert in the places he had assigned them. When the first wave of cultists topped the wall, they did not see the line of spears below and then behind them. They were met with a hail of spears from above and most of them faltered or fell. The few still standing were finished by Dagnet's men who rose up from the trenches and dispatched them with swords and bludgeons.
Another wave came on and were met with much the same destruction, but the following wave came close behind and this time they were forewarned of the entrenched men. They dodged the spears and ran toward the trenches, engaging Dagnet's men in hand-to-hand combat.
Yet another wave of men topped the wall, and Galak was among its numbers. They raced towards their comrades to overwhelm the men from the trenches. The men stationed beneath the shelter of the wall, ran forward, taking the attackers from the rear.
Another wave of men clambered to the top of the wall and now Tharek gave the signal for the fire missiles. Practice had improved the aim of those who lit the bundles and threw them. Few of them fell short. Most of them landed on or just beyond the wall, creating havoc in those still waiting to attack.
One of the cultists, in a last desperate action, threw his spear high and straight toward the fire throwers. It hit a woman and she stumbled backwards, falling from the scaffolding, followed by the screams of her horrified companions. Several women on the ground rushed toward her, but the first to reach her raised a tragic face when she touched the lifeless body. The loss only increased the will to fight of those who had stood beside her.
The fire missiles began to rain down like smoking hail upon the heads of any who remained near or behind the wall. Tharek surveyed the area inside the perimeter wall and saw Dagnet signal his men again. The ground was littered with the bodies of Orquians. Here and there a frenzied fight continued, but not for long. Every cultist within the wall lay dead or dying. No prisoners were taken.
Galak's long striped head-dress had unrolled and lay along the earth in a curve around his body. Dagnet's men had suffered losses as well. Some had died, and many were wounded.
Tharek climbed down from the watchtower, heedless of the pain in his chest. Barken immediately followed, guessing his master's intentions. Dagnet had kept his oath and his men were decimated. It was time to offer them the services of a healer. There were several among the women who had some knowledge of herbs and poultices. No casualties other than the one woman had occurred among those inside the warehouse, they could be generous with their service.
Tharek summoned men to bring water and tripod hearths for brewing healing tinctures and warming poultices. Then he opened the gate and led them out to help the wounded among Dagnet's men. Dagnet had been stabbed in his upper arm.
Tharek called up to Ponon. "Bring the large grey belt pouch from my room beneath my cot. There are herbs that will be useful."
"Are you a healer as well as a tyrant?" Dagnet scoffed.
"I healed my own wounds almost four years ago when Garvok almost killed me."
"Only almost? No wonder he hated you. Some thought he hunted you for some other cause, but as far as I know, you are the only man who survived his hunting."
"I think that he merely wanted to collect the price that Marnat put on my head," Tharek admitted.
"You are the prophet who pronounced the destruction of Saadena?" Dagnet grunted. "It is a pity you forced me to swear an oath to you. I could have been rich if I had realized your worth a little earlier."
"Surely it was known that Tharek was the prophet?" Barken said. "Who else could he be with such proofs as the Stone of Truth?"
Dagnet flinched when Tharek cut away the shoulder of his tunic to reveal the wound. For a few minutes the conversation paused as Tharek swabbed the wound with a stinging tincture and then pulled the edges together with a few well placed stitches. He finished his treatment with a poultice bound around Dagnet's shoulder with a strip of cloth ripped from the bottom of his tunic.
"I could have used you in my gang," Dagnet quipped. "We lost too many men to poor healers."
"It is daylight and all of us have had a long night of wariness. I could offer your men shelter inside the higher walls if you fear a return of the attackers."
"It would not be in keeping with our arrangement," Dagnet said. "I have no doubt that you can hold off what remains of the cultists. Most of the gang chiefs are dead and their ranks are decimated. I may have doubted you before, Tharek, but from this hour I believe you can safely claim to be the Tyrant of Zedekla. What remains of the old gangs and their clients, the taverns and brothels, will doubtless soon desert for other regions. As soon as we have disposed of the dead, we will begin building our barracks."
Chapter 10 Rules and Rumors
By dawn the bodies of the cultists had been carried away to the tidal flats south of the river. When the wind turned toward the sea, they were heaped with reeds and set on fire. Those who had died among the defenders were provided with caskets and carried to the area between the warehouse and the pyramid where Tharek intended to build a shrine. At noon the people gathered for the funeral ceremony, Dagnet's loyal men mingling with the people sworn to Tharek. One by one Tharek blessed the bodies and committed their souls to the care of the Radiance. No one complained at the length of the ceremony.
With a few guards on duty on the scaffolding and the towers of the warehouse to keep watch against any further incursion, the defenders finally slept. Dagnet reluctantly accepted the limitations imposed by his wound and decided that the next day would be soon enough for his depleted corps to begin work on the barracks.
Tharek had not stinted his energy or his efforts through most of two days and a night. He dragged himself wearily to his room and barely took time to take off his sash and strip off his boots before collapsing exhausted on his cot. His chest still ached and there was a remedy for the pain in one of his pouches but he lacked the energy to find it. He promised himself to get up and make a tincture after catching a nap. He woke more than fifteen hours later, logy with sleep and confused by the dreams that had swirled in his mind.
Some had borne the sense of prophetic warning that he had come to recognize and heed. Others were a jumble of events that had already occurred, sometimes transformed to fearful parodies of what had actually happened.
He was hungry, in need of a bath, and impatient to meet with those he had come to regard as his council, but he worried that once he left his room the memories of his prescient dreams would fade under the weight of present concerns. He took his journal and scribing tool from the pouch where he kept them and began to record the most urgent of his visions.
He answered when someone tapped softly on his door. When he stood to open the locked door, the pain in his chest reminded him that he still had not tended his injury. Jacla waited outside on the narrow platform. She carried a packet of matlas and a flagon that gave forth the fragrant steam of hot cala..
"How did you know I was awake and hungry?" he asked her as he took the flagon.
"I have checked now and then since I woke up this morning. I took it on myself to protect your sleep. There are several problems that only you can solve, but I convinced the others that you needed a clear head to judge between all of the counter claims that have arisen."
Tharek suppressed a sigh of weariness. It would hurt his chest to draw in as much air as he suddenly felt that he needed. He should have known this would happen when the enemy was vanquished.
"Please bring me water so I can wash. Tell those who need my mediation that I will hold court in an hour. Have Dornat construct some kind of dais at the opposite end of the courtyard from the gate."
Jacla nodded and hurried away, shutting the door behind her with exaggerated care. Tharek sat down to finish his entry in his journal, including a brief account of the events of the previous two days. Almost as soon as he had packed away his journal and his scribing tool, Jacla returned with water as well as a new tunic and a pair of boots that were only slightly too large.
Tharek thanked her for her trouble. He would have to find someone to run errands and carry away his laundry, but Jacla was not his first choice. She already displayed an attitude toward him that was more like a mother than an aide. Tharek did not object when she gathered his old boots and his dirty clothing, but he determined that this was the last time she would do so.
When Tharek walked through the compound on his way to the dais he was greeted like a king. Men and women bowed their heads to him and children were kept quiet and, where possible, out of sight. Only one child seemed immune to such suppression. Finerik gave a crow of delight and evaded his mother's frantic grab to stop him as he dashed across the courtyard and latched on to Tharek's hand.
"We won! We drove the gangs away. Ponon says that the rest of the town is deserted."
Tharek grinned down at the boy and raised his voice enough for anyone near them to hear. "We could not have done it without you Finerik. You are truly a hero."
When Tharek reached the dais, he gratefully took the seat that Dornat had provided. He asked Finerik to stay by his side, then he turned to the people who had gathered to fill the area in front of him.
"We enjoyed a victory over our enemies with the cooperation of all of you. I understand that there are disputes among you and today I will judge them as needed. You must abide by any decisions I make.
There were mutters from the gathering, but no outright objections. Bardold was first to step forward. He looked around and cleared his throat when he saw others nod and make encouraging gestures.
"We have driven away the gangs and now the town stands empty. We would like to return to our homes."
Tharek shook his head and addressed the assembly. "Bardold lived in Dagnet's district and his house is likely undamaged, but many of those who took shelter in the warehouse suffered complete loss from the fires lit by our missiles. I have foreseen that not many days will pass before we face another enemy. I have seen the warren of streets and shoddy buildings that made up Zedekla. I wish to build anew, with a strong, well defended wall to surround all your shops and habitations. Therefore, I must deny Bardold's request. Today I will give orders for the old town to be destroyed and construction to start on the outer wall."
Tharek saw Jacla give a small, satisfied nod of approval, but Bardold seemed to swell with anger. His great hands bunched into fists and his face turned red. Then his eyes were drawn to his small son who stood next to Tharek. Finerik's eyes were wide with apprehension at his father's anger.
Tharek watched as Bardold relaxed his hands and finally nodded. "You are wise to plan for the future, Tharek."
He backed away to stand by his wife and a woman walked forward. "My servant was killed when she was hit by a spear and fell from the wall. I demand compensation for her death."
"Did she volunteer to serve in the defense, or did you send her as your proxy?" Tharek inquired.
"I am afraid of heights. She went in my place while I stayed behind and assumed her duty of caring for my children."
Tharek nodded and paused as if engaged in serious consideration of her claim. "There are several issues to consider. First, if she had not taken your place, you would as likely have died. What value do you place on your life?"
"I cannot put a value my own life, but I paid twenty enas to purchase my servant from the harlot Bechanel. Surely life as a nurse to my children was better than what was intended if I had not purchased her."
Tharek looked around and saw Jacla shaking her head. He wished he could confer with the weaver, but he knew the importance of making these first decisions himself. "Under the laws of Irilik, slavery is not permitted. It is evident that the woman who died was taken as a prize from her village, not as a bond servant paying off her just debts with a period of indenture. It seems that you purchased her as a slave, which is illegal. Furthermore, you would owe the price of her life to her family since she died as your proxy. Does anyone here know where the woman was taken?"
Ponon stepped forward. "She was my cousin. My brother and I had intended to purchase her freedom, but she died before I could do so."
"What price do you claim for her life?" Tharek asked the young man. The woman who had entered the claim of compensation stared wide-eyed with shock at the turn of events.
"No price can be set on a human life," Ponon said. "Most of us have lost most of what we owned. I believe we should start fresh and forgive all old debts."
"I so decree," Tharek answered. "The woman who died will be honored as a martyr. In her honor, all bond servants will be free and all debts relieved. Tomorrow we will start fresh, working together to build a city that will stand for a hundred generations. If you seek services of another after today, you will enter into whatever contracts suit both of you, but until we have provided everyone present with a home and built the outer wall, five hours of labor a day will belong to the common good. Whatever your talent or skill, this is the levy required, unless you are ill or have a child too young to leave your own care. If you do not care to continue here under such rules, you are free to leave Zedekla and forfeit the protection provided. I will give you two hours to vacate. Anyone who stays here after the sun has set, will signal their tacit acceptance of my decrees. Those who stay will have first choice of the houses and shops we build. When others come to join us, they will make do with what remains."
He could see that his answer had taken them by surprise. There was muttering and hurried consultations between husbands and wives, but Jacla beam with satisfaction and Tharek realized that he had consistently sought out her reaction to every decision he made. She may be something of a nuisance, but he valued her wisdom.
Each appeal to his judgment had been met with more than anyone in the crowd had expected. Those who had hoped to bring their needs and disputes before Tharek seemed to think better of giving him any further grist for his ambitious programs. When there was no further appeal for his ruling, he stood and raised his voice to carry to all who had assembled.
"Zedekla will become a great city. We will follow the Laws and the Compacts that Irilik set for Okishdu. We will need additional rules for Zedekla. To that end, I will meet with the following people in the dining area when I have finished here: Ponon and Barken, my captain of guards and his lieutenant; Dornat, my architect and builder; Tinda, wife of Parga as a representative of her husband and oldest son; Jacla and Bardold as representatives of the merchants and craftsmen, and Dagnet, the head of my army. I will need others to fill out my council. Tomorrow we will hold an election for five others of your choice. From this council, I will choose judges."
His decision to meet with a council would be welcomed by those who had begun to chafe under his rule. It was likely that a chance that any one of them might be elected stopped them from choosing exile. They turned their efforts to gaining popularity among their neighbors.
Some of the more cautious men and women suggested that there was no guarantee that election to the council would give them any power over Tharek's decisions, but when Tharek began his meeting with those he had chosen, there was a hum of activity in the passages and courtyard beyond the dining area and no sign of any departures.
When all of the members of his council were seated, Tharek stood to address them. "Everyone here except Dagnet has heard my plans for rebuilding Zedekla. The first priority must be to build a defensive wall."
Dornat signaled his desire to speak and Tharek nodded. "I believe that you plan for the future, and you are one man who can truly foresee what is needed, but too much land inside the wall would make it difficult to defend. I would like to suggest a variation on the method used in Tedaka. In that city there is an inner core of buildings that can be made into a wall by the closing of gates. We can build the new town in concentric semi-circles. On the fringe there will be fields and farms with a wall the height of two men around all of them. Next will come the first shops and homes of the inner town with their outer walls built into a higher perimeter wall to protect them. Last of all, there will be a fortress where the palace will stand. There will be courtyards and rooms sufficient to hold twice the number of the current population in an emergency."
"The river and sea could provide weaknesses," Dagnet warned. "You must have a way of stopping boats from entering our port from either direction lest they bring the means of invasion."
Jacla nodded and gave a small titter. "An excellent plan. The levies collected on shipping would belong to Tharek for whatever uses he chose to put them. If this is to be a great city, no doubt much of its wealth will depend on water-borne commerce."
Bardold saw the direction of her reasoning. "With such income, there would be no need to tax the people of Zedekla. Once we have rebuilt the town and provided the outer wall, no further call will be made on our resources of time or wealth."
"It will be as it was in our village," Barken said. "We paid tolls to Saadenans to use the roads and the river, but that was the extent of our obligation."
"There will be but one exception to the imposition of levies on the port," Tharek said. "The fishermen who lived along the coast since their forefather Zedek led them here will have free passage and escape any tariffs unless they prove to be traitors."
"Who will pay for the army?" Dagnet growled.
"Every man who served with you will receive a house and a plot of ground in equal share with every other household," Tharek said. "It will give them something to fight for. In addition, they will be paid a wage according to the hours they serve. If there is a sudden need for more people to back up our defenses, we will do as we did yesterday, supplementing the army with other citizens. Regular practice in arms will be expected of every adult."
Dagnet seemed to like the arrangement but he raised another question. "I told my men that we would have barracks, yet you insist that an outer wall is the first priority."
"I have only a vague idea of the number of men and women living within the warehouse, but it seems to me that there are more than enough of them to perform the tasks I have set with enough left over to build other structures. Your men are free to work on their barracks if you choose."
Dornat nodded. "There are many different tasks to perform before we can begin building the wall, beginning with walking the bounds of the mid-wall that marks the limits of the city inside the agricultural belt. Meanwhile, the barracks for Dagnet's men can be built according to an existing plan that I prepared for the Pontic of Jama. The fool preferred not to implement it."
"I approve your plan," Tharek said. "Are there any other concerns?"
"We must have a Shrine of the Radiance," Tinda said.
"It could be built close to the palace."
Tharek's eyes met Dornat's subtle smile. It was well that the suggestion had come from a woman who represented the original inhabitants of Zedekla. "I have longed to build a Shrine," Dornat said. "No one family or person should provide the cost or labor. I will willingly give my talents and supervision as soon as we can be sure of our safety."
"It would not seem a real city unless we built a Shrine," Bardold affirmed. All of the other members of the council nodded and after a brief hesitation, as if he followed their lead, Tharek bowed his head.
"It shall be done. This evening when I give the Evening Ritual, I will announce the plans to build a Shrine. It is nearing the dinner hour and soon the dining area will be needed. If there are no other immediate concerns, I will dismiss this meeting. We will meet twice a week, but in the meantime, if any of you have concerns, let Finerik know that you need to talk to me."
"Finerik!" Jacla exclaimed. "He is only a child."
"He will grow in the post of being my aide," Tharek said. "While Zedekla is in its infancy, a boy is sufficient to run my errands and remind me of appointments. He is sometimes impulsive, but he is far more than he seems."
Tharek's chest had begun to ache again and he felt the strain of the past few hours. He walked with the others to the opening of the dining area and found Finerik standing just inside the door. The wide grin on the boy's face betrayed that he had been listening to their meeting. Perhaps he should receive a reprimand, but Tharek sensed that one of Finerik's most useful talents could prove to be his ability to eavesdrop unseen.
"I brought you this," Finerik said. "I was looking for my knife in your room and I noticed that you had boiled some water. It smelt like medicine so I thought you had made it for yourself since it was still warm."
Tharek took the cup and drank down the bitter contents in one long draft. When he had finished he took the knife from his sash and handed it to Finerik. "I thank you, scamp. By the way, I do not leave good knives lying around in my room where anyone might discover them. I was going to return this to you, but I was distracted."
Tharek asked Finerik to fetch him a plate of dinner, then he retired to his room. The white robe hung on a peg near the door with the blue shawl of priesthood beside it. He was entitled to wear it both by birth and by ordination, but it seemed a real challenge to balance his duties between the sacred and the secular. He was aching and tired and for a few moments he stretched out on his narrow cot and thought about his actions since entering Zedekla.
With one hand he ordered a war, with the other conducted a funeral. How had he come to this? He searched his memory for the first intimations that he would have the burden of ruling a city. Certainly there was nothing in his childhood as a Mareklan, a clan with no kings and no cities, that had prepared him.
In retrospect he could see that he had dominated first Darm, then Fozli, his companions on the failed quest that had become a calling to warn Saadena. He had been in the close company of an emperor, a forest chief, and the rulers of Ovishang, and his friendship with Marinin, the emperor's sister, had brought him into an acquaintance with one of Taleeka's councilors, but there was surely a difference between knowing rulers and being one.
The pace of the past days had left him very little time for reflection, but now he thought of the schooling in leadership he had received as his path meandered across Okishdu. In the years since being sent away from his clan for the crime of picking up a sword he had been in the presence of many rulers. Each had taught him something of the responsibilities of rule, sometimes by awful example.
Marnat still stood as the worst possible case of misused power. The emperor had been both arbitrary and unjust. Then there was the timidity of Charash who had once been High Priest in Timora. His failure to act had enabled evil.
Tharek thought of the months he had spent as a virtual slave among the tribe of Alacota in the remote southern jungles. More than most of the leaders he had met, the chief had been a good example of wisdom and justice.
Someone knocked at his door, interrupting Tharek's musings and he invited them to enter, assuming it would be Finerik with his meal. Instead Tabla entered Tharek scrambled to his feet.
"Jacla had another errand for Finerik, so she sent me to bring your dinner," the girl said with a shy smile.
"I will have to instruct Jacla to abide by my orders in the future," Tharek replied sternly. He saw the quiver of Tabla's lips and knew he had injured her feelings.
"I do not mean to offend you. I do not question your motives, but I feel it might be misconstrued by others if they see you come to my private quarters."
"They will think I am playing the harlot," she acknowledged with eyes cast down with chagrin.
"There is some risk of that. Everyone here knows that you were rescued from Bechanel's house. Gossip itself is an evil, but it would be well to avoid even the appearance of anything unbecoming between us. I would not have you become the subject of rumor."
Tabla gave him a warm smile to show she understood and forgave him for any offense. "I will make certain that Jacla does not send me on such errands in the future."
As soon as she left Tharek latched his door and began eating his dinner. It was just as well he had put some distance between himself and Tabla. She was an attractive young woman, but even though Shira seemed to hate him, she still held his heart. It was good that he had plenty to do while he waited until her period of mourning for her husband ended. It sometimes seemed that he had already destroyed anything that may have grown between them when he had accepted the token of leadership from her father.
He bowed his head and cleared his mind of every concern other than what he should say to the people who had come to regard him as their leader. As he donned the robe of priestly office he felt a flow of strength rise through him.
Tharek climbed to the top of the watchtower and looked over the people who had gathered below him in the courtyard. He raised his hands and gave the evening ritual. At the end, he asked a blessing on his plans to build a Shrine dedicated to the Radiance. When he lowered his hands and opened his eyes, he saw the glint of tears on the cheeks of the people looking up at the light from the Stone of Truth above him and rejoiced. Being a ruler was a difficult and tiresome business, but being the leader of his people was a blessing.
He woke early and bounded from his cot, only to be struck with an aching reminder of his wounded ribs. He brewed a dose of medicine while he wrote about the events of the previous day in his journal. When he finished he decided to take a bath before he ate. With a river and the sea within reach and the enemy vanquished, there was really nothing to interfere with his desire to be clean.
He found a dull brown tunic stacked among others on shelves near his bed and slipped into it. His new boots were heeled and he feared they would rattle on the steps of the ladder so he left his feet bare and hurried down to the base of the watchtower.
Before he was halfway to the door, Ponon and Barken were by his side. Each of them carried a bundle of tools and wooden shapes along with their swords and they seemed intent on staying near him. "I was just going out to take a bath," he explained, hoping to shake them.
"We will enjoy some freedom from this crowding," Barken happily rejoined.
"Everyone we meet is soliciting votes for their favorites," Ponon added. "I would just as soon leave until the vote is taken."
A small shape darted across the courtyard and grabbed Tharek's tunic. "You forgot to tell me you were going out. I told Jacla not to try and trick me into letting Tabla serve you again."
Tharek granted the three of them their wishes to accompany him. "Come, if we wait any longer to leave, we will have half the people following us."
The latch on the small door in the gate opened easily. Dagnet stood just outside talking to one of his men and he turned when Tharek exited from the compound. "Is there anything you need me to do for you?" he asked.
"I planned to take a private bath in either the river or the sea, but as you can see, I no longer have the privilege of privacy," Tharek said.
Dagnet nodded. "I am happy to see that your men know their duty. There is still some danger of lurking Orquians. It is best that all of you take weapons with you."
Ponon and Barken were already armed, but Finerik was delighted to be provided with a short sword that was little more than a big, broad knife. Tharek settled for a sturdy staff. They went to the back of the perimeter wall where it edged the river and walked along the bank until they reached the beginning of the dunes.
"The river is full of silt, the sea is full of salt, but I know where there is a spring with warm water," Finerik said when Tharek pondered where he should bathe.
They followed the boy up the beach until the dunes gave way to cliffs. Finerik pointed to a patch of green on the face of one of the cliffs. "My brothers and I discovered this place. We kept it to ourselves, but I think the fishermen know about it."
Tharek climbed up the sharp slope of a turn-back trail after Finerik, leaving Barken and Ponon on guard at the base of the cliff. A little rivulet trickled down toward the narrow bight, belying the idea that there was much water to be found at the end of the ascent.
When they drew closer, Tharek saw that another stream ran down the cliff at a different angle. In a few more steps, he was in the midst of the vegetation that screened a shallow pond. Mist curled above the water.
"Be careful," Finerik warned. "It is cool enough to enjoy near the outer edges, but we were able to cook eggs near the center where it is deeper."
Tharek thought of the spring-fed baths of Timora where natural hot water was mingled with cool streams. There might be some way to harness the heat of this spring without destroying its beauty. He would have to consult with Dornat about the possibilities.
While he planned how to bring hot water to his future palace, he discarded his clothing and stuck his toes into the water to test its heat. Meanwhile Finerik had stripped off his tunic and loincloth and waded waist deep with a crow of delight.
The warm water eased the ache of Tharek's injuries when he settled into the pool. Duty forced him to shorten the pleasure of his first real bath in more than a week but he resolved to make it a daily occurrence.
He had dressed again and was tying his sash when he heard a shout from the bottom of the cliff. He grabbed up his staff and ran to look over the ledge to the beach below. Five men with staffs in their hands were circling Ponon and Barken. Finerik edged near Tharek and peered down.
Tharek turned to the boy. "Go up the cliff and cut back to the compound. Bring help. I will do what I can to distract the attackers."
Finerik nodded and darted away. When he was certain the boy was gone, Tharek stepped out on the ledge and shouted for attention.
"I am Tharek. I defy you to take me."
His challenge distracted the men below and two of them started up the cliff toward him. That narrowed the odds against Ponon and Barken and they took advantage of the momentary diversion. Tharek picked up some large stones and tossed them downward at the men climbing toward him. One of them took a hit on his shoulder and lost his balance. He tumbled backward, rolling down the steep slope, but staggering to his feet again when he reached the beach below.
The other continued to climb. As he drew closer, Tharek noticed his manner of dress. "You are a fisherman."
"We are friends of Parga, come to avenge his death."
"Who told you Parga had died?"
"Four men came to our village yesterday. They were desperate for food and water. They paid us well for the provisions and told us that someone named Tharek had murdered our friend."
"They lied. Parga's is alive, but I am his successor. Look, I wear the token of rule in his stead."
"The man on the cliff beneath him snarled and spat. "They told us how you had killed Parga's sons and raped his daughter. They said you had burned the town and we saw the evidence in the smoke that rose two nights ago."
"Would you believe Parga's wife Tinda?"
"We are not the last who will come to avenge your crimes," the man threatened. "The men who warned us of your treachery will spread word along the coast until your infamy is known from Otaliafa to the island of Arqua."
Tharek felt reluctant to injure a man who should have been his ally, but he had little choice. He waited until the fisherman drew closer, then with a swipe of his staff he sent him tumbling down the cliff. Meanwhile Ponon and Barken were gaining ascendancy over the three men who remained to fight them. Down the beach, Finerik ran toward the cliff leading Dagnet and some of his men.
Tharek leaned over the ledge and shouted. "Don't kill them. They are friends of Parga."
His warning came just in time. Barken had been about to plunge his sword into one of the fishermen. Instead, he pulled his stroke and punched the man in the stomach instead. Within a few minutes the group of attackers were subdued.
The fishermen were sullen and stubbornly uncooperative as they were led back to the compound. Finerik, lagging at first because of his frantic run, found the hidden energy source that seems common to children, and ran ahead to alert Tinda. She waited just inside the warehouse when the fishermen were pushed forward through the gate.
"Basha, Farbul, what are you doing? What has been done to you and your sons?" Tinda cried. With mixed reproof and sympathy, she summoned Jacla to help her with their wounds and assured them of Tharek's honesty and good intent.
The incident sobered those who were preparing to vote for additional members of the council. The popularity of those who had appealed for support on the basis of undermining Tharek's authority ebbed. The names of the nominees were displayed on a board with a long shelf beneath it. Under each name was a narrow necked pot of unglazed pottery with another board to block the opening on top from sight. Each citizen was handed two beans marked with a dot of red paint. One by one they walked down the length of the shelf and held their hand over each pot, but only two pots received the beans of any given person.
"Jacla came up with this method of voting," Dornat told Tharek as they waited for the voting to end. "It lends privacy to the process because it is nearly impossible to tell when someone drops a bean."
The fishermen seemed fascinated by the process. When everyone had voted Tharek asked Basha and Farbul, the two fathers among the fishermen, to count the results. "You are strangers among us and cannot be accused of favoritism."
When the count was finished, the results were posted. Fortunately, there was a clear majority for those elected. Tharek asked all who belonged to the council to stand. "These are the men and women who will advise me. I will listen to them, and some will become your judges. You may talk to them and give suggestions, but Zedekla will be plagued by war until my time of rule is finished. Make no mistake. I am the ultimate earthly authority in this domain. Anyone who tries to combine against me will fail."
Tharek's face was grave as he spoke, but the morning's attack had also sobered the people. When the gong rung for the noon meal, Tinda took the fishermen in charge to lead them to the dining hall. Tharek wanted to follow and share the fellowship of the others, but he sensed that it would be better to continue his practice of dining alone. He climbed the ladder to his room and found Finerik waiting for him.
"I got the water boiling, but I didn't know which herbs to use."
Tharek was tempted to reach out and tousle the boy's hair, but it might destroy the sense of dignity he sensed in his young aide. Instead, he pulled out his pouch of medicines and showed Finerik which packet contained the herbs he needed to quell the pain in his chest.
As soon as the infusion had cooled enough to drink, Finerik hurried away. In a few minutes he returned with a cup of nuka juice and a plate of breadberries stewed with meat. Tharek gravely thanked him, then dismissed him.
The remedy took effect and the pain in Tharek's ribs began to fade. The sound of people laughing and talking drifted up to his window from the courtyard below. It was a peaceful sound, and today they had gained a few allies. They had also learned of the threat of others who would come to challenge them because of mischievous rumors started by their enemies. It was unlikely that all would yield with as little damage as Basha and Farbul and their sons.
Chapter 11 Walls
Tharek took out his journal after he finished eating. He found it helped him organize his thinking when he wrote things down. Even after he finished an account of the attack and the voting, his thoughts seemed scattered. He had so much to think about and he had taken so much upon himself that any error could easily cascade into disaster.
The feeling of self-disgust and doubt began to well and Tharek recognized the influence of the Liar in his mind. He had done a lot of public praying in the past few days, but he had grown careless about his private devotions. It was not enough to murmur an occasional rebuke to the Liar using the holy name of Yasa Dom, he must meditate and focus.
In Timora a period of time for prayer or rest occupied the early afternoon. The climate in the vale was warm and humid, but there were other excellent reasons to pursue the practice. Tharek resolved to set aside a regular period of silence and solitude each day. This seemed a good time to begin.
When he finally stood from his devotions, he felt prepared to face a long and busy afternoon. He must meet with the entire council, including the new members. Dornat had mentioned the need to walk the bounds of the wall when it could be done safely. It was unlikely that there would be any time safer than today with the enemy still disorganized and in retreat.
Finerik knocked at his door just as he finished changing. "The council members stayed in the dining area after lunch was finished. They thought you would want to meet with them."
Tharek sent Finerik running with a message that he would soon be with them. The tunic wore was dusty and the dull brown color was better suited to avoiding notice than inviting attention. He selected a dark blue tunic and belted it with his final length of wirra hide. He left his belt pouches in his room, but he wore the two pouches that held the crystal lens that betokened his office and the Stone of Truth. Before leaving the watchtower, he climbed up to the platform and retrieved his staff.
When he entered the eating area he carried all the tokens of his calling and office. The members of the council sat up and paid attention when he stopped at the head of the table. He looked around at them and nodded with a grave expression.
"Today is the true beginning of the city of Zedekla. Hitherto it has been either a fishing village or a stopping place for thugs." Tharek looked toward Dagnet who gave a slight ironic smile indicating that he took no offense.
"Other people will come, but we are the founders. If you persist through the hard months of building up the city, you will be richly reimbursed when it becomes a center of trade and commerce. There will be a time when the city will spread beyond the furthest walls that we can build in our current circumstances, but by then, Zedekla will be the greatest city in Okishdu and no army will successfully assault it. Just as in Saadena, the danger will come from within."
Some members of the council shifted in their seats and tried to keep their eyes from straying to the other members. Jacla said what many of them seemed to be thinking."Who will be the cause of danger? Surely you can find out before there is any need for concern if you use the Stone of Truth."
Tharek remembered Darm's conservative feelings about the use of the holy token. Perhaps he had been too quick to use it for every exigency. "I have been using the Stone of Truth to summon the worthy and light the arenas of our battles, but henceforth, it will be kept from public sight. I will use it for the most serious examinations such as when there seem to be irreconcilable differences between two claimants in a suit or when a crime has been committed and there is no confession. Otherwise, we will decide matters of dispute with deduction and arbitration. Those of you who were elected doubtless know your constituency. They will come to you with petitions and complaints. You must help them gain resolution where possible and pass along the serious matters to the judges who have been chosen from among you. To discourage frivolous suits, the judges will be compensated by the one found guilty among the complaining parties."
Bardold squinted his eyes and rubbed his forehead with both sets of fingers. Tharek sensed his concern and asked why he was troubled. "It seems that those of us whom you have chosen as members of your council have many duties, other than whatever small compensation is part of being a judge, where is our benefit?"
"If you wish to resign in favor of another, I will approve your choice," Tharek said.
Bardold looked around and his lips twisted with indecision. Finally he shook his head again. "I guess there is some advantage to being first to know what will be done."
Jacla tittered. "Think of Saaden, Janak, and the other men who Irilik chose as his first council. You will someday be seen in much the same light by your own descendants. I will gladly continue on the council, even though I have no posterity to benefit from my association with Tharek."
"What should we do first?" Ponon asked.
"We must choose someone to record the decisions I make after I have listened to your counsel," Tharek said. "It will help us build a set of precedents that will augment the law. I may play the part of Tyrant, but as far as possible, I would prefer to rely on the insight and wisdom of all of you."
He looked around for a volunteer, but no one met his eyes. "All of you except Dagnet must have some knowledge of writing. He was raised Kumnoran and they avoid the requirement to be literate by memorizing laws. For the rest of you, there is no such excuse."
"I know numbers and accounting, but it has been a long time since I had to read anything in order to conduct my business," Jacla said. One by one the others nodded in agreement.
"Tabla's father was the priest-chief of our village," Barken said. "He taught all of us to read, but few really remember all he taught. His own children were expected to remember past their first pilgrimage. Tabla read and wrote as well as her father. She could keep the council records."
Jacla beamed with pride to learn that her protege was skilled enough to serve. "Tabla is an excellent apprentice, but she can easily take time to do this as well."
Finerik stood near the door and he turned to dash away even before Tharek nodded his agreement with the appointment. Within a few minutes the boy returned with Tabla. She sent an apologetic glance toward Tharek but he beckoned to her. "We have learned that you are skilled enough to serve as our scribe. I think there are others here who know more about the inventory of the warehouse. See if you can find some scroll cloth and a set of scribing tools and ink. I doubt Fero needed any for himself, but it might have been among the booty that he took from others."
Tinda, Parga's wife stood. "I purchased a bundle of scroll cloth from Mareklans for keeping accounts, but I never used it. Parga usually made informal agreements and seldom kept track of debts. I will fetch the materials you need."
Fredyar, a carpenter, brought up the subject of the walls that Tharek planned to build around the city. "If there is such an urgent need for walls, would it not be better if we built of wood first, then replaced the palisade with stone?"
Tharek saw Dornat's subtle shake of the head and guessed his sentiments. "Wood is rare here in Zedekla. Even if we pull down all the remaining timber houses, it will not be sufficient to build what we require. On the other hand, there are several sources of stone close at hand. I would prefer to see us build with materials that will not catch fire. The wood can be preserved for other uses such as furnishings and boats." Dornat's slight smile confirmed his decision.
Fredyar frowned, but Bardold held his hand out to the carpenter. "After donating our daily quota of labor, we will have time to make a profit. I want to commission you to make a bedstead for my home."
Fredyar's face brightened. "I will exchange furnishings for your home for tools for my shop. Some of my best chisels and saws were confiscated by the thugs who claimed the part of town where I lived and worked."
The other council members began arranging similar exchanges. The mood had changed from misgiving to enthusiasm by the time Tinda returned with the writing materials. Tharek called the council to order and concluded the meeting by repeating what had been decided while Tabla made a record.
When the meeting ended Dagnet and Dornat stayed behind. Tabla packed away her scribing tool and scroll cloth and began to follow the others, closely followed by Ponon and Barken who vied for the privilege of carrying her bundles.
Tharek raised his voice slightly to stop the trio before they reached the exit. "Tabla, I would like to have you come with us and record our decisions. We must walk the bounds of the wall we plan to build."
Ponon and Barken turned back as well and Tharek nodded. "I need both of you to come along and keep watch."
"Should I bring some of my men along as well?" Dagnet asked.
"Five armed men should be sufficient," Tharek answered, lifting his staff just enough to let them know that he included himself in the number. "From what I have observed of Tabla, she will act sensibly if we are attacked."
They left the warehouse by way of the small door in the front gate. Dagnet stopped and briefly consulted with his men who were busy building barracks before joining them to walk the bounds.
Dornat led the way around the perimeter of the outer wall until they reached the river. Several paces from the corner of the wall along the river there was another door.
"We must have a means for stopping boats that come down the river," Dagnet said.
"I suggest that we build the city wall on either side of the river," Dornat replied. "We can build a bridge to span the river from wall to wall. The center span could be set on a swivel or a pulley to accommodate the masts of those we favor. If we fear an invasion, we could drop bars or chains to block the channel."
"We might just as easily be attacked from the sea," Dagnet countered. "It might be better to establish a navy capable of keeping enemies away from our shores."
"We need the means to obstruct the river as well as building a navy," Tharek said. "I will speak to Parga about organizing a defensive fleet when he returns."
They continued upriver until they passed the last rubble of the section of the town that had been burned. Dagnet slowed and looked around, but Dornat continued. His eyes were focused on a small hill set well back from the river. Tharek had suspected that there might be a conflict between his commander and his architect about the siting of the wall, but Dagnet hurried to catch up with the others who were still following Dornat.
Neither one of the men spoke until everyone had climbed to the top of the hill. Dornat kept busy with his level, using it to determine which of the nearby hills stood higher.
"If you build out this far, the wall could be too long for us to defend," Dagnet finally said.
"We would waste our efforts if we try to build a smaller wall," Dornat contended. "Have you ever been to Saadena or seen the ramparts of Janaka's central city? Their walls were marked out centuries ago by their first fathers, Janak and Saaden. They must have based their work on what they knew of cities in Kishdu. Tharek says that this will be a city greater than either of those that I have mentioned. We would be fools to ignore the example of those who had such knowledge."
Dagnet shook his head. "I was only thinking of the danger of delaying our defense by taking on more than we can manage. Many of my men were wounded or killed and I have no real prospect of gaining new recruits."
"We will not make any effort to defend the wall until we have finished building it," Tharek said. "In the meantime, if we are attacked, we can take shelter behind the walls that Dornat has already caused to be built. I promise you, Dagnet, that in time you will have more difficulty finding space for barracks than finding men to man the defenses Dornat builds."
"This hillock gives a good line of sight along the river," Dornat said, returning to their primary purpose. "It is the furthest outcropping of the ridge that forms the cliffs where you were ambushed earlier this morning. If we build a watchtower on each of these five hills," he said, indicating his plans with a sweep of his hand, "We will have the advantage of using the cliff face on the beach as part of our defense."
"I thought you planned to build a wall around the town and another, further out, around the fields and farms," Dagnet reminded Dornat. "It seems to me that this wall would be the further rampart."
"You are right to remind us about our initial plan," Tharek said. "Zedekla seems hardly more than a huddle of huts and rubble from this distance, but I can recognize Finerik hanging over the side of the watchtower. The outer barrier will be as much beyond this wall as this hill is beyond the walls of the warehouse. I approve of your plan, Dornat. We will mark the places where the watchtowers will be built. What do you suggest for the south side of the river?"
"From the bridge tower on the far side of the river we should build three more towers, the final one built up against the harbor." Once again he demonstrated with his hand and Tabla, who had been silently observing and listening to their words, began to sketch the plan.
"You are ambitious," Dagnet muttered. "How will you achieve all this work Tharek? I know that you expect a certain number of hours of labor from everyone, but it could take years to complete this scheme even if everyone gives an honest portion of their time. I predict that they will soon tire of working so hard on your grandiose plans."
"As long as I remain the Tyrant, anyone who hopes to settle in Zedekla must give time toward the defenses before they will be allowed to stay. Others will come. Some may choose to serve as soldiers, others may serve to build the city, not only as laborers, but in other trades. For instance, Tabla is acting as a scribe, and you as my commander."
"Surely I should have other compensation for the time I spend," Dagnet protested. "I can hardly do what is needed as a soldier in only a few hours a day."
"The time you serve above the amount owed to the city will be reimbursed," Tharek assured him. "The same is true of any whose duties are extensive, such as my guards, Dornat, and Finerik."
The mention of the child broke the tension and Dagnet gave a huff of air that might have been a chuckle. "It is good to know that I stand equal with your messenger. I still believe that you are overreaching, but I pledged my support. I suggest that we set up signal beacons on these hills with watchmen ready to send up flares if there are any signs of invaders. The soldiers stationed on the hills could also help defend the workers when the building begins."
Dornat's face brightened at the suggestion and he settled into a discussion of procedures with Dagnet. Tharek felt relieved to see an alliance form between them. Dagnet was a talented leader or he could not have survived in the cutthroat town of Zedekla as a relatively decent man. It was evident that he had little knowledge of the strategies of great generals of the past. Dornat, on the other hand, had studied arms and tactics as part of designing fortifications. As they learned to respect each other and work together, they might exceed the best military leaders that any other city could command.
"We should continue our walking of the bounds before it grows too late," Tharek prompted the two men when Ponon and Barken began to compete for Tabla's attention with small gallantries. Ponon had picked a tiny flower for her and Barken, not to be outdone, showed her how to make an ornament from twisted grass.
Dagnet became increasingly enthusiastic about Dornat's plan for the wall when he saw for himself how the hills the architect had chosen gave a clear view over the surrounding countryside. The sun hovered above the horizon when they reached the palisade of seaside cliffs and turned south toward the warehouse.
They saw Tinda by the river showing several women how to seine for fish. "Will you need my services any longer?" Tabla asked. "I would like to take some fish to Jacla."
"I will review what you have written in the morning," Tharek said. "You have spent most of the afternoon keeping notes. Go with the other women if you wish."
Ponon and Barken knew their duty and continued on with the other men. Tharek noticed that the two brothers avoided speaking to each other. Their rivalry over Tabla might prove to be a problem. At least they were not exchanging taunts or blows.
When they entered the compound, Tharek sent Barken to relieve the watch on the northeast watchtower and asked Ponon to find Finerik for him. In his absence a good deal of work had been done. Fredyar the carpenter supervised a group finishing the scaffolding.
The west side of the central compound was the scene of a lively trade in foodstuffs. There were heaps of tubers and buckets of shell-fish along with other evidences of food gathering. Jacla had set up a simple loom to make patterned belts. In the opposite corner of the compound, a group of boys practiced with spears under the eye of Bardold.
Dagnet looked around and whistled almost soundlessly. "I thought that when you left the warehouse to walk the bounds, these people would take their ease. My men often accused them of being lazy."
"Did you know that your men threatened them with arson to get payments for 'protection'?" Tharek asked.
Dagnet met Tharek's eyes and shook his head. "I was too lax. I was proud that I was a better chief than any of the other gang leaders, but it appears that I was wrong. Are my men free to gather food for themselves, or should we continue to depend on you?"
"I am certain that none of your men have empty belt pouches. I noticed that when we carried the invaders to the mud flats, none of them were still wearing the armlets and torques that they wore when they came over the wall. I will give them leave to enter the compound and purchase food. I will hold you to account for their behavior when they come inside the warehouse. If they would rather hunt and fish for themselves, they may do so. I am certain that you will make them see the sense of this arrangement."
Dagnet nodded with a rueful smile and exited through the small door in the front gate, leaving Tharek alone with Dornat who seemed eager to get his project underway. "When can we begin construction of the wall?" Tharek asked.
"I will ask Dagnet to send men to the hill-tops at first light in the morning," Dornat replied. "I will meet with those who volunteer to build the first watchtower and explain my plans. It is likely we can have the watchtowers up within the next three months. The wall may take many months to build, but I agree with you that without a wall, Zedekla will not survive as you intend. The land is rich and with the recent rain, there is already a strong growth of grass. People will migrate to Zedekla to build farms in the shadow of the protection we can offer if our plans succeed. Otherwise, the city might degenerate into nothing more than another place such as Jama where rascals sell the freedom of others for their own comfort."
Bardold hurried toward them and Tharek turned to see what he wanted, but the smith was interested in talking to Dornat and drew him aside. Tharek looked around for Finerik, but neither the boy nor Ponon could be seen. Everyone else seemed to be busy and Tharek felt awkward standing all alone in the center of the courtyard.
He turned and walked toward the watchtower. He had created a separation between himself and his people by eating alone. The distance was as much a product of the role he had chosen for himself as the awe with which many seemed to regard him. Even though there were a few who were willing to approach him as a comrade, he could count none of them as friends like Darm and Fozli. There were always subtle walls set in place by the Stone of Truth and the Sword of the Wizard Smith that he carried.
He thought of Shira. She did not seem overawed by anything about him, but there were other walls standing between them. She seemed to suspicious of his motives and resented his success where her father had failed. Perhaps she would hate him even more if she found herself attracted to him. How could she forgive herself for such a thing while she was still in the midst of painful mourning for her murdered husband?
Tharek could not imagine himself finding happiness with any other woman than Shira. Perhaps when months had passed and the outer wall was finished, the wall around Shira's heart would begin to crumble.
Chapter 12 Preparation
Finerik came up to Tharek's room with a plate of roasted fish and braised water root. "I gathered these myself while you were walking the bounds," the boy boasted.
Tharek tested the fish a little gingerly, but even though the skin was nearly black, the inside was moist and done exactly as he preferred. When he nodded, Finerik grinned. "Jacla showed me how to make it. She said I should pay attention while it cooked and not go play with my friends until I served you."
The sound of other children playing came through the window and Tharek nodded. "I am pleased with what you brought me. Please give Jacla my thanks for teaching you. You may go now."
After Finerik hurried away, Tharek stood and watched out the window as he joined the other children in the courtyard below. They greeted him with shouted invitations to join them in their game. His elevation to messenger had made him popular.
Tharek finished his supper and changed into his white robe to perform the evening ritual. When he climbed to the platform and raised his hands, it took a few minutes for the people to gather, giving him a chance to watch them before he began to pray. They had become a community under the pressure of adversity in the past few days. He saw some of Dagnet's men mingling with the crowd below. Dagnet stood with Dornat and his family. The goodwill between them promised a smooth course for their discussion of the defenses.
Tharek put his thoughts into his prayer, pleading with the Radiance to help his people guard against contention and envy. In the days ahead, as properties were selected and assigned, the current cordiality would be tested.
When he finished the ritual, Tharek returned to his room and sorted through his clothing. The dirty tunic from his adventure on the beach needed washing along with several other garments. He piled them together and carried them down to the river. He was used to caring for his own needs and it would be too much to ask of Finerik.
In the twilight he saw a group of others with the same idea. When he drew closer, he realized that they were Dagnet's men and he hesitated. If they chose they could easily overcome him with no one to see the attack. Dagnet had given him an oath that was confirmed by the Stone of Truth, but these men had given him no reason to trust them. Before he could turn and go back into the compound, one of them hailed him.
"It seems you are not too high and mighty to wash your own underwear," one man said.
"Beware of asking a woman to do your laundry," another cautioned. "They will see it as the beginning of a courtship."
Tharek returned their banter. "It could be even worse. Jacla wants to treat me like a son. Soon she would have me marrying a woman of her choice."
"The best thing for any man is to learn to do for himself," one man asserted. "It leaves him free to choose a woman from something other than desperation for clean clothes and well cooked food."
"You act as if you are swamped by eager maidens clamoring to wash your dirty clothes and make your meals," his companion said with a snort of amusement. "If you have any extra eager maidens, send them to me."
By the time Tharek had finished wringing out the last piece of clothing, most of the men had left the washing boulders. One of them offered to stay and keep watch. "You never know what you might encounter late at night with no one around to help you."
Tharek accepted his offer. "Tell me your name," he said as he finished his laundry and started back to the compound.
"I am Farbor, son of Karpir of Theoda clan."
"I am surprised you left your fellow warriors in Janaka to join a gang."
"My clan no longer fights as they did in former days," Farbor said. "Two old champions meet on the battleground and fight our battles. I wanted something more, so I left the mountains and drifted until I came to Zedekla. Dagnet was the only gang boss who offered something more than mere paid murder. He never raided undefended villagers."
"What did he do to become one of the most powerful of the bosses in Zedekla?" Tharek asked.
"He is clever. He stirred up rivalries among the other gangs. When they were ripe to fight, he offered to help the weaker in return for pay. By playing one side against the other, Dagnet kept the other gangs from growing strong. Fero suspected Dagnet's methods. He was getting ready to challenge us. Once his compound was finished, he began to build support among Orquians. Those of us who think the demon worshipers are filth were eager to fight with you against them."
They reached the line of tents where Dagnet and his men camped and Tharek said goodnight to Farbor. The secrets the young man had shared with him were perturbing. If Dagnet thrived by spreading discord, would he try to do the same again, or had he truly seen advantage to himself by joining in a greater cause?
He stopped by Dagnet's tent and gave him instructions to assemble teams of men to go out early the next morning. The Kumnoran nodded his approval of the plan.
"I sent out scouts as soon as I returned from walking the bounds with you. They reported no sign of enemy activity. I suspect that the survivors left for easier prey until they can regroup."
"Farbor seems a good man to set at the head of one of the teams," Tharek suggested. "But I will only recommend that you appoint him. You surely know which of your men you can trust."
Dagnet nodded. "Farbor is young, but he is clever and seems honest. I am surprised that you know of him."
"We had an interesting conversation after I joined some of your men at the river to do my laundry."
Dagnet's eyebrow rose in tandem with the corner of his mouth, hinting that Tharek had surprised him. "I can see that you keep well informed, even if it means making friends with Janakans."
"One of my closest friends is a Janakan. The clans will come to use my name as an oath of hatred, but as individuals, they can be loyal allies. Come, walk with me back to the compound."
As they passed among the tents, several of Dagnet's men gave friendly greetings to Tharek. Dagnet grunted ruefully when they reached the entry door. "You have a way of winning hearts that I find disconcerting. I should not blame my men when I find myself willing to follow you on what seems an impossible venture."
"I sometimes think it is impossible myself," Tharek said with a slight grin. He said farewell to Dagnet and gave the signal to be admitted to the compound. As soon as he reached his room, he recorded his impressions of the day. The official records would be kept by Tabla, but the journal would remind him of the things he could not share with others.
When morning came he rose and dressed quickly. When he heard soft tapping at his door, he expected to find Finerik with his breakfast. But he found Tabla waiting on the narrow platform with the records she had made. He had told her that he wanted to review them with her, and she must have known that his room was the only place where they could confer without interruption. He could not fault her, but he could not risk the gossip that would spread if it was learned that they had been alone together in his quarters.
He reached for the scroll she carried. "Give the record to me. After I review what you have written, I will meet with you. Please ask Dornat to find a space that I could use as an office."
"One of the storage rooms near the gate is nearly empty. I could clear it out and furnish it for you," she said
The night watch came down the ladder and gave the two of them an interested look. Tabla made an open gesture of giving Tharek the piece of scroll cloth and hurried down the ladder while the man could watch her leave.
When Tharek studied her notes, he found them accurate and neat. Her champions, Barken and Ponon, had not exaggerated. The thought reminded him of the growing problem of their rivalry for Tabla's favor. At the moment he found it amusing, but it could grow serious. Which of them would make the better husband? Tharek caught the direction of his thoughts and chuckled ruefully. He was not her father. If Jacla had her way, he would court Tabla himself.
He stayed in his room only long enough to make certain that Tabla had gone. The room she had suggested as an office room was across the compound and it was likely that she had hurried straight away to clear a space.
As soon as Tharek reached the foot of the stairs, Finerik ran up to him with a cup and plate. "I came as quickly as I could," the boy panted.
Tharek sat down and faced the child. "While I sit here on this post and eat my breakfast, I want you to find Dornat and bring him to me."
Finerik was off almost as soon as Tharek took the cup from him. By the time he had eaten the cheese filled matla and drained the cup of cala, he saw Dornat headed toward him.
The builder carried a scroll. "I have been setting up my roster of workers," he explained. "Some of the men prefer to work for a full day every three days to fill their obligation. The women are more likely to provide their five hours every day." Dornat tried to demonstrate the system he had worked out by unrolling the scroll and showing Tharek the complicated grid that indicated who would work what hours.
"I can see you have it well in hand," Tharek felt relief that he was not required to work out the details of his directives. "Do you have the cooperation of the other members of the council?"
"I am almost overwhelmed with their advice," Dornat said. "I have tried to satisfy them and managed to satisfy none of them."
"If you have reached a balance of criticism and praise, it proves that you have succeeded in being fair handed," Tharek said. "I am satisfied with what you have done, and I am the only one to whom you have to answer."
"I am heartened by your approval," Dornat said with a wry smile. "If I am to get this enterprise underway before noon, I must leave you and muster my first group of laborers."
Dornat hurried away, and Finerik was nowhere in sight to run an errand. As if Tharek's thoughts had summoned him, Dagnet came through the small door in the front gate of the warehouse and walked toward him. "I have selected teams of men to set up watch on the hills. Are they permitted to augment their rations by making gardens near their posts?"
"Tell them I welcome their initiative. Our plan is to have a belt of farms and gardens outside the wall. Their example will encourage others."
Even after the men and women on Dornat's roster for the morning left the compound, there was a bustle of activity. The classes Tharek had suggested continued. He found Finerik, now provided with a smaller spear, making a success of throwing at a target. He really did not need the boy to run his errands. By now Tabla would have set up the office and doubtless Jacla would be near at hand to provide a suitable chaperon for their meeting about the records.
To his surprise, Tabla had not finished clearing the storeroom she had chosen. The delay was mostly due to her two helpers. Barken and Ponon, once again in eager competition, were moving barrels and bales with more regard to displaying their strength than their efficiency. Tabla was trying to be patient, but there was an edge in her voice as she once again assured the two of them that she really did not need their help.
"I assigned the two of you to teach classes in swordsmanship," Tharek said in a quiet voice. The young men jumped and turned toward him with guilty faces.
"So many went out to build that I was not required," Ponon stammered.
"As long as there is one man or woman in the compound who needs to learn how to defend themselves, you should be busy," Tharek answered. "If you do not like the posts I have assigned you, I will find others who will obey me. Roll those barrels you were trying to lift and move them out of the way. It is a wise man who knows his own limits."
The brothers hurried to obey him and the room soon cleared. Almost as soon as they left the room, Jacla wandered in and looked around. "You need some furnishings suitable for your station. I will send some women out to salvage something from the town."
"We will do well enough with what we have," Tharek said. "I do not intend to begin taking what belongs to others. Let the people salvage what belongs to them and I will choose what I need from what is left."
"Are we free to go and salvage for ourselves?" Jacla asked with a hopeful grin.
"You may tell the others what I have said. If there are any arguments about belongings, tell the disputants to keep their arguments for the council. For now, stay here and help Tabla organize this room. There are shelves and a table and a couple of small barrels to use as chairs. I will leave it up to you to arrange them while I talk to Tabla about the records."
Jacla grumbled a little under her breath, but she soon busied herself making the best of the sparse arrangements. While she shuffled the barrels and dragged the table a few inches, Tharek made a few suggestions to Tabla about keeping the records. "You have done well, but you have been a little too likely to put down every word I say and give short shrift to the contributions of others. You are intelligent enough to know when someone is only grumbling or echoing what others have just said. I only ask that you record the meat of our meetings. Pay particular attention to the contributions made by Dornat and Dagnet. They do not waste words. When they speak, it is usually worth recording."
Tabla nodded. "Both of them are men of understanding. Yesterday, when I began keeping the records, I was not familiar with either of them. I knew Dagnet by reputation, but now I have seen that reputation was exaggerated. I wondered why you were willing to make him your ally. Truly the Radiance has blessed you to have such men to help you."
Tharek nodded. He would have told Tabla that he considered her another blessing, but Jacla was near at hand and listening. Instead, he turned back to the records. "I want you to pay particular attention to conflicts between various council members. If cliques begin to form, I want to know it. It is likely that they will try to conceal their activities from me. Jacla is wise in such things and she can help you track the different personalities who might cause trouble. I am not interested in gossip, but only signs of real division."
"Should I include such things in the records?" Tabla asked.
"I hope they will never rise to such a serious status," Tharek said. "Dagnet owed his success to fomenting trouble among the other bandit gangs. I would like to promote unity among my people. When differences appear, I want to heal the breaches."
"Will you meet with me at the same time every day?" Tabla asked.
Tharek considered her question, then he nodded. "If we meet daily, our meetings will not seem unusual if you have something you need to tell me."
"So you want us to be spies?" Jacla questioned.
Tharek turned and looked at her with a knowing smile. "I am certain you would do just as I have asked, even without my explicit permission. It is fatal for a ruler to lose touch with what his people think and do. I do not intend to lose my goal because of jealousy and resentment that I could ease before it grows into rebellion."
"I believe you just accused me of being nosy," Jacla said. "To be honest, you are right. If my interest in others can be useful, so be it. I will teach Tabla to keep her eyes and ears open. As you must know, she is too sweet to do any such thing for her own ends."
Tharek gave a slight bow to both women before he left them. It had been a fruitful session. If Jacla found false hope that he was favoring Tabla, it was an unfortunate byproduct of the arrangement. He had no intention of entering the lists against Ponon and Barken as a suitor for the girl.
After the furious activity of his first days in Zedekla, the following days passed with little to remark. The council meetings on alternate days were brief from lack of urgent business. Construction on the first watchtower was well underway, and there was a gratifying lack of conflict over the salvage of property from the town.
The compound was a scene of constant activity as craftsmen got up early and worked late to satisfy the barters they had made with one another for services ranging from carpentry to weaving. Dornat's complex rosters provided proof that everyone was making the required contribution of labor.
Tharek taught classes in using the staff, a weapon many women preferred in lieu of blades. He also took his turn at teaching children how to read. Regnon had approved the copying of the ancient records and their distribution to every sizable settlement and Tharek had obtained a copy.
He felt concern about Parga and those who had sailed with him. He knew from experience that the weather could be fickle, but Parga was an experienced sailor and should know how to take advantage of the wind, however it blew.
One morning the day dawned clear with an eerie stillness in the air. When Tharek stood on the top of the watchtower that evening, he looked toward the sea. A great mound of clouds loomed in the southwest. The fiery light of the setting sun on their billowing curves seemed ominous. Tharek dismissed his qualms about the clouds after he returned to his room and took out his journal. He had a need to organize his thoughts by talking to a trusted confidante or, failing that, by writing in his journal.
Someone tapped at his door and he stood to open it. Tinda, Parga's wife, waited on the platform near the ladder with an old man by her side. "This is Matha, he is worried about the weather."
Matha stepped forward. "I have lived here on the coast all my life. The sky that fills me with foreboding. I want to climb up to the platform of the watchtower and look at the horizon."
"I welcome your experience and counsel," Tharek said. He led the old man up the ladder and watched while he surveyed the sky and pointed at the mounded clouds that had worried Tharek.
"Those clouds confirm my fear," Matha said. "They are still far away, and the wind is low, but if I were at sea, I would head for port and make my way inland."
"Is there a threat to us?" Tharek asked.
"If the storm continues on a northward path and stays at sea, it will cause a high tide. This compound is built a few feet above the level of the river and it may be unaffected. On the other hand, if the storm reaches the coast, it could create havoc in Zedekla sometime tomorrow or the next day."
"Should we evacuate the compound?"
Matha hesitated then shook his head. "I think you would be wise to wait until later to order evacuation. If the storm moves inland before it reaches us, we could be spared."
"Will you keep watch tomorrow and give warning if the storm threatens us?" Tharek asked the grizzled elder.
"I will," Matha said. "No one on this coast has survived more storms."
Tharek nodded and held out his hand to grasp Matha's hand. "It is good to have someone of your experience to advise me."
When Tharek climbed to the watchtower platform at dawn he saw a sky streaked with narrow feathered bands of white. The wind had freshened. The towering clouds in the southwest were closer.
Tharek heard someone on the ladder behind him and turned to see Matha climb up onto the platform. He had come equipped to wait and watch with a pack of food and a bulging water-skin.
After studying the coming storm he nodded. "It will increase the tide at the very least. From the rate it is progressing, we still have more than a day before it will affect us."
Tharek left Matha to watch the weather and climbed down into the compound. He looked for Dornat and found him with a group of men with spades and shovels. When Tharek approached him, Dornat looked up. "You seem worried. Everything seems to be progressing as we planned. I was planning to go out this morning and check the progress of the work on the first watchtower on the hills."
"A sizable storm is coming up the coast," Tharek murmured, hoping others would not overhear. "We might experience higher tides than usual. It is possible that they will reach the river wall."
Dornat's slight smile faded. "The walls of the warehouse will not hold against the upsurge if the river is driven backward in its course. They are made of pounded earth in front of a lath construction. They have survived the infrequent rains we have been having, but this is different. I would have built of stone if Fero had not been in such a hurry for his warehouse."
"It is too late to regret your choice of building material," Tharek said. "The walls served us well as shelter from the gangs. Even if the warehouse survives the storm, we should rebuild all of our defenses in stone."
"That was my plan. Should we evacuate?"
Tharek looked around at the compound filled with busy people. There were classes going on, marketing of various foodstuffs and crafts, and the laughter of children. "We may need to give the order to head for higher ground if the storm continues on its current heading. We have a man watching the weather and he will give a warning if evacuation seems the only choice. Meanwhile, continue sending out your teams, but warn them that they might have to shelter in the lee of the hill where they are working. If we have to evacuate the compound, there will be others who might need their help to find shelter from the wind."
Tharek walked across the compound without hurrying and left the front gate. He found Dagnet mustering his men. "There is a storm coming. Tell your men to be ready to take shelter if the wind rises."
"I will pass along your warning," Dagnet said.
After Dagnet hurried away to warn his men, Tharek returned to the compound and looked around for others who might need an early warning. He saw Tinda talking with one of the other women. He walked toward them and greeted them with a comment about the weather.
Tinda looked up and studied the high feathered clouds, then she frowned. "Those clouds are streaming fast toward the north. Is there any sign of storm on the horizon?"
Tharek pointed up toward the platform of the watchtower where Matha could be seen peering toward the south. "I have set a man to watch the storm. He says it may not come close enough to bother us with more than higher tides than usual. On the other hand, he might call for an evacuation."
"You could hardly have a better man than Matha watching the weather. He knows the winds better than any other. Did you ask him if he ever waited for his house to fall around him when a great storm threatened from the sea?"
Tharek shook his head. "Do you think it would be wise to warn the others to get their supplies and tools together in case we need to evacuate suddenly?"
"How fast is the storm coming?" Tinda asked.
"Matha thinks we have a day before we know for certain or it could come ashore tonight."
"Why not organize the evacuation now?" Tinda asked. "We could set up camps on the hills before the storm front comes. I would rather sleep under a tent of hides than rise and scuttle for shelter in the wet and dark."
"Dagnet's men could help you set up your camps," Tharek said. "You must have gone through storms before. You could help the others make their preparations."
"They should take everything they value," she said.
Tharek raised his voice to address his people. "We may have to evacuate to the uplands tonight if the tide is driven higher. We have set a man to watch the weather. You may go as soon as you have made your preparations, or you can wait to see if the storm passes us by. If you are waked by the zole horn in the night, do not stop to question what has happened. Take your families and gather to the light."
Some chose to go, and others chose to stay and wait until they received a clearer warning. There was no panic, just a slow, continuous exodus. Many who had never felt the power of a coastal storm, treated the evacuation as a holiday. When it was time for Tharek to give the evening ritual, fewer than a quarter of the people remained within the compound.
When Tharek raised his hands to invoke the blessing of the Radiance, a gust of wind blew the side of his cowl over his mouth and he waited a moment for it to fall before he spoke. The gust was just an errant messenger of greater gusts to come and by the time he lowered his hands at the end of his prayer, his robe whipped around his legs and his sash blew out like a banner. The wind contained a mist of salty spray. He turned to Matha and the old man nodded. The time had come to blow the zole horn and order the final evacuation.
Chapter 13 The Storm
Twilight fell dull and heavy, but the rain held off as people scattered to gather goods and children, then gathered in groups to wait for those who would lead them to the hills. Tinda and the others who were native to Zedekla had already settled on the leeward hillsides, but they returned and helped the others with the last evacuation. Each of them took charge of one of the groups of refugees from the storm. Before the first drops fell, they left the warehouse in orderly contingents, each headed for a different hill.
Matha decided to carry through with his duties on the watchtower and after Tharek saw the last group through the gate, he climbed up to the platform under its narrow timber roof. The vantage point gave him a view of the hills and he saw the huddled, hurrying people climbing up and over them to shelter in the lee of the slopes. "How would you gauge this storm?" he asked Matha.
"I would not want to be at sea in this one," the old man said.
"I am worried about the length of time that Parga has been gone," Tharek said.
"Parga knows enough to seek shelter inland in a storm like this. If he went as far as Otaliafa, we could not expect him back for several days whatever the weather."
The wind steadily increased in power and the air filled with a mixture of rain and blown debris. A movement in the compound below caught Tharek's eye and he quickly descended the ladder to investigate. He had been nearly certain that everyone but he and Matha had taken shelter on high ground.
He looked through every storeroom. Most were emptied of anything useful. It seemed that Tinda's warnings had been heeded. Puzzled, he opened the door to the eating area. A small figure huddled near one of the tripod griddles.
"Finerik! What are you doing here? You should be with your parents."
"I knew you would be hungry and I tried to find something for you to eat," the child explained. "I've searched and searched, but all I could find was some meal and a little oil. I thought I might be able to make matlas."
"Your parents will be worried about you. Do you know where they are sheltered?"
"They know that I am your messenger. I told them I would stay and help you."
Tharek suppressed a sigh of impatience and held out his hand. "Come with me. We have a supply of food in the watchtower. It could be several days before this storm is over."
Finerik scooped up his small parcel of scavenged supplies and followed Tharek. When they reached the door, it suddenly slammed shut. Tharek was able to open it but the pressure of the wind was enough to send Finerik reeling back into the room.
Tharek grabbed the boy and held him under his arm as he ran across the compound through the pelting rain. Just as he gained the shelter of the watchtower door, the rain began to descend like a wall of water. It would be better the take Finerik to his room. There could be little shelter under the roof of the watchtower.
He left Finerik with a stern injunction to stay put. When he reached the top of the watchtower, he found Matha drenched and shivering in the wind. Without exposing himself, he shouted, "Come down to my room and get out of this rain."
Matha grabbed his leather sacks of supplies and handed them to Tharek. As soon as Tharek took them and descended the ladder, Matha scrambled after him. The tower room had been intended as sparse shelter for one man. With the three of them and their supplies crowded it. The narrow cot was barely wide enough for one person but Finerik used a bench chest under the window as a bed.
The narrow window faced toward the wind but Dornat had insisted on covering it with a couple of boards before he left the compound. Only a little rain came through the cracks.
Tharek took out the Stone of Truth to light the room while he arranged the cot and bench to avoid the rain as far as possible. He gave Matha a clean, dry tunic to replace his sopping clothing and told Finerik to settle down and sleep.
Matha insisted that he felt too keyed up to sleep, but Tharek urged the old man to lay down and try to rest. He stored the Stone of Truth and the room plunged into noisy darkness. At first it seemed that no one could sleep in such a din, but soon the sound of snoring joined the roaring of the wind.
There was just room enough between the cot and the door for Tharek to lay down on a cushion of his clothing, but he felt a need to stay awake and alert and propped his back against the door. Dornat had warned him that the storm could drive the river back and if the rain were stiff enough, the walls would be eroded. There was a real risk that the building would be destroyed in such a heavy storm.
Alone in the dark Tharek thought of all that had occurred in the past days since Darm had come to Taleeka with his warning. After several years of modest anonymity, he was once again thrust into the center of action. He could blame no one but himself for his current circumstances. Each time a choice appeared, he had taken the path that led him to this moment.
He had decided to stay in the compound when the others evacuated because he felt that whatever shelter he chose to stay in would be seen as a sign of favor by some among the evacuees. Now he was responsible for two lives besides his own if the warehouse walls collapsed.
His thoughts slowed and his head nodded to his chest as he fell asleep. He woke briefly when a spurt of rain sprayed his cheek. There was nothing he could do by staying awake, he told himself drowsily and lay down on the floor.
The quivering of the tower shook Tharek awake and he saw dull light coming through the cracks in the boards over the window. Morning had come, the wind had eased, but the steady thrum of falling rain worried him.
Leaving Matha and Finerik asleep, Tharek eased the door open and stepped out onto the platform and swung onto the ladder. When he pushed the top hatch open, he felt encouraged to continue up and onto the top of the watchtower. The roof held off the rain which was no longer driven nearly horizontal by the wind.
He stood and looked around. The rain was dense, but in the dim light he saw the reason that the room below had quivered. The river side wall of the compound had collapsed and he could see a sheet of frenzied water covering the mud flats to the south. The pile of rubble from the fallen wall had served to keep the river from inundating the compound, but Tharek wondered how much longer the barrier would hold.
Matha appeared beside him and gave a grunt of surprise when he saw the wreckage of the wall. "I've never seen the like of this before. I thought you were over cautious when you had everyone evacuate, but if the rain keeps up like this, this entire structure could fall."
"I wonder what the storm did to Otaliafa," Tharek said. "I saw the city briefly, but it seems to me that they had nowhere to go if they were battered by high water."
Matha nodded gravely. "We can only hope they saw it coming early enough to set to sea and run before the wind to a harbor where they could find shelter."
"Whew!" The sound of Finerik's amazement was the first sign that he had joined them on the upper platform. "We were lucky that we stayed on this side of the compound."
Tharek felt reluctant to return to the darkened room. As long as the wind remained calm, they would be dry enough beneath the sturdy roof. "I will fetch something for us to eat and drink," he volunteered. The two of you keep watch until I return."
Matha and Finerik watched the rising river with worried eyes as it washed away the last of the perimeter wall on the southern part of the compound and began eroding the lower part of the inner wall along the side.
"How long will it take before the water reaches the bottom of this watchtower?" Finerik asked in a wavering voice.
Matha looked up at the sun, dimly visible through thinning clouds. "It should be low tide soon. When the tide goes out, the river should fall."
Tharek opened the hatch and hurried down the ladder. He hoped that Matha was right, but they must be prepared to leave the watchtower if the river continued to rise. He packed his belt pouches and folded up a few of the new tunics and his white robe. After tying them together in a bundle, he picked up the leather sacks of food and the water skins. It was an unwieldy load, but if they had to leave the tower, the other two could share the burden.
He returned to the roof just as another section of the wall fell into ruins. Now only the front half of the structure remained standing. The water seemed a little lower, but it was hard to judge.
Matha stared at the edges of the swirling current and he suddenly gave a shout of joy. "I see a change in the level of the river, and the rain seems to be getting lighter.
Tharek agreed. The river was subsiding, leaving behind a line of mud and drifted debris. There was no question that the compound was ruined. He turned and looked toward the east where the first watchtower rose above the hilltop and remembered Dornat's counsel about the wisdom of building in stone.
Thin sunlight filtered through the clouds. By noon, the rain had stopped. A mist rose over the land that had been covered by the river. The tidal flats were full of still water and a spit of sand had formed that altered the shape of the river.
"It's a good thing this happened after we drove off the gangs or we would really be in trouble," Finerik said.
"We still need to keep our guard up," Tharek said. "It might be a good idea to build a fortress on the cliffs near the beach where we can watch for invaders by sea as well as land."
Matha nodded. "You could use the springs for bathing, just like in Timora."
Tharek looked at the wide expanse of wet earth below them and thought of all the mud they would have to wade through to reach the river or the beach. "We will all need a bath when we finish here."
"Look!" Finerik screamed. He pointed to the southwest where sails clustered on the sea.
Tharek shaded his eyes and stared. The sail of one of the boats had the sign of Parga in red on the dull gray sheet. It was sailing ahead of the rest and it looked as if it were fleeing from the following fleet. Tharek felt a sense of futility as he watched the sea. Many of the boats were so laden that they seemed ready to swamp. There was no way to go to Parga's aid. When the fleet landed, they would find the people of Zedekla easy prey.
As if to prove him wrong, he heard a shout from the direction of the hills and turned to see a line of men and women forming up. They were armed with spears, spades, and sturdy rods, and every minute that passed, the crowd grew bigger. Dagnet must have had a watch posted on the cliffs above the sea.
With Dagnet running at the head, more than three hundred angry Zedeklans rushed toward the river where Parga's boat had just made land. Tharek saw Parga turn to welcome the next boat that landed. He embraced the first man to come ashore with wide open arms. This was no invading army!
Tharek grabbed his robe and put it on. "Give me the zole horn!" he ordered as he knotted his blue sash around his waist.
When Matha handed him the horn, Tharek blew three long blasts that brought the rushing army of Zedeklans to a halt. "These are our friends," he shouted. "They have come from Otaliafa to join us."
He was certain of his words when he saw the old woman who had met him on the pilgrim trail to Timora stagger from one of the boats and look around. She saw Tharek on the watchtower and pointed toward him with a glad cry.
Her gesture was unnecessary. Those in the boats who were not otherwise engaged, all stared toward the watchtower. Tharek raised his hands and shut his eyes to pray. It was early for the evening ritual, but it was a ceremony everyone would recognize.
"We praise the Radiance for saving us from the ravages of the storm. Help us to make homes and defend our freedom against those who feed on misfortune. Help us to unite as one people in Zedekla."
When he opened his eyes and looked around, he saw that many of the people from the ships were kneeling on the muddy bank. The people with Dagnet were not happy with the situation. It was time to call a meeting of the council.
"I will meet with those appointed and chosen to represent the people in an hour," Tharek shouted. "Parga and three representatives of these new citizens will join us."
"Where can we meet?" Dagnet called.
"We will meet on the cliffs above the sea where your watchman caught sight of the fleet."
Tharek was not even sure that there was space on the cliffs for the meeting he intended. Meanwhile, the ships and boats were unloaded. There was food along with tools and other furnishings. These people had been well prepared to evacuate. They would not be a drain on Zedekla's scant resources.
Tharek asked Finerik to show him to the top of the cliff, trusting that the child would know the path as well as any. The track led up through dune grass at first, then low shrubs growing close to the rocky ground.
When they reached the upper part of the slope, they stepped out into a spacious clearing. A wide ring of large stones surrounded a fire pit so ancient that Tharek felt a sense of awe. How long ago had this arena been assembled? It seemed at least as old as the dark pyramid that dominated the plains. Tharek walked a few paces further upward to a long, low rock that marked the edge of the cliff. From here he could see over the wide expanse of water. The mounded clouds of the storm still floated above the northern sea with dark draperies of rain trailing over the waves.
"The storm has nearly ruined us," Dagnet spoke from near his side.
Tharek turned and gave a small, lopsided smile. "Dornat warned me that the compound was a temporary construction at best. Fero would not listen to his arguments to build in stone. This is where I will build a fortress. It will be the final stand if we are invaded. Otherwise, it will serve as my residence."
Dagnet gave a snort of doubt. "You asked for five hours every day from every adult until the wall and watchtowers are finished. How do you expect the people to react to this further burden on their time?"
"I will keep my covenant with the people who first joined me in Zedekla," Tharek assured Dagnet.
The sound of others gathering in the clearing drew them back from the viewpoint. Tharek took a seat on one of the stones and waited for the others to quiet and sit down. By some stroke of fortune, there were just enough seats to accommodate everyone, including Parga and the three strangers with him.
Tharek's studied silence brought every eye to watch him. Finally he looked around and smiled. "I want to welcome our new council members. Please introduce them, Parga."
"This man is Aragan, and this his wife, Javira. This other man is Ralik."
"I know Aragan," Dagnet acknowledged stiffly. "He married a Janakan woman and left Kumnora years ago. Other than his unfortunate marriage, I can vouch for his character."
"In Otaliafa men were judged by their character, not by their clan," Aragan replied.
"You speak as if Otaliafa were in the past," Dornat said.
"When Parga came and told us that Tharek ruled in Zedekla, many of us knew our destiny was to join you," Ralik said. "Some doubted, but the coming of the storm ended our attempts to persuade them. We were set to sail before the storm arrived. We pray that Otaliafa is not utterly destroyed, but it is no longer our home."
"How did you escape destruction at sea?" Jacla asked.
"We sailed to a small harbor and beached our craft before taking refuge in the hills inland. Some of the boats were washed out to sea in spite of all our care. Fortunately, we saved all our people and most of the tools and furnishings we were bringing to Zedekla."
Tharek looked around the circle. He could see the doubt in many eyes. If this were a matter of popular opinion, it could mean that the people from Otaliafa would be refused. For once he was happy to be a Tyrant.
"The Radiance has led you to safe haven," he assured Aragan and the others. "You must tell your people that there is a cost to living here. Everyone must give five hours of work a day toward the building of a fortress on this cliff above the sea until it is finished. Those who already reside in Zedekla are building the wall and watchtowers around the city."
Aragan and Javira nodded. "We will tell the people what you have required. Where will we live and what crops may we grow?"
"You will live in houses that you help each other build. The wide, fertile fields around the city are free for any who wish to farm them. Once we have marked the bounds, you may plant your crops and own the deed to the land you settle. My government will be supported by tariffs on trade. Meanwhile, every man may be called upon to defend the city until we have enough funds to maintain a regular army."
Parga seemed surprised by the elaborate instruction, but he kept silent when his wife gave him a look full of reassurance. Tharek looked around for other questions. Dagnet gave him a wry smile and shook his head and Dornat was busy scribbling in the stony soil with a stick. Only Jacla ventured a query.
"When will we get around to building the Shrine?"
"To earn citizenship and property each of you men owe our city five hours daily until the fortifications are completed. You owe your families most of what is left. You must decide what you owe the Radiance for saving you and leading you to freedom in Zedekla. When you have decided, tell Tabla what you will give. She will record it on the scroll that keeps our history. Be wise in what you vow. Do not promise what you cannot give. Be generous in your offering and you will be blessed and your name will be honored in years to come."
Tabla sat near Tharek as was her habit at such meetings and she looked around and smiled. Parga looked at her and frowned. He turned to Tinda but his wife was whispering to one of the other women and did not see his worry. Tharek wondered if Parga was thinking of Shira. She had been aboard the boat when it returned, but as soon as it landed, she had cuddled her child and hurried away. When every other eye was watching him, she had ducked her head and avoided looking toward the watchtower where he stood.
There were no others bold enough to bring their questions into open discussion, but many of them seemed eager to discuss what they had learned with one another. The meeting broke up into small blocks of people. Tharek saw that Javira and Aragan were not isolated as he had feared. They were approached by first one and then another of the council members and questioned about the contents of their boats.
Jacla looked up from quizzing Ralik when Dagnet approached him. "Aragan told me that you belonged to the Saadenan legion. Tharek appointed me as his commander, but you would be far more qualified for the position."
Ralik smiled and shook his head. "I will be happy to advise you, but my years of going to war are far behind me. I was impressed with how quickly you mustered your forces when you thought we were invading. We outnumber you three to one, but you did not hesitate. Some think it is foolhardy to attack a larger force, but if we had been enemies, you might have done real damage by attacking while we landed."
His words made Dagnet smile as nearly as Tharek had ever seen. "I was worried that we would be outnumbered by the warlords that will doubtless come against us. Now I realize that Tharek's visions are valid."
"Of course they are!" Ralik answered. "He is the Prophet. Otherwise, we would never have been willing to abandon Otaliafa and come to seek him. I fear that the storm has destroyed our city, but I pray that our friends who did not believe, have survived the storm and will join us."
Tharek overheard several other interesting conversations. Not all of them were as promising as the alliance between Ralik and Dagnet, but it was time to dismiss the council and tell them to carry the news of his decisions to the people they represented.
"Leave me now. You have all survived the storm, but your families are waiting."
He found Finerik dangling over the rock that bounded the edge of the cliff. The boy was tossing rocks and listening for the sound of splashing in the sea below.
"I will make my camp here tonight. Find Ponon and Barken and tell them I want them to stand guard while I sleep. Tell them to bring whatever they can find to furnish a tent as well as food and water enough for several days."
When Finerik scampered away on his errand, Dornat was still making marks in the earth. Tharek leaned over and studied the drawing. He was puzzled at first until he saw a circle of stones sketched near the center of the drawing. Dornat planned an ambitious structure, but he himself had called for a fortress that could hold most of the population.
"This seems to be a remarkable construction. Remember to include bathes in your plan. There are springs below on the cliff and I intend to make good use of them."
Dornat glanced up and flushed with pleasure at the praise. "You will have the finest palace in Okishdu. It will not be as large as some, but it will be the envy of all who lack comfort in their vast piles of stone. We will furnish it with fine craftsmanship from every city."
"I am something of a craftsman myself," Tharek said wistfully. "Do you think I would be ridiculed if I designed some of the furniture?"
Dornat smiled. "You will only earn my admiration. I could never see that it was shameful for a man or woman to have a talent and use it. I would far rather be the heir of Barun who helped design Timora, than the only son of the Pontic of Jama."
"You must fetch a scroll and record your designs," Tharek said.
Chapter 14 The Founding
Soon after Dornat left Tharek, Finerik returned with Ponon and Barken carrying Tharek's furnishings and food. They set to work setting up a camp with several tents behind a clump of bushes downhill from the circle of rocks. While they were working, Tharek climbed down to the springs carrying a bundle. The hem of his robe was caked with mud and he had other laundry to clean. When he finished washing his clothes, he washed himself and idled for a little while in the warmth of the spring. The injury to his ribs still bothered him, but the hot water eased the pain.
When he returned to the campsite he found that Dornat had returned with a scroll and scribing tools. "If we build your palace here where we originally intended to put the final watchtower, we will need to curve the wall further to the north."
"Will that be a problem?" Tharek asked.
"We have not begun construction on any but the first watchtower. By moving the final watchtower to the next hill to the north, we will encompass a larger area in the city by adding only one more tower."
Tharek stood and looked out over the site of the city. Even with the addition of the Otaliafans, there were not nearly enough people to crowd the ground, but he had seen a vision of what would be and he recognized Dornat's wisdom in planning for the future. "Make the changes in your plans and mark the bounds accordingly. While you are making the new drawing, you might consider marking off the lots where houses can be built. I prevented people from returning to their homes after the battle, but they will want to begin building permanent dwellings now that the storm has destroyed the compound."
Dornat settled down to work, sitting on the ground and using the flat top of a rock to support his scroll. Dornat seemed too intent on his task to complain about the awkward position. Tharek intervened.
"I admire your dedication, but I cannot afford to lose you to illness from sitting on damp ground. Ponon will fetch a table from the compound while Barken sets up another tent."
As soon as the tent was erected Dornat continued with his plan. It grew late and night was coming on, but Dornat kept working after lighting a lamp.
Tharek put on his robe and cowl in preparation to perform the evening ritual. He stopped by Dornat's tent to invite him to accompany him. "You could finish this tomorrow," Tharek said.
"Tomorrow I must supervise the building of the watchtowers and mark out the new course of the wall."
Tharek looked at the chart Dornat had prepared. The area within the walls was divided into lots with streets and alleys indicated.
"I thought you would make all the lots the same size."
Dornat shook his head and pointed to the smaller lots along the river and in clusters in various places in the plan. "These are favored sites for residential or commercial buildings. Here, here, and here, are where the ground rises. These lots are near gates where commerce will be heavy. I have given more area to lots in less desirable locations. There will be room for larger gardens or workshops at a sacrifice of view and convenience."
"I will call an assembly of the people for tomorrow and show them the chart. How should we handle disputed claims?"
Dornat raised his brows as he considered Tharek"s question. "Where more than one family claims the same location, let them draw straws to determine which should have it, There are enough lots for several times our current population. When everyone has chosen, the remaining lots will belong to you. As new people come to Zedekla, they must follow equivalent terms of service, or pay your treasury before they will be granted space and citizenship."
"I have never owned a piece of land, let alone most of a city," Tharek said, bemused by Dornat's plan. "Even while I lived in Taleeka for several years, I rented the house where I lived and worked. I do not covet land and possessions."
Dornat nodded. "That is why you are the best one to hold the land in trust. Others might be tempted to exploit their ownership. If you approve the plan, I will ask Dagnet to give me men to mark the bounds. Where will we meet to apportion the lots?"
"At noon I will come to the watchtower you have finished. It is time that everyone had a place to call their own where they can set up their tents and make their plans to build. It is time that Zedekla becomes a true city."
It had been some time since Tharek had used the Stone of Truth when he gave the ritual, but this evening marked a significant turn in the fortunes of Zedekla. The sky darkened as the sun settled beyond the western horizon. The first stars had appeared when Tharek stood atop a large rock on the slope and fixed the Stone of Truth into his staff. He waited while the people gathered. From where he stood it was evident that most of the newcomers could see the light.
"Tomorrow we will begin the building of our city. Dornat has been working on a plan for settlement. He will post the chart tomorrow and you may choose the lots that you prefer. For all but those who serve on watch, tomorrow will be a holiday of founding that we will remember always. Use the time to mingle and make friends. Walk the bounds of the city and decide where you want to live. At noon I will come to the watchtower and give you a chance to choose your property."
There was a rumble of surprise and pleasure from the throats of the people gathered below. Tharek could see them smiling with approval. Here and there he saw some doubtful frowns, but for most, the announcement was welcome.
He raised his hands and silence fell. When he began the evening ritual, he felt a flow of something beyond himself, guiding the words he said. He mentioned specific people and particular circumstances that he could not have known about. The sense that he was talking about those left behind in Otaliafa was clear. "The boats were washed away and they are stranded in the cliffs and on the beach where the city used to stand. Aragan and Parga will chose fifteen men of Zedekla to rescue those who suffer. They will come to this city with rejoicing. For two moons this will be a land of safety as walls are built against the greed and violence of those who hate the light."
When he finished praying Tharek looked around and saw the impact of his words on the refugees from Otaliafa. Aragan and Parga started toward each other and began to plan their return. Tharek raised his voice again. "Any who undertake to help in the rescue will meet with me tomorrow before they sail."
Most of the people began to withdraw and seek their shelters, but one of them came forward as Tharek removed the Stone of Truth from his staff and stored it in his pouch. "You may charm others with your eerie insights, but I am not deceived."
He turned and saw Shira staring at him with challenge in her eyes. "I am sorry that you question that what I said was from the Radiance," he told her.
"I do not doubt the source, only the messenger. Surely there are others more worthy of your gifts."
"I did not ask to become what I am," he assured her. "If I had not been running from a killer, I would have gladly settled here years ago when I first came to Zedekla and met you- your family."
She backed away and pulled her shawl around her. "My mother will be looking for me. She is caring for my child."
Before he could say anything more, she whirled and hurried into crowd who had gathered for the prayer. He was puzzled by her actions. It would not be possible for some time yet to tell her how he felt about her, and she had avoided him since he rescued her from Fero. Why had she approached him only to rebuke him with her doubts? A softer voice than Shira's caught his ear. "Should I keep a record of the words you said tonight?"
Tabla stood a little ways away. It was likely she had witnessed Shira's strange behavior. "I keep records of such things in my journal," Tharek said. "Would you come back to the camp and help for a while tonight? Dornat could use your help in finishing his work on the chart he is making," he explained.
"Jacla has some clothing for you. Both of us will join you soon."
Tharek had not intended to extend an invitation to Jacla, but he could see the wisdom of the arrangement considering the hour of the night when they would come up to the camp. "I will tell Dornat to expect you."
Dornat welcomed Tabla and willingly accepted Tharek's offer of the Stone of Truth to light their work. Jacla was not interested in the details of their task. She had brought along an armful of tunics for Tharek to consider.
"I made this one for you after giving it much thought," she said as she displayed a snowy tunic with an intricate woven edge of blue. "I saw this symbol marked on your tools and recognized it as your mark."
"I could not accept this from you," he protested. "This must be one of the finest things that you have made."
"I will give it to no other. If I cut away the border, it will ruin the garment. There will come a time when you will want to dress in something that impresses others with your rank," she assured him.
"These robes I wear as priest are the greatest rank to which I could aspire."
"That may be, but you also claim the role of Tyrant. It seems unseemly to wear your priest robes when you rule in worldly matters. Keep the tunic for now. Use one of these plainer ones until you see your error."
Resigned, he put the tunics in his tent. As usual, Jacla had managed to reverse his decision about something that concerned his care and comfort. Not even his own mother had been so determined about providing for his needs once he was weaned and walking.
"You were wise to resist Shira's wiles," Jacla said in a sudden turn of topic. "I saw her speaking to you, but I could not hear what she was saying. Evidently you said something that scared her away. She should know better than to approach you so openly. She is a new widow and there will be gossip if she persists in her pursuit."
"Shira was rebuking me for taking so much power. She feels that a better man could have been found to take her father's place."
"I will have a word with her mother," Jacla assured him. "She knows enough to keep her daughter from betraying their family honor."
"I forbid you to speak to Tinda about Shira. Your conjectures are entirely misplaced. If I hear any whisper that you have been spreading gossip about Shira, I will ban you from my presence."
They were hard words and tears started up in Jacla's eyes. "Forgive me, I only want to protect your reputation. Those of us who have been living in Zedekla know that you joined Fero's gang only after Shira's husband had been killed. These strangers from Otaliafa may be confused. There must be no suspicion that you had some role in Fero's villainy. Shira's attentions would be just the thing to cause trouble."
"You misjudge her. I have given you my warning," Tharek replied stiffly. "I did not ask for your gifts and I do not solicit your advice."
"Please forgive me if I forgot my place," Jacla murmured. "I only wanted to protect your reputation."
"Do not attempt to do so by ruining the reputations of my friends."
They seemed to be at a stand-off. Tabla broke the impasse by emerging from Dornat's tent with the rolled-up scroll under her arm. "We have the chart ready to display. I will post it in the morning and there will be several hours for people to consider their choices after seeing it."
She carefully unrolled the scroll and displayed her work. Subtle shading indicated where the high ground lay. It made the map less puzzling than Dornat's draft.
"Come Tabla, we must hurry to our tent," Jacla said. "We would not want anyone to suspect us of compromising these men with our presence so late at night,"
Tharek watched them leave and sighed. Once again he felt circumvented by Jacla. He needed her as much as any of the others in his inner circle, but of them all, she caused him the most worry. She was among the most valuable of the members of the council because of her insights and experience, yet she regularly over-reached her role.
"She is lovely," Dornat said from near at hand. "My wife died a few years ago and I thought that I would never love again. Tabla tempts me to forgo my bachelor ways."
"You work from dawn until dusk and go without food more often than pleases me," Tharek chided Dornat. "A wife like Tabla would be good for you, but she has other suitors. Both Ponon and Barken are eager to court her. Sometimes I fear that if she chooses one of them, the other will desert us in despair."
"I must ask, do you want her for yourself?"
Tharek shook his head. "The woman I want as wife will not be ready for my courting for some time to come. I only hope her heart will let go of past pain and warm to me. You are free to court Tabla if you wish."
The two men parted and went to their tents. The cot in Tharek's tent had been salvaged from his small room in the watchtower along with the bench chest where Finerik had slept the night before. Had it been such a short time since the storm had raged? Tharek wondered when the pace would ease. It sometimes seemed that each day brought a new emergency. The words that had been given him as he prayed seemed to promise a brief surcease of danger from enemies, but equally they indicated that Zedekla would be challenged soon again.
He fell into sweet dreams that belied the angry words that Shira had said. Was it prophecy or yearning that fed the images of bliss to come. Even as he slept, the questions haunted him. When he woke, he rose and found that Dornat was up and ready to leave the camp.
"Find Dagnet and tell him that I want his soldiers to help you mark the bounds and the locations of the lots," Tharek said. "It should take the better part of the morning."
"I will do as you say, sire."
Tharek grimaced at the honorific. "There is no need to give me titles of a king."
"Few kings have the power you now wield," Dornat reminded him. "You should become accustomed to the deference others show you. It is not for you, but for themselves that they give you honor. Otherwise, it might seem that they have given loyalty to an upstart with no just claim to what he holds. The people from Otaliafa acknowledge you as a prophet, but some might hesitate to accept you as a ruler unless you play the part in ways they understand."
"I will consider what you have said," Tharek promised.
Dornat started off down the hill with an eager pace that belied his lack of sleep. Tharek returned to his tent and considered what he should wear for the apportionment at noon. Just as Jacla had suggested, the white robe and blue cowl and sash that he wore when he performed the evening ritual seemed unsuited to a strictly civic function. He finally settled on the white tunic with edges and hems woven in blue in a pattern that Jacla had designed. Now he saw the wisdom of her gift.
He had several hours to wait until the time came to appear before his people. Dornat's counsel prompted him to reach into his pouch of supplies and remove a coil of gold wire that he had used to embellish his creations of wood and shell. The heavy yellow metal was pliable enough to braid and hammer into a band that fit his head. He fastened the lenticular crystal of his office in the center of the band where it would rest over his brow.
When Tharek picked up his staff and ducked out of the tent, Barken stared at him, then grinned. "That crown makes you look a proper ruler."
"I have a couple of matching tunics for you and your brother to wear when you accompany me to the meeting at noon. Dornat convinced me that it would be well for me to act the part I claim."
"We will polish our swords and clean our boots to do you honor, sire," Barken promised solemnly.
Tharek took out his journal and wrote while he waited for his guards to make their preparations. He was interrupted by Finerik who arrived with a fresh string of fish. "I told the people that today was a holiday," Tharek said. "There was no need for you to bring me fresh fish."
"A lot of people took the day to fish. My father says that it is just as good as any game and shows some profit for the time invested."
Tharek had never taken pleasure in sports that involved the death of living things. He fished and hunted as necessary for food, but he would not rebuke those who enjoyed the time spent with a spear or net.
"You look like an emperor," Finerik said.
Tharek smiled. "It is evident you never saw an emperor. Marnat would have scorned to wear anything as plain as this. His clothes were all of zylka cloth, woven with strands of gold and glittering with gems."
"He must have been a fool," the boy replied. "What did he do if he dripped his gravy or had a spill?"
Tharek chuckled at the image the words inspired, then he sobered. "Marnat wasted many things. I believe he was under the influence of someone very clever who wanted to supplant him."
Ponon and Barken appeared in their new tunics of matching dark blue. Their spear points glittered from honing. The scabbards of their swords shown with polish and their boots shone with polish. One stood slightly taller than the other and their hair was not quite the same color, but otherwise they were matched.
Tharek picked up his staff and started down the hill. He saw Parga and Aragan waiting for him on the slopes below with the men they had picked for the journey back to Otaliafa.
"Come with me," Tharek said. "I will give you a chance to choose your land before any others."
"We should be off," Parga protested. "I ask no reward for helping those who need me."
"You will sail better if you wait for the tide," Tharek reminded him. "I remember what you taught me."
When they reached the new stone watchtower, they found the chart suspended high enough for all to see. Dornat stood on a platform close to the chart. There were many calling out requests, but he seemed deaf to their appeals. Tharek climbed to the top of the platform and stood beside his architect. At his appearance, the crowd grew silent.
Tharek looked around and raised his voice to reach the furthest people in the assembly. "We have those among us who will sail today. They have asked nothing in return, but I have granted them first choice of locations for their homes and businesses. The fields immediately outside the wall will belong to those who act in our defense. All of you have seen the chart and it seems that most of you have made decisions. If you can write, use these pieces of scroll cloth that Tabla has prepared and list your choice of lots. List them in your order of preference. If you cannot write, there are several of us here who can help you. When you are finished, return your choices to this box and we will study to make a fair distribution. Tomorrow we will post the results and you may claim your property."
Parga and his party climbed the ladder and one by one, Dornat put their names down on the lots they chose. Some in the crowd murmured protests, but no one spoke aloud. When the pieces of scroll cloth were distributed after the first choices had been registered, some of the people retired to make their lists in privacy.
Most of the crowd followed Tharek while he accompanied Parga and his party to the river where their boats were waiting. It heartened Tharek to see their generosity as they shared their meager rations with the rescuers and sent them on their way.
It took several hours for the lists to be compiled. Tabla and Shira worked together sorting the ballots and helping those who could not remember how to write. Dagnet and his men were busy helping Dornat mark the bounds, but Tharek saved choice lots for them within the city. The holiday atmosphere prevailed throughout the afternoon and Tharek was sated from being pressed to take small tastes of various delicacies.
Late in the afternoon Jacla approached him. "Thank you for wearing the tunic," she said.
"It is more fitting for my station than any of my other clothing," he told her. "You are dear to me, Jacla, and I appreciate what you do for me."
"I am a meddlesome old woman who forgets her place," she admitted with a grimace. "You asked me to listen for those who spoke against you, and I have been the worst offender."
"At least you told me to my face. That is one of the things I admire about you. I know you will be honest, but once I have asked you to desist on certain subjects, do not press me any further."
"I will do as you ask."
She made a motion with her hand and he recognized the secret sign of oath making used among Mareklans. His eyebrows rose as he understood the implication of her signal. "I thought you were Virdanan. How did you come here to Zedekla?"
"This is not the time or place to tell you my story, but I believe you need to know it."
Tharek returned to his camp in late afternoon and changed into his robe and cowl. It was twilight when he returned to the slope where he had given the evening ritual the night before. His appearance was not announced in any way, but while he waited patiently, the people gathered.
He raised his hands and prayed for them. There was no flow of revelation in his words. He said little that they had not heard a thousand times before in other settings, but as never before, he felt that he prayed for his own people.
When he finished with the prayer and lowered his hands, the crowd drifted away and he returned to his camp with only Ponon and Barken to accompany him. The two guards built a fire in the hearth ring and made a supper of roasted fish that they shared with him. Finerik appeared with a dish of freshly baked matlas and a covered crock of nuka juice .
"Jacla wondered if you wanted her to visit you tonight." Finerik said when he had gathered up the dishes and prepared to leave.
"Tell her I would like to see her," Tharek answered.
As he had suspected, Finerik was gone for only moments when Jacla came up to the campsite. Ponon and Barken were on the opposite side of the hearth ring engaged in a game of droka. Tharek was virtually alone with Jacla when she told her story.
Chapter 15 The Sacrifice
"As you must have guessed by now, I was born Mareklan," Jacla said. "My birth name was Jacil."
"Were you out-cast from your clan?"
Jacla shook her head. "As far as my family knows, I am dead. If they knew what I have become, they would deny me fellowship. I have used a sword to kill a man."
Jacla's eyes grew bright with tears as she continued. "I was childless for many years. My husband and I had nearly given up hope when I finally bore my only child, Miravil. My husband died before she was old enough to go to Timora and receive her rite of Washing. The head of my sept would not spare anyone to guide or guard us when Miravil reached her year of Renewal."
"The men of your sept owed you protection." Tharek protested. "Did your husband have no brothers to plead your cause?"
"He was the only son of his parents. My own brothers were dead and my nephews argued that they had obligations to their own families. The nearest in age to Miravil was Travil, a Kumnoran child adopted by of one of my nephews, but she was several years younger. They said that when she came of age she could go to Timora with Miravil. I did not want to wait so long. After pleading without answer for months, we set off by ourselves, over-confident in our skill with staffs and never knowing how the world had changed. With no elder to guide us on the trails Mareklans use, we were forced to use the pilgrim road."
"At the first hostel we met a genial welcome and my overconfidence was fortified. When we drew near Saadena, we stopped for the night and woke to find that we were being held as prisoners. We were kept under guard for several days. At length we were taken from the cell where we had been secluded and brought before the monster, Karagat, a cousin of the emperor. I recognized that he was an Orquian from the signals he exchanged with our captors. He paid them well and secured us in closed palanquins."
Tharek's eyes widened in surprise. He had known of Karagat, but had dismissed him as another sycophantic courtier of Marnat. "He must have meant you to be sacrificed to Orqu."
Jacla shook her head. She had begun weeping at the memory of suffering and he handed her a linen handkerchief to wipe her cheeks and eyes.
"So I thought, but Karagat intended to marry Miravil. We were carried to Saadena and she was installed in luxury, well guarded. Because of my age, they thought I was her maid and not her mother, otherwise they might have killed me outright after the capture. I was required to dress her as a bride. They gave me lengths of zylka cloth and jewels to make her bridal robes."
"As the days passed before the ceremony, I gave no trouble, thinking always how we could escape and knowing that the guards would grow careless if I seemed amenable to their plans. I told them that I needed tailor's shears to cut the cloth and they provided me with needles and other tools of my craft. One man always stood over me when I used the shears and reclaimed them when the day was over."
Jacla faltered and wiped her tears away. Tharek waited silently for her to continue. Knowing that words could not comfort her, he grasped her hand and offered her his strength.
"The day approached for the nuptials but I still had no way of gaining freedom for myself and Miravil. Finally it seemed that my patient cooperation had borne fruit. When I was finished with my sewing for the day, the shears were left with me. I concealed them in my hem and sewed it shut. The next day I complained that the shears were not brought to me when the guards came. They argued, blaming each other and searching the room. Finally they provided me with another pair of shears and I continued with my task."
"When I took the robe to fit it to my daughter, Karagat was waiting to observe. He openly bragged of his influence over his cousin, Marnat. Telling us that soon he would succeed in his plan to take the throne for himself and openly proclaim the worship of Orqu as the official cult of the empire. His marriage to Miravil was part of the plot. He had a mad idea that by uniting himself in marriage with a Mareklan, the avatar of the Radiance would be born as his son and he could kill the child before his mission was completed."
"When the fitting was completed, Karagat left the room with his guards, leaving me alone with Miravil. I quickly unpicked my hem and gave her the shears I had concealed. She hid them in the folds of her sash. I whispered that the next time we met, I would bring a weapon for myself and we would make our escape."
"I thought we had some time before the wedding would take place, but I had underestimated Karagat's eagerness to wed. While I slept that night, the nuptials were performed and Miravil used the shears against her husband as soon as they seemed to be alone together. She did not realize that he had a guard concealed in the room. He stopped her before she killed the monster."
Tharek remembered the scars on Karagat's face. Miravil had nearly succeeded in her desperate attempt. "What happened afterward?" he asked Jacla.
"They came for me and locked me in a cell near Miravil. I expected that we would be sacrificed together, but Karagat had other plans for me. As soon as he recovered from his wounds, he had Miravil taken to the secret alter and used her as a sacrifice to feed his demon."
"At least she was free of the burden of sharing life with him," Tharek murmured. "You know for yourself what faced her if she bore a son."
Jacla nodded. "I know how terrible it is to lose a treasured child. Instead of killing me, Karagat kept me alive and tortured me with words. Day after day he came to stand outside my cell and told me about the sacrifice. I will spare you the images he painted. He tried to break me, but I had a purpose. Somehow I knew that I would have my vengeance. One day he told me that he had never tasted sweeter meat than the body of Miravil. He said that he intended to make a practice of seeking Mareklan maidens for his bloody rites. He assured me that my actions had a part in his decision."
"You cannot think that your attempt to free your daughter was an evil thing to do!" Tharek insisted.
Jacla shook her head, but then she nodded. "He told me of other maidens taken either by stealth or foul betrayal. At last he seemed to grow bored of the game of taunting me, but the orders to kill me never came. I finally despaired and began to welcome the thought of death, but the guards outside my cell engaged in gossip. Karagat had located another Mareklan maiden and was set to steal her from her parents. Then I heard the name. It was my nephew's adopted daughter, Travil."
"The little empress?" Tharek asked her.
"Yes. Karagat overestimated his control over Marnat. The emperor saw the girl and wanted her for himself. He had recently disposed of a wife for committing the crime of producing yet another daughter. He took Travil as his bride, not knowing that she had been adopted and was not of true Mareklan blood. I have no further knowledge of what happened to her. I only know that she did not bear the emperor a son and I fear that she fell into Karagat's hands when she failed her task."
"Travil is still alive," Tharek assured her. "She was rescued by a friend of mine. They have married and are raising a family together. He treats her oldest daughter as his own."
Jacla clutched his hand and smiled through her tears. "Thank you for telling me."
"How did you escape from Karagat?" he asked.
"One day the earth began to shake and the walls of my cell crumbled. I stumbled out through the opening just before the roof fell in. My limbs were weak from long confinement, but desperation drove me. Somehow I made my way out of Saadena. There were other refugees. Most of them were too concerned about their own plight to help me, but some of them reached out to me and shared the little that they had. They spoke to me of a prophet who had warned of the destruction that would come. A group of us settled down together in a camp not far from the city."
"I am surprised that you did not find Mareklans and tell them what Karagat was doing," Tharek said.
"I wanted to return to my people and warn them about Karagat, but at first, I was too weak and ill. As months passed and I regained my health, I became convinced that no one would believe me. I had provided my daughter with the blades that she had used to wound her husband. There are some Mareklans who would see me as a monster for doing such a thing. I struggled with my conscience for many days, and then it was too late. A contingent of Marnat's legionnaires attacked our camp and took us as prisoners. We were returned to Saadena as slaves. I was taken to the palace and became a scullion. Karagat had lost his house in the destruction and he became a guest of the emperor."
"I am surprised that no one recognized you."
Jacla brushed away a tendril of her white hair and smiled wearily. "I was locked up in the dark for more than a year before my prison crumbled. In that time, my hair turned white. I had been a large woman, tall and broad, but I grew thin and bent. I worked in the kitchen, washing pots, and heard the gossip of the servants. One day everyone was busy preparing a banquet for the emperor and I noticed that one of Karagat's men had come down to the kitchen. He mingled with the others and somehow came to be the man who served Marnat. Not long after the feast, Marnat became ill. I know something of herbs and toxins and the symptoms indicated poison."
"Karagat was constantly in Marnat's presence and as the emperor began to fail, he depended on Karagat to rule. The final weeks were what changed me from an observer to a woman bent on justice. Karagat became betrothed to Marnat's oldest daughter, Sarian, a child not yet thirteen. Evidently he had set himself to take the throne as soon as Marnat died."
"I explored the servant service ways that led from floor to floor and room to room until I located the room where Karagat slept. On the night before the nuptials between Karagat and Sarian, I took a sword from the armory and made my way to the upper floor. I concealed myself in a bench chest and waited long into the night until I heard the monster snoring."
At first Jacla seemed unwilling to complete her story. She clutched Tharek's hand more tightly. Finally she sighed and finished telling what had happened.
"Karagat was sleeping on his back in scarlet night clothes. I could see him by the night lamp he left burning. I plunged the sword into his chest and he woke and stared up at me. He tried to cry out for his guards, but my blade had gone true and when he shouted, he choked and died. I wiped the sword on his scarlet robes and slid beneath his bed, expecting any minute that his men would find me. There were guards on both the servant passage and the door. My doom seemed certain."
"How did you evade them?" Tharek asked her.
"The door opened and a guard looked in. Perhaps the scarlet clothes concealed the wound, but in any case, no alarm was given. I huddled through the night and prepared myself for whatever punishment would come. Nothing could be worse than what I had already borne. To my surprise, when morning came, the guard was dismissed. I heard them talking outside the door. It seems that Karagat preferred privacy in the morning when he met with certain people."
Tharek nodded. "Doubtless they were members of his cult and did not want to be identified by the palace guards."
"I crawled out of my hiding place and hurried back to the scullery in time to wash the breakfast pots and dishes. I overheard the whispered gossip of the other servants. In the night, not only Karagat had died, but Marnat as well. Suspicion fell on other courtiers. The discipline that kept me from escaping from my duties fell into disarray after a few days with no sure ruler. I was able to leave the palace and make my way to freedom. For a while I settled in a village in Virdana."
"Why did you come to Zedekla?" Tharek asked.
"There were rumors that Orquians had abandoned Saadena when their leader died. It was said that they had claimed the ancient pyramid of Zedekla for their own. I knew that I could never rejoin my people. By using a blade to kill a man I had done that which could never be forgiven. I came to Zedekla bound to finish what I had begun. Galak had been one of Karagat's key men. It was he who stopped Miravil from killing Karagat on their wedding night. It was he who poisoned Marnat. I came to Zedekla and set up as a weaver and tried to warn against the spread of Karagat's foul practices. I found the Orquians installed and lost my first apprentice to Bechanel. I thought I was a failure. When you came and used the Stone of Truth, it gave me a reason to go on living."
"You challenged me when you first met me," Tharek reminded her.
"You had made me bold after years of cringing in disgust at plotting Karagat's destruction. I thought that what I had done had stained my soul beyond redemption. I could have danced with joy when I saw the light of the Stone of Truth. When I knew that you killed Garvok, I finally accepted that in taking Karagat's life I had not sinned."
Tharek could understand her feelings. "Neither of us can live among our people any longer. We have gone against a bulwark of tradition when we used swords to kill our enemies, but we must warn the leaders of our clan that Orquian's are seeking Mareklan maidens."
Jacla looked away and sighed. "Will any of them listen to us after what we did?"
Tharek nodded. "They will listen. Regnon, High Priest ofTimora is my friend. Once Parga and Aragan return with the refugees from Otaliafa, we can send out a caravan to Timora that will be large enough to defeat any who would stop it. They should know what we have done and plan to do. Zedekla will take its place among the cities of Okishdu and I want to establish an alliance with the Tedakans and Taleekans."
"They are far away, why should they care what happens here on the western coast?" Jacla protested.
"If we do not join our efforts with the other cities, the outlaw bands will grow until they threaten every corner of Okishdu. If we are not willing to fight for each other, we will fall separately."
Jacla struggled to her feet and used her right hand to massage her back. "I have lingered here too long. Tabla will be wondering what kept me. She is a good woman Tharek. You could do worse."
He chuckled and shook his head. "You are persistent. I admire Tabla. She will make a wonderful wife to someone, but not me."
"Is it because she lived with harlots that you cannot accept her?" Jacla pressed him.
"She was innocent of any willful act. It is possible that she is still a maiden, but even if she was forced to yield her maidenhood, I would court her if I loved her."
"I have heard that High Priests may only marry virgins," Jacla said.
"That is no longer the law," Tharek told her. "I copied the laws and the compacts from the scrolls in the sacred library and I have studied them well. There are no provisions for whom a priest can marry."
Jacla lowered her eyes and firmed her lips. Tharek knew the signals. She would not easily give up her pursuit of arranging things for him. Now that he knew her story, he was not surprised at her persistence. She was not merely stubborn, but intransigent. He would simply have to remain unmoved when she attempted to arrange his future. The best way to overcome her determination that he favor Tabla with affection was to help the young woman choose another partner.
After seeing Jacla to the path and watching for a while as she descended, Tharek returned to his tent. The things she told him should be recorded. Unfortunately, her suspicion that she would be regarded with loathing by Mareklans was well founded. She was a heroine, but even though she had saved more lives by killing Karagat than she had ever taken, the prejudice against bearing swords and using them to fight and kill was fundamental to Mareklan tradition.
Chapter 16 Invasion
Once the people of Zedekla had chosen the lots where they would build their homes, the days were filled with endless activity from dawn until dusk. The requirement that the walls and watchtowers should be built of stone was not as stringent for the homes and shops. Those located on higher ground where there was not much risk of flooding, could be constructed of pounded earth or stucco. Dornat dictated that the alternating streets be twice as wide as those between with squares at every fourth crossing to provide for light and air.
Tharek supervised those who were assigned to raise the walls and towers of his palace. At first he had questioned the grandeur of Dornat's plan, thinking it too spacious for his future family. " a ruler you must have guest rooms, meeting rooms, a grand council room, an armory, and more," Dornat wearily insisted when Tharek sought him out.
Tharek looked closely at his architect and saw dark circles under his eyes. He was visibly thinner than when they had first met weeks before. "You are overworking. You must lighten up your schedule."
Dornat grimaced. "Everyone must waste my time in argument. You believe your palace is too large, others think their houses are too small or they cannot see why they must avoid the use of wood for all but the beams of their roofs and floors. If everyone would just do as I say, I would have more time to sleep at night."
"I am sorry if my protests added to your burden," Tharek said. "I am amazed at all you have accomplished, but we must soon meet another challenge. I have visions of invasion."
The rescue party led by Parga returned with their boats filled with refugees. Otaliafa had been destroyed by the great storm. The survivors had only saved themselves by taking refuge in the caves high on the cliffs that cupped the bay. They were welcomed and put to work fishing. Several large parties set out for the north to cut wood and gather food. The leaves on the hills to the north were turning color as the weather cooled, warning of the coming winter.
The watchtowers were all built and the first courses of the wall rose above the level of the land around it when Dagnet brought a man to Tharek. "My scouts found him lurking in the bushes by the river. He claims he wants to join us."
Tharek studied the prisoner. His clothing was a curious collection of parts that had come from several lands. The tunic was of good gray cloth with a Tedakan pattern of weaving. His buskins were worn and scuffed, but the patterns Kumnorans stamped into their leather were still visible. His hair and beard were dressed with scanty braids fastened with rings of shell in the manner preferred by some Janakan clans but his tattoos were not characteristic of any clan that Tharek had known. They seemed to be a deliberate attempt at counterfeit. The tell tale of the spy's true origin was the repetition of marine motifs.
"What clan do you claim?" Tharek asked. "It seems to me that you might be from Orenon."
There was a tiny flicker in the prisoner's eyes, but otherwise he gave no sign of surprise. "I am Janakan," he protested.
Tharek stood and called for Dagnet. "We will let this man perform the labor service that will make him a citizen. Put him to work plastering the basements of the finished watchtowers. I doubt he knows how it must be done so you should assign a man to teach him and observe that he is doing a good job. Ask Jacla to keep an eye out for his comfort and assign him a place in your barracks."
Dagnet's stolid face remained unmoved, but Tharek recognized the gleam in his eyes and gave a slight nod. They had no provisions yet for keeping prisoners, but this man would be under someone's eyes every hour of the day and night. Meanwhile, he would provide some useful labor.
After Dagnet led the man away and established him in his new task, he returned to Tharek. "The days are numbered before we will be attacked by whoever sent the spy. I suggest that we double the time spent on building our defenses. You should give a general order that other work should be suspended while we prepare for the attack by adding height to the walls."
"Find Ralik and bring him back with you," Tharek said. "I will send for Dornat and Parga. The four of you will advise me on our options. There may be other ways to meet the threat. It may not be wise to provide the conditions for a siege, especially since we are warned in advance of what will come."
Dagnet nodded and hurried away. Tharek sent Finerik to summon Dornat and Parga. When the builder appeared, he seemed more relaxed than he had been for several weeks. "Things are going well," he said when Tharek remarked on his demeanor. "I have discovered a source of white stone for the Shrine quite by accident. When the stone is damp within the ground, it looks gray, but when we returned to take the stones we had cut, the sun had bleached them nearly white. We will be able to begin construction on the Shrine as soon as the stone is brought to Zedekla. Yesterday I sent several gangs of men to begin the quarrying. The people are so happy to begin building a Shrine that I had more volunteers than I could use."
"Dagnet believes that we should drop all other work and finish the walls," Tharek said. "A spy was discovered near the river and he tried to convince us that he wanted to become a citizen. We set him to work, but he will always be under observation day and night. If he escapes, he could carry news of our preparations to the enemy."
Dornat stood and paced. "The walls between the watchtowers are being built of stones that come from the excavations for the palace. If we use the rock that I had intended for the shrine, it will interrupt the orderly progression of construction and we could lose months of progress when winter comes. I had hoped that we would have our homes enclosed against the weather. Perhaps we should mislead the spy and let him carry false tales to his master."
Tharek held up his hand. "Save your arguments for Dagnet and Ralik. Parga knows the weather patterns on this coast better than any of us. He might have some ideas."
When the four men were assembled, Tharek looked around at them. "A spy was caught by one of Dagnet's men. We put him to work under guard when he said that he wanted to join us. Dornat suggested that it might be wise to let him escape and return to his masters with a report of what he has seen."
"Many of our people are away from Zedekla looking for food to make provision for the winter," Dagnet said. "Otherwise we might be able to muster an army to repel the invaders before they reach the city. Men have been sent to quarry stone for the shrine and we have less than half our normal population. It would not be wise to let our enemy know how ill prepared we are."
"Is there any way for you to call the gatherers and fishermen back in time to help defend Zedekla?" Dornat asked. "Even if we make the walls a little higher, we will be short of what we need to man them."
"I can communicate with those who came to us from Otaliafa," Parga said. "I build a fire every evening and use the smoke to form patterns that are signals for the fishermen. I will ask everyone to return as soon as possible."
"The men at the quarries could be summoned easily," Dornat said. "As for making the walls higher, I could design a temporary palisade that could be erected on the top of the stone we have already laid."
"If we could have all our strength mustered within a few days, it would be best to let the spy return to his masters before we have everything in place," Tharek said. "I will march out after him with a shadow force, then turn and lure the enemy back toward the city where you will box them in from either side."
"I will lead the men returning from the quarry," Ralik volunteered.
Parga nodded. "I could lead the fishermen and come up from the river."
"What part do you expect me to play?" Dagnet asked Tharek.
"You will organize your men within the shelter of the wall. When the others who are waiting give the signal that they are ready to attack, raise the city flag that Jacla prepares for you. When I see it, I will turn my men and fight."
"I will send someone to shadow the spy when we allow him to escape," Dagnet said. "It will give us some idea of the size of the force we face."
"I approve the plan of action," Tharek said.
For several minutes more the men discussed the tactics they would use to carry out the strategy. Dagnet was first to leave as he went to make certain that their spy returned to his camp before he learned anything important.
Tharek walked with Dornat when he returned to the construction site for the shrine. At present it was little more than a wide, square hole. Rock was being cut from the bottom as the floor of the basement was squared. Dornat hailed one of the workers and told him to call a meeting. While they waited for the men to gather, Tharek turned to survey the progress of the walls of what would be his palace. Dornat had decided to use the native stone of the headland to build most of the palace and the city walls, reducing the height of the natural promontory and replacing it with halls and towers.
From this distance the inner walls were hidden by the piled stone that had been removed from the excavation. It was possible that the spy had obtained a better view when Tharek questioned him, but it was unlikely that he realized that what might seem the floor was actually the ceiling of a finished basement where a well provided water for the baths. Those too young or old to fight, along with the mothers of small children would be able to take shelter within the finished portions of the palace.
Early in the morning two days later Dagnet brought news that the spy had taken advantage of a deliberate lack of vigilance and escaped. A summons went out for all to gather. Tharek addressed them. "We will be embattled in a short time. We must make our preparations. Dornat will show you what he wants done. I need volunteers to form the vanguard who will go out to meet the enemy and lure them back into a trap. If you feel secure in the use of a sword, come to me when your labor here is done. Tinda will supervise provisioning the cellar of the palace and prepare a place of refuge for the young and very old."
His speech communicated a quiet sense of urgency. As soon as he dismissed the meeting they hurried away on various errands. Dornat soon had a steady stream of men and women carrying salvaged lumber to the walls and securing it to the stones. Others were busy preparing provisions for the refuge in the palace under the leadership of Jacla and Tinda.
Tharek returned to his tent on the hill below the excavation for the palace. He turned and looked over the city. The palisades that Dornat had designed were going up, but from this vantage point they seemed scant protection. It was vital that the enemy be stopped before they reached Zedekla.
He saw a group of men coming up the hill toward him. In the vanguard were the sons of Parga. Three of them well grown youths, but two of them still beardless. All were armed with swords.
"We will be with you when you march to meet the enemy," Turga, the oldest said.
"I thought that you were fishing."
"We came ashore just a few minutes ago and our father explained what you intend to do. We will share the honor of your company."
Tharek hesitated, then he nodded. He would not insult them by insisting that at least the younger ones should stay behind. They were of an age to carry weapons and join the fight. "I want to drill those who march with me. Remember, we are planning to turn back as if in flight from the enemy in order to bring them within range of the other parts of my army. We will turn and fight when I give the order, not before."
Soon others joined them until more than fifty men had gathered. Tharek led them across the mound of stones to the flat area that formed the roof of the lower rooms of the palace. He drilled them for several hours, using sticks instead of swords. Some of them had real skill, but for a moment he wished that he might have Darm's brothers in his band. They had practiced with swords since they were small. He could only hope that his enemy would have the usual assortment of rogues and malcontents, men with less skill than even these.
As sunset neared, Parga's smoke signals drifted upward on the wind. Turga stopped to watch them. "He is recalling all the fishermen and warning them of danger."
Tharek nodded. "We should be well prepared by the time our enemy approaches. At first light in the morning, we will march out. Go home now and eat and rest after I perform the evening ritual. If you have wives or sisters, ask them to prepare arm guards of heavy leather."
Tharek watched them leave. They seemed more eager than fearful of the battle they would face sometime tomorrow. The five sons of Parga headed off together and he felt a sense of premonition that disturbed his soul. When he was alone, he dressed in his priestly robes and cowl and took his place upon the hill.
The people gathered as usual for the evening ritual, but he was slow to raise his hands and pray. Tomorrow some who waited below would be dead or wounded. He looked from face to face and memorized their features. Finally he raised his hands and began his plea. "We come before the Radiance with thanks for life and freedom. Tomorrow we will meet a foe and some of us will die to protect our homes and city. Bless us with strength and unity. Receive those who cannot stay with us."
When he lowered his hands there was silence. He turned and walked back up the hill leaving the people to disperse with hardly a word exchanged between them.
When dawn came, Tharek stood outside his tent with Ponon and Barken. In short order all the men who would march out with them had gathered. They wore a motley assortment of protective clothing, mostly hides rough cut and tied around their limbs. Some wore caps of hide wound round with coils of wire and Tharek approved the extra caution they displayed. This small army was not a bid for heroism.
Dagnet intercepted them just as they prepared to march. He hurried up to Tharek and explained what he had learned.
"The prisoner we released took flight immediately when he found himself unobserved. It was easy to track him to an army that is camped several hours march from here. I believe it is led by Dashkar, one of the priests who led the worship of Orqu. He has at least a hundred men in his command, but many of them are slaves."
"When can we expect to meet them?"
"They will set out at dawn or a little later. Parga assures me that his fishermen will be coming to the beach soon. I have word from Ralik by a runner. He has his men in concealment behind the line of hills to the north. He sent this for you. He said that Darm provided him with the pattern of the insignia."
Dagnet lifted the sack he was carrying and removed a helm of gilded bronze and a white breastplate marked with a blue square of wirra hide fastened with a badge of silver. Tharek stepped into his tent to put them on. He found the helm snug and the breastplate a little short, but when he appeared his little army cheered. Taking up his staff, he urged them forward.
They left the walls of Zedekla behind them and walked through the high grass that covered the eastern plains north of the river. When they had marched for less than an hour the land around them seemed utterly empty. When peace was assured, this land could be farmed, but now the silence was eerie. There was not even the hum and whir of insects to disturb the air.
Suddenly a line of men topped a slight rise a league in front of them. When they discovered Tharek's army, they screamed a battle cry and began to run. "Turn now," Tharek urged his men.
"We should fight them!" one of Parga's youngest son insisted. "I, at least, am not a coward."
"You are a fool!" Turga insisted, grabbing his brother by the arm and stopping him from racing toward the foe. "Follow the plan."
The men with Tharek were young and strong. They maintained an easy lope as they returned along their trail, followed by a roaring crowd of rabble seeing an easy victory against a smaller force.
It seemed hours instead of minutes until they came in sight of the walls of Zedekla and saw the ensign of blue and white flying from the main watchtower. Tharek stopped and shouted for his men to stand and fight. With one quick gesture, he twisted his staff and cast away the portion that protected his blade from rust. As he had trained them, most of his men stood and waited for the enemy to draw near, but Parga's youngest son again forgot the drill. Instead of standing with the others, he rushed forward with a scream of challenge.
His brothers followed him, breaking rank and leaving a gap near Tharek. He was left alone to take on several men. His moves were automatic as he twisted and turned, sending Tharek oc Baroka slashing through the foe until his arms grew tired. He was not aware when Ralik and Parga led their men to join the fight. His gilded helm had made him the chosen target of the worst and roughest of the enemy.
Ahead of him in the mass of battling bodies he saw Turga fall. His heart rent at the sight, but he could not take a step to help him as three men rushed toward him over the bodies of their fallen comrades.
Men came to his aid and fought beside him. Finally the attack dwindled and none of the enemy replaced the latest who had fallen. Tharek finally looked around. A long line of prisoners waited by the wall. They were roped together and close guarded, but most of them seemed more pleased than sorry to be taken.
Tharek took a step and felt a pain in his thigh. Glancing down, he saw a heavy line of blood run over his knee. He lifted the skirt of his tunic and discovered a gash he did not recall receiving. With economy of movement, he reached into one of his ever present belt pouches and took out a powder that would stem the flow of blood.
"Leave that to me!" Jacla scolded him. "Heroes do not treat their own wounds."
She fussed over him and he left her to her ministrations while he cleaned his sword. He felt light-headed but Dagnet was headed toward him and he wanted to be standing when he received the report of the battle. Somehow he knew that if he settled to the ground now, he would have trouble regaining his feet.
"Your strategy was brilliant!" Dagnet said. "We lost only ten of our people to their fifty or more dead. You can see the line of prisoners we took. Most of them have asked for asylum. As I suspected, they were driven to fight and as soon as they realized the overwhelming odds, they all surrendered."
Jacla stood and drilled her finger into Dagnet's chest, looking up at him with fire in her eyes. "Do not tire him with all these useless boasts. He is about to fall from lack of blood. If you want to maintain the illusion that he is a hero, fetch men to carry him on their shoulders and return him to his tent."
Dagnet's eyes widened as they fell to the skirts of Tharek's tunic and he saw the bandage Jacla had secured around the injury. "You are wounded. I will call men to carry you."
Tharek did not protest as Jacla wiped the blood from his leg and smoothed his tunic over the bandage to hide the evidence of his injury. Someone brought the sheath section of his staff and helped him conceal the sword. He clung to his staff and tried to avoid falling before Dagnet fetched his honor guard. They lifted him swiftly but gently to their shoulders and carried him through the cheering crowd.
It was not yet noon but dark shapes were circling in the sky above the battle ground. Tharek spoke to the men who carried him. "Do not take me to my tent, but set me down on the knoll where I perform the evening ritual."
They set him down on the large rock that he usually stood on when he prayed. For now, it made a seat that let him rest without too much strain. This was no time to retire as an invalid. Jacla hurried off in search of food and drink to build his strength and he watched the women go among the dead, searching for their sons and husbands. Tinda was among them with Shira near her side. Four times she stopped and knelt over a still shape. Each time Tharek seemed to see a face while Tinda cried over a son before moving on.
Finally they lifted a man and helped him hobble back toward the city. It was Turga and Tharek felt a surge of joy that at least one of Parga's sons had lived. Finerik stoood nearby, ready as always to run and carry messages.
"Ask Tinda to bring Turga to join me here," he said.
He watched as Finerik approached the women. An argument ensued. Shira seemed adamant that her brother not proceed up the hill to join Tharek. She was overruled by both her mother and her brother.
When they approached, Shira lagged behind, her face set in stubborn resentment. "Come, sit beside me and let me tend your wounds," Tharek said.
"You should have come to him!" Shira muttered angrily. "He is wounded."
"I have remedies and poultices to help him," Tharek said. "He was valiant. I saw him fall, but I was not able to reach him. My heart rejoiced when I saw that he still lived."
"He is my only brother now, because of you!" Shira's voice took on a harsher tone.
"We volunteered!" Turga gasped. "We had the honor of a place in his first company."
"Tharek does not value honor," Shira hissed. "He told me that it is no honor to kill."
"It is an honor to die for what is right," Tharek quietly insisted. "We will do honor to your brothers, and the others of our people who have died."
A dark wave of faintness began to swallow him and he relaxed back against the cushion that Jacla had provided. He waited while the spell of weakness passed and Turga was settled near his side.
It was Tinda who discovered the truth of his situation. "Tharek's boot is black with blood," she reproved her sneering daughter. "He is injured. He should be resting somewhere quiet, not sitting here in futile argument with you!"
"The grey pouch," Tharek muttered. "I will let you see what you can use for Turga."
Shira set to work helping her mother with her lips firmed in an angry line. Somehow he had once again set her against him.
When the final list of casualties was compiled, Ponon's name was prominent among the dead. Barken had received a minor wound, but it was he who carried his brother from the field and placed him gently on a pyre set up before the hill where Tharek rested.
When all was ready, Tharek stood and leaned against his staff. "Today we will send these good souls on their way. Their blood has not been spilled in vain. They were valiant until the end and gave the greatest sacrifice a man or woman can give."
His voice failed and he could go no further. He raised his hands and said the simplest prayer he knew. It was enough for now.
Chapter 17 The Trial
When darkness fell, Tharek was carried up to his tent and took a remedy to help him sleep. Jacla insisted on staying close at hand in case he needed nursing. "You need a wife to care for you," she fussed.
He was too weary to argue with her. Tomorrow would bring problems of its own, but even though a high price had been paid, today brought victory. He used a tincture of selan to speed the healing of the wound and dull the edge of pain to help him sleep.
The first order of business after he woke the next morning was to meet with his council. He was carried to the floor of the palace where he had drilled his little army only two days before. Benches had been set up in a circle and everyone was already seated when Tharek was set down in his place.
Several of the men and women waiting for him were wearing bandages. He met their eyes and nodded his appreciation of their presence. "Yesterday we won a victory, but we must consider the cost. Those who gave their lives have earned a full inheritance of whatever lands they chose. Those who are injured will receive a proportional relief of what they owe. Nothing can truly compensate for life or pain."
Grave smiles of approval met his statement. Dagnet signaled a desire to speak and Tharek nodded. "We have more than fifty able-bodied prisoners. I have set them to work clearing their dead from the battle ground and carrying them to the mud flats. It will be a burden to feed them. Perhaps we should allow some of them who were pressed into the army to escape."
"I saw their leader and his men run when the battle turned. They could gather and threaten us again." Bardold contended.
Tharek turned to Ralik who had raised his brow. "What is your assessment of the problem?"
"We have their weapons," Ralik said. "Those who leave will only carry the word of our victory to others who might have mistaken our strength and will. Those who stay can be used to quarry stone that will add to our ability to defend against further invasions."
"Keep groups of them closely guarded in separate places," Tharek said. "Treat their wounds and listen to their conversations. I will judge them when we have prepared a place for the trial. Those who conspired to overthrow my city will be sentenced to heavy labor in the quarries. Those who were pressed will serve a shorter period to cover their indemnity. Afterwards, if they prove themselves, we will offer them the chance to join us as citizens under the same provisions that the rest of you were offered."
"Will they have the right to earn places within the city?" Parga asked.
"That is something we will consider. For now, I will assign lands away from the center. There is a need of settlers willing to put the further fields under cultivation. Are there other concerns?" Tharek asked the council, ending further discussion on the matter. A wave of dizziness made his voice shake and he closed his eyes until the feeling passed.
Jacla stood. "There is nothing so urgent that you should stay here in the sun with your head uncovered. All of us have things to do and by now, we should know how to proceed."
A gentle rumble of laughter greeted her pronouncement. Tharek formally dismissed the council and submitted to being carried to his tent. Jacla's overanxious hovering could sometimes be a burden, but this time he was grateful for her intervention. Once settled in his tent, he subsided onto his cot and took his medicine to end the burning in his wound.
In mid-afternoon he woke from a long nap and found Finerik waiting with a message for him. "Turga wants to speak with you. He has been outside for about an hour."
"Show him in!" Tharek urged. "You should have waked me when he came."
Finerik did not argue, but his expression told the story. Doubtless Jacla had refused to let Turga disturb his master's sleep. He slipped out of the tent and returned shortly with the youth who was leaning on a stick.
"What brings you here?" Tharek asked the young man.
"I heard that Ponon was killed. I want to take his place. If my brothers and I had not deserted our positions and rushed into the battle, you might not have been wounded as you were."
"I do not hold you to account for what happened," Tharek insisted. "You have more than paid the price for your impulse to protect your kin. I saw you fall and would have tried to rescue you, but the battle was thick around me."
"That golden helm and white breastplate you were wearing made you a target. I would advise you to keep a lower profile in any future battles."
"Ralik is a veteran of the legionnaires, and he only thought to do me honor with his gift. I plan to have simple armor prepared for all our soldiers. When I march out again, I will not be the only one with a helmet on my head. The leather that you were wearing on your arms and legs prevented you from receiving greater wounds. I will not make the mistake of ignoring such provisions in the future. As for your request to take Ponon's place, I would be honored to have you by my side, but first you must recover from your wound. I am surprised that your parents let you come to me."
"They are swallowing their sorrow for my brothers by working long and hard. Shira checked on me before she left our home and took our sisters to their training with Jacla. I must confess that I deceived her by pretending to sleep."
Tharek grimaced at the thought of what Shira would say when she discovered the deception. "She will chide you for joining me and threatening your recovery."
"Shira has taken a dislike to you for some reason I don't understand. It is almost as if every success you have is a wound to her pride. Please do not let her attitude interfere with my desire to become your guard. She is the first to defend you when there is any criticism from others."
"You have the right to choose what you will. I have accepted you, whatever Shira may say, I will not withdraw my word. Perhaps it is best if you stay here instead of returning to your parents' home. I will send Finerik with a message for them to send your clothing and any other personal items you left behind."
Turga frowned. "It might be better to wait for a while before I leave their home. They have lost their other sons. I am the only one remaining."
"Do as you choose," Tharek replied, "but every day that you delay will be that much more difficult for all of you. You cannot make up for the loss of your brothers but when they see you, it will remind them that the others are gone. If you are here with me, they will not have a constant reminder of their pain. They will know you are receiving care for your wound, but they will not be burdened by worry about tending you."
Turga considered Tharek's advice. Finally he nodded. "Send the messenger. I dread the trek back down the hill."
For the following two days Tharek seldom stirred from his tent except to conduct the evening ritual. He used the time to study and reflect. On the day before the trial Dagnet reported on the prisoners.
"We kept the prisoners close confined in separate groups and observed their behavior. I have a list of names for your consideration. The worst of all is Pagaron, the spy we caught before the battle. He has been trying to foment trouble and effect an escape. He thinks that he has bribed his guards and expects that soon he will be free to join Dashkar."
"I saw no Orquian tokens when we examined him before he fled," Tharek said.
"He was raised in Orenon where Watchers disdain the worship of Orqu, but from his actions he is one of Dashkar's trusted men."
"Are there any men that you can be certain were pressed into service?"
Dagnet nodded. "I believe that most of those who gave themselves up to be captured were from villages the gang had burned. Their families were taken hostage. I believe we have a chance to rescue them. My only fear is that Dashkar slew them when he found himself defeated."
"Send for Parga," Tharek said. "Tell him to leave as soon as possible to locate the families. The boat he built for Fero is the best for river running. He can take Ralik and arm the rowers. If there is a prisoner you feel that you can trust, send him along to show the way."
Dagnet bowed his head and left the tent. Tharek stood and tested his leg. The wound was still a little red along the row of stitches Jacla had placed, but it was clean and showed signs of healing. Tomorrow he would have to decide the fates of fifty men or more. It would not do to show any sign of weakness at the trial.
When morning came, he was able to walk to the area set aside for the trial with the help of Barken's sturdy arm. A high seat had been set up for him and he noticed Jacla's hand in cushions set to ease the hours he would spend sitting in the same place while he reviewed the evidence and gave sentences.
When he was settled, the crowd began to gather. Soon they filled the seats left open for their use and many were left to stand. The council took their place on benches reserved for them near the judgment seat. When everything was ready, the prisoners were brought in.
Three days of sitting close confined with no knowledge of their fate had left many of them slouched and fearful of Tharek's judgment. Some of them seemed almost unaffected by their imprisonment. Pagaron was openly insolent toward his captors. Tharek summoned the spy to stand before him first of all.
"You are accused of engaging in conspiracy against me and my city of Zedekla. The penalty is hard labor for five years. Do you have any argument that might ameliorate your sentence?"
"You have no authority over me," Pagaron contended. "When your people captured me before, I was offered citizenship and given some innocuous task to perform. It seems you do not keep your word. Why should I excuse myself to you?"
Tharek turned to the council who were serving as the jury. "Consider his actions and his words. What do you find?"
Finerik was appointed to gather the votes. He carried a jar to each member of the jury and gathered the tokens that they cast. When he returned to Tharek, they were counted. All of them were black.
"You have been found guilty of conspiracy with a sentence of five years of hard labor. I should warn you that those you sought to bribe have given additional evidence against you. I sentence you to fifty lashes for attempted bribery. Your punishment will begin as soon as this trial is concluded."
Pagaron was led away while Dagnet stepped forward with another prisoner. His arm was bound up in a sling and his kilted loincloth draped beneath a short tunic in the style of Virdanan farmers. Tharek studied him silently until he raised his eyes and gave a pleading look of transparent innocence.
"You are accused of engaging in conspiracy against me and my city of Zedekla. The penalty is hard labor for five years. Do you have any argument that might ameliorate your sentence?" Tharek repeated, using the same formula for every man.
"I fought to save my family," the man pleaded. "They were held hostage after we were captured and our village was destroyed."
"Is there anyone here who can speak for you?" Tharek asked him.
Several of the prisoners gestured their willingness to give evidence. Tharek pointed to one of them. "Step forward and tell me what you know."
"He hates me!" the prisoner under examination protested. "You cannot trust anything he says."
Tharek encouraged the volunteer to speak. "This man is lying to obtain a lighter sentence. He was one of Dashkar's guards and many of us felt his lash."
Tharek leaned back and considered the two men. "Both of you, strip to the waist," he ordered.
When their tunics were removed, the first man was shown to be wearing an elaborate tattoo that covered half his chest. The mark of the demon ran from his navel to his sternum. The second man wore a lattice of scars across his back.
Tharek turned to the council again after they had seen the evidence. "What do you find?'
Once again Finerik passed among them. Once again the voting was unanimous.
"You will be given a hundred lashes and perform hard labor for ten years," Tharek declared. "If you had not tried to cover your crime and deceive the court, you would have received the same sentence as Pagaron."
The man was led away protesting. The example of the judgments given to the first two prisoners proved efficacious in speeding up the trials of the fifty men remaining. Of them, four more were found to have conspired with Dashkar and each of them was sentenced to five years of hard labor in the quarries. The other prisoners supported one another as men who had been forced to fight against their wills. Tharek sentenced them to no more than a week of reparation, working side by side with citizens to build the palace and the Shrine.
Even though the trials were short and the court was quickly cleared, Tharek was reminded of his wound when he tried to stand. Once again Barken offered him help in returning to his tent.
On the third day after the trial, Parga's boat appeared. It ran low in the water and proceeded slowly, keeping pace with a crowd of women and children on the bank. A prisoner who was working on the wall was the first to realize the meaning of the slow procession. He dropped his trowel and gave a cry of joy when he saw his wife and infant child in the boat.
Tharek declared a holiday after warning the prisoners that they still had most of the week of their sentences to fill. Their families were provided with shelter and food and assured that they were free to come and go. The six who had been identified and condemned as Dashkar's cronies were not present to witness the glad reunion of the hostages with their fathers and sons. They were working in the quarries under guard, nearly naked in brief loincloths and sturdy chains that linked them to each other in a line.
When Tharek stood to perform the evening ritual, the crowd below him was swelled by the presence of the rescued families. From what Dagnet told him, most of them were eager to apply for citizenship as soon as their sentences were served. For a moment before he raised his hands to pray, he looked out over them and counted the cost of gaining their freedom. He could not avoid Shira's challenging gaze which went from him to Turga who stood near Barken just below him on the hill. Her brother's defection to his cause had heaped more fuel on the heat of the anger that she fostered.
She visited Turga daily and took every opportunity to let Tharek feel her disdain. Under the weight of tradition, she would be mourning her husband until winter passed. Until then, no other could in decency apply to win her heart. Tharek shut his mind against the frustration he felt at her lack of trust. He raised his hands and invoked the blessings of the Radiance.
Chapter 18 Reunion
Tabla was almost constantly in the company of Tharek during his waking hours. As his scribe, she was responsible for keeping the tally of hours that were worked to gain citizenship. Dornat, Dagnet, and other supervisors reported to her regularly. Tharek appreciated her quiet efficiency when he had reason to take notice, but in spite of Jacla's broad hints that he should declare himself as Tabla's suitor, his heart remained in the unkind keeping of Shira.
Even after Turga had fully recovered from his wound, Shira continued her daily visits for the sake of her little girl, Belin, who had lost all her other uncles. One morning Turga remarked that Shira might benefit by taking writing lessons from Tabla. At first Shira balked at the plan, but Turga went behind her back and enlisted the support of his parents. Tharek thought the lessons were an excellent idea, but he was careful to avoid any sign that he favored the plan. When Turga appealed to him for his opinion, he frowned and shook his head.
"Shira has plenty of duties to occupy her time. Who would care for her child while she studies with Tabla?"
"So you think that a common fisherman's daughter could not master the skills of a scribe?" Shira demanded angrily.
"I only raised the questions that I felt must be in your own mind," Tharek assured her.
"You do not know my mind!" Shira insisted. "I will take lessons if I can find someone to care for Belin."
"I will watch her for you," Tharek volunteered. "I can easily carry her with me while I supervise the building of the palace."
At first Shira balked at handing her child to Tharek in order to free her hands for writing practice, but the child did not share her mother's prejudice against Tharek. With delightful disregard for pedigree she held out her chubby arms to him and treated him as an uncle with all the pleasures and duties implied by the link.
She was particularly fond of being hoisted onto his neck and carried about with him as he checked on the progress of the roofs and walls. He was not certain which of the workers was the first to call her 'princess', but the practice spread until she responded as if it were her name.
When her babblings became words, one of the first she spoke was 'Thek'. One day when Shira was finishing her lesson, Tabla looked up and saw Tharek and Belin returning. "Here comes Thek with the princess," she said.
Tharek's heart fell when he saw the anger in Shira's face. She put down her slate and reached impatiently for her child. "Her name is Belin! I believe I have studied with you long enough Tabla. Thank you for the lessons, but I will not return tomorrow. It is evident that my child is forgetting who she is."
Tharek surrendered the little girl to her mother as soon as he could. Belin clung to his hair with her fists and protested with a wail. Her resistance only fueled Shira's anger.
She turned to her brother. "There is no longer any reason for me to come up here every day. From henceforth, you should make the effort to visit your parents and sisters."
"But I have been visiting with them nearly every evening!" Turga protested.
When she ignored him and hurried away, he turned to Tharek. "I must excuse my sister's behavior. I thought at first that she was distraught because of the death of her husband, but there are several widows among the families that father rescued from Dashkar's camp. They seem to handle their grief with greater propriety."
Tabla stood and gathered her writing materials. "Perhaps Shira is fighting for her dignity. Men cannot understand what it is to be a woman with little identity separate from that of her husband and children. A widow is caught in the horns of a dilemma. Will she better serve her children by marrying again, or will a new husband save his affection and support for the children that she bears to him and treat her prior children with disdain?"
The two men looked at her with surprise. Tharek had seldom heard her voice an opinion. "Surely Shira can see that I treat her child with affection?" he protested.
"Have you ever given Shira any sign that you hold her in high regard?" Tabla demanded.
"I have tried to honor her period of mourning!" he replied. "But it seems that the longer I wait to speak to her, the more she resents me."
Turga scratched his head and looked at Tharek. "I had no idea you favored my sister."
Tabla finished packing her scribing tools and gave a huff of impatience. "It should be evident to anyone with the sense to understand their hearts that Tharek and Shira are pining for each other."
Her words gave Tharek hope and he followed her as she walked down the hill. "What should I do to mend matters with Shira?"
"Visit her parents and keep up your friendship with the child. Do not be so anxious about her feelings toward you. Give her time. Eventually she will discover the truth she has been trying to hide from herself. Above all, caution Turga against harrying her with assurances that you are fond of her. Even if you had shown any desire to marry me, I would have resisted Jacla's constant attempts to make a match of the two of us. I have seen the way you look at Shira. She owns your heart."
"You should voice your opinions more often," Tharek said with a smile. "My heart is freed of worry with your words."
When he parted paths with Tabla, he noticed Shira standing in the shadow of a nearby house. She was holding Belin close against her chest and there was a tragic expression in her eyes. He hurried to her side. "Is Belin ill?"
"Be quiet!" she hissed urgently. "I have finally gotten her to sleep. "I was foolish to let her form such a strong attachment to you. What will I do when you no longer have time to play with her."
"I will not abandon Belin. I will come with Turga when he visits your parents."
"Time will test the truth of what you say," she muttered before abruptly moving away.
The next morning when Tharek woke, he found Jacla waiting for him when he left his tent. "You waited too long and now you have lost your chance with Tabla," she chided him. "Last night she accepted one of her other suitors and agreed to marry him."
"I am happy for both of them. Can you tell me which man finally won her heart?"
Jacla frowned. "She would only tell me that they plan to marry when the Shrine is completed. The home they will share is already finished and furnished. I have no doubt that she fears that I might try to interfere and argue against her choice. In truth, I like all of them well enough, but none of them will suit her as well as you. What will you do when you lose her as your scribe? She will have duties that keep her from following you everywhere and keeping your records."
"By the time the Shrine is finished, I can find another scribe. Perhaps it would be best to find a young man to take Tabla's place. I will not have to worry about losing him if he marries. In fact, it would be well if the council members employ scribes to help them keep their records. Tabla has been doing the work of several people. Dornat uses her services almost as often as I do."
"So you think she should add the burden of teaching a group of scribes to what she already does for you," Jacla fumed.
"Tabla is no longer giving lessons to Shira," he explained. "If she chooses, she can use that time to train her replacement."
Jacla gave a huff of impatience and stalked away. Tharek shook his head when Finerik hailed him. "I have a message from Dagnet! His scouts have seen a column of people approaching from the west."
"All this before breakfast!" Tharek muttered to himself. He turned toward his tent to fetch his staff and found that Jacla had brought a plate of fruit and cheese filled matlas. In her anger she had left him without making any mention of the meal.
Anticipating a long day filled with other disquieting news, Tharek took a few minutes to sit down and share his meal with Finerik. When they were finished, he walked down the hill and along the lane that led to Dagnet's quarters in the barracks inside the wall next to the main watchtower.
Dagnet looked up when Tharek entered. "I see that Finerik wasted no time bringing you the news. There seems no reason to be concerned by what my scouts discovered. In fact it seems that by noon we will be favored with a visit from a Mareklan caravan."
Tharek was surprised. His people seldom sent caravans to any but major towns and cities. It had been generations since the merchants wasted time traveling to towns which had no rare products or crafts to offer. Now and then the high priest would dispatch a group of chosen men to carry out the ancient duties of preaching among the most remote villages, but according to Parga, it had been many years since Zedekla had received such a visit.
With the idea that his city would shortly be subjected to the scrutiny of his kin, Tharek looked around him. Most of the short term prisoners had chosen to work for citizenship in Zedekla when they were free to make the choice. With the addition of their willing labor, the work on the city had continued apace.
Most of the residents lived in sturdy, attractive houses and the perimeter walls were finished. The Shrine rose white and gleaming, lacking only the final spire. Even the palace had begun to take on the appearance of future grandeur. Dornat promised that when winter came, the roofs would be on the central rooms and work would begin on the towers. Tharek decided that he would receive the Mareklans at the gate and show them to a space where they could erect their tents. He had not been bothered by his own shabby tent until now when it was too late to make other provisions.
Word of the impending visit of the merchant caravan spread quickly through the city. Craftsmen reviewed their inventories and housewives scrounged for barter. Although few of Zedekla's people had ever seen a Mareklan caravan except when visiting Timora, they anticipated the display of exotic and precious goods that the itinerant merchants provided.
Tharek wondered if he would be recognized. Regnon had implied that his exploits were not well known among Mareklans. Perhaps this group had recently come from Timora. They would know the truth of what he was when he performed the evening ritual in his priestly robe and cowl.
He was waiting to greet the leaders of the caravan when they finally approached the city. Their faces were concealed in the shadows of their conical hats, but even so, there was something familiar about the gait and bearing of the man in the lead.
The man reached up to tilt his hat and Tharek restrained his shout of eager welcome. This was his own family, led by his father. He could not restrain his wide smile or the rush of joy when it was returned by Korenen.
"Welcome to Zedekla," Tharek said with a dignity that belied his rush of feelings.
"We have heard of you, Tharek, and we are pleased," Korenen replied.
With that one sentence he reaffirmed both the denial of clan claim and his lasting regard for his oldest son. Tharek saw his mother, sisters and brothers following close behind. All of them gave him cautious courtesy. But the warmth in their eyes betrayed the deeper emotion that could not be openly expressed in front of others.
"I have prepared a place for you to camp while you visit our city," Tharek said. "Will you stay with us until we have finished our Shrine? It needs only the upper spire. My smiths are working on it even now."
"Regnon sent us with a gift of gold to gild your spire. It would only be proper for us to stay and help you with the dedication."
"Do you plan to set up your booths and trade with my people?"
Korenen smiled and nodded. "Would you expect a Mareklan to forgo the chance of trade on such an occasion?"
The visit of the Mareklans inspired a festival atmosphere. Work continued unabated on the Shrine, but some of the goods that were donated to the Shrine could only have come through trade with the merchants. The furnishings were augmented with Virdanan hangings and prayer mats. Tharek was tempted to visit his family at their booths, but something always seemed to interfere.
After several days had passed, Korenen approached Tharek and presented him with a fine robe of white wool and a blue cowl of brushed zylka cloth. "These were made for you by your mother. She has been strict to keep the tradition of our people and must not speak to you in public or offer you hospitality. Therefore, she has not offered you room within our tents. On the other hand, we would not refuse the invitation of the ruler of a city if he chose to invite us to his home."
"That vast array of unfinished walls on the hill will be my palace when it is finished," Tharek said. "For now, I camp out in a tent. It seemed more important to devote our efforts to finishing the Shrine."
"You grew up in a tent. There will be no shame for us to visit you there," his father replied.
"Please convey my invitation to your family," Tharek said. "I would have them dine with me tonight after the evening ritual."
He hurried away, intent on finding Tinda. Jacla had been avoiding him for the past few days and he could not ask her to provide for such an occasion while she was angry with him.
Tinda was away from home when Tharek reached Parga's house, but the door was open to catch a draft and he saw Shira inside preparing the midday meal for her family. At first he hesitated, but Belin saw him through the opening and held out her arms with a glad cry of "Thek!"
Shira whirled from the griddle where she was roasting matlas and fixed Tharek with an angry stare. "What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"I need someone to help me entertain the Mareklans. You have seen how I live."
"Tabla will probably be eager to aid you. Jacla says the two of you are as good as married."
"I came to ask your mother's help," Tharek said as he scooped Belin up in his arms and tickled the tip of her nose with his finger. "She is the best cook in Zedekla and far more accustomed to providing for large groups of people than either Jacla or Tabla."
Shira stared at him for a moment. "I cannot deny my mother's talents. She will need my help with the preparations on such short notice. I will have to find someone to tend to Belin for the next few hours."
"I will take care of her," Tharek offered. "It is the least I can do in exchange."
"Are you certain?" Shira asked. "She is getting more teeth and sometimes she is peevish."
Just then Tinda returned from her errand and added her opinion to the discussion. "Why do you find it necessary for Tharek to look after Belin?"
Tharek explained his request and Tinda accepted the challenge of making a meal on short notice. She turned to Shira. "I need your help. Belin loves 'Thek', and who is more trustworthy to care for her? We will fetch her when we take the food to his tent just before the evening ritual."
Belin climbed up to her accustomed perch on Tharek's shoulders with her hands knotted into his hair. He kept one hand on her feet to secure her balance and went off about his errands.
In mid afternoon he stopped by the booths that the Mareklans had set up in the square near the front of the Shrine. There was no prohibition against speaking to a potential customer even if he had been cast out of the Mareklan clan. Tharek took full advantage of his position and shopped at length for a toy for the child. His sisters were charmed by the little girl who giggled and waved with one free hand. "Thek!" she shouted, pounding her heels against his chest to make him move toward something that caught her eye.
Finally he purchased a colorful fish made of zykla cloth and stuffed with dried nop leaves. Belin was so excited by the toy that she let go of his hair and reached down. Before she could fall, Tharek let her slide down his shoulder and into his arms.
"We did not know that you had married," one of his sisters said.
"I am not married, but perhaps, if I am lucky, I will become Belin's acknowledged father," he confided in a low voice.
His sister's eyes flickered with uncertainty. "I guess a ruler can have any woman he chooses," she finally said.
"Belin's father was killed months ago," Tharek quickly explained. "Her mother is still in mourning."
Tharek could no longer find an excuse for lingering. His mother had not appeared and he had already spent more time than was warranted shopping. As he carried Belin up the hill toward his tent, she began to fret. He found a quiet place between two piles of stone and rocked her in his arms until she fell asleep.
A shadow fell over him and he looked up to see Dornat smiling. "You will make a good father," the builder said in a low voice that did not disturb the child. "I have come to report that we are nearly ready to mount the spire into place. It will be the final touch to finishing the Shrine. Would you like to do it this evening?"
Once the Shrine was finished and dedicated, his family would leave Zedekla, but Tharek knew how everyone longed for the completion. He nodded. "We will mount the spire just before I perform the evening ritual."
Dornat left him and Tharek sat with the sun at his back and the child sleeping on his shoulder. He was filled with a simple contentment that felt much like the touch of the Radiance when he prayed for his people.
Finally Belin stirred and yawned and her wide dark eyes sprung open. "Thek!" she said with delight.
Tharek stood and lifted her onto his shoulders. The day was speeding toward its close and he still had things to do before his family visited. His laundry pile had accumulated. When he reached his tent his found Finerik playing at a solitary game involving several stones and he sent the child away with a message for the boy's mother. She had sometimes volunteered to do his laundry, but until now, he had not taken advantage of the offer.
He was not normally untidy, but a glance through his tent betrayed his preoccupation with several different projects. Rolled up charts were piled on his bench chest and a half finished project littered his table. Jacla had often nagged him that he needed a wife, but what he needed now was several more hours than nature was willing to provide before the sun went down.
Meanwhile, Belin bounced on his neck and cried, "Fis! Fis!" He knew exactly what she wanted. She had dropped the toy fish from her hands while she was sleeping. It took several minutes for him to find it. When he returned to his tent he found that Tinda and Shira had arrived with several other women. One of them took Belin from his shoulders and the others began to set up trestle tables in the area outside the tent.
"The night will be pleasant and there is little room inside your tent," Tinda explained. "We will set the meal out here while you dress in your robe and cowl. People are already gathering to witness the setting of the spire. You must hurry."
Relieved that he would not be required to use his cramped tent to entertain his family, Tharek grabbed the bundle Korenen had given him and hurried past the women to the unfinished palace. At least the lower level with the baths was ready for his use. He made short work of bathing and dressing and returned to find a banquet spread.
Veils of translucent cloth were draped across the table to protect the food from insects, but many of the dishes were still steaming. The women who had spread the feast had vanished.
Tharek walked down the path toward the Shrine. He stopped when he reached the knoll where he usually performed the evening ritual. Dornat was watching for him from the tower of the Shrine and he waved his hand to signal that his crew was ready.
Tharek raised his hand and slowly brought it down. The golden spire gleaming with gilt dangled from a derrick. At his sign Dornat's men guided it home and fastened it in place.
A shout of joy rose from the people who were gathered to witness the completion of the shrine. Tharek left the knoll and crossed the square. The stairway of the shrine rose above his head and he climbed until he reached the porch. Meanwhile, Dornat and his men finished their installation of the spire.
Tharek brought the noise of the crowd below to a stop when he raised his arms to pray. Tomorrow he would lead the dedication of the shrine, but he may not have another opportunity of praying for his family as well as for the people of Zedekla. From henceforth he would stand here while he prayed and even as the words flowed from his heart, he seemed to see the generations yet to come.
When he had finished the prayer, he joined the Mareklans who were waiting in the square. He had told no one that this was his family. Jacla must have known, but she had kept away from him since the day Dagnet had warned of their arrival.
His family followed him back to the tables spread outside his tent. As soon as they took their seats and a blessing had been said, all reserve dropped from his mother. "I have yearned to speak to you," she said. "I mourned when you were sent away, but your father said that you had a greater destiny than we could understand until it ripened."
"Is it true that you are called the Tyrant of Zedekla?" one of his sisters asked.
"I heard that you have become a mighty warrior," another added.
"We have the entire evening to pester Tharek with our questions," Korenen said. "First we should eat the meal he has graciously provided."
Tharek ate little as the meal continued. Although his appetite was whetted by the delicious scent of the dishes that Tinda and Shira had provided, he could not refuse to answer any of the questions that came one after another from various members of his family.
Gradually they drew out the story of his adventures in the more than four years since he had picked up the sword that ended his right to be a Mareklan. He was silent on the subject of Ovishang, keeping his vow that none would be told of the secret city. He would take his father aside afterwards and tell him about the possibilities for occasional trade at a discreet distance.
"It is time that you were married," his mother finally pronounced. "You owe a duty to your lineage. You may not be of the Marekla clan any longer, but you are a son of Irilik. Otherwise, you never could have kept the Stone of Truth and used it to such good effect. We will find you a bride among our people."
One of his sisters coughed and another giggled. "Tharek already has plans to marry a woman with a little girl."
"She is a widow," Tharek quickly explained. "She is the daughter of Parga, the man who bestowed the leadership of Zedekla on me several months ago."
"It will do no great harm if you skip one generation," his mother conceded. " but you must promise me that your sons will seek brides from our people."
Tharek nodded and made the sign of pledge. "I will do what I can to influence them to find a Mareklan maiden when they are old enough to marry."
His father shook his head. "If you had married when you were younger, you would not have been tempted to spar with the warriors of clan Terifil. On the other hand, you seem to have been chosen for the work you have performed. You have done well, my son."
Tharek remembered the minutes earlier in the day when he had been filled with the joy of holding Belin while she slept. This was another such moment, almost as holy as prayer. He searched for words to express his gratitude to his father, but finally he simply reached out and grasped his shoulder.
One of his sisters yawned and his mother nudged Korenen. "We must rise early tomorrow. It is time for us to go."
"Will you ever return to Zedekla?" Tharek asked his father. "You know I cannot come to you."
"You have built a city worthy of becoming a regular stop on our route," Korenen said. "Expect to see us again in a year or so."
He walked with them to their campsite, but he was not invited into the tent. Once again he was treated as an outcast. His mother caught his eye with a movement of her hand. She kissed her fingers and touched him on the cheek, giving him assurance that he would never lose her love, even if tradition barred her from offering him shelter.
Chapter 19 Dedication
Tharek returned to his tent and found that while he was walking his family to their camp, the remnants of the meal that he had shared with them were cleared away. He had hoped for an opportunity to thank the women who had prepared the feast, particularly Tinda and Shira, but it was too late to intrude on them.
He stepped inside his tent and tripped over the pair of boots he had hastily discarded a few hours before. Reflexively, he reached into the pouch that held the Stone of Truth and used it to illuminate the space and find a lamp.
Before he could light the lamp, he heard a voice outside his tent. "I would like to talk to you Tharek."
He turned and lifted the flap of the door. Dagnet stood outside with Tabla by his side. Both of them raised their hands to shade their eyes against the light and Tharek smiled at this proof that they were true of heart. "Welcome, what brings you here at such an hour?"
"We want to be married in the shrine after it is dedicated," Dagnet explained. "What can we do to become worthy? I have strayed from what my father taught, and Tabla was forced to consort with harlots."
"I have no doubt that both of you are ready to take the vows of marriage with a true intent," Tharek said. "If you need further assurance, when I opened my tent to you, you proved that you have honest hearts. Otherwise, you could not have seen the light."
Tabla's face lit with a shining smile and she turned to Dagnet, offering him her hand. "I have kept our love a secret long enough. Tomorrow I will tell Jacla who I have chosen and ask her to help me prepare a wedding feast."
Dagnet cradled Tabla's hand and held her close to him. "How long must we wait before we marry?"
"Do you have parents or previous associations who might object?" Tharek asked.
Tabla shook her head. "My parents were killed when our village was taken."
Dagnet frowned. "I cut all ties from my family when I went rogue and left Kumnora. I would like to send them word of what I have become, but it is unlikely they could come to my wedding."
"You have other suitors Tabla," Tharek said. "You should tell them that Dagnet is your choice."
"Dornat and Barken respected my wishes to keep my choice a secret until we talked to you. They know of my my decision."
"Then I see nothing that would bar your wedding from taking place as soon as the shrine is dedicated. I have declared a feast in honor of the dedication and your marriage will be a fitting ceremony to celebrate the opening of the shrine."
"So soon?" Dagnet exclaimed. "I thought it would take far longer to prove ourselves to you."
"I know that you have prepared a house and Tabla has been gathering furnishings, but if you feel that tomorrow is too soon, I will perform the nuptial ceremony when you are ready."
"I am ready to marry Dagnet now!" Tabla insisted. "Once my choice is known, Jacla will try to dissuade me. She still harbors hopes that I will marry you. I have always honored you, Tharek, but neither of us would suit for such a match."
"I will marry you tomorrow," Dagnet assured her after kissing her on her brow.
Tharek did not need to ask if they loved one another. The evidence was plain in the way they stood, half leaning into each other with their hands clasped together. He was only surprised that he had not foreseen the match. Perhaps it was because her other suitors were more public in their courting.
"Do you have wedding clothes?" Tharek asked Tabla.
"I have everything that is needed to proceed."
"Who will you have as witnesses?"
"I would like you to stand up with me if one of the other priests can perform the ceremony," Dagnet said.
"What about Ralik?" Tharek asked. "I know the two of you have become fast friends."
"He has been furnishing a place for us to go when we are married. He will tell me where it is after the wedding feast is finished.
"I asked Shira to be my attendant," Tabla said. "She will be surprised to find that we are being married so soon. I have kept the name of my groom from her to avoid any chance that she might betray my secret to Jacla accidentally. I think my choice will be a surprise to everyone except Dornat and Barken."
After the couple left him, Tharek lit his lamp and stored the Stone of Truth in the pouch that hung on a line around his neck. It had been fortuitous that he had used it just before Tabla and Dagnet appeared, but he resolved that he would try to avoid using it as a mere convenience. It was meant for higher purposes than finding lamps and avoiding household hazards.
It was late, but the events of the day deserved recording in his journal. Tomorrow would be filled from dawn until dusk with the ceremonies attendant on the dedication of the shrine. With the presence of his father, he would be able to perform a full blessing of the corners. Parga, Charal, the priest from Otaliafa,, himself and his father, Korenen, made up the quartet to stand at the four sides of the porch and consecrate the shrine to the Radiance.
When he woke a few hours later, the sky was still dark but as soon as he stepped outside his tent he saw the position of the stars and knew that it was time to prepare for the day. The town below him was silent, but here and there a lamp burned. The sentinels on the watchtowers were mere dark shapes against the paler gray of the grasslands beyond them.
By the time Tharek had bathed and dressed in the robe and cowl that his mother had provided the sky was pale and only the brightest stars still shone. When he arrived at the shrine, he found Parga and Charal, the priest from Otaliafa, waiting for him in front of the great doors that led to the prayer hall.
"I have never been present at the dedication of a Shrine," Parga said. "Are you certain that I have a right to take part in the consecration?"
"When you bestowed your right of rule on me I recognized your authority," Tharek assured him. "My father set me apart as a priest with almost the same words. Surely you received them in a direct line from your first father in Okishdu who was set apart by Irilik. You and Charal are priests and once the shrine is dedicated, you will have the responsibility for most of the ceremonies. Today, following the consecration of the shrine, Tabla will be married and I want one of you to officiate since I will be a participant."
Parga frowned. "I will do as you ask. I have performed marriages for many years, and I know the ceremony. I will have to tell Tinda about what is going to happen. Shira told her about what was coming, but she was unwilling to believe it."
"If you would prefer, I could perform the wedding," Charal said.
"Perhaps it would be best," Parga deferred.
He continued to seem somewhat dour as Tharek rehearsed the ritual of the blessing of the bounds of the shrine with him. When Korenen arrived a few minutes later, Tharek greeted his father and asked if he had been able to meet with Jacla. When Korenen denied seeing her, Tharek shook his head. "I had hoped that she might seek you out. If you do not see her before it is time for you to leave Zedekla, I will have to speak for her. I would prefer if she gives you her story herself."
By the time the four priests had finished their preparations, the people of Zedekla had gathered in the square. A zole horn had been hung at each of the four sides of the porch that encircled the shrine. Each of the white robed priests took their positions and each in turn pronounced a part of the prayer of dedication, followed by a long sounding of the horn that hung near them.
Three times the ritual was repeated, each time with a change that blessed a different portion of the structure. Finally they gathered together in front of the shrine and Tharek raised his hands to invoke the final blessing of consecration.
When he had finished the blessing and lowered his hands, he stepped forward to the edge of the stairs. "Today we will initiate the use of the shrine with a wedding. May this be first of many in the days and years to come."
The crowd cheered as the veiled bride moved up the stairway toward Tharek. She was followed by Shira and Dagnet, each dressed in finery to mark the occasion. There would only be five people in the bridal chamber and there was speculation of which of the young women of the town was being married. The veil made an effective shield.
When Charal stepped forward and led the way into the interior of the shrine, announcing with his action that he would be the priest who would preside, a hum of eager speculation ran through the gathering. This meant that either Tharek or Dagnet would be the groom.
Within the nuptial chamber the light filtered down from a high window glazed with crystals set with amethyst that Tharek had designed. The white robes of Tharek and Charal and the pale, grave faces of Shira and Dagnet were tinted by the light.
"Will the bridal couple kneel before the altar and join their hands?" Charal asked.
Shira's eyes seemed to glitter and she turned her head up to stare at the window high above, avoiding the sight of the two who knelt to make their pledges to each other. The sound of Dagnet's voice giving an affirmative response brought her eyes back to the couple kneeling at the altar and she gave a tiny gasp of surprise.
She looked up at Tharek and he saw tears gleaming in her eyes. Had she secretly yearned for Dagnet? That seemed the only explanation for her tears. He felt a dull pain of loss swell in his chest, but he tried to avoid showing his heartache. He concentrated on the couple kneeling at the altar with their hands linked in pledge. It was a fitting union. He would have to let their happiness reflect on his own heart and ease the emptiness that threatened.
When the ceremony concluded, the couple led the way to the porch where Dagnet lifted Tabla's veil and showed the face of his bride to the crowd. There was a long cheer of approval from the people and the sound of music began on the edges of the square. It was time for the feast to begin.
As witnesses, Shira and Tharek signed the marriage covenant after Dagnet and Tabla inscribed their signs. Then they each took a separate path away from the shrine. Tharek wanted to be certain that Jacla had confided her information about the Orquians to his father and Shira would be serving Tabla at the bridal table.
His parents were somewhere in the crowd that filled the square but Jacla was in her little shop working at her loom as if the day were any other. He watched her through the open window, waiting for her to notice him. Now and then she wiped her eyes and sighed.
"He will treat her well and they love each other," he finally said through the open sash.
She started and looked up at him. "You should have been the one she married. Her father was a scholar and a priest. Dagnet's people are illiterate by choice. He only learned to write in order to be a better gang boss."
"One of the finest scribes I know was born in Kumnora," Tharek said. "He works in the sacred library in Timora and is trying to recover what his people can remember of the lost scroll. Dagnet is worthy of Tabla and she would be worthy of any man."
"Is that why you came to interrupt me?" Jacla grunted. "If you thought she was so worthy, you would have married her."
"I want you to tell my father what you know of the Orquian plot against Marekla's maidens. I could tell him, but I think that he will want to question you."
"Would you expose me to the shame of admitting that I killed a man?"
"Anyone would recognize that you were justified, by custom if not strictly by law. Our people need to understand the threat and do what they can to protect their own children from what happened to your daughter. Dashkar and his closest cronies escaped after the battle. He was one of Karagat's contingent and from what I have learned, he follows the same practices when he can."
Jacla's shuttle slowed, then stopped. She moved away from her loom and stood. "I will talk to your parents. Your mother has daughters. She might understand more clearly how I came to kill Karagat."
Tharek walked beside her as they returned to the square and searched the crowd. Finally they found his family back at their camp. They were packing away their tent and preparing to leave Zedekla.
When his mother turned her brows flew upward in surprise. "Jacil! We thought that you had died."
"You know each other?" Tharek asked.
"She was my mother's friend. I met her when I visited my family years ago," his mother said. "Where is your daughter? Is she here?"
"She was murdered in the temple of Orqu in Saadena six years ago." Jacla's face was stern with grief. "I call myself Jacla now. I revenged myself upon the man who took her life."
Korenen was near enough to hear what she said and he summoned her to come apart with him and his wife. While Jacla told her story to Tharek's parents, he visited with his brothers and sisters.
"I thought at first that you would be the groom this morning," one of his sisters said. "Was the other witness the mother of the child that you were tending yesterday?"
Tharek nodded. "She is Shira. I met her years ago when I was on the run from Garvok, the hound of Marnat. I came here to Zedekla. In those days this was just a fishing village. It was only after the disaster in Saadena that the river changed its course. This valley was a desert, now it promises to be a fertile land."
"I envy you the life you have," one of his brothers said. "You seem to have the best of everything. You have not been denied the priesthood as I thought at first when father banned you from our camp. When your palace is finished, you will live in luxury that we can never know."
"I would yield up all the power that I have to be a part of our people once again and have the freedom of the trails," Tharek assured him.
"From what you told us of your adventures, you have seen far more of Okishdu than most of us ever will," his little sister said.
Tharek saw his mother take Jacla into her arms and hug her. The older woman could no longer hold her tears at bay. Korenen summoned Tharek with a gesture of his hand.
"Jacil has given us reason to worry. Lately there have been abductions from the trail, but even though they were usually girls and young women, we did not suspect anything more than bride theft by some local tribes. Her information puts a different face on the losses. I must carry word of this to our people."
"Watch after my sisters," Tharek warned.
"You can be certain we will take great care that they are never left unattended. Until Dashkar and his foul cult are destroyed, no Mareklan maiden will be safe."
"Where will you go now?" Tharek asked.
"We came lately from Timora where we learned of you. We were planning to turn our path toward Tedaka, but most Mareklans live among the Janakan clans. We will change our plans and warn as many as we can."
"When can I look for you again?"
"We will come to Zedekla next spring. Perhaps by then you will favor the idea of marrying a member of our clan. It would be good to have the lineage of the priesthood secured. I could arrange to have a suitable young woman come along with us."
Tharek thought of the tears Shira had shed when she saw Dagnet wed to Tabla. He felt that it would take a long time for her to get over her disappointment, but he was not quite ready to give up his hopes of her. "I have already told you of my plans. I will encourage my sons to seek a Mareklan bride. As for myself, I will find a women from among these people who have helped me build my city."
By early afternoon the Mareklans were ready to take the trail. Tharek walked with them until they reached the limit of the lands that he had marked as Zedeklan property. He stood alone and watched them walk away. When they disappeared behind a distant knoll, he turned and started back along the trail.
Someone was waiting for him in the shadow of the watchtower. As he drew near, he recognized Shira with Belin in her arms. The child held up her hands. "Thek!"
"Is something wrong?" Tharek asked Shira.
"I have been looking for Tabla and Dagnet. When the feast was over, they seemed to disappear."
"It is the custom of Kumnorans to seek seclusion for a week or so after the wedding. Ralik has been furnishing a small retreat for them. Dagnet and Tabla will return when they are ready. Meanwhile I would like to have you help me as a scribe when you can."
"It must have been difficult for you to see Tabla married to another," Shira murmured.
"I am happy for her, but I know your loss is great. Tabla is a friend and an able scribe, and I will miss her help, but I saw how you felt about losing Dagnet."
She stared at him, her mouth open with surprise. "What makes you think I was yearning after Dagnet?" she asked after a moment.
"I saw your tears in the nuptial chamber."
"I thought you were the groom. My emotions were already overset by my mistake. When I realized it was Dagnet who was kneeling at the altar, my tears of relief could not be held."
Tharek hardly dared to believe her apparent meaning but he hurried to assure her of his feelings. "I began to love you years ago, Shira. When I returned to Zedekla, you were a new widow. Even now I hesitate to speak my thoughts. Months have passed and it seemed that you were always cruel. You avoided me or found cause for offense at everything I said."
"It was jealousy that drove me to upbraid you. Tabla was always with you. At first I thought she was unworthy to be your mate, but then I came to know her and I understood that she was better than me. Even though she was forced into degradation, the things that happened to her did not stain her soul. Jacla said she would soon be married and it seemed evident that you would be her choice. My time of mourning will soon end. Can I hope that I have not utterly disgusted you with my jealousy and spite?"
"Now that I understand the cause, I will easily forgive you," Tharek said. "You have seen the pearls that sometimes grow in shells. In Orenon they say that they are caused by a grain of sand. With time the rough surface is covered over and a jewel appears. I know that something good will come of our past pain."
Shira smiled and the sight dazzled Tharek. It had been years since he had seen her eyes filled with simple joy. Belin saw her mother's face and she laughed. "Thek, mama, Thek."
"I will not declare myself to your parents until the day that you bury your widow's token and your mourning is officially ended. Meanwhile, I hope Belin will not give up our secret," Tharek said.
"I cannot declare my love to you until I am free of my mourning obligation, but I will promise that Belin will have no other father. She loves you and I dedicate her to your stewardship."
It was as close as she could come to giving him a promise of marriage. He suggested that she should return to the city while he lingered by the watchtower so that none would have grist for the gossip mill. He was too dazed by his good fortune to consider the sentinels on the tower who had been watching the two of them with knowing smiles.
Chapter 20 Change
"This room is too big. I feel like a bean in a rattle box." Tharek's voice echoed in the newly plastered audience hall of his palace.
"When it is filled with people wanting to gain your favor, it will seem too small," Dornat said. "You are the one who gave me the vision of what Zedekla would become. After only a year, your predictions are being met. We have become a place of refuge from the outlaw bands."
Tharek stepped to a wide window that gave a view over the town below. Homes and shops had begun to crowd the favored areas near the shrine and along the street that led from the main watchtower. Although there were still tracts of empty land within the wall, farm houses dotted the fertile land beyond.
"It is not sufficient for us to provide shelter behind our walls," Tharek said. "Whenever there are reports of Janakan incursions on the plains, we will continue to march out to defend those who ask our aid. I must lead my army in battle and make alliance with other cities to protect the lands that the fall of Saadena left unprotected."
"We still have work to do on the palace furnishings," Dornat said. "Only the major rooms are ready for your residence. You can send Dagnet or Ralik to lead the troops."
"The myth of my invulnerability is one of our key advantages. My reputation will grow rusty if I fail to appear at the head of my men with my magic sword."
Dornat gave a grunt of derision and Tharek chuckled. The last time he had been wounded, it had laid him up for days. Only careful management of his public appearances had kept the extent of his wound from being widely known by everyone but those in his inner circle. Since then he had led his men in several battles, but he had returned whole from all of them.
"This is not the kind of thing Shira will want to hear," Dornat said. "You should stay in Zedekla for a month or so after the marriage before you risk your life again."
Tharek avoided a direct reply to Dornat's suggestion by asking a question. "Have you prepared the small interview room as I asked?"
"It is finished just as you requested. The plasterer wanted to make the river pebbles into a mosaic design, but I told him to put them on the wall without a pattern."
They left the looming audience hall and walked along a paneled corridor. Dornat stopped in front of one of the panels and turned a carved flower. The panel swung open and Dornat lit a hand lamp. When they stepped inside, the room seemed low and dark after the generous proportions of the other sections of the palace. Tharek looked around and nodded his approval. "This is just as I envisioned it. Leave me alone for a little while and I will meet you in the dining hall. Take the lamp with you."
"As you wish," Dornat said. He closed the door and walked away, leaving Tharek in darkness.
Tharek reached into the pouch hung at his neck where he had kept the Stone of Truth for many years. Its light filled the room. The quartz pebbles on the wall reflected a softer glow. Tharek had personally selected every one of them on his walks along the river bank and on the beach. Most of them were roughly the same size and shape as the pebble in his hand.
He pried one of the pebbles lose with the point of a knife and replaced it with the Stone of Truth after dabbing a bit of nop gum around the cavity. Then he turned to read what was written on the scroll cloth placed in a frame near the door. He had asked Shira to write down her favorite proverb and Dornat had placed it there.
"The shell without the meat is useless. The meat without the shell is defenseless." It was a typical saying of fisher folk and he understood the allusion to the place of men and women in marriage. It was a fortuitous choice for the inauguration of this room where he would test the integrity of those who served in the palace. It was far too large an establishment to be run without the help of others, but he wanted to insure that those who had access to his family were not agents of his enemies.
He let the nop gum set for a few minutes before testing the fastening. The stone was secure in the wall, but not part of the structure. If he ever had a real need to use it again as he had in Saadena and the early days of Zedekla, it would not be difficult to remove.
He put the stone that he had removed from the wall into the pouch and left the room. Once outside, the high, clerestory lit corridor seemed dim by comparison to the room behind him.
When he caught up to Dornat, the builder was inspecting the molding in the dining room. The view from the room looked over the sea and a relief of waves and shells had been worked in the plaster tablet that topped the window. It seemed well made, but Dornat was frowning. "I think a simpler motif would have been a better choice."
"It was Shira who chose the design," Tharek reminded his friend.
"And it was you who designed it," Dornat acknowledged with a wry grin. "I should be more careful with my criticism."
"You must always be honest with me. I will not be surrounded by toadies. I mistook Karagat and Dashkar for nothing more than simpering courtiers when I met them in Marnat's court. It was only later that I learned that they were more evil than the emperor. Karagat's subservience was only a mask to hide his manipulation of Marnat."
Dornat nodded. "I was sickened by the court in Saadena when I worked there as a youth. I doubt there is any danger of such things happening here."
"We both know better. No ruler can afford to punish those who speak the truth. It is the only way to keep his own honesty from being dulled."
"Speaking of which, I have assembled a list of those who have applied to work in the palace," Dornat said. "To tell the truth, there are several of them who seem almost too good to be true, and there is a woman named Pelmana who is rumored to be an excellent cook, but her manners are so abrasive that I doubt you will want to employ her. Her sister works in the inn near the main watchtower. She is a much more amenable woman, but she could not come today."
"When I bring my bride home to the palace from our nuptial retreat, I want all to be in order," Tharek said. "I will leave you to finish up the details of the furnishings. Send the applicants to the audience hall. I will take them to the interview room and discover which of them I should keep."
"You will need the lamp." Dornat extended the hand lamp to Tharek.
"For some of them it might prove necessary. We will see." Tharek took the lamp and returned to the interview room where he had fixed the Stone of Truth into the wall. He left the hand lamp on a bench and held his hand over the Stone. The light of the lamp was so dim that the proverb could only be seen with difficulty. It would suffice to provide the test.
The group of people waiting in the audience hall had come to Zedekla in the months since the dedication of the shrine. Few of them were known to him. "Please form a line and I will interview you one by one. When I have finished, I will tell you if I am satisfied that you will serve me as I wish."
A small, self-important man had worked his way to the front of the line with little regard for the others.
"I will see you first," Tharek said.
When they entered the interview room, Tharek asked the man to take a seat on the bench. "What is your name, and which position are you applying for?"
"I am Falava ba Iganan. I have worked as a steward in many great houses. You will not find another with my experience and credentials."
"Do you have any references from your former employers?" Tharek asked him.
"I have a guarantee of my performance bearing the seal of one of Taleeka's councilors," Falava offered. "It would be easier for you to read if you took it outside into the corridor."
"I will not be needing your services," Tharek said abruptly. "Who sent you?"
Falava cringed and looked to either side but he was not a brave man and Tharek loomed over him. "I was hired in Orenon. I was given gold to come here and prepare the way for one who would give me a sign, but I do not know his name."
"I will give you a chance to repent from entering into a conspiracy against me," Tharek said. He reached up and pulled the cord that would bring Turga or Barken immediately.
"I am an innocent victim of the schemes of others," Falava protested. "You cannot blame me for the evil they intend."
Tharek lifted him by his collar and opened the door. Barken was coming down the corridor and he took the protesting impostor into custody.
"This man should be confined in the guard tower until I am ready to hold a trial," Tharek said. "It seems likely that we will have a new worker for the quarries to join the other members of Dashkar's gang."
Falava kept protesting his innocence as Turga led him away. Tharek returned to the dining hall and summoned the next person standing in line to come with him. She was a large woman with a girth that indicated a hearty appetite. As soon as they left the others she began to talk. "My name is Pelmana, but you will forget it soon enough. My sister told me to come, but I will only be wasting your time."
"Do you know how to cook?" Tharek asked her.
"My father owned an inn in Saadena and I have worked in a kitchen since childhood. When I married, my husband took me to his village where he tried to run a tavern with my help. Unfortunately, he drank up all the profits and died in a drunken brawl. When I tried to return to Saadena, my father's tavern had been destroyed. I found my sister and we made our way to Zedekla."
Her voice had taken on an edge that explained the abrasive manner Dornat had reported. Tharek opened the door to the interview room and Pelmana stopped and stared. Her hand rose to cover her gaping mouth but not before a sigh of wonder escaped her. Tharek invited her into the room and waited for her to speak.
"I have heard of the Stone of Truth, and some said they had seen it. This can be no other thing. Not even the sun has such a light."
"I would have you serve me in whatever capacity you feel would suit you," Tharek said. "My first requirement for those I entrust with my family is the quality of truth."
"I know how to cook," Pelmana said. "If you are willing to take me on, it is the task I would prefer."
"Do you have a family to support?" Tharek asked her.
"My husband died before we had any children. I have only my younger sister, Videran. If you will, I could bring her to the palace."
"If you think she is trustworthy, you may tell her that she has a place," Tharek said.
Pelmana dropped her eyes and shook her head. "Videran is ambitious and sometimes she cuts corners when she thinks no one will notice. Perhaps it would be best if she continues working at the inn."
Tharek nodded. "You will be in charge of the kitchens and the provisioning. I know that I can trust you with whatever the post requires."
Pelmana looked up and gazed at the Stone of Truth. "I will not tell anyone of the means you use to choose your servants. There might be some who would pretend to see the light."
"When I choose a steward, I will have him meet with you. Meanwhile, I will have someone show you to the kitchens and you can make a list of what you need."
Once again Tharek reached up for a cord, but this time he gave two yanks, indicating that he needed a guide and not a guard. When he escorted Pelmana into the corridor, Dornat met them. He seemed surprised at Tharek's request that he show the woman to the kitchen and help her begin to stock what was needed, but he greeted Pelmana politely and led her away.
The choosing continued throughout the morning. Tharek was heartened by the results. While five other men and three woman were denied the right to work in the palace, none of them were quite as bad as Falava. It was inevitable that a city the size of Zedekla would attract a certain number of rogues and fools.
He chose serving men and maids, a laundress, a smith and a carpenter. The list was longer than he liked, but Dornat had insisted that each was necessary or others would be overburdened.
Five men stood out from the others in terms of experience and competence according to their own honest self assessment. Tharek chose the oldest as his steward. He appointed the others as members of his palace guard. Bargen and Turga were loyal, but they needed help with the growing responsibilities that they would handle once the palace was officially in use.
The task had been easier than he feared and he was finished an hour before he was expected at the shrine. He wandered down to the kitchen before leaving the palace. He found Pelmana busy with Dornat.
The two of them were arguing over the placement of a drain beneath the sink. Pelmana said it would not be difficult to excavate a cavity beneath the kitchen wall and provide a source of running water from the springs. Tharek almost stepped in to urge her cause, but it was evident that Dornat would eventually give way. He seemed to enjoy matching wits with the assertive cook.
Tharek left without letting them know that he had overheard them. There was something in their way with one another that reminded him of the sparks that flew between himself and Shira before they had discovered that they were in love.
In the months that had passed since that magic day, the secret of their love had somehow become general knowledge. No one had seemed surprised a month before when Shira had buried her widow token and accepted Tharek's offer of betrothal. Even Jacla seemed reconciled to the match, due no doubt in part to Tabla's happiness with Dagnet.
Shira was waiting for him with her father at the shrine. Tharek knew it was not dignified to hurry, but he used the advantage of the empty corridors to run until he reached the outer gate. This luxury of speeding through the halls would be denied him once the staff was installed and all the furnishings were placed.
The rugged path that once led past a knoll and up to the promontory had been widened and paved. Hedges had been planted and groomed to line the way. Tharek saw Parga and Shira on the porch at the top of the stairs of the Shrine and his dignity vanished as he ran up the steps two at a time. In such a public place as this he could do no more than take her hand, but even that was sweet after such a long time of being separated by custom and misunderstanding.
"I have been busy staffing the palace or I would have been here sooner," he explained.
"We have only just arrived," Parga assured him. "Charal said he would be here when he finished blessing a new farm house on the plain."
"I wish we could be wed simply as Tabla and Dagnet were," Shira murmured. "Belin could not understand why I left her at home when I would be seeing you. Speaking of Tabla, I see her coming now." She moved down the steps to welcome her friend who would be her nuptial witness.
Parga turned to Tharek and raised his brows. "It will take some effort to keep Belin entertained while the two of you are away for your nuptial retreat. She seems to understand that she will have a place in the wedding, but I believe she thinks it means that you will be her slave."
"It seems cruel to keep her away from her mother simply because of tradition," Tharek said. "Turga has charge of preparing our nuptial house. Have him bring Belin there when the first night is over."
Shira had returned with Tabla and was listening to their plans. "It is against convention, but I think it would be easier on all of us," she said.
Tharek was patient through the rest of the afternoon as he was instructed along with Shira. He was only anxious for the day of the wedding to come and be over, but everything from the escort of the bride on her walk to the shrine, to the clothing they would wear was discussed in detail.
"It would be fitting if you wore something similar to the tunic and crown you wore to celebrate founding day," Charal said.
Tharek nodded absentmindedly. He was lost in the look of the sunlight that fell on Shira's hair from the gemmed window overhead.
"Did you hear what I said?" Charal prompted.
Tharek looked away from Shira and assured the priest that he had never worn the tunic and crown since that day a year before, and he could wear them again.
It was nearly sundown when the discussions concluded. Tharek could not linger and speak to Shira. He must prepare for the evening ritual and he returned to his tent to change. Some had argued that he should move into a house while the palace was finished, but he had held his ground. It was a link with his past. The fabric was weathered but it had offered adequate protection through the mild winter. The prevailing wind that brought storms from the south brought warm winds from the sea as well. Although snow had fallen on the northern hills, Zedekla had only a few brisk breezes at the height of winter.
He dressed in his priestly robe and cowl and returned to the Shrine with Barken at his side. While he was in his nuptial retreat, Charal would conduct the evening ritual. Afterward, he would share the duty with Parga. The square in front of the shrine was filled with people when Tharek raised his hands to pray. The crowd spilled over into the surrounding streets and some had climbed to the flat roofs of nearby houses.
This was the last time he would pray for his people except on special occasions. He was anxious for tomorrow and the end of his loneliness. He knew that with his other responsibilities it was wise to let Charal and Parga officiate at the shrine, but as he paused before praying, he felt a yearning for this sense of community to last.
"We come before the Radiance with gratitude for all we have received; our families, our homes, our shops, our boats and flocks, our tools and talents. Shield us from greed and envy. Fill us with love and sympathy. Strengthen our arms to protect others as we have been protected."
When he finished the prayer and lowered his arms, there was a low hum of affirmation for his words. These thousands of people had known him primarily as their high priest, even though his policies and rules had affected every aspect of their lives as citizens of Zedekla. Henceforth, those who settled in the city would know him mainly as the Tyrant of Zedekla, the warrior who would spread his rule from the western shore to the foothills of Tedaka and northward to the borders of Janaka.
He caught sight of Shira and her child in the crowd below. Tomorrow they would be joined to him and become a family. In the midst of almost constant war, they would be his center of calm. He watched them leave the square with Shira's parents as he waited for Barken to come and accompany him back to his tent.
"I have begun to train the men you selected to join the guard," Barken said. "If you will not relent and stay in the palace, I will have them guard your tent tonight."
They descended from the porch of the shrine together and started up the hill toward the tent that had served Tharek as a home for most of the previous year. It seemed even shabbier in contrast to the gleaming walls of the palace that rose beyond.
"What will you do with my tent when I leave it tomorrow?" Tharek asked.
Barken gave a bark of wry laughter. "It will be packed for our campaigns."
They had reached the tent and Barken called forth two men who had been concealed behind large rocks nearby. He asked them if there had been any suspicious activity. After being reassured that all was well, he sent them back to their posts and turned to Tharek. "Are you certain that you will not sleep in the palace tonight? Falava ba Iganan confessed that he is just one of a number of Dashkar's men who have infiltrated the city. There is a high price on your head. You have made a deadly enemy of the Orquians. Your tent must be as magical as your sword to have protected you from assassination so far."
"You know that neither my sword nor my tent is magic," Tharek said. "I will be preserved as long as I fulfill my destiny. Others around me might suffer for what I am and there was a time that I yearned for peace, thinking that no woman should have to share a life like mine. I have learned that life's important business cannot wait for calm."
Barken nodded and looked back over the fledgling city where the lamps of evening shone. "You yearn for peace, but legends have been spawned by your deeds. Men quake at the sound of your name. This tent will be ready for your use whenever we set forth to battle."